Topica trains startups to be entrepreneurs: Tran Manh Cong

Topica – a Vietnam-based online education services provider – adopted the world’s largest entrepreneurship program from the Founder institute in 2011. Since then, it has successfully helped 28 startups / founders to raise nearly $10 million as seed fund.

In an interaction with DEALSTREETASIA, Tran Manh Cong, co-director, Topica Founder Institute (TFI) spoke about the early success of this program and the complexity of the startup ecosystem. The TFI mentors include representatives of funds (like IDG Ventures, CyberAgent Ventures, DFJ Vinacapital) and accomplished founders (of companies like the VNG, Vatgia, VietnamWorks and the VTC Online.)

He explained that the startups founders, who pass the “15 milestones” of the program,  get to pitch their product and company to about 30 investors during the end of the semester showcase.

TFI focuses on training people about entrepreneurship; to graduate, they need ideas of their own.  Excerpts of the Interview:

How did Topica adopt Founder Institute’s entrepreneurship program?

The story goes back quite a few years, Startups were not in vogue then. I had tried to build a few companies back then, but failed because there was a lack of proper guidance and knowledge of entrepreneurship. Things changed when I started working for Topica, I realised that if a budding entrepreneur is guided by someone senior or if experienced leaders share their knowledge and guide young bright minds,more successful startups can be founded. We collaborated with the Founder Institute in 2011 and 28 founders/ startups have graduated from TFI, since then.

What is the difference between TFI and other incubators/ accelerators in Vietnam?

If Hatch! VN helps startups with their mentorship and problem solving; Hub.IT provides co-working space and network for startups; then at TFI, we focus on incubating people by working on their skills in business-building, management, marketing etc. To graduate, they need to develop an emerging idea for a technology company that is validated by our mentors.

Anyone who is interested in starting up a business can register for our 15-session program that uses Predictive Admissions Test to find the most talented people To date, over 100 people have applied for TFI’s program and only 28 have graduated.

On the graduation day, we host a showcase where founders can pitch their ideas to over 20 investors, both domestic and foreign. We continue to help them until they secure seedfund and establish a fully operational business.

Can you name the most successful startups incubated by TFI? How do you judge their success?

We validate a startup’s success by its ability to survive and operate in the open market. In terms of money, we have seen startups that secured millions of dollars in just one year. For example, Appota – a Vietnam mobile platform – secured series A and B funding from investors in Japan and Singapore. The size of each round of financing, to my knowledge, is around 2-3 million dollars but the exact amount remained unknown. Or HSP Yton– a medical social network page- had raised the largest series A funding in Vietnam in the beginning of this year, around 3-4 million dollars from a Japanese investor.

This year, four out of the 12 startups from TFI’s third showcase, have already received seedfund of up to $50,000 and they are still to graduate. This is a very promising signal, showing that foreign investors are watching Vietnam’s startups closely and are ready to spend big bucks when a brilliant idea comes up.

How do view the trend of investing in a Vietnam-based startups? Why are these deals mostly undisclosed to the public?

About the investment trend, there have been around 49 deals during 2012-2013, 12 of which are in e-commerce, eight deals in mobile apps and six in Edtech (education technology).  Investors from Japan topped the chart with 10 deals in 2013, Vietnam investors come second with 5 deals, one was from Europe and four from the US. These numbers are researched by me and a colleague at the end of each year.

In Vietnam, funding is a sensitive part of the business and the companies don’t want to talk about money because they fear it may cause problems in the future. It may be the same for investors; they don’t let out their names or be on news, as it may give rise to rumors or false assumptions. Startups only share investment related news as a branding tactic, to let the public know that their companies have been validated, appreciated by bigger companies.