Viet Nam needs start-up mentoring culture: JFDI Co-Founder

Saturday, Oct 01, 2016 08:00

Hugh Mason, co-founder of JFDI, the first accelerator in Southeast Asia. Mason says Viet nam needs to build a culture of startup mentoring to support young entrepreuners. — Photo JFDI.
Serial entrepreneur Hugh Mason, who co-founded JFDI in 2012, is one of the pioneers in Singapore's start-up ecosystem.
JFDI (Joyful Frog Digital Innovation) inspired the first wave of innovators in the city-state.

In this position, Mason has mentored thousands of entrepreneurs and led JFDI's investment in 70 start-ups. The company recently closed its JFDI Accelerator Programme in Singapore after six years, saying "it is time for others to build on the foundations it started." JFDI is now working with multinational corporations across the region to connect start-ups and corporations.

Mason talked to Thu Huong Le about the start-up culture in Southeast Asia and why a culture of start-up mentoring is vital for early-stage ecosystems, such as Viet Nam. 

What differentiates JFDI from other accelerator programmes? What were the elements behind its long run?

It was the first and longest-running seed accelerator programme in Southeast Asia. When we started in 2012, words, such as "accelerator" or "lean start-up" were not common in the region.

During six years, we invested in 70 start-ups through our JFDI Accelerate Programme, built a $60m portfolio and supported about 400 start-ups and 1,500 entrepreneurs from 40 countries through our pre-accelerator programme.

We were inspired by an accelerator that had worked in the United States called Techstars, because it succeeded in an ordinary city, not somewhere special like Silicon Valley. We had a lot of help from a community called the Global Accelerator Network that has adapted what Techstars did in other locations. Being part of something larger gave us friends, whom we did not compete with and could rely on for advice and suggestions. We also had huge support from successful local entrepreneurs and investors, who gave us time and advice. We were ruthlessly honest with ourselves, our start-ups and the people, who backed us with money.

Accelerators are popping up all over Singapore. The same thing is also happening in Vietnam. You once mentioned that "teams get recruited just to make up the numbers and it's all about the money, not necessarily the best mentoring." How can we change that or is it part of the inevitable competition?

It is easy to walk into a highly profitable coffee shop chain, such as Starbucks and think "That looks easy!" But if you ask anyone who has tried to scale up a coffee shop business, it is actually much harder than it looks. It's the same with accelerators.

The process of recruiting start-up teams, managing investments and balancing the interests of mentors and investors is extremely complex. There can be many mismatched expectations. Some corporations use accelerators, just as a marketing exercise, missing the chance to achieve digital transformation. However, many corporations are trying to understand what is strong about start-ups and how they can transform themselves to work in the same way.

It's similar to private colleges and universities. Some of them have good teachers and do the right thing for their students. Some of them are just out to fill up seats, achieve key performance indicators or to extract money.

For start-ups, I believe it is vital that the people running accelerators truly understand the interests, motivations and pressure that entrepreneurs face.

You said Vietnam's ecosystem lacks some "structural elements" to move forward, particularly the need to develop a culture of mentoring and a network of investors. Can you elaborate on that?

In most parts of Asia, the American idea of experienced business people "paying it forward" and giving unpaid mentoring is very new. Yet it is a great opportunity for two-way learning. The best start-ups have insights into new markets, technologies and business models that a more experienced traditional business person might learn from. Often older, more experienced business people can share invaluable lessons, but they also learn as much in every mentoring relationship.

Regarding investors, in much of this region, it is still possible to make good money from investing in solid traditional businesses, such as real estate, fast food or oil palm plantations. Many business people acquire these assets, knowing that they can probably sell them relatively easily if they need the money for something else.

When they look at a technology investment, it looks very strange in comparison. There is a lot of risk doing something new for the first time, often with founders, who look very young and use language, technology and business models that are unfamiliar. A digital business often has no physical elements and it may not show results for years. So how can a traditional investor determine whether such investment might be valuable?

What kind of initiatives is JFDI looking to implement in Vietnam? What are the attractive elements of the Viet nam's ecosystem?

Whenever I visit Viet nam, I am impressed by how focused and energetic young people are in Viet nam. It seems that there is something very entrepreneurial in Vietnamese culture and young people see the opportunity to build wealth for their nation, their families and themselves.

We have a joint venture incorporated in Singapore with BOSCH, a global supplier for technology and services. It is the first pilot for a new framework for corporations and start-ups to co-create new ventures. Our hope is that this framework will combine the speed and agility that start-ups offer with the scale-up ability of corporations. It has taken us two years to put together this legal framework and we are delighted that our first pilot business with the framework is scheduled for being launched in Viet Nam in early 2017. — VNS

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