In a company that’s seeking to use technology to “Redefine the F&B industry in Vietnam,” you’d be right in thinking that the Chief Technical Officer at KAMEREO has a lot on his plate.
Hiroshi Tokaku co-founded the company in 2018, when it became Vietnam’s first tech-enabled B2B platform for restaurants to source and secure produce. Since the startup’s earnest beginnings, KAMEREO has gone on to raise just over $5 million in seed and Series A funding and has grown 15% a month in the last 12 months.
The next few years promise to be busy, with goals of opening an office in Hanoi, developing a new warehouse management system, constantly upgrading their web platform and mobile app platform, as well as adding a lot more people-power.
The idea for KAMEREO was born when CEO and cofounder Taku Tanaka worked as COO at Pizza 4Ps. There he experienced firsthand some of the supply chain hurdles for restaurateurs in Vietnam. However, it would be difficult to imagine the idea becoming reality without the input of co-founder Hiroshi Tokaku — the brains behind the tech that drives KAMEREO.
Hiroshi was working for employment giant Indeed in Tokyo when he met Taku through a mutual friend in 2017. After hearing of some of the pain points in the F&B industry, and how these might be alleviated, Hiroshi began developing a prototype of the platform they have today in his spare time. Once the pair were happy enough with the business model and their platform, they decided to make the company official.
We caught up with Hiroshi recently to hear about his beginnings of the startup, his style of management, and his thoughts on bringing technology into the F&B industry in Vietnam.
Tell us about the early days for you as CTO of a startup like KAMEREO.
At first, it was a part-time job for me as I wasn’t yet able to leave my role at Indeed. This meant working many evenings and weekends to build the prototype. Then when we launched the company, I had to stay behind in Tokyo. From Tokyo, I continued working part-time while Taku ran the business on the ground in Ho Chi Minh City. It was a busy time. I had to work remotely with an engineering team in Vietnam, then come here on quick five-day trips to meet Taku and the team, then back to Tokyo for my full-time job. It was a balancing act, but eventually, I was able to relocate to Ho Chi Minh City and fully join the team.
Tell us about the scope of your role as CTO at a tech-focused startup.
We all have to be versatile at a fast-growth startup, so there’s a lot of different things to do. Team management plays a significant part — having weekly or even bi-weekly one-on-one meetings with our team to hear their needs and support them. Then there’s the technical aspect, reviewing our code and making improvements where necessary. This is crucial as, without quality code, our product won’t work.
I have to think about the product roadmap too of course, where we’ll go in the future. I talk to managers in other departments all the time to figure out what our requirements are. Then it's about prioritizing these product ideas, figuring out how to make them operable, working with designers to visualize the idea, and then developing them into operation.
As well as this, as a senior in the company, I’m responsible for hiring our engineers. They’re obviously a huge part of what we do. It’s quite a process as we have two interviews and one coding test for screening so that we can be sure we’ve got the right talent. Hiring engineers is one of our biggest priorities since our latest round of funding, so we’re constantly on the lookout for talent.
Tell us about your ideal hire. What do you look for in an employee?
KAMEREO has six core values, which are the most important things we look for in new team members. The awareness to ask what the problem might be, even if it’s not obvious, and the creativity to solve it. Then, a drive to make people say “Wow!” — it’s all about thinking outside of the box to deliver that wow experience. Integrity and embracing change are two more of these values.
Then there’s what we call the “Kaizen Spirit”. This is a philosophy of continuous improvement, little by little. Finally, we believe in being data-driven, and we want our team members to do so as well. Data helps you find and fix problems, rather than just acting on a hunch or on guesswork. With strong data to back us up, we can execute the right plans in the right way.
Hiring for us isn’t necessarily about experience or expertise. It’s more about sharing these values, the right character and having that passion to continuously grow and improve.
What are three words you would use to describe your managerial style?
