Right time, right place, tremendous luck
Minh observed that many successful entrepreneurial stories were about being in the right time and place, helped along with a good dose of luck.
He’s not wrong.
VNG’s earliest incarnation was VinaGame, an online game publisher. “We saw the opportunity, both as gamers and people who witnessed the formation of the whole industry,” Minh explained. They had observed the rise of online PC games in Asia and knew the time was right to start a local company that imported games into Vietnam.
He first looked to Korea, home to some of the most popular online games. When there were no takers, he turned to Chinese game developers. Only Kingsoft wrote back to him – and the rest was history. Vo Lam Truyen Ky (剑侠情缘系列), the game he licensed, was the first MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) in Vietnam. It also quickly became the most popular game in the country.
“We were extremely lucky because we picked the right game. And in the first two months after we launched the game, we were profitable, which is rare among startups and extremely rare among startups in a developing market,” said Minh.
The game did so well that VNG hit its three-year target three months after launch, and this gave them the resources to expand into other verticals. “We believed that the internet could become very popular…and we just built up internet products and services.”
That vision has paid off. Today, 70.3% of Vietnam’s population are internet users, up from a mere 7.6% in 2004. The sheer volume of digital citizens creates a massive market opportunity for companies like VNG. “I think that Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world where the level of internet and technology adoption is higher than the level of economic development,” Minh reflected. “We have a young country, we have people who are open to new things. And the government [has] a few great policies in terms of promoting the development of the internet”.
Don’t stop learning
Minh’s belief in learning was evident from the get-go when he made educating his team a priority. “One of the lessons I learned being an investment banker was you figure out your capital later,” he told us.
He negotiated the first payment of US $50,000 for the licence and spent his remaining capital flying his ten team members to China.
“We had zero understanding of how to do business,” Minh explained, so he and his team spent ten days with Kingsoft’s business team learning the ropes.
Today, Minh continues to promote the importance of learning, even if it’s through setbacks. “You can go through multiple failures. It is important that you look at all the failures as a building block, a stepping stone,” he said. “ I think that throughout our history, we probably built over 100 different products. And today, maybe five products survive.”
The can-do spirit of learning carries over to his leadership style. Minh has dabbled in every aspect of his business, from product management to managing a tech team for ZaloPay. “As a CEO, you need to learn new skills, basically be able to shape yourself and to do new things,”
Minh declared. “The most important thing is we need to have a learning spirit. Everything with technology is very interesting, and you get to learn new things every day.”
Localisation is the name of the game
When their first licensed game took off, Minh and his team were at a crossroads – should they expand overseas or solidify their presence in Vietnam?
“We chose a pretty cool mission,” Minh recalled, “Make the Internet Change Vietnamese Life…We want to have a lot of users and become an internet player in Vietnam.”
To do that, VNG built and launched digital products across several verticals – social media (Zing Me), music streaming (Zing MP3), a news website, a mobile messaging app (Zalo), online learning and digital payments.
Some of these products dominated the scene from launch. Zing MP3 continues to be one of the top music streaming apps in the country. Zalo has beaten foreign competitors like Whatsapp, Viber and even Facebook Messenger to reign as “the most popular homegrown platform” in the country.
“I think that the reason that we won is that Zalo is the best mobile messaging service for the Vietnamese. Globally, we believe that no one has built a product for the Vietnamese market as good as the team that we have here,” Minh mused.
“We’ve optimised for 400 million users in Vietnam. We have other features that target Vietnam[ese] users. But overall, it’s not just about features; the overall performance of the mobile messenger is much better than Facebook Messenger. It’s faster and more reliable. Over time, people are going to use it more.”