From Entrepreneur To Entrepreneur - and Still Entrepreneur: ThinkZone
Entrepreneurs are best to support entrepreneurs. This is why ThinkZone caught the eye of Swiss EP back in 2019. We had an opportunity to talk with Do Bui, Founding Partner and CEO of ThinkZone Ventures, about what makes this accelerator different.
It is a common belief that the best people to support entrepreneurs and startups are serial entrepreneurs. In light of this, ThinkZone – which was founded by a team of entrepreneurs who themselves have built, raised funds for, exited, and of course failed, many startup businesses in the last decade – caught the eye of Swiss EP as soon as the accelerator launched on 20 February 2019. In July 2019, ThinkZone and Swiss EP entered into a partnership providing the accelerator with capacity- building support through international entrepreneurs-in-residence and experts.
“I was raised by an entrepreneur,” Do said as we sat by a lake near his apartment. “Since I was a child, my father often took me along when visiting his business counterparts.”
And so years later, as soon as he enrolled in the prestigious engineering program at Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST), Do founded his first business.
Journey of the entrepreneur
It started as a café and an English training center on a crowded street in Hanoi, eventually became a chain of cafés and an online learning platform.
“Many lessons were learned in these early days,” Do laughed. “Having too many co-founders was not a challenge but a problem. And it would have been better to start a business with people who didn’t think too much of themselves. We also learned that the founders shouldn’t do everything by themselves. Sometimes hiring is cheaper.” Do was happy that he managed to exit the business.
Dropping out of HUST in his first year, Do joined a startup applying a business model that had been successful in the United States to the Vietnamese market. “We were excited about the idea. Product development went very well. But there was another lesson,” Do winked. “The success of a business is not guaranteed by its previous successes, especially when the business is introduced to different markets.”
Do returned to HUST to continue his studies while playing the role of a Microsoft’s technology ambassador in engineering universities. As soon as Do began building a Microsoft developers community he realized that tech startup teams should combine engineering and business management students. This combination created notable successes in the Microsoft developers community.
Before graduating with honors from HUST, Do joined several early-stage tech startups including Money Lover. In May 2017, Money Lover was listed in the Top5 Best Applications on the Google Play Store and the best personal finance app on Apple’s App Store. This time, Do got to apply the lean-startup methodology and sought out angel investment.
Do kept moving and became co-founder of TechElite, and director of product development of outsourcing company Seta which was renamed to CO-WELL and grew from 5 founding members in 2014 to over 400 staff members today. Through those roles, Do gained experience in managing growing teams, developing corporate partnerships, and raising funds for scaling up.
The last corporation Do worked for was Five9 – a fintech venture builder. As product development manager, Do had an opportunity to work with both engineering teams and corporate clients – mainly commercial banks and financial institutions – on product-market fit. This position not only made use of Do’s accumulated expertise but also helped him understand what support tech startups need when going through the “valley of death.” When Five9 established ThinkZone as an affiliated accelerator, Do was appointed as director.
Still an entrepreneur
Shortly after the birth of ThinkZone, Five9 faced financial distress. While the board of directors wanted to close the accelerator, Do placed a takeover offer. “It was an entrepreneurial decision,” Do recalled. “I had been wanting to run an acceleration program for a long time.”
At that time Do had no clue how to run an accelerator but the experience of a serial entrepreneur told him that money needed to sustain the accelerator would not come from the startups but the investors.
ThinkZone therefore is one of very few accelerators in Vietnam offering cash investment to startups. If a startup is accepted to the program, it receives seed funding of $50,000 in cash, in addition to ThinkZone’s training and mentorship, and credits from ThinkZone’s partners. In exchange, the startup gives ThinkZone an equity stake, allowing ThinkZone to make money if they exit in later funding rounds.
The acceleration program of ThinkZone is twofold. First, it helps build capacity in the startups and prepares them for their next funding round. Second, it offers a due diligence process.
This process has yielded positive results. While the Covid19 pandemic has proven challenging for startups in general, one of the three startups in ThinkZone’s first batch got investment in May 2020. Another one grew their revenue five times. The last one got an R & D support package from a top industrial park of Vietnam.
When asked if his serial entrepreneur background proves particularly helpful to the teams he advises, Do emphasized “I never think that way. ThinkZone, as same as any startup, is a team, not a person. Every member of ThinkZone provides the startups with her/his value,” Do continued. “Catalina Catana [who first came to ThinkZone as an EIR from Swiss EP and now heads the acceleration program] helps founders improve their mindsets and equips them with design-thinking processes. Phuong makes sure the program runs well and minimizes any gap between the startups and ThinkZone’s coaches and experts. Ha guides the startups through a disciplined process necessary to their long-term growth. Nam Dang helps navigate financial concepts and valuation models. Chelsea connects them to appropriate funds. Nam Doan and Long develop a founders’ community and corporate partnerships that bring more resources and collaboration opportunities. And last but not least, there are valuable partners working with ThinkZone on supporting the startups.”
Do is applying the lessons learned in his early days as an entrepreneur: a startup needs a multidisciplinary team, and most importantly, it needs to act as a team.
“Among the partners, Swiss EP came as a buddy from a previous life. Our shared vision and approach to the ecosystem make our collaboration not only comfortable but also enjoyable,” Do noted. “In addition to the EIR program that introduces international expertise in innovation and startups to ThinkZone, Swiss EP offers us great opportunities to access global networks.”
Returning to the new normal post pandemic, ThinkZone’s team is busy supporting startups in Batch 2 and raising money for an expected $30 million venture fund. Two renown institutional investors have made commitments. ThinkZone is in discussions with other investors from the US, China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea while convincing national business champions to take leading roles in the fund.
The initiatives are proving to be challenging. ThinkZone’s team of entrepreneurs has accepted the challenge and keeps moving forward—as they have many times before.