The Coffee Chat series features the best and promising startups, and entrepreneurs from Vietnam. This week, we chat up with Do Tuan Anh, affectionately known as TA, Co-Founder of Appota
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”
― Albert Einstein
Appota is not Do Tuan Anh’s first venture. The “love towards mobile and technology”, had led him to found some companies in the mobile domain. In 2003, he founded GSM Forum, which grew into one of the most popular technology websites in Vietnam. A year later, the forum grew to become GSM Company.
In 2005, he setup timnhanh.com.vn, an online news website to fulfil his journalistic dream, which didn’t work so well. The following year, he founded GDS, a series of mobile phone repair and maintenance stores.
In 2011, Anh was one of the first few to ride the smartphone wave to set up Appstore.vn. He soon realised that the model lacked globalisation capability. That’s when he joined The Founder Institute (TFI) and founded Appota, and the rest is history. In our Coffee Chat Series, Anh talks about his successes and failures; and his aspirations. Excerpts:
You had some successes in your previous businesses, but they failed in the end. Any thoughts on how you could have done better?
Technically, I don’t have any regrets making those mistakes ,since all the failures have given me a the much-needed lessons to grow Appota. But I have learnt that even though entrepreneurs might not have gone to college, the networking, business skills and knowledge are very important and should not be skipped. Keep learning.
Obviously the failures of your previous businesses led you to Appota. Describe the birth of the idea behind Appota.
The ideas originated from my desire to make every smartphone user be able to access mobile content, and at the same time developers can bring their apps to users easily and cost-effectively.
Also, as smartphone usage becomes the future, it is natural that the market will need a platform to bridge the demand and supply gap between developers and users.
How different is Appota now compared to when you originally had the idea?
The company has grown much bigger, in terms of people, users, community and products. We started out small, with 12 people in a small attic, It now has 250 employees, with branches in four cities across Southeast Asia. This month, we reached the milestone of 22 million users across the region, after three years of doing business.
Who was your first investor and why did you choose them?
I’m afraid, I can neither disclose the investor nor the amount. All I can say is that, I chose my angel because of their trust in our ability to grow. The seed stage is very important for startups. We need money to get things flowing. And the angel helped us to survive in the first six months.
There’s rumour of impending Series C investment. What’s your thought on this?
We already secured Round B in March 2014 and are now raising Series C. Our future plan is to become regional and then global. We will need all the financial support and opportunity to make it happen.
When you started your first company, what did you understand about startups?
When I first started my business, it was just about business, and nothing more. The concept about startups did not exist. I did it because I wanted to start a business, make a living, and create my own legacy. A startup usually means a business with one or two friends, selling something for the local. “Think global” might be a fluffy word. It is hard for the business to scale, let alone go global.
Looking back, what do you understand about startups?
Now, starting up has become more exciting, and more systematic. Founders can have one or two co-founders but need a team to nail it. Startups must understand the concept of business model, market research, product development, launching, marketing, and most importantly, why and how to do it. Entrepreneurs’ passion and dreams are also different than before.
Looking at startups today, and you’ve been a mentor for many, how do you compare startups today than when you had started?
The big picture has become much brighter than 10 years ago. A lot of incubators, accelerators, funds, and angel investing networks have joined the ecosystem. The government also sees the importance to support startups. Yet, at the same time, it also poses challenges. Startups have to be smarter, more adaptive to technology, more sensitive to trends, get broader network, and scale fast.
Over the last three years of building Appota and the business, what is the one thing you’d advise startups on and why?
Strengthen your network of peers (investors, partners, customers, community, etc) in every way possible such as joining accelerator programmes, attending networking events, building good relationship with your clients and fellow startups even.
Dream big, think global and do local. Appota aims to become global, always sticking to the trends of the world, but we start small, first nationally, then regionally, and finally globally. One step at a time.
As one of the pioneer alumni of Founder Institute, do you think this program has helped you and should startups join accelerator programmes?
Definitely. Founder Institute has given me the practical knowledge, skills, business sense, and the network I need to grow Appota to where it is today. I strongly encourage startups to join Founder Institute, or any other accelerator programs, you can learn so much from it.
If you have a chance to develop an accelerator program, how would you do it differently?
Make the programme longer until they get their first million customers. Most of the accelerator programmes stops at nurturing startups in terms of ideas and business model. Some of them may have great ideas, excellent model but still get stuck at launching product, doing marketing, acquiring users. If accelerators can go with startups a little further until they get their first million customers, it can be more useful.