Dwarves Radio Talk #3: Duc Nghiem-AskMeAnything

The very first #AMA: How venture process works

Duy Nguyen

We got a chance to interview Duc Nghiem - our Venture Partner. #AMA, stands for AskMeAnything, is the series we create to collect the point of view from veterans in different roles. Duc has been supporting the Dwarves with the Venture arm since 2019, where he helped to connect our skillful team with early stage startups for product development. Conducted on a Monday afternoon with Discord, and as casual as it sounds, we did bumped to a disconnection during the talk, then got back at it 10 mins later.

Han: We're glad to have an AMA interview with Duc today to bring you a closer view of how the venture process works. Other than that, we hope his knowledge can get some insight and widen our perspective on the startup field. Feel free to drop questions if you have any. So Duc, I heard that you started college by majoring in graphic design and photography, why's that?

Duc: It began with the love for photography. I used to do hip-hop dancing and dived in that kind of art playground. Photography later then came inevitably. My sister also happened to have a studio. I was clearly supported and inspired by it. But when I started making a decision for career orientation, photography seems not to have many opened doors. So I picked another related field, graphic design. I was a bit greedy when I believed I could handle two majors at once. It's a risky move, but I glad I did it.

Han: So that's when you begin your college journey, choosing those 2 majors?

Duc: Yep, 5 years straight.

Han: What happened after that?

Duc: After graduation, I got to know many friends from business, enlightening me on business and economy insights. It developed my interest in this field. That was 2012 or 2013, as I remembered, the time when Uber had just set their foot in the market. I received an offer to develop a startup community in Vietnam when I was still in the US. I figured it's best to do something to learn more about it. The more you scare something, the more it can teach you. That mindset led me back to Vietnam and started my ride with startup. I was hoping to utilize the product development skills and technology to uplift startup projects within the first two years and going divestment for the next investor.

Han: How does the startup community work?

Duc: At first, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. So I started looking for like-minded people. There were 6 of them, including Eddie Thai from 500Startups & Hai Ho of Triip.vn. I spent over a month catching up with them, and fortunately, they were all thrilled by the idea of scaling up the startup community using their resources. They need someone to effectuate it. Feeling that enthusiasm, I moved back to Vietnam to lead the project. It took me nearly 3 months to connect and conversate with as many people as possible to know what step to follow next. I was completely blank, and people were welcomed to brush me with anything from their expertise. Conversate, collect, understand. I eventually got closer to the big picture, the struggle of stakeholders. I finally came to understand what a startup community is a lack.

Han: How long did it take you to feel ready?

Duc: Roughly six months. Throughout the first three months, I met almost a hundred people from different companies. The next three months were to assess and process the gathered information. Brainstorm the project's orientation and strategy to match the theory of how I can support the community. I realized that early startups founders always seek for people to exchange knowledge and experience. But there was no playground for them. There's a big gap between beginners and startup veterans that I believe the foremost thing to do is gathering them into one place, in a limit of time and real-time output. So, event it is.

Han: What was your first startup community name?

Duc: SHIELD. It stands for Startup Hub for Investment, Education, and Leadership Development. After nearly 3 years, SHIELD held up to 4 startup events per week, with the participation ranges from 10 to 200 people. By that time, many startup communities were launched with the same concept as we did. People start to talk more about startups. That was also when I felt that the community was stable enough, and my role in the organization was no longer much. The partners were moving back to the US and focused on their personal goals. Everything started to weigh down for me, as I can see it derived from 2 issues: I was taken as an event organizer, which is not the path I'm heading to. Speaking from the competency, I wasn't sure what I should do next. Bumped into those two barriers and the fact that people are no longer pursuing the same goal and interest to keep going, SHIELD was called off by the end of 2019.

Han: Where did you get the motivation to reaching out?

Duc: I think it comes from the thirst for startup knowledge and the desire to contribute back to the community. I always feel if I help people with anything, I'll gain back a lot more. The second thing is, I realize I'm not the only one who's struggling with finding a place for a startup knowledge hub.

Han: How did you come to the conclusion that people are facing that struggle?

Duc: They're passionate about what they do, but they don't really understand it or don't know how to do it right. It all traces back to one thing: Their ability isn't enough. With all the support resources I can gather at that time, expertise, mentorship, investment, I was convinced by the mission of bridging the gap between skillful founders and the people who seek mentorship. I see what I can do to help.

