Startup hotbeds like New York City, Silicon Valley, Shenzhen and Dubai are becoming increasingly stagnant as the global pandemic forces entrepreneurs to rethink their business models. With priorities changing, innovation means finding ways to maintain operation and iron out problems the virus has exposed, rather than going after growth.
In Vietnam, a number of startups have followed a similar trajectory. Yet there are some notable outliers who are still pursuing scale. To understand what enabled these companies to raise venture capital funds despite the unexpected macro-environment challenges, we looked at three local success stories: RealStake, a real-estate investment platform for the middle class; Thuocsi.com, a B2B marketplace for pharmaceutical and health needs; and Fonos, a leading Vietnamese audiobook.
Here are the three commonalities driving their success.
When running a consumer-dependent business, identifying trends and quickly applying them is crucial to maintaining and attracting customers. In this day and age, when trends are contingent on the exponential advancement of technology, these three startups have used their digital platforms to the full advantage making their services accessible to those in quarantine or working from home.
Thuocsi, for example, created a technology-driven network on a scale never before achieved in many emerging markets to reach even the smallest and most remote village pharmacies, which is especially beneficial in the face of the pandemic – giving clients access to a wide variety of products and quality healthcare. They are also doubling down on technology to encourage digital transactions in the industry.
Similarly, RealStake and Fonos used their digital platforms to bring an investment product and audiobooks directly to the screens of homebound customers as part of their respective commitments to making real-estate investment and high-quality audio entertainment possible for everyone.
Investing in company culture
Each founder spoke proudly of their company’s culture, emphasizing the importance of staying true to your core values, cultivating business partnerships, nurturing investor relationships and upholding the company mission, even in the face of a pandemic.
For Xuan Nguyen, the COO of Fonos, the principles of integrity, open communication and authenticity tie back to her diligent work ethic, helping her maintain a steady pace of development during this time of crisis.
James Vuong, the CEO of RealStake, is a strong believer in the power of networks and knowledge-sharing. An experienced venture capitalist and serial founder, at the time of his startup launch he was a real-estate newbie who succeeded in making property investment accessible, safe and easy because he stood on the shoulders of angel investors such as Calvin Lam and Neil MacGregor.
When asked to share advice for those building a high-growth company, Peter Nguyen, the co-founder and CEO of BuyMed, the parent company of ThuocSi, stressed the importance of starting with a mission that is worth dedicating the rest of your life to.
For BuyMed, a pharmaceutical marketplace serving thousands of pharmacies, clinics and hospitals across the country, the mission is making quality healthcare accessible to all. A clear mission, says Peter, will make customer acquisition much easier, create products that will solve the biggest pain points, and attract top-tier talent happy to trade high salaries, big titles and fancy offices for an opportunity to make real impact.
While workplace accessibility is achieved through building wheelchair ramps and widening doorways, for consumers it means products and services that are user-friendly, affordable and timely. For RealStake, Thuocsi and Fonos, democratizing their products continues to be a key driver of success.
In Southeast Asia, property investment is beyond the reach of a large number of people. RealStake’s business model addresses this by making home investment accessible without resorting to a high-interest bank loan. Chris (Seung-ho) Chae of Nextrans, a Korean seed fund that invested in RealStake, believes that "RealStake will continue to acquire users who want to invest in real-estate fractional ownership, all the while innovating to offer other asset classes such as gold, money, market, mutual funds, etc..."
Similarly, Thuocsi democratized healthcare by bringing healthcare necessities to remote areas that were underserved by suppliers. This was achieved by providing a variety of medical and personal care supplies without a minimum order requirement and ensuring consistently affordable prices. Thuocsi has stayed true to their mission during the pandemic even when the supply channels became increasingly unstable.
A blessing in disguise
For the three startups, technology disruption, strong company culture and accessible services constitute the bedrock on which they are building their future while continuing to raise the bar for similar-sized companies battling COVID-19. By seizing opportunities and staying true to their core values, these companies might even prove that a pandemic can be a blessing in disguise.