When Chris Freund first visited Vietnam in 1992, he spent a month traveling around the country. He was so impressed with how warm the Vietnamese people were and how delightful everything else was that even before he left, he already wanted to come back.
In 1994, former US President Bill Clinton lifted the 19-year-old trade embargo on Vietnam and to Chris, it was perfect timing. “I was graduating during that time and I guess I got lucky with the timing,” Chris said. “It was like Vietnam reopened its doors to the world.” A year later, Chris decided to settle down in Vietnam.
Chris then founded Mekong Capital in 2001, a Vietnam-based private equity firm that has led investments in industries that have transformed some of the country’s well-established companies such as Thegioididong. At present, Mekong Capital is backing 14 companies, including Marou, Pizza 4P’s, Pharmacity, F88, and YOLA.
Crab Hotpot is a 68-page fictional book written by Chris himself published in January 2022. Although it’s a fictional story, it’s all based on situations that actually happened at their firm. Chris and his team discovered the power of stories five years ago and since then, they have engaged with professional story writers, Gabrielle Dolan and Kendall Haven.
As it turns out, the executives at their investee companies shared the same interest in stories. “I wanted to put our team’s attention on what wasn’t working, and what would work,” Chris wrote in the book’s preface. “Each crab is based on a real person who is a current or former employee of Mekong Capital.” And that includes Chris.
Four years ago, Vietcetera met with Chris Freund for the first time where he talked about how he started his journey in Vietnam and Mekong Capital’s direction in future investments. Fast forward to today, we are again joined by Chris with a more ‘colorful’ subject — his book Crab Hotpot.
What keeps you going, what is your WHY statement?
I have my own personal purpose and vision, it’s quite long and it’s about 15 pages. But to sum it up, the idea is I’m committed to a future for the world where people have a choice in all matters in their lives — a world where people have access to transforming themselves, however, they might choose to do so. A world where people are healthy. We live in peace and treat each other kindly. People live in integration with nature. It’s a broad idea but it shows up in many different areas. For instance, I believe it will be good for the world to shift much more toward a plant-based diet. Well, people already eat plants but there are things we could do like make it easily available and more affordable. I’m also committed to the transformation of education, the whole nature of how education works especially for younger children so that they really develop the life skills that they need.
There are different facets of what I’m committed to for the future but I’m very clear about myself and I can connect a lot of what I do every day at Mekong Capital to my commitments. For example, part of my purpose is about making transformation available, that’s one thing we do at Mekong Capital. When we invest in a company, we invite them to participate in many leadership transformations and executive coaching programs.
What does a day in your working life look like?
Firstly, I add the most value when I’m having conversations with people, I don’t mean emails or online messages. My conversations usually fall into two main categories: First is the internal discussions with more or less 20 people. You can call it coaching conversation, where we talk about their goals, results they need to deliver, performances required. Mostly it’s me asking them questions until they see something new and normally the result is it initiates new conversations that they’ll have with someone else. Second, I also meet with our investee companies’ CEOs and it’s mainly about asking questions so that they can create for themselves ways of looking at things that lead to breakthroughs in performance necessary for their vision to be achieved.
More than asking questions, the second piece is sharing stories which are how Crab Hotpot came to be. We have a story writing coach named Kendall Haven, and he’d been helping us compile about 500 stories that were mostly about how we work with our investee companies and we use it for internal purposes. Sometimes, if there’s a story about a certain company, say we have a story from Marou Chocolate, we might share that with another investee company that may find the same concern relevant. It’s because we’ve been writing all these stories so we kind of had the framework in doing so. The only difference is Crab Hotpot is a fictional story, what we usually do are non-fiction ones.
Tell us about the Crab Hotpot book.
Nine months ago, during the lockdown, something had happened in Mekong Capital where somebody said nobody was aligned and someone else said people aren’t empowered, someone else is trying to give solutions. Everyone’s ideas were just adding up more work to do and none of them were gonna fix anything. But they’re all well-intentioned, everyone was just trying to help but they were only seeing it through their own perspective and it wasn’t really contributing to getting the situation handled.
One day, I was working out and it just popped into my head that I should write a story about this so people can put their attention on who they’re being because they can’t see it when they’re doing it themselves. So I made a story about some crabs and maybe they’ll actually see who they’re being. People at Mekong Capital read the book and they talk about which crab they are. Most people do know which crab they were.
Why did you use crabs to represent your characters?
For one, they do get boiled a lot. Another is that they can’t climb out of the hotpot. And also, they have shells that they can shed. It’s kind of perfect because each of the crabs starts with their own point of view and part of their transformation is letting go of their own point of view, like shedding their shells.
Without spoiling anything, what’s your favorite part of the book?
It’s hard, I don’t have one, honestly. But the thing that I like most about the book is how each crab really sees the world from its own perspective. To me, it’s kind of funny. Like the Wrong Crab will make other crabs wrong and Solutions Crab always trying to solve other crab’s problems.
As the author of the book, how hands-on were you in everything else — editing, illustrations, title, overall look of the book?
I chose the title. As for the illustrations, we didn’t have to do anything. It was a really good illustrator and we just let them take a run with and they got the intention of each page, we gave them almost no guidance really. They did a great job. For the translations, she’s someone we used to work with all the time with our workshops and programs. So she understands the intention of everything I’m saying.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience of writing the book?
To be honest, Crab Hotpot kind of popped out of nowhere but it’s fun, it’s been really fun. And I’m glad it’s a fun book, not some boring business book. We do have a plan to write a business book in 2025 and that’s one of the reasons why we started writing down stories. It’ll be a book full of stories.
What’s in the pipeline that you’re really excited about at Mekong Capital? More books in the future?
I don’t have any book plans right now but the publisher proposed we should consider writing another one. But right now, I’m not working on it. However, there are amusing situations that we can use in the future and it’ll be funny, maybe next time I’ll write about frogs to represent how dysfunctional some companies can get. That’s just a possibility, no clear plans for now.
For Mekong Capital, this year, we found out that we have a lot of people working here who are really committed to regenerating forests and organic soil. So, we’re actually launching a fund to rejuvenate the forests and soil in this region. I’m excited about it!