Han: I see, it's the feeling of delivering things that valuable. During that time, did any startup stands an outstanding position to you?

Duc: I think Recruitery is the case for this question. By the time I met its founder, Recruitery team was still young. They witnessed many changes until it reached its current level, growing three times compared to 2019, and earned a massive number of job recruiting and rewards for headhunters.

Han: Our team is filled with young adults who work in product design. Though the skill is improving, they barely have the chance to work with founders. This led to the obstacle in starting a conversation with founders and startup veterans. Speaking of the startup projects you've helped partnering with us, the first moves are always assessment. Can you explain how you manage to assess a startup's potential before making a partnership decision?

Duc: Evaluating a startup's potential is a long process. You think you have it under control, but in the next second, it's like there's nothing clear. I think it's a combination of sentimental and rational opinion. I might first look at the founder's lifestyle and the way they run their startup. I even take a closer look at their personal value, particularly on the eagerness to learn and their strive for success. It's the balance between the two virtues. The next thing would be a discussion on the current market, team resources, and financial status.

Han: Looks like there's something wrong with Duc's connection, or he's taking a rain check. In the meantime, if you have any questions, just note them down, and we'll get back at it by the time we finished this.

Duc: Sorry about that. Where were we? Right, the team's potential. The potential lies in a team's resilience. And financial. Financial management reflects how the team spends their money effectively. Those aspects are the key point for any investor to evaluate a startup.

Han: Approaching a startup as an investor is easy, but how can we do that in terms of a partner? How to connect with a founder and listen to their story?

Duc: To me, connecting with a stranger means to answer 2 questions: How can I help them? What kind of value can I bring? Asking those questions prevents me from stressing myself out. I used to be an introvert. Meeting new people costs many of my energy. After a long time expanding my connection, I learned that the best thing to work for conversation is sharing your thought sincerely. Let them access our point of view on their business problem, and offer them the suitable solution. I tend to build trust rather than monetize from them. Develop an interest constructs the foundation for any long-term partnership. If you can't going through a casual talk, a higher level of engagement is impossible.

Han: But it will bump into a point: Not everyone we meet is the one we wish to know more.

Duc: I think it's the synergy we're talking about. The law of attraction if their point of view matches ours. It drives curiosity, whether we like it or not. Also, the real connection will happen naturally. Previously, I was just an observer and watched things happen. But for now, it's about rolling up my sleeves and making sure I come up with something that works.

Han: Do people take you differently from the first day? Because apparently you're not only working as an event organizer only. Their expectation must have changed.

Duc: People seek investors with a purpose. As a partner and an investor, my scope is to manage their expectation on the investment, how the resource should be spent, and everything in between.

Han: I see. Working as a strategic consultant means you also have your opinion and the solution. How to turn it into real action?

Duc: To provide consultancy, I must invest myself with domain knowledge and business strategy. Preparing a knowledge base to bring real value to the table. I won't be showing them how to do their job. I provide a framework for them to assess their business and advice accurate suggestions along the way.

Han: Founders are likely to have more insight than us. Frankly, it's their idea to develop a product in that market in the 1st place. Will they take the advice of an outsider seriously?

Duc: I support them with a framework and vision to verify their business model. Founders can build startups and still know nothing about what they should do. Support them with the right framework and method to evaluate the business growth helps them identify the underlying red flags and come up with the right solution. Founders will likely believe what they do is right, so it's our job to help them see another side of the story. In a world where the chance of risk is beyond 90%, the ability to find the answer for" am I going the right way" is vital.

Han: With the current expertise, how do you think we can upgrade the team skill to provide better support for startups?

Duc: The current skill we're applying mostly bypass the expectation out there. I'm pretty confident with what we can offer. We're totally capable of turning ideas into products within a limited timeline. But if you ask what we can do next to improve, I suppose it's the transferability in how we work.

Han: And I assume you have an idea to resolve that, don't you?

Duc: It's better to show people how we run the work and transfer the knowledge instead of executing them only. That will help startup founders take us as a real technical partnership, other than a service provider. I once showed some people our playbook, and I can tell most of them were really thrilled to know more about how we operate things. They see the value in how we work. We're at a point where we handle the work fast and efficiently, but we're still far from transfer and distribute that knowledge broader.