It’s no secret that overseas Vietnamese and foreigners starting businesses in Vietnam struggle to adapt. Some try to introduce too many foreign concepts, while others don’t try to learn local customs. There are a few, however, who take the time to understand the market and succeed in making an impact on it.
When we went searching for stories of overseas Vietnamese starting popular businesses in Vietnam, we found Vietnamese-German fashion entrepreneur Julia Doan. She has a 100,000-follower strong reach on her personal Instagram and on her company’s account. Floralpunk is popular among the millennial generation in Vietnam and the brand continues to grow. We had the chance to chat with Julia to learn why she’s in Vietnam, how she’s growing her brand, and what she dreams about outside of fashion.
How did you get your start in Vietnam? What should people know about you?
I started as an intern at ELLE Vietnam Magazine six years ago. I had a fashion blog with a Vietnamese friend at the time. Back then, unlike in other countries, there were almost no Vietnamese fashion bloggers! As two of the few active independent fashion bloggers in Vietnam, we got featured on Vietnamese online magazines and newspapers.
Floralpunk got off to a strong start because people already knew me from the fashion blog. I guess what really helped me stand out is the fact that I only wear black, which was rare six years ago. People constantly asked me why I wear black all the time, and they still do!
What kickstarted your entrepreneurial instinct?
I was 18 and clueless. At the time, I didn’t have an entrepreneurial instinct. I just knew that I wanted to do something related to fashion but wasn’t sure exactly what. That’s when I met Lam Thuy Nhan, the former fashion editor at ELLE Magazine Vietnam. As her assistant at the time, I got a first look at her work ethic and persistence. She had the typical nine to five job at the office. Besides that, she did freelance styling jobs on weekends and in the evenings she would make bracelets to sell at flea markets. I never met anyone with that much ambition and persistence in Germany at that time. It taught me that if you work hard, you can achieve what you want.
So how did the launch of Floralpunk go?
Floralpunk‘s first business model involved importing clothes from Korea, but the costs and the price for the products was too high, so that failed. I ended up selling all of my stock through my personal Instagram, but the company generated no profit. A few months later, I modified the business model to focus on making accessories that complete the outfit, rather than making the outfit itself. Overhead, supplier costs, shipping, taxes, inventory, marketing. Costs add up quickly and it’s easy to lose sight of the profit and loss statement without a proper understanding of cash flow. I couldn’t see the whole picture, but with my parents’ advice on business management, the business hit cash flow positive within a few months.
When it came to putting together the business, I had to figure out everything from scratch. I have always been into the internet and online things, so operating Floralpunk online was the only thing that I knew I wanted to do. But besides that, the actual execution, how to open an online shop, how to do e-commerce marketing, how to use social media for marketing, I had to Google everything. Luckily I received support right from the start. I had 6,000 Instagram followers from my blogging days at the time that I launched Floralpunk. During my first month, I managed to break even with just 300 euros in sales. Within half a year, revenue hit 3000 euros a month.
Within my first year, we hosted a popup sale in Vietnam because the demand was there. After one week between Saigon and Hanoi we brought in 180,000,000 VND. My only marketing tools were my personal and some of my friend’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. It was an important lesson in the power of brick and mortar retail, but also social media marketing in Vietnam. The support in Vietnam has been incredible. Followers on Instagram grew from 10,000 to 30,000 within a month. Last year Floralpunk’s Instagram account had 25,000 followers. Today, it’s over 100,000. I was fortunate to know future influencers when they were just getting started too. Floralpunk grew its online presence with them. We were all ready to help each other.
Why do you prefer working in Vietnam over Germany?
In Vietnam, I’ve received a lot of very positive support from the very start, so it raised my confidence in being able to make a bigger achievement in Vietnam. The fact that Vietnamese culture is a little bit more laid back than our super correct German one, helped me to build up Floralpunk step by step with a lot fewer regulations. Vietnamese customers are also more open towards retail concepts that are not 100% perfect yet and even though Floralpunk was nothing like I wanted it to be in the beginning, we still managed to grow our customer base. What I also love about Vietnam and what helped me a lot is the fact that Vietnamese people use social media so much and most of the marketing we do is content-based social media marketing.
In Vietnam, I work with local influencers, especially others that are building businesses themselves. And even abroad, I find myself working with influencers of Vietnamese heritage. It’s easier to connect. There’s always a genuine story to tell. Why not support each other? We’re all proud to be Vietnamese. It’s much harder to survive in Germany as an independent brand without distribution. Vietnam is known for local brands, which has fostered this community of upstart brands supporting one another.
Where are Floralpunk’s customers coming from?
90% of Floralpunk’s customers come from Vietnam. Most of our international customers are Vietnamese as well. Many people think shopping online in Vietnam is strong and that the physical store doesn’t matter so much, but we still end up generating two-thirds of our revenue from in-store sales in Saigon.
What helped set the path for your own personal development?
There’s a TED Talk called Fake it till you make it, which has influenced my personality and work ethic. The idea is to pretend that you’re not introverted until you’re not anymore. It made me realize that I’m capable of doing so, because my first job as a waitress at my dad’s restaurant in Germany required it as well. Overnight, I needed to interact with customers, become service-oriented, and strictly manage my public image. I was really shy and introverted at first, but over time, I faked it till I made it. Working in food and beverage for over five years really helped me to grow. I met all kind of people and had to deal with all kind of great but also uncomfortable situations. Unlike in Vietnam, good service is very appreciated where I come from. Happy smiles and a good tip from customers kept me going to always do my best. That hard work paid off.
What are some nice-to-knows about Julia?
Most people think I’m cool, edgy, and distant because I don’t smile in my photos. But in person I’m nice, I smile as often as I can 🙂
Fried food. Love it.
My dream has always to do something food and beverage related. On my last trip to Germany, I worked at a friend’s restaurant for one night for fun. I remembered that staffing a traditional food and beverage restaurant is exhausting. You kind of always have to be present. I would love to do a more self-reliant “systematic gastronomy” concept. The process doesn’t require a fancy kitchen or a Michelin trained staff. Watch this space
As someone of Vietnamese-German heritage, what are some pros and cons when living and working in Vietnam?
The fact that I’m German helps me professionally in some ways. For example, Vietnamese people tend to be late. Germans are much more punctual and the professional expectations are higher, so I try to make sure that practice is valued throughout my company. It helps to earn points in terms of respect.
Personally, I would say that being of Vietnamese-German heritage has an advantage over many other overseas Vietnamese communities given that the Vietnamese community in Germany is strong. In my experience, many Vietnamese parents living and working in Germany want their children to retain their heritage. Most of my Vietnamese friends that live in Germany have a keen interest in retaining their Vietnamese identities. My Vietnamese-American friend Brian Tran mentioned the term ‘whitewashed’ often, which means that a person of non-Caucasian ethnicity identifies or values only a small part of their minority identity. I don’t see that a lot among Vietnamese born and raised in Germany. When I came back to Vietnam for the first time, I felt like I knew most of the basics of the local culture and social norms. Many of my Vietnamese-American friends don’t share that similar experience. Yes, I’m a proud Vietnamese-German!
Who should we speak with next?
There are so many amazing and talented people I know.
Especially among Vietnamese living in Germany. One prolific Vietnamese business owner has three Vietnamese restaurants, Royals and Rice and Maison Han. The style is really hip and contemporary. He also owns a Vietnamese coffee roastery. His company harvests the beans in Vietnam and import them to Germany. A lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin are using their coffee and last I heard that it’ll hit distribution in a big German supermarket chain soon.
I also have taken a liking for the work of Huy Nguyen at The Dark Gallery in Hanoi. They are stockists and distributors for a lot of international darkwear and avant-garde brands. You should try to set up a video interview, Huy is passionate and expressive about his work and the brands he’s working with.