You only live once: CEO quits MBA to launch start-up

You only live once has always been Tran Nguyen Le Van's favourite saying.

You only live once: CEO quits MBA to launch start-up
Tran Nguyen Le Van speaks about startup at a seminar. — Photo Courtesy of Tran Nguyen Le Van

It's also why he quit his job as an IT lecturer to open his first business in 2008.

He had hoped to develop a restaurant chain selling Dong Nai’s signature dish: bánh đúc (a type of Vietnamese rice cake stuffed with peanuts).

He started small. Every day, he would wake up at 4am in the morning, cook bánh đúc and then brought the food to sell at Tan Binh Market in HCM City.

But it was a failure – and his family had to eat bánh đúc every day for a while when he couldn't sell them all.

After the first failure, Van researched and moved on to sell imported beef. This time he did better and managed to become a distributor for many shops and supermarkets.
But he felt something was missing.

“When it gets to a level when you feel you don’t have enough knowledge to manage the business, you know you need to learn management skills,” Van said.

In 2010, Van applied for an MBA scholarship at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, the US, got one, and left for his studies.

Dropping school

During a winter break, when his friends either travelled or went home, Van stayed at school. He read many stories about how Vietnamese people still had to queue for bus tickets to go home for Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations.

The image of workers carrying blankets with them to bus ticket stations to queue stuck in his head, and he thought about setting up an online transport ticket system – just like those he had seen in the US.

He did some research and found out that every year in his home country, some 24 million people went to work by passenger bus and more than 100 million tickets were sold.

“It was a potential market that had not been tapped properly,” he said.

He tried to find partners.

He talked to Luong Ngoc Long, an IT professional, and Dao Viet Thang, who at the time had a stable and high-income job at ANZ Bank.

It took a lot of work for Van to persuade his friends to join him.

“Van is a very patient person. He never gives up,” said Thang.

When Long and Thang finally agreed to team up, Van made the decision to drop his MBA programme.

“I felt like it was the right time. I had to make a choice to prove to my friends that I was all in,” Van said.

“Embarking on the start-up journey means you don’t have money yet, you don’t have a product yet, and you don’t have human resources yet. My friends wouldn't have trusted me if I didn't give it all of my effort and time,” he said.

In 2013, they set up VeXeRe JSC (roughly translated as cheap coach tickets), a tech start-up that operates an online bus ticketing platform.

It offers three main solutions: online ticket booking solution for passengers (on a website and the app VeXeRe), Bus Management System for bus companies, and ticket distribution software for agents.

Not an easy start

Coach tickets had been booked online in many countries for a long time, but not in Vietnam.

 

“Vietnam was still underdeveloped at that time and many things were done manually so there was a lot of room to innovate and use technology to solve everyday issues, such as booking coach tickets,” Van said.

Bringing bookings digital would fundamentally change the way coach transport works in Vietnam.

“If we succeed, we’ll make a revolution in the transport sector in Vietnam. That’s my vision, that’s my aim,” he said.

But it's never easy to change a habit and Van was knocked back many times by coach companies.

They told him they could manage the work manually.

“I have to persuade them that management software would help them control losses better and still balance the benefits of both coach service providers and passengers,” Van said.

Van also spent lots of time consulting many coach companies free of charge to gain their trust.

The technology provided by VeXeRe not only brings revenue to coach companies easier but also helps them save up to 40 per cent on telephone calls.

“For example, Sao Viet Coach Company has a route that goes from Hanoi to Sa Pa. There are four ticket booths on the road. The central management does not have to call each of these booths to find out how many tickets have been sold, and the booths do not have to call one another,” Van said.

It also forces them to increase service quality by instilling the habit of giving and receiving feedback. Before, coaches could make stops along the way to get more passengers, cramming the coach and causing discomfort for other passengers, but now people can leave reviews online, forcing drivers to curtail this behaviour.

“In the past, if a customer had a complaint, he or she would not know where to make the complaint and who would address it,” Van said.

According to him, the website now has 5,000 reviews.

“Coach companies can consult the reviews to improve their services.”

There are more than 4.5 million tickets sold each month through the Bus management system from 550 coach companies, covering more than 2,600 domestic and foreign routes.

Van said next year VeXeRe would expand to air and train transport or move into Cambodia and Laos. As of now, some coach companies in Cambodia and Laos already use VeXeRe’s software.

"If you want to take the start-up path, you've got to have an idea, then act aggressively upon the idea, and come up with a solution. Money is not everything," he said.

VeXeRe recently received new funding from three Asian investors, Woowa Brothers and NCore Ventures from South Korea, and Southeast Asia-focused Access Ventures.

New funding also came from a fourth anonymous investor.

The fundraising will help VeXeRe speed up its expansion plan and focus on developing mobile products for passengers, transport operators and drivers to improve the quality of their service.

Also, with the collaboration from major e-commerce platforms and e-wallets, such as MoMo, ZaloPay, and VNPay, VeXeRe officials expect to see stronger growth in the near future.

Before this fundraising round, VeXeRe attracted funding from Japanese venture capital firm CyberAgent Capital and Spiral Ventures from Japan, Pix Vine Capital from Singapore and South Korean BonAngels.—VNS

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