5 lessons for aspiring unicorns from Uber CTO and VNG chairman

What does it take to create a unicorn, especially in a nascent tech market like Vietnam?

The local ecosystem has been twice inspired by Internet group VNG Corporation — first as it became Southeast Asia’s first unicorn and then as it announced its plan to list on Nasdaq. Also heartening for the country’s startups is success stories of American Vietnamese who make it big in large global tech conglomerates such as Uber CTO Thuan Pham.

Uber’s Pham and VNG Corp chairman Le Hong Minh spoke at a fireside chat jointly organised by the UberExchange initiative and Vietnam-based Up Co-working Space on Thursday.

DEALSTREETASIA picks 5 lessons Pham and Minh shared with aspiring unicorns from their talk:

1 – Foresee the opportunities and trend

Having been in business in Vietnam for 13 years and having been a unicorn for four years, VNG’s Minh suggested that startups should have the ability to foresee the opportunities they can make the most of.

“Four years ago, we said ‘Mobile is going to be big. What will be the number one thing people want to do with mobile? Messaging. Communication. This is going to be a new opportunity. Let’s do it,” he said.

Starting with game distribution, VNG is now a behemoth in e-commerce, payments, media and entertainment. Its Zalo messaging app has gained a 70 million-strong user base across Vietnam, Myanmar, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.

2 – Work with what you have

In Silicon Valley, people get access to thousands of skillful engineers, experts at titans like Microsoft, Google and Facebook, and billions of USD of capital, as well as a culture of technology and entrepreneurship.

Building a unicorn in Vietnam is different because the ecosystem in the country is still at a nascent stage. It continues to evolve with support from the government.

“We don’t have a lot of those things in Vietnam. Like a chef, if you have lots of ingredients, you come up with a $70 billion business. But if you don’t have those ingredients, don’t think of building a $70 billion business (aka Uber), think about how limited resources you have in Vietnam and do it,” Minh said.

3 – Be patient and build everything step by step

Building a scalable startup is not a process that can be done in a day or two. “You have to have the patience. In a developing startup ecosystem like this, you have to lay the foundation brick by brick,” said Pham.

Unlike the Silicon Valley, which itself undergoes decades in the making, early ecosystems like Vietnam have not been strong in connecting all the stakeholders, from universities, investors to consumers.

However, the Uber CTO is very bullish on his mother country, given the rising level of modernisation and the palpable energy in the market.

4 – Too much of caution can be a bad thing

Don’t hold back by being too cautious, said Pham, who risked a career in big corporates to work at startups. He believes that is what kept him moving faster and doing more.

“As long as you incorporate all the learning from your mistakes and failures, you are better positioned. Another thing is, (…) don’t build it (a startup) because you want to own a company, build it because you figure out ‘What problem is really bugging me, and how to solve it?’ There’s no secret sauce to this thing, it’s just the willingness to do it.”

5 – Solve a business problem, not a tech issue, to out-innovate competition

Startups are about competition and it can be brutal out there, according to Pham.

Uber is challenged by rivals in many ways. In Asia, it has seen rivals expand aggressively on the back of massive funding rounds.

“Competition is a very healthy thing. (It) costs you to be very focused on how to do the right thing as fast as you can. If you out-innovate your peers and the competition landscape, you’ll have a better company,” the Uber’s CTO said.

While Uber continues to work on the next big technologies such as self-driving cars, Pham emphasised that startups will out-innovate competition by solving a business problem, not a technology issue.

Technology, in the end, is just a tool, he added.

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