We recently met with the founder of Facebook group Expats in HCMC. With over 70000 members and only 4 administrators, Expats in Ho Chi Minh City is a tough cookie to manage and the largest English online community in Vietnam. The group was founded in 2007 by Tom Holgersson when he moved to Ho Chi Minh City and started to work for the Swedish Trade Council (The Swedish government’s business development agency, today Business Sweden).

We dive in deep with the Tom and Samuel to see what makes them tick. We get into the nitty-gritty of how they manage the group, what kind of problems they have to deal with on the day-to-day, what motivates them, and most of all, what it feels like to run the largest English speaking group in Vietnam.

Expats in HCMC

How did the group come to be?

Expats in Ho Chi Minh City is about connecting a diverse group of people with a common interest: getting to know Saigon. It’s about learning a new culture, about adapting, about stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, whether it be trying cultural foods, exploring Vietnam’s dating scene, or just trying to find the hip barber shops around Saigon.

Ten years ago, the group was created merely to connect and meet up with new people and friends. I had a simple objective in mind at the time, not knowing what would come years down the line. All I wanted was an online forum for friends and acquaintances (about twenty of us) so that we could help each other out with living in Vietnam. Back then, there were no websites to search for restaurants or gyms or anything like that, so for expats like us, it was pretty hard living in Saigon.

I (Tom) left Vietnam during 2012 and I was lucky to find a great partner like Sam to run and manage the group onsite in Vietnam. I felt that Sam was very serious and he showed a lot of interest in the group. Without him it would have been impossible to manage the group in a good way.

I try to stay informed about things, but it’s always difficult when being based in Europe. The essence is to meet the members and hear what they are interested in knowing. Ho Chi Minh changes quickly and one needs to stay updated. I try to visit Vietnam once a year during my vacation.

Another thing that made it work is that we complement each other very well since Sam is a tech guy and I have a background from business school.

It’s crazy to see how much our group has grown. From our modest roots, we’ve come a long way. We’re now growing at a rate of approximately 200 members per week. I remember, in our incipient stage, we used to take a look at every account that requested to join the group, just to verify that the people were legitimate, but now, with the rate that we are growing, it’s just not possible to maintain the same level of meticulousness.

Expats in HCMC Founders

Our growth was unprecedented and fortunate. There wasn’t one golden thing that did it for us, but rather, it was a multitude of different factors working in our favor. In 2013 and 2014, a whole bunch of expats from Thailand moved to Vietnam because Thailand’s visa renewal rules had changed. This, combined with the fact that we had built such a tight network of expats, helped us reach new heights in our growth. We made it into the media a few times, even getting an interview with Saigon Times. A lot of our members can post some pretty polemic stuff, so when the media needs some click bait, it’ll pull something from our group.

Expats in HCMC Founders

What’s it like maintaining such a large, diverse group?

Oh boy, we would be lying if we said it wasn’t a pain in the butt sometimes. With over 70000 people in our community, there’s no possible way for us to please everyone. The tough thing is, someone will always find a fault with you, no matter how much you try to be kind and caring and considerate. We’ve learned, through the management of this group, that it’s important to take action, to do what’s best for the community, to keep the community’s interests in mind, and not worry about the haters. Trying to please everyone is, ultimately, going to end up pleasing nobody. It’s the sad truth.

It’s pretty funny actually; a lot of the members call us dictators, which, in their eyes, is quite fitting, since we have so many rules (18 to be exact!), and we restrict their freedom of speech a lot (for good reason!). Let us explain.

Expats in HCMC Founders

Running a Facebook group isn’t like running a country or a company. Allowing total and complete freedom of speech would run the group into the ground. Every time someone makes negative comments or posts spam or causes a big ruckus, the whole group gets the post bumped in their news feeds, and consequently, they start viewing the group as a toxic community. We monitor very carefully because it’s important for us to maintain positivity and kindness in our group. It’s a little hard to avoid the negativity sometimes, but we try our best to be good moderators and remove people that are being rude and/or mean.

What about the money?

We’re not monetizing. And we don’t plan to monetize this group.

We want it to stay the way it is: a community for expats and locals to get together. We want to keep things the way they are right now. I think what motivates us to continue our hard work is just seeing this community thrive. It’s amazing to see something we built from the ground up really come to fruition. The people I’ve met through this community have given us so much, and now, we want to give back to the community that fostered us.

Expats in HCMC Founders

If we were to do this whole thing over, I think I’d have more moderators. It really is a lot of work running a group this large. We’d also organize a lot more events and get-togethers.

What are some interesting data points about the group?

I’m (Sam) a techie myself, so I love to crunch the numbers and analyze data. As of right now, I use five bots to help me with the management and day-to-day operations of the group. With the help of outside API’s (i.e. Watson), these bots take care of checking posts for keywords (offensive language, spam), analyzing what time most people make posts, examining how people react to certain content, and analyzing the tone of people’s posts. I used to spend several hours a day managing the group, but with the help of these bots, I spend a little under a couple hours. With that being said, here’s some of the data that I can share with you:

  • 218 regular users (people who post every day)
  • 92 daily posts on average
  • People are most active after 8pm, at lunchtime, around 4pm, and in the morning
  • People’s moods at any given day
  • Kinds of topics that people like to talk about on a day-to-day basis

Long story short, we collect a lot of data on the group, and it has helped us greatly in the maintenance of our community.

Any fun facts about running this group?

Yes! It’s crazy. Let’s see…

  • Someone offered us one billion VND to purchase the group, but we said no
  • People used to buy us shots all the time just to have a chance at becoming an administrator of the group
  • Vietnamese model Ha Anh Vu is a member of our group
  • Our most popular post was some drama caused by a guy who accused a girl of HIV. Essentially, what happened was this girl rejected him, so the guy created fake accounts and accused the girl of having HIV. The girl didn’t want this false rumor affecting her life, so she asked us if she could upload images of her blood tests to the group. We thought it was a strange request, but we obliged. Long story short, there were over 2000 comments. People love drama.

But other than that, what has surprised us most about managing this group and seeing it develop is seeing how kind humans can be to one another. We’ve witnessed so much, including:

  • Members of our group banding together to fundraise for victims of the 2014-2015 storm in the Philippines
  • When members are in trouble or get into an accident, there are always people helping with money and care
  • Members form many subgroups depending on the hobbies/interest

At the end of the day, we realize that we’ve created a loving community, and that’s all we could really ever ask for.
Expats in HCMC Founders

Who should we talk to next?

Definitely talk to Elizabeth Homfrey and Thu Dang. They’re doing stellar work with saving animals here in Vietnam.

The future of the group

In the coming months we are developing a new platform (website) for members to interact, meet and find information. We have already developed a new logo and we are discussing quite many new features that will be part of the coming website. That is all we can say for now, but we promise to keep you updated. Once the website it up and running we think it will improve the experience for our members.