Why work alone in a coffee shop when you can do it alongside like-minded individuals? In Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the most bustling part of Vietnam, The Start Center (TSC) has become home to more than 50 founders and their teams. The co-working space was founded by Christopher Zobrist and Hai Nguyen, also known as Roy. They are reinforcing the definition of home, turning the four-storey house adjacent to the office into a hostel for entrepreneurs, and nicknaming it Startup Villa, or formally known as Startup House.
The five-bedroom villa connects to TSC via an internal door, which opens from 7 in the morning to 5 in the evening so that these tech nomads can access the co-working space freely during that period of time, and TSC members can also hang out at the ground floor of the villa. According to Christopher, Startup Villa offers both short-term and long-term rates, which include laundry and housekeeping services, free access to TSC and wifi connection.
It all started in 2010 when Roy, the co-founder and director of outreach, and Christopher, founder and managing director, met at an entrepreneurship conference in Vietnam. In that meeting, a few of the attendees formed an angel investor group called SAVVi Investors Forum. Their goal was to become the Y Combinator – an American seed funding accelerator — of Vietnam so they termed the project “V-Combinator.” After a year of meeting entrepreneurs, they still could not find the right fit for what they wanted to invest in.
But the story did not end there. After having visited a few co-working spaces around the world, like Hackerspace and The HUB in Singapore, as well as others in the U.S., and seeing the impact on the local startup ecosystem, Christopher met a consultant for The World Bank who was then visiting Vietnam. The consultant hinted about a grant to support “Virtual Incubation” in the Southeast Asian country. Christopher said, “it was a small grant, but I was able to convince my angel group to put up matching funds dedicated to creating a place that would help us to attract and develop high-potential startup teams right here in HCMC.”
Demand in Vietnam
When it comes to co-working spaces, what stands out most is a good plot of land — accessibility is key. Christopher shared that when they saw that a house near the city center was available, they jumped at it, and in May 2012, they started transforming the residential building into TSC.
He explained that about half of their members are local Vietnamese who studied abroad, and the other half consists of foreigners, some of whom, like himself, are of Vietnamese descent, who have decided to start their businesses in the Southeast Asian country with more than 87 million people.
He added, “We try to encourage collaboration between these two groups, and many co-founders come from both groups. We are starting to oranize regular meetups focused on sharing and developing skills in specific areas, for example, meetups for designers, techies, and founders.”
Vietnam technopreneurs are also seen looking to going global, even as the country becomes more advanced and welcoming to the nascent industry. After all, why not accept that technology is going to bring more revenue and jobs for their people? An IDC press release for trends in Vietnam’s ICT scene revealed that in 2012, “the total IT market in Vietnam is expected to reach US$3.25 billion,” with large growth in the tablet and smartphone market.
And here at e27, we have also seen many Vietnamese names hitting it big like Not A Basement Studio, which has reached a million downloads for their Manga Rock app, Kleii, which just expanded operations to Australia, and Oi Zoi Oi, an e-commerce aggregator with 2,000 weekly visits in just a month and looking to expand regionally.
Christopher explained, “I think Vietnam has one of the highest ratio of talent per capita of any country in the world, especially in the areas of quantitative skills, which translates well into raw engineering talent. Despite an antiquated education system, the best Vietnamese engineers are extremely creative when confronted with a challenging problem.”
Strong and supportive community in HCMC
With that goal in mind to build a strong and supportive startup community in HCMC, their angel group, now rebranded as “SAVVi Angels,” aims to bridge the gap between tech and social entrepreneurship, as well as industry and government. Having developed a good relationship with Vietnam National University, as well as grassroots organizations supporting all sorts of entrepreneurship and not confined to the tech scene, they hope to increase the level of innovation in Vietnam.
Christopher explained that the missing piece of the puzzle lies in the right framework and mindset for these young Vietnamese entrepreneurs to be able to jumpstart companies, even though many of them who have a high potential to build new and disruptive products and services might have had a more value-added education at “gifted schools.”