Collaborative, transparent and delegative. I like to work together with people to come up with the best solutions, but I also want to be able to trust my team to figure things out together. I basically decide high-level directions and let each member think about them and decide the details while helping to guide them if necessary. It’s common in some arenas, the Vietnamese software industry for one, for the senior to decide everything themselves and maybe micro-manage a little too much, but I think it’s important to give team members the space to figure things out, solve problems and express their skills. This helps build a stronger team overall. Being transparent fits in with integrity, it’s beneficial for all to speak openly and honestly with the team. We encourage open communication between everybody on our channels. As for being delegative, this ties in with my thoughts on collaboration. The very nature of engineering makes it impossible for one person to do everything themselves. By delegating responsibilities we can expand the abilities of the engineering team, allowing them to take more ownership of our processes like code review and quality assurance.
What do you find difficult about your job?
No single part of it is too difficult thanks to the support from the team. There’s always a lot to get done at a startup, so we all have to support one another to make challenges easier. A lot of my work is outside of the CTO remit; supporting the CEO and overseeing the HR and Marketing departments for example. That’s where being able to delegate to a strong team becomes invaluable.
How do you balance short-term goals with long-term ones at a fast-growth startup?
My day-to-day work life is mostly focused on the short term. What needs to be done now? Who do I need to talk to? What is priority number one for my team? Through taking care of all these daily goals, we can be more certain that we’re offering our clients value.
But of course, we have our long-term goals too. It’s important to keep an eye on these all the time, but not to get blinded by them. I usually focus more on medium to long-term visions in my “free” time. In the evenings and weekends, I have more freedom to be creative and to come up with longer-term plans and potential solutions.
Do you have any little hacks or habits that make you more effective at work?
I have to divide my time into little chunks where I can talk to people, brief and debrief, give and receive feedback. It’s a lot to keep up with, so I use the Notions app to constantly add to and keep up with my to-do list. No matter whether something is big or small, I make a note of it. That way I can easily visualize everything I have to do, and it becomes easier to rank their priority.
KAMEREO is a tech-enabled supplier. How can technology be used to transform the F&B industry in Vietnam?
Quite simply, it can remove a lot of the manual labor done by restaurant owners and chefs. The produce supply chain in Vietnam is not the easiest thing to negotiate, but that’s something our company knows how to do. We believe that we can save them a lot of time and effort in getting top produce from the source, allowing them to focus more on what they do best.
Procurement aside, technology also allows them to keep better track of supply data, their incomings and outgoings. This in turn helps visualize cash flow better and can save them money.
However, it’s not just about the restaurants. Tech can really be of benefit to us suppliers too. Doing things the “traditional” way can be an error-strewn and inefficient process. Zalo, email, phone calls, computer input, manual labor. There’s so much work and so many separate channels involved. It’s easy to make little errors on quantity or delivery address, or even just forgetting an order. By streamlining and optimizing this whole process on a platform like ours, it removes the major pain points in the F&B supply chain.
Are there any challenges with integrating modern tech in the food supply industry?
We still need to have a healthy balance between digital systems and manual operation. We still need manpower, and people still need jobs. Also, there’s no point in introducing tech for the sake of it. Sometimes it’s not totally necessary. The cost of labor in Vietnam is not so high, so a fully tech-based system can sometimes cost far too much money, and cost people their jobs. It’s important to find the balance of using tech to make the work process smoother and easier, rather than replacing it altogether.
Finally, what's next for KAMEREO?
We have a pretty big to-do list to get through, and things are moving quickly. For me as CTO, we of course want to hire more talent. We also have to develop our warehouse management system. By optimizing warehouse operations in a data-driven manner, we’ll make them much smoother, much less manual. This will allow us to scale more quickly while still keeping our service level as high as it is now. In many ways, that will be the foundation for our daily operations.
Scalability while maintaining quality is a big talking point for every startup, but with our tech-enabled approach and our talent, I’m confident we’ll get that right.
KAMEREO is actively hiring new team members. If you’re interested in joining the startup’s journey, have a look at their introductory deck to get started.