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New player emerges in Vietnamese startup ecosystem: Accelerator as a Service

Emakase is bridging the service gap to serve “highly self-aware” startups and SMEs with tailored accelerator resources and innovation programs

Business consulting houses like Emakase bridge the service gap to serve “highly self-aware” startups and SMEs with tailored accelerator resources, as well as provide full-fledged innovation programs for corporations that want to ramp up their capacities by working with outside entrepreneurs.

Three years serving as a senior manager at VIISA - one of Vietnam’s longest-established accelerators, Phuc Nguyen realized the gap between local SMEs, which account for about 98% of the total enterprises in Vietnam, and the resources and knowledge they need to grow to a sustainable scale.

Access to private consulting services might be one solution, but it is hindered by expensive consulting fees. Current accelerator programs are also only available to selective technology firms that are also required to give up some shares in exchange for dedicated support and funding.

As VIISA turned over a new leaf by halting its accelerator program in 2021 to fully focus on venture investments, in April 2022, Phuc teamed up with Barrett Le, a multi-award product user experience (UX) expert, to co-found a new organization purpose-built for Vietnamese entrepreneurs. Their new venture, named Emakase, received the mentoring support of Alexander Jansen, an expert provided by Swiss Entrepreneurship Program to assist VIISA in early 2020, and follow the inspiration from Japanese cuisine’s “Omakase” concept, in which customers leave it up to the chef to select and serve special dishes.

“Unlike other incubators and accelerators, Emakase does not serve startups that are ‘too early’. Instead, it targets teams that have already entered the market and generated some forms of traction, or middle-market companies whose annual revenues are no more than $75 million,” said Phuc Nguyen, Emakase Managing Partner. “We do provide business support like an accelerator but do not fund the business or take equity.”

The preliminary report, or Emakase’s comprehensive diagnosis through a 360-degree interview with the client company’s founders and stakeholders, will state the problems as well as compatible solutions to strengthen or scale up the firm. When the client signs on to use any proposed solutions or services, “chefs” from Emakase will convene a consulting board meeting and construct a master plan to implement the strategy within a set time frame and a suitable level of impact.

“After receiving our initial feedback through the preliminary reports, client companies need to be very honest with themselves to decide whether or not they should pay for services that we suggest to provide for them,” Phuc added. “This requires them to have higher ‘self-awareness’ than many early-stage startups that often participate in typical accelerator programs.”

With seven partners specializing in fields such as people management, marketing, finance, management, creative, and innovation, Emakase is structuring its “menu” in three “flexible and customizable” lists of services: Fundraising consulting, Management consulting, and Innovation consulting.

The fees, at least for Emakase’s current seven projects with clients, are “much more affordable” than that of large consulting organizations or deal advisory firms, according to Phuc, though he said that his firm still needs a tweak to the pricing to better value its services.

“We will ensure the deliverables, but not the client’s sure-fire result as they are still the owner of their firms and should have the highest responsibility for their successes or failures,” Phuc added.

Emakase also spots a new trend buoyed by the pandemic-induced digital transformation: Vietnamese corporations seek to boost their innovation capacities to adapt to changing behaviors of customers. As a result, the consulting house forms its “accelerator-as-a-service” model, which offers corporations, government and non-government bodies tailored and full-fledged innovation programs.

Other ecosystem players echoed this sentiment, with Zone Startups Vietnam’s plan to offer a “basket” of startups’ technology solutions to big corporations, and ThinkZone’s fund-raising from six local conglomerates for its $60 million Fund II to finance high-growth startups. Adding to the mix, Emakase looks to connect these ecosystem resources and even become a ‘sub-vendor’ for other ecosystem players to jointly serve corporations’ needs.

“Any collaborations should be grounded on commercial purposes as it will clarify the positioning and value of each player toward third-party companies,” said VIISA CFO Hieu Vo, considering Phuc’s new venture as a useful supplement to bridge the service gap in the ecosystem.

Following the “consult-build-operate-transfer” process, Emakase is offering programs ranging from hackathon, incubation, acceleration, to professionals competency enhancement and business competency training, for various ecosystem stakeholders. It also especially places emphasis on firms’ integrity and transparency and says no to “under-the-table lobby” when providing services.

“With the government’s strong support for innovation, I believe that there is fertile land for ‘upright’ innovation consulting businesses,” Phuc said. “If consulting firms do anything wrong or ineffective, they will quickly face blowback because this space is growing fast and the outcomes of innovation efforts are soon to be seen.”