Vietnam Startup ecosystem - Community melting

When I’m asked about the startup ecosystem in Vietnam, the first word that comes to my mind today is “fragmented”. Maybe I should clarify right away that startup for me are more than tech startup. I talk about entrepreneurship in general.

Although I’ve been in Vietnam for nearly 6 years now, I only started to try and understand about it about a year ago. I can see many initiatives to help entrepreneurs - launch, startup.vn, SHIELD, Startup warriors, Silicon Valley Vietnam, TechTalk, SME Mentoring and Networking, Finland-Vietnam IPP, Hatch, hub.it, VYE, Crowdpitch, NATEC, VCCI, French Tech Viet, but I don’t see them talk to each other much. It seems to me that people are still trying to protect their “connections”, build their own brand. I work on Fablab Saigon, which is also a supporting organizationi, more specifically for hardware startups, and I find myself spending too much time building it relatively to getting out there and try to find ways to work with people.

I attended a round table of ecosystem builder hosted at the US Consulate General a few months ago. I learnt about the event by chance, and got in thanks to a personal connection. It was a good attempt to start the conversation, although it took a lot of time to introduce everyone and then it sounded more like a show off.

Personal relationships

One would think that with today’s social networks it should be easy to connect people. But let’s look carefully. Today’s online communities in Vietnam are all build on facebook. And facebook is all about personal relationships. I see posts from my friends, so I need to be friends with them before hand. Compare this with a platform like meetup.com where anyone can find a community and join it, regardless of who they are friends with.

The reason why we stick to facebook is because it’s free, while groups on meetup are a bit pricey for Vietnam’s market. It’s free to join, but there’s a monthly fee to un a group. Also they don’t seem to have a strategy to spread in Vietnam. So it looks like there’s still room for a startup to build the Vietnamese meetup.com! A bit like ticketbox.vn and eventbrite in the case of ticketing solution.

Being a nobody

As I recently tried to start a conversation in Launch, the biggest Vietnamese facebook startup group, one of the feedback I got was “what you’re asking is too difficult, and nobody knows you”. That made me realize of the limitations of facebook as a platform. If one has to be known before they can contribute, then how fast can it actually grow and create value for everyone? It sounds to me quite opposite to what communities are for.

Some groups stay on the side. Like the French Tech Viet. Well of course French don’t do things the Amerian way, and they seem sometimes more interested in wine and cheese. One of the example we often discuss is that the main event the French Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam seems to run is “Ballade en France”, which is to promote French culture. Being French, I know that as a matter of fact… But still French Tech Viet an initiative to help entrepreneurs. I believe what is more important is to make them part of the ecosystem, so that they can bring value to it too, otherwise how likely is it that they will actually do something? This requires openness from everyone.

Another example is the YES meetup. Very informal, no money to be made here, yet 500+ people. Well, maybe it doesn’t bring as much “meat” as more advanced events like presentations, workshops or pitch sessions, but this simple networking is a good way for someone starting as an entrepreneur to make some contacts and know where to head next.

Turning connections into actions

We all know the theory of value creation in a network. People who belong to many groups bring valuable connections. They are bridges, they bring diversity. However I found the value limited unless they have the will to make it go beyond themselves.

So for example, Fablab Saigon had their logo on the Crowdpitch series of event. I guess it was win-win on both sides to maximize exposure. But as the connection point between the 2 was just at the level of one person, I started to wonder whether that logo was to denote a real contribution from Fablab Saigon or whether it was just a communication trick. It took me time to realize what felt wrong: the value was in the 2 organizations working on something together, turning connections into actions. But that didn’t happen. True collaboration would have seen more people actually bridging the gaps between 2 initiatives to help startups. More bridges, more value for everyone.

I may completely misses the point when it comes to communication or marketing. But I kind of feel the same when dealing with event sponsors that only care about having their logo on marketing material, and not promoting the event to their communities to take part in. And it’s the same with “Geen washing” when corporations only run a CSR campaign as a marketing campaign. It’s just not the right level of engagement.

Supporting ecosystem builders

The ecosystem shouldn’t require a super entity to make it better, it just needs communities to step outside of their comfortable world. Leaders should lead the way and actively look for more opportunities to make their communities truly work together, through action-driven partnership.

I dream of something to build together, something bigger that what each could do separately, and send a strong message out there about entrepreneurs and the ecosystem in Vietnam. Something where we would forget a bit about the community or the organization we belong to. Something where we would start to think what do we have to offer to this ecosystem rather than what we can get out of it.

Having said that, it may need some kind of facilitator to ease it, and government agencies should be great facilitators. The US Consulate General is one of them. But if entrepreneurship is going to be a national economical strategy, then NATEC should work to turn every community leader into its champion.

Eventually it’s most likely just a matter of time. Putting this in perspective, everything is still very new in Vietnam. I write this and at the same time I am very positive about the future of this space in Vietnam. Recently I learned that the Vietnam-Finland Innovation Partnership Program which currenttly supports Fablabs Vietnam will be focusing on helping ecosystem builder. This is a very good move: through funding incentives they facilitate collaboration between the suppoting organizations and communities in this space.