Interview with Mike Beard, Managing Director of Simple Group Co.
1) What inspired you to start a business in Hanoi?
I believe that I have been blessed in life in many ways and want to pass on those blessings if I can. I also believe that business is not about making money. Rather, business is a very human endeavor that involves adding something of value to your local community.
Products and services are just vehicles for making the human experience a better experience and the world a better place. When business focuses on profit over people it will quickly dehumanize people into simply employees, customers and suppliers. So, I wanted to start a business in Hanoi that brings humanity back into business. I wanted to start a business that does not view employees, customers and suppliers as parts of a machine, but as human beings that are uniquely created and have inherent dignity.
2) What were some cultural misunderstandings challenges you faced in opening a business in Vietnam?
Don’t start a business right away, but instead work in Vietnam for a few years to learn a bit about the culture, the language and the people.
I had lived in Hanoi for about five years prior to starting Simple Group Co and in Asia for almost 20 years now. When I first moved to Vietnam, I wanted to start a company right away. However, a few business owners I met in Vietnam encouraged me to not start a business right away, but instead work in Vietnam for a few years to learn a bit about the culture, the language and the people. I took that advice and it has saved me from making several cultural blunders. What has helped me the most is having a network of Vietnamese friends who have been able to help me avoid many major cultural misunderstandