Vietnam’s e-commerce industry is booming. In fact, just in 2020, its total revenue in the country hit US$11.8 billion, posting a growth rate of 18%. And the numbers are expected to increase because of the demands the pandemic lockdown has generated.
However, about 90% of the retailers in the country, especially the nano and micro ones, don’t have access to major e-commerce platforms like Lazada, Tiki, and Shopee. A problem Hai Nam Bui and his team at SoBanHang are trying to solve.
Nam’s aha moment was when one seller at a store asked him about setting up a Lazada account, he was then wearing his Lazada uniform. He explained the processes and all the necessary details needed. But when Nam said e-commerce platforms would deposit the payment into the seller’s digital wallet, the interested seller was confused and asked how they can withdraw the money from the bank if they don’t have a bank account. That’s when he realized he had to do something.
Drawn to problem-solving
Growing up, Nam had a wonderful childhood solving math problems, joining math-specialized schools and competitions. His mother’s a teacher who inspired him to value education more than anything. “I was inspired by my math teacher and I wanted to be a math teacher too.”
He continued to excel in math and got his high school diploma from the High School for the Gifted Students at Hanoi University of Science. From there, Nam took up Bachelor of Information Systems from Vietnam National Economics University and his Master’s in Financial Services from Singapore Management University.
Nam shared how much he loved solving problems even as a kid. As a tech entrepreneur and a “hacker” at heart, he considers problem-solving as his core strength as well as his inner inspiration. And that he gets lots of endorphins after finding a solution to a problem.
No wonder how the problem of that seller led him to build a startup of his own.
SoBanHang bagged $1.5 million in seed funding
SoBanHang is an app founded by Nam, his brother Hai Long Bui and a co-founding team they’ve known for years. “SoBanHang helps nano and micro retailers go online, and manage their business effortlessly on their smartphones,” Nam said.
Even if digitalization is an inevitable evolution for any business, “the digital transformation is costly and complex and it usually takes a couple of years for large companies and may take a decade for nano and micro-businesses.”
According to Nam, the nano and micro enterprises are currently underserved, not to mention the lack of digital awareness, lack of technical capability, and lack of financial affordability.
“The problem we want to solve is how to expedite that evolution for nano and micro businesses in Vietnam. We want to make it happen in 2-3 years instead of a decade.”
It looks like SoBanHang is on the right track after raising $1.5 million in seed funding, with participation from investors including FEBE Ventures, Class 5 and Kevin P. Ryan, founder of businesses like Gilt Groupe, Business Insider and MongoDB.
“We are serving a market which is clearly underserved and in need of evolution to adapt to the new digital world. One or two business ideas might not work, but there must be a way to make it happen. If one idea fails, we will immediately try another one.”
In fact, Nam revealed that they started SoBanHang with a different idea to digitize bookkeeping operations for small retailers, but it didn't work fast enough. So then they developed online store features to help retailers go online easily and it worked very well through COVID-19. “We will not stop here when the needs are still largely met.”
Leadership based on brotherhood
Before SoBanHang came into the picture, Nam was the Commercial Director (Electronics) at Lazada Vietnam. In 2016, he founded a data analytics and automation platform called Datamart Solutions and three years later they merged with Intrepid Group to strengthen the tech and data power for the leading e-commerce enabler of the SEA region.
When asked what his greatest learning in his past attempts in entrepreneurship was, he said “I used to follow the problem or opportunity, not the mission. This company started with my self-realized mission and passion. It helps me to gather the team who shares the same mission, passion and values.”
Nam is a believer of the saying, “If you want to go far, go together.”
That’s why managing a business with his brother works for him.
“We understand each other very well and we share the same passion, he loves solving problems too. He is better at problem-solving and more practical than me. This is also the first time my mother supports us. She was mad at us when we both left MNC jobs and relocated to Saigon to join Lazada seven years ago.”
He added saying, “the beauty of our team is brotherhood, but is not limited to my brother Hai Long Bui. We have a co-founding team who knew each other for years, went through tough times together. We understand each other, and trust each other like brothers and sisters.”
“We started this project with the mission to empower small businesses and we all want to help underserved businesses.”
That same mission and passion truly united and empowered every single member of Nam’s team. “I felt lucky to have 50 people who share the same mission and passion. That makes my leadership role in challenging times a lot easier.”
One of Nam’s proudest moments was at Lazada, when he designed a pricing management initiative that increased the revenue 3x overnight — LITERALLY overnight. “It’s the massive breakthrough for Lazada after months of stagnant performance, and the new pricing strategy shook the entire industry from big brands, big retailers to very small ones.”
That taught him that being the business driver is critical to build and lead business startups later on.
As for future plans, Nam’s goal is a budget-friendly monthly subscriptions model for SoBanHang.
Right now, the “true SaaS (companies that provide software as a service) monthly subscription business model hasn’t worked out here in Vietnam. All SaaS companies here are selling annual or even bi-annual subscriptions due to the expensive sales agent model,” which is a real financial burden for micro-businesses.
Nam and his team are hopeful that it will work, and they will be the first ones to crack this painful problem of the business model — another problem that Nam’s sure to solve.