We’ve profiled a number of overseas Vietnamese, foreigners, and locals who have launched thriving businesses in Vietnam. Are there more stories about local Vietnamese that have launched innovative businesses from the ground up?
Thanks to an introduction from Sylvia Nguyen, we met up with Minh Bui. After studying in Australia and at Harvard University in America for his MBA, Minh is back home. A serial entrepreneur from Hanoi, Minh has gone from opening a chain of donut and coffee shops to overseeing a holding company, Beta Corp, that now has multiple scalable business units. Everything from food and beverage to entertainment.
We sat down with Minh to learn about his unique business building strategy in Vietnam. And yes, we also got the inside scoop on what his favorite guilty pleasure is.
You’ve studied in Australia and America. How did those experiences shape your business building experience in Vietnam?
I started studying abroad in the early 2000s. Back then, studying overseas was a trend. And at 18 years old, there were more things to discover and learn overseas rather than staying in Vietnam. I wanted to be exposed to new approaches to life. Visiting my new hometown Sydney opened my eyes to new possibilities. It was so different from Hanoi in an overwhelming way.
Other than growing up in Hanoi, I had zero concept of other lifestyles. Living abroad has helped me appreciate new things. It’s also allowed me to clearly see the opportunities that I can only have in Vietnam. By going overseas, I’ve been able to apply and understand connections between the two worlds.
Is the modern Vietnam business ecosystem a good place for millennials to start a business? Why are you building businesses in Vietnam rather than overseas?
It’s an emerging economy and by definition trends are being shifted and formed. That means more opportunities for new businesses to take part in that change. As a millennial, you can learn and acquire knowledge very easily about how other countries have developed in the past. There’s no better opportunity than now to learn and study that change to manage risk.
At the moment, I would only be able to launch a business confidently in Vietnam. In the current state, where the competitors are, where the market, and where growth is at, Vietnam is a massive opportunity. For example, competition for investors in certain sectors, such as media, is quite low. Quality deal flow is scarce in Vietnam and if there are entrepreneurs that spot an opportunity, there are fewer barriers to entry and sustainable growth.
On the other hand, competition especially in brick-and-mortar businesses in developed markets is fierce. The return is mediocre and the initial capital risk is higher. Ultimately I wanted to come back to Vietnam because of the opportunity.
What’s the vision for Beta Corp? What are you doing differently?
We want to push the envelope and challenge the definition of doing business in Vietnam.
The Beta Corp team wants to explore new ways to identify and grow businesses, to work with creative funding arrangements, to find a different balance of delegation and management, and to nurture talents into confident leaders. I learned a lot from building my first company, DOCO Donuts & Coffee. It was launched with the savings I put together after a couple years of corporate work in Singapore. I sold the business to partially fund my graduate studies in America.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have sold it the way I did. At one point, Mekong Capital approached us. I had no idea how private equity or investment worked, so I didn’t even follow up after the initial meeting. I went ahead and sold each store individually instead. This proved to be a mistake, since the individual owners didn’t know how to manage a cohesive brand. After three years, I sold all six locations. If I found the right buyer to purchase the entire brand the value could have been higher. By selling each store individually, it’s like selling parts of a car rather than the whole entire car. You’re reducing the whole value of the asset.
I’m using those lessons to build Beta Corp in a different way. The vision for Beta Corp is to create value by training and changing the typical Vietnamese mindset about business.
What business units does Beta Corp manage?
After finishing graduate school in 2014, I launched Beta Media’s (the media arm of Beta Corp) first business unit: a cinema in the Thai Nguyen province in northern Vietnam. At the time, there was no cinema in this region of Vietnam. Our team’s strategy was to open an affordable cinema in an underserved market.
The cinema did well. After six months of operating, Vietnam Investments Group became our lead investor. They had previously invested in Galaxy Cinema and received a good return from that venture. For them, they were investing into an underserved, promising industry where they saw success before. We will have four locations before Lunar New Year. By understanding the investment and market opportunity landscape in Vietnam, we were able to expand the business quickly. Beta Media now also does film distribution and production. It’s been a rewarding journey of discovery and mistakes.
As Beta Media started scaling, I put together the pieces to form Beta Corp, which manages several member companies, including Beta Media, Beta FnB, Beta Tech, Beta Paint and more to come. Our second company, Beta FnB operates a chain of restaurants with different concepts, including Shabu X (Fast-food Hot Pot), Kowloon (Buffet Dimsum and Hot Pot) and other smaller brands. Beta FnB has more than 10 locations now and is expanding fast.
We’re a hybrid of a corporate structure and a venture fund. My primary focus now is to find scalable, underserved opportunities and the best talents to realize these opportunities. I’d like to find the best leaders that will eventually be the best CEOs that Vietnam has in 10 years. We want to connect them with the right resources and support.
We recently interviewed Sylvia Nguyen. She mentioned that out of her friends, you’re the most likely to follow through on your ideas. What does she mean by that?
It’s easy to get distracted in Vietnam. There are a lot of ideas and not enough time to realize all of them. I always try my best to follow up on my ideas. It’s easy to say you want to do something. But finding the right partners and resources is another question. I would say that Vietnamese, and Asian culture in general, has instilled a fear of failure. The idea of saving face. It’s time that Vietnamese business culture took more calculated risks. We’re starting to see that happen as more younger Vietnamese become globally minded, connected, and savvy about choice.
Curious about who Sylvia Nguyen is? Check out her profile on Vietcetera.
How is your approach to doing business in Vietnam different?
Vietnamese business is mostly family businesses or government entities. But Vietnam is at a point where the concept of funding and management is emerging. A new influx of investment is coming into Vietnam. There are many more creative ways to grow a company rather than relying on family resources.
When I tell people about this trend, they get confused. How can you do so many things? The Vietnamese mindset is that you can only do one thing or you will fail. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve more if you can build a responsible team. You can delegate and coach accountability. You can instill an ownership mentality. It’s tough, but doable.
Where does the name Beta in Beta Corp come from?
The name Beta is a spin off my last name Bui.
Beta is a new version of something that isn’t exactly finalized yet. It’s not perfect yet. In fact, it may never become a complete product, ever. The name is always a reminder to myself and my team that we want to continue being innovative and fresh. Always improving and iterating on our core products and services.
Thanks for sharing your business building insights! Some of our readers are also curious about your personal background.
Where can someone spot you on Friday night in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?
Most likely at one of my own restaurants. Eating by myself. I’m a bit of a loner, I’ll admit.
What’s your number one guilty pleasure?
Boring answer, but American sitcoms.
Shows like Friends or Sex in the City. Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, Modern Family. I learned an incredible amount about American culture, the English language, and the intricacies of social norms. Watching these sitcoms let me take a peek into Western societies, even if they are just a facade. I only started to really learn English when I was 18. Those sitcoms helped! Now, I’d consider myself to be a bit more of a globally minded Vietnamese millennial.
Growing up, what was your dream job?
I wanted to be a singer. Before moving to America for graduate school, I recorded a song called Vietnam Oi. It was quite popular a few years ago. Some people still use it for events and school activities.
Who should I talk to next?
Jonathan Luu. He’s currently working at VinaCapital. He was born and raised in America. He spent his whole life in America and suddenly he’s here. I’ve been able to see different angles of Vietnam through his perspective, especially as a trained philosopher who left academia for a private sector experience in Vietnam. Talking to him is refreshing. New insights that have allowed me to appreciate things I never thought twice about. He’s also working on his own media project in Vietnam, you’ll have to speak with him to learn more!
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