Startups in Vietnam should be pushed to take risks

By Nguyen Dang Quang   August 15, 2018 | 04:32 pm PT
Stepping out of comfort zones is not encouraged in Vietnam, and this needs to change.
Nguyen Dang Quang, a Vietnamese education expert and CEO of Michael Academy of Intelligence

Nguyen Dang Quang, an education expert and CEO of Michael Academy of Intelligence

A few years ago, I left my job as a senior manager in a prestigious state-owned company and struck out on my own.

It was a lifelong dream.

I took a co-working space in an inner part of Hanoi, where I could rent a small work desk at a reasonable price. It was spacious enough for several startups to band together for work, and much cheaper than renting a workplace on their own.

My former colleagues didn’t even bother to hide their worried looks when they visited me at work. They saw a place full of 20-something, with tattoos and jeans and pullovers and laptops. It just wasn’t me, they said. Some even said I was crazy to be in such a place.

That was three years ago. To this day, my associates and I remain steadfast on the road we chose, our will still unbroken.

Vietnam’s startup culture seems to have become its zeitgeist in the last few years. Forums, policymakers, entrepreneurs, scholars... they all talk about startups and the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For a moment, it seemed like our startup community was finally getting somewhere, as if the whole nation had its back, and brand new horizons were just ahead, waiting to be discovered.

Were they?

I am a veteran in this field. I’ve seen it all, both entrepreneurs who made it and the ones who never did. And let me tell you, the major stumbling block for the startup community is something much worse than the market changing at breakneck speed or the cutthroat competitions.

Our biggest obstacle is how Vietnam doesn’t tolerate failure. Here, a failure goes far beyond a simple setback. It is treated as a knockout.

First, we don’t encourage people enough to step out of their comfort zones and try out new things.

Second, our culture steers clear of any activity that involves real risk-taking, even calculated risks. Statistics from American universities and colleges have shown that Vietnamese students were least likely to participate in extreme sports like rock-climbing or skydiving. Not just in the U.S., we are among the least likely to participate in extreme sports anywhere in the world.

Vietnams startup community still faces its own cultural dread of risk and failure.

Vietnam's startup community still faces its own cultural dread of risk and failure.

I recently had a chat with a “shark” in the startup community. Having founded a well-established education firm 20 years ago, he still calls himself a “startup entrepreneur.”

He told me several times that one of his biggest challenges was finding a capable senior leader. The most capable people he met were, sadly, unwilling to step out of their comfort zones, he said. They prefer a steady routine, a steady job and a steady income. They rarely push themselves to new limits, set new goals and only think about what’s right ahead of them, instead of pushing themselves to new limits, follow new goals and seek meaning in what they do.

This is understandable. Most of us tend to follow the path of least resistance. However, our best chance to succeed lies in our tolerance, or even love, of calculated risks. It is perhaps the most valuable legacy that one can pass down to the next generation. Without them, where would we be right now?

It’s not that we don’t understand the consequences of failure. Anyone in the startup community is all too familiar with it. It’s not just the loss of time and money, but also the shame and stigma associated with it. Even the people closest to us, friends, families, etc., are not too forgiving of failure.

It is sad that the society in general does not look at the efforts entrepreneurs make, escaping from their cozy nests and sailing into uncharted waters.

If nothing changes, we would just continue to hide ourselves away, spending our lives dragging through our days like cogs in machines. Our fears will stifle us, not our incapacities.

So we need an environment where this fear, the fear of failure, can be removed. An environment to foster tolerance of risk is still a pipedream.

A new generation of startup entrepreneurs, if properly nurtured, would surely deliver breakthroughs for our economy. It has worked for Israel, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. I say it’s time to add Vietnam into the list.

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