When Max Bergman graduated with his masters in economics from Stockholm School of Economics, it was in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, the worst recession since the Great Depression. Graduates were leaving school to find their opportunities significantly limited.
“In my first job, I ended up on an hourly wage at a bank due to an industry-wide hiring freeze that after 6 months led to a normal employment,” says Bergman.
Today, Max Bergman is the CEO and Co-founder of fram^, a NASDAQ—listed IT development and venture building group headquartered in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Fram^ researches scalable, digital and proven business models around the world, then builds them from scratch. Currently eleven ventures are launched primarily in Vietnam but the geographical scope is the entire Southeast Asia. With the strong foundation of the IT-development arm, the ventures have access to critical support functions such as IT developers, HR, admin, recruitment, finance and management support. The aim is to build market leaders in fin-tech, ed-tech and general consumer verticals.
Bergman’s journey to to co-founding fram^ wasn’t always straightforward. After working for a bank in Sweden and later moving to London to work in strategic communications, he decided to completely switch industry and geography.
After nearly a year in Malaysia and five years in Sri Lanka, Bergman teamed up with his old friend Christopher Beselin from school to IPO and build fram^ to what it is today.
In the latest installment of our series on industry leaders and entrepreneurs, Vietcetera meets with Max Bergman to hear about his path to founding fram^ and his best management strategies.
How did you get into the fields of venture building and IT?
There comes a time in a man’s life when you wonder if all those PowerPoint slides are ever going to be useful. I left London at that time and joined a team setting up Zalora (now called Robins in Vietnam), an online fashion sales platform, in Malaysia on behalf of Rocket Internet.
After getting the business up to some 1,500 orders a day, I moved to post-war Sri Lanka where I lived for five years and built the country’s largest mobile insurance provider from scratch. I am very proud to say that we sold 3 million affordable health and life insurance policies to the population and paid out more than 10,000 claims.
Here, my love for company building was further cemented, and in 2017 I started talking to Christopher Beselin, ex-CEO and Co-founder of Lazada Vietnam and now Chairman of fram^, about how we would IPO fram^ and grow it into a venture building group.
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What are three words that describe your management style?
Direct, fair, and humorous.
Who has been most influential in your career?
I never worked directly with Oliver Samwer, but it was at his German venture builder Rocket Internet where I found myself building companies from scratch in high-growth markets. This inspired me to do the kind of work I do today. I have been happy ever since I entered that world.
Is there an author or book that has shaped your approach to business?
There are many great and inspiring books about business but The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is a really handy book when you build companies or live life in general. Most people are too proud to create simple checklists concerning their jobs or tasks but if top surgeons and experienced pilots use them then so can we. Always keep it simple.
I also like biographies about special forces operators around the world because I am fascinated about their “mission first” mentality, something that goes way beyond monetary or material rewards.
Describe your ideal hire.
Hard working, humble, and with lots of heart.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in a management position?
I don’t think anything can totally prepare you for managing teams for the first time in your life. But a good rule is to never make assumptions. This means you must be very clear to your team what you are hoping to achieve.
What do you find most difficult about your job?
I wish I could spend even more time with each individual venture because there is no limit to how deep you can go into each vertical.
Do you prefer power to be distributed equally or hierarchically in business?
That is a tough question. On one hand, I think the “flat” leadership trend, visible mostly in the west, is not ideal and leads to indecisiveness and unclear decision-making. On the other, hierarchical organizations can create counter-productive fear which is just as damaging.
If I have to choose, I believe in a somewhat hierarchical structure—specifically for accountability. A real leader knows that it is always his or her fault when the team fails.
How do you have one on one meetings with your team members?
Email and Skype are both efficient methods for leaving a paper trail which you can look back on in case of uncertainty, but meeting in person is still my favorite way to communicate. This applies to one-on-one and group meetings.
How do you run team meetings? What information do you share with your team about team and company progress?
Because we are a publicly listed venture builder with eleven ventures in the portfolio, our corporate structure is slightly different. We have to work on both corporate communication and investor relations to keep everyone updated internally and externally.
For internal venture meetings we have weekly catch-ups and brief, daily numerical KPIs sent around so that there are no big surprises and negative trends are spotted quickly.
What is the first step to addressing any problem that arises between different parties?
If the disagreement is happening between your team and an external party, you need to figure out the motives of the other side. Find out what matters to them.
In most cases people tend to get stuck in email deadlocks back and forth, inside and outside their own companies. I always think it’s good to just pick up the phone and talk.
How often do you think about your long-term goals?
Building companies from scratch requires great forethought. The trick is to embed strategy into your daily decision-making process, always asking yourself how each small decision fits into the bigger picture.
Within reason, I also consider how I can make choices that leave me or the company with maximum flexibility to change down the road. Generally I think people tend to overemphasize “strategy” a bit — if you don’t crack the short term, there won’t be any long-term.
What keeps you here in Vietnam?
I think I am addicted to the country’s fast pace with daily doses of action and chaos. On a deeper level, I just love building things. Building something as a team with a common goal is purposeful and fun. That’s what we’re doing here, and it’s been really inspiring.