Surviving in a volatile market is success, says startup champ

By Hoang Hung   November 28, 2018 | 02:00 pm GMT+7
Realizing that mistakes are unavoidable, avoiding their repetition and surviving is itself a success, says startup contest winner.

At 10pm on November 15, the Datamart system was still congested due to overwhelming traffic. 

And Bui Hai Nam's phone was ringing incessantly. Many called to congratulate him for winning the 2018 Startup Viet competition five hours ago; some called to make cooperation and investment proposals.

The contest had panned out beyond Nam's expectations. But, said the founder and CEO of Datamart: "I'm starting to feel anxious about how we can go further and meet rising customer expectations."

Datamart was founded in 2016 with capital contributed by five co-founders. Its vision was to be the data infrastructure and analytics solutions provider of choice for retail partners. 

Nam and his partners were agreed that they would launch software products to test the market response, with the understanding that mistaken views and mistakes are often unavoidable in a startup. 

Over the past year, Powersell software, which includes nearly 100 properties developed by Datamart, has helped connect and manage multichannel sales. But only 20-30 percent of the properties matched market demand, Nam admitted. 

But he said that if he and his partners had waited to launch a perfect product, their startup could not have made its debut yet.

Datamart earned revenues in its early days of operations thanks to a clear business strategy developed at the very beginning. This enabled the firm to break even early and execute its reinvestment plans. 

Truong Gia Binh, chairman of FPT Corporation and a member of the 2018 Startup Vietnam jury, said that despite not being a recognized brand, Datamart had grown rapidly and broken even, which was praiseworthy.

Bui Hai Nam presents the Datamart project at the Go Global workshop held at the 2018 Startup Vietnam event.

Bui Hai Nam presents the Datamart project at the "Go Global" workshop held at the 2018 Startup Vietnam event. Photo by Huu Khoa.

Through talks held with many investors, Nam came to believe that capital plays an important, but not decisive role in a startup's development.

The 2018 Startup Vietnam winner realized it was more important to consider how investors can support the project, what their interests are and whether the two sides can coexist and go further.

"We do not regard money as a top priority in seeking investors," he said.

Datamart is yet to accept any major investor. Nam did not want to solicit large outside investments to expand the startup. He wanted to develop the firm by reinvesting its own profits. 

However, taking part in the 2018 Startup Vietnam contest completely changed the minds of Nam and his partners. They were shocked by the number of investment proposals they received.

Notably, Pham Van Tam, chairman of Asanzo Electronic Group, announced an investment of VND5 billion ($215,000) in Datamart without demanding anything in return.

Asanzo Chairman Pham Van Tam surprisingly decided to invest VND5 billion ($215,000) in Datamart at the finale of the 2018 Startup Vietnam event.

Asanzo Chairman Pham Van Tam surprisingly decided to invest VND5 billion ($215,000) in Datamart at the finale of the 2018 Startup Vietnam event. Photo by Huu Khoa.

Tam's investment decision surprised the Datamart CEO. Nam felt that the Asanzo chairman was a "daring" businessman, since investors are normally rigorous in assessing the success potential of their investments before making decisions. 

He said: "We have not had any discussions with the Asanzo side. And I have no idea about Tam’s strategic direction, but I believe that if we share the same view, that of enabling our Vietnamese brand to go as far as possible, both sides could definitely be partners. In fact, we can be strategic partners regardless of the investment."

Evident passion

Those who speak with Nam never fail to be impressed with this dynamism and passion. It is difficult to imagine that a few years ago, he was working at a boring desk job in an office. 

Born 1985 in the northern city of Hai Phong, Nam left home for Hanoi when he was 15 to study at a high school for gifted mathematics students. Then he entered the National Economics University in Hanoi. After graduation, he bagged a scholarship to study in Singapore and then worked with some banks in Singapore and Vietnam. 

At that time, banking was considered one of the most lucrative careers, and Nam climbed to the position of vice president at HSBC Singapore. But his interest and energy were flagging at the time.

"I mistakenly thought it was enough to rise to the highest position as quickly as possible," he said. In fact, he had achieved what he wanted at 30, but did not know what to do next and all motivation seemed to disappear. 

After listless walks to office, Nam analyzed and recognized the potential of e-commerce and started working on a plan to set up his own business.

Learning to start a business

His startup idea led him to Ho Chi Minh City, where he joined the giant e-commerce platform, Lazada, and worked in many positions before setting out on his own. 

Working at Lazada enabled Nam to explore his new strengths. He had an opportunity to meet Chinese billionaire Jack Ma when the latter came to talk with Lazada’s senior managers. Ma’s vision and dedication toward helping small businesses struck Nam.

According to the Chinese entrepreneur, small businesses account for 70-80 percent of all businesses but they still have a lot of potential since almost everyone wants to work for large companies that make up only 10 percent. 

Nam realized that technology was needed to increase connections with small businesses and retailers because their manpower is limited.

"I realized then that I could use my strengths in technology and analytical skills to support small businesses, and then I came up with the idea of a startup aimed at supporting businesses and households," he said.

But that startup was not Datamart. After spending two years at Lazada, he and his friends set up a company offering e-commerce consultancy to large firms. 

Six months later Nam felt that the business could not grow further. He and four friends decided to start a new company that would develop an automated multichannel selling tool called Powersell. The tool would allow automation of all operations, statistics, sales analysis, and so on, based on big data and artificial intelligence.

Nam achieved success with his second startup thanks to the lessons learnt from running the first one. 

Datamart had no option but to change itself quickly to adapt to the volatile market. Powersell was rebuilt three times, and its features constantly changed. It suffered several failures. Initially, only 20-30 percent of Powersell’s properties were accepted by customers. 

Now the number of Powersell users has increased to 4,000, and the software helps them manage 40,000 orders per day for five million products.

The company targets a network of 2.5 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) throughout Southeast Asia. 

Nam said: "I have no recipe for success, but learning how to avoid failure and survive is itself a success. Almost 95 percent of startups fail, just five percent achieve success because they have learnt how to survive and go further. 

It’s just the beginning of a long journey."

Startup Viet is an annual event launched by VnExpress to connect, find and foster outstanding startups in many fields. The program aims to nurture the creative spirit behind startups, honor breakthrough business models and bolster sustainable socio-economic development.

Startup Viet is organized under the direction of the Ministry of Science and Technology's Project 844. This year's program was co-sponsored by gold sponsors like Asanzo and Grab and bronze sponsors like Phu Dong, Bkav and IMAP. Others co-partners and investors were Circo, VIISA, Innovatube, Sihub, SVF, VMCG, Reapra, and the 500 Startups Vietnam fund.

Media partners for the 2018 program were Hanoi Television, Cafebiz, Banking Times, Industry and Commerce Newspaper, Vietnam Investment Review, Business and Trade Magazine, Bizlive, and ICTNews.

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