While searching for more advocates of local, artisanal products in Vietnam, we found the story of SoNice, a Vietnam-based startup with the mission of facilitating e-commerce for bootstrapped vendors and helping consumers discover the treasure trove of artisanal products and vendors that exist in Vietnam.
SoNice is led by Raphael Wilhelm and Vanessa Santamaria. Both used to work in finance in Switzerland and Vietnam. Through their work in Vietnam, they saw the dynamism of the Vietnamese market and the speed of Vietnam’s business.
We had the chance to speak with Raphael and Vanessa to learn more about their perspectives of Vietnamese startups and why they find themselves in Vietnam.
What led you to Ho Chi Minh City?
Raphael: My love for the Asian continent and the business opportunities particularly within Vietnam. It’s truly one of the last frontiers in this continent. From a young age I have been attracted to the climate, the vibrant cultures and the speed of development among Southeast Asian countries. A lot of cities in South East Asian cities would qualify for the above, but Ho Chi Minh City has proven to be the best mix of all the characteristics that are important to me.
In 2010, I was on a trip to Malaysia and Singapore. I visited a friend working in Hanoi and loved it. I saw a lot of opportunities, particularly in trading local Vietnamese equities via quantitative trading models. I’m still trading the local market privately, though my attention professionally has shifted to building SoNice.
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Tell us more about SoNice. Why is there a need for it?
Vanessa: SoNice is an online marketplace to let the world discover unique and beautiful products from boutiques, designers, and makers in Vietnam.
We offer a platform where we proactively approach those vendors that are a selling unique, quality products with a “wow” effect. We are targeting a specific group of vendors that usually lack the resources like taking appropriate product pictures, write proper product descriptions, marketing their finished product and upload it to an online platform while performing logistics and payments. We take care of all that for the vendors so they can focus on making a great product and scaling their business.
For the consumer side it addresses the need of finally finding cool quality products in one place without browsing in Instagram or Facebook for hours. Orders are placed via SoNice and then delivered by the SoNice team to the customer’s door. In short we are the trusted party for both vendors and consumer. We also localize for both locals and foreigners by serving our customers in Vietnamese and English.
Is the modern Vietnam business ecosystem a good place to start something?
Raphael: Opportunities are endless and the costs are reasonable, plus there is an ever increasing pool of driven and skilled young Vietnamese joining the workforce. On the other hand, poor work ethics and a lack of responsibility are still common among individuals. Also the legal framework for small sized FDI companies is still somewhat of a legal jungle.
What excites you about and keeps you in Vietnam?
Raphael: The business we have founded has tremendous potential, given that we’re riding the rising trend of aspiring young entrepreneurs who want to sell their own products. It’s beautiful to see the country evolve thanks to that bottom up pressure of the youth.
Also, I’m fascinated about the positive change in the city’s landscape and as a foodie I’m very happy about an incredible selection of Asian and Western restaurants. The warm weather pleases me every day as well!
Vanessa: Vietnam is tremendously different from my home country, the Philippines. I’ve worked in Southeast Asia long enough, and Vietnam specifically, to enjoy the pace of life and working in a challenging environment.
What are some personal goals that you’d like to achieve in the startup community?
Raphael: There have been many complaints recently about the quality of startup events. My personal mission is to show up regularly on stage and share our experiences of running a small company in Vietnam with the mostly young audiences.
I recently participated in a workshop with SHIELD for lean methodology that I enjoyed contributing to. Do people actually know what they want? Do they have access to resources to help them get started? What does it take to inspire one person? I’d like to be a larger part of that ecosystem development. One participant, having doubts to start, was really fired up after the workshop and on track to launch her own small business, which I was happy to have successfully planted the seed.
Vanessa: My personal goal is start finding hustlers and entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to be in the country over the next 10 years and be part of social change and educating the people and sharing the entrepreneurial story of Vietnam. It is great to spend time with positive people that love progress and are naturally DOers in life. Those are the driving force of the local startup ecosystem and working together will get all of us to where we want to be in no time.
What’s your favorite hangout spot in Ho Chi Minh City?
Raphael: I don’t have a favorite hangout place. I hang out in coffee shops. I live in Thao Dien and love exploring the Thao Dien Village area. Growing up in Switzerland, I was spoiled by green and recreational areas. In Ho Chi Minh City, I usually spend my early mornings working out next to the river.
Vanessa: Searching for a new cafe. It’s one of the amazing, underrated features of this city! There’s always something new to discover in the cafe scene.
What’s your number one guilty pleasure in Ho Chi Minh City?
Raphael: I joke around with almost every waitress in the city! Vietnam has a playful, easy going vibe unlike Switzerland.
Who should I talk to next?
Germain Blanchet. He is the founder of Marketoi.com a personal butler service based in Ho Chi Minh City. The speed of delivery and the service quality is truly impressive.
Mauricio Alves. He arrives in Vietnam 10 years ago. He oversees an architecture firm, Gema Architecture & Interior Design. Pepper House and ‘NAMO Artisanal Pizzeria are some of his projects.