In the fast-paced world of startups, Paul Nguyen Hung remains a looming presence with a staying power. Not only was he part of the first generation of Vietnamese entrepreneurs, but the startup empire he has painstakingly built over 25 years has contributed greatly to improving the lives of Vietnamese people.
After returning to Vietnam from the US in the early 1990s, Mr. Paul founded Vietnam’s first professional Sky-rider company, HB. In 2004, he launched VON (Vietnamese Online Network), a digital job search tool that helped modernize the recruitment processes.
After its successful launch, VON continued to expand reaching one milestone after another. In the late 2000s it became the first domestic search engine (timnhanh.com.vn and YuMe) before merging, in early 2013, with CareerBuilder to form CareerBuilder Vietnam – one of the largest job search sites in Vietnam today.
In 2019, Mr. Paul made a comeback with Goody Group that features Star Kombucha in its portfolio – a return that confirms the founder’s commitment to contributing to the Vietnamese community.
What motivated you to rejoin the 'race' with another startup?
What brought me back was the desire to introduce the Vietnamese community to a healthy drink that myself and my family have known and loved for so long.
I first learned about Kombucha back when my travel schedule was even more hectic than today. Having to constantly adjust to new time zones and unfamiliar environments I ended up with digestive problems, along with many other health issues. My health was greatly improved when I was introduced to kombucha.
But I became a true convert around eight years ago, when I saw how Kombucha supported my wife’s health after she was diagnosed with colon cancer. After consulting with doctors about treatment plans, our family decided not to do chemotherapy or radiation, but to surgically remove the affected part of the intestine instead. The risk was that the cancer cells could potentially return.
Two years ago during one of my wife’s routine physical exams, her doctors confirmed that cancer cells in her body have almost disappeared. I don't think it was just luck. I believe it was a combination of factors: leading a healthy lifestyle, following the doctors’ instructions and drinking kombucha regularly (we started around the time of the surgery). There is research into the benefits of kombucha that supports my observations.
Kombucha is a familiar sight on the supermarket shelves in the West. In Asia, on the other hand, the drink is only starting to emerge, with most kombucha brands sold in Vietnam being either imported or made at home in small batches.
In my opinion, this is preventing the drink from going mainstream. Because the imported product is expensive and unfamiliar, consumers have little incentive to try it. Also sometimes the flavor of foreign-made kombucha is not suitable to local tastes, while homemade brews can be very inconsistent in quality.
With the benefits that me and my family have experienced from drinking kombucha, as well as the potential for its development here, it would be a waste not to promote the product in Vietnam.
Why are you launching Star Kombucha now?
The pace of life in Vietnam is becoming increasingly fast, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Most of the dishes in Vietnam are highly seasoned as locals love rich flavors.
Then there is the fact that with incomes being quite low, people tend to choose inexpensive products that taste good thanks to all the artificial flavors and additives but lack any nutritious value. And most of the time consumers are kept in the dark about what goes into their food.
In my opinion, the healthy living movement in Vietnam is still in its infant phase. From this point of view, the timing of bringing Star Kombucha to the market is not ideal. But I am driven by a desire to give local consumers a healthier option, not by profits.
On the other hand, I believe it’s only a matter of time before healthy living becomes a mainstream trend. Vietnamese consumers are savvy and curious about the options that exist in the market and with the launch of local products like Star Kombucha their interest will undoubtedly be piqued.
You were inspired by your mother Dong Hai and Vietnamese women when creating the brand. Does it mean that Star Kombucha's target audience is a modern woman?
Our mission is "Healthy on the inside, beautiful on the outside". Our target audience for this promotion are women aged 30-44 since they tend to pay more attention to healthy products.
However, I wouldn’t limit the audience of Star Kombucha to this audience only. Because health is important to everyone.
Being a natural, fermented drink, kombucha is high in probiotics and antioxidants. These ingredients help purify the body, promote weight loss, strengthen the immune system, and are good for the digestive system. Probiotics are often recommended as a supplement to help prevent respiratory infections including flu.
Obviously, all of these benefits do not belong to a particular individual or community.
If you already eat healthy and plan your meals, you probably don’t need supplements like kombucha. But for those who struggle to take care of themselves and are looking for an easy solution, Star Kombucha is a great way to replenish the nutrients missing from your diet.
With Kombucha gradually getting more recognition in Vietnam, what qualities make Star Kombucha stand out?
Home-style production has always been popular in Vietnam. However, when brewing in cramped quarters, quality and hygiene measures are difficult to enforce.
In addition, small scale production is costly, as you can’t take advantage of the wholesale prices for raw materials. This leads to cases where the product's price is sky-high but the quality is not there.
As a member of Kombucha Brewers International, we adhere to strict manufacturing standards.
We import scoby directly from the US and have invested in a facility in Tan Binh where the drink is fermented in a hygienic environment with controlled humidity and temperature. After the fermentation process takes around 30 day, the finished product is inspected to ensure the batch meets our exacting standards and only then the drink is canned and shipped.
Branding and beverage line development come with their challenges. What difficulties did your company face?
First is the process of perfecting the taste. Many people who try the drink for the first time are surprised to find it sour.
Our line includes 9 fruity flavors that were developed with Vietnamese consumers in mind. Unlike imported brands, I know which fruits are most appealing to the typical Vietnamese consumer, hence our decision to flavor our kombucha with peach, orange, guava, pomegranate, lemongrass, mango, pineapple and blueberry.
Another challenge is the Vietnamese consumers' suspicion of carbonated and canned drinks that stems from their experience with soft drinks: high in sugar, preservatives and colorants.
For that reason, many people questioned our decision to go with cans. However, I have confidence in our consumers. By educating themselves, they will realize that fizzy drinks are not harmful and that CO2 enhances taste and, according to several studies, can even be beneficial for the digestive system.
We have chosen to make our cans out of aluminum because this material is more than 90% recyclable and the amount of recycled aluminum in our products is about 75%. Compared to glass and plastic, aluminum cans are more eco-friendly.
There is a popular belief that healthy drinks must be ‘sugar free’. Star Kombucha uses cane sugar and fruit flavoring. What role does sugar play in making Kombucha?
Sugar is one of the key ingredients. Kombucha is produced by adding scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) into sweetened black or green tea, then letting it ferment. The bacteria and yeast in the scoby break down the tea’s sugars and convert them into probiotics, organic acid and vitamin B.
In terms of fruit flavoring, we source fresh fruit from local suppliers. Fruits contain sugar. So, yes, in Star Kombucha there is some naturally occurring sugar.
Transparency is key to winning customer trust, so although the amount of sugar in the product is negligible, we still state it on the label.
Goody Group and Star Kombucha will always stay true to our mission – introducing products that benefit the community through investing in quality raw materials and standardizing production processes. Health comes first and quality will always be consumers’ number one priority.
This article is adapted by Angie Tran.