Survey in Pocket sets example for aspiring Vietnamese start-ups

Friday, May 01, 2015 09:00

Vu Hai Ninh (right) and Le Hoang receive the first prize at the Ahjo Accelerator Program for their mobile survey app named Survey in Pocket in Finland last year. - Photo courtesy of Tytti Vuorikari
by Lan Dung

It is generally believed that starting a business in one's own country makes it easier for entrepreneurs to achieve success rather than doing the same abroad.

However, this does not hold true for three Vietnamese youngsters, who are currently riding a wave of success in Finland with their mobile survey application named "Survey in Pocket."

The app has been developed by three 26-year-olds—Vu Hai Ninh, Le Hoang and Nguyen Tien Dat—who are studying and working abroad. They won the first prize at the Ahjo Accelerator Program, the biggest start-up competition, organised by the Mikkeli Entrepreneurship Society in Mikkeli last year with their latest product.

At the moment, their company provides services to three firms, who have a number of customers, ranging between 200 and 500 each, and also to 10 smaller-sized customers. Their clients often pay at a price of €50 to 300 (US$53.8 to 322.9) per month for every order.

The front page of Survey in Pocket's website.

Initial steps

Three years ago, Ninh quit his job in Viet Nam and moved to Finland. He enrolled in the undergraduate International Business programme at the Turku University of Applied Sciences in the hope of acquiring more knowledge and to develop more ways of thinking in business.

During the 2012 to 2014 period, he attended various meetings and joined organisations of entrepreneurs, software developers and game developers in Turku city. The idea of establishing a start-up came to his mind at the end of 2013, when he saw successful start-ups being run by students and realised the importance of the convenient business environment offered in Finland.

At the beginning of 2014, while he was at home, recuperating after an operation, Ninh listed a gamut of game development-related issues, such as high costs for graphic design and sound.

At the same time, he also noticed that public places, such as banks and hospitals often installed devices for surveying people that carried attractive smiley icons. Ninh also observed the mid-term surveys handed to students by professors at schools fairly resembled each other, and were not at all appealing or easy-to-use on mobile devices.

His conversation with his high school friend Hoang, who was studying at the Aalto University in Finland, led to the idea of combining the two things. At first, the survey service was aimed at schools for getting feedback from students. Dat, who was also a former classmate from FPT University and worked at FPT Asia Pacific in Singapore, joined them later and the three of them started brainstorming to develop the product.

In September, the team decided to develop a new survey app that was easier, simpler to use, more convenient, and had an attractive display on mobile devices.

At the same time, Hoang accidentally discovered the Ahjo Accelerator Program. The team initially joined the contest to learn from experienced and well-known entrepreneurs in Finland and other groups, but their product ended up winning the first prize in the competition to the surprise of the developers.

"During the contest, experts said Survey in Pocket could become a completely new service, with a high competitive capacity similar to other products in international markets," Ninh said.

"While we not only expanded our network and learnt from excellent entrepreneurs, the team was also trained by famous experts, who we had only heard of, such as Michael Widenius, founder of MySQL [the original version of the open source database] and Linda Liukas, co-founder of Rail Girls [a non-profit organisation aimed at opening up technology and making it more approachable to girls and women]."

The first prize in the contest helped the team garner much more attention from Finnish enterprises, such as Haaja and Yap.

Ninh poses with his friends after receiving the first prize in Finland. - Photo courtesy of Survey in Pocket

Growth trajectory

Participating in the competition transformed the group's style of thinking about start-up business development, making it clearer, and more goal oriented than it was before. The team then sold its minimum viable product in November.

At first, their product was a web application offering surveys designed to gather feedback on mobile devices. After testing it in reality, and owing to higher demand from customers, the company not only provided the software, but also started offering additional services, including consulting, and design for surveys' front pages.

They followed a lean start-up methodology for faster, more targeted product and business development, and their products have been amended many times to meet the demands of customers. "Our customers are placed at the centre and our products have been developed based on their feedback," Ninh said.

In Finland, people speak English very well, but they mostly use Finnish while doing business. Therefore, the team recruited a Finnish person for the sales and marketing operations.

Shortly, they will start focusing on niche markets, with projected revenue of €500 to 2000 ($5,382 to 2,152) per two to three days for them and their partners. The team also intends to take advantage of the networks of customers available to their partners to deliver the app in other cities in Finland.

Lessons for Viet Nam

Finland has created a very good environment for starting a business. When Ninh registered to establish the company, the government supported him with a non-refundable amount equivalent to VND200 million (over $9,500). Hoang said Finland planned to build the country as an innovation hub, and it was also building strong entrepreneurship communities and had formulated many policies to assist entrepreneurs.

"After the largest Finnish company Nokia sold its mobile phone unit to Microsoft, a large number of Finnish people were rendered unemployed and the economy slipped into recession. Therefore, the government and the society have made considerable efforts to create new jobs to stabilise the economy," he said.

"Start-up communities are established to provide knowledge, and opportunities for enterprises to expand their networks. Thanks to this, more firms have been founded, especially in the IT field, such as Angry Birds owner Rovio and Clash of Clan maker Supercell."

Ninh said the biggest difference between Finland and Viet Nam was the entrepreneurship culture.

"Building innovation in Viet Nam is like training excellent people for exams, which cannot create a strong entrepreneurship environment for start-ups to develop. For example, enterprises and organisations set up programmes to train outstanding youngsters, who pass the qualifying rounds to become future businessmen. This does not bring remarkable results," he said.

"Being different from Viet Nam, Finland creates an environment in which people having great passion and desire can participate to develop themselves. Start-up communities in cities and schools are not places to gather the best people, but just a place where all people with enormous enthusiasm gather to become entrepreneurs. There are many activities that help people acquire skills and give them a driving force to take action and assist each other. This creates a start-up community with lots of creativity and successful start-ups. The creative power comes from the community, not from a group of excellent young people."

Ninh said that if Viet Nam did not have a strong entrepreneurship community, it could be created.

Meanwhile, Dat said the Vietnamese youth had the ability to create a dynamic entrepreneurship environment in other countries. "Building a strong community of entrepreneurs, with a foundation in technology start-ups is the way in which Viet Nam can catch up with the rest of the world," he said. VNS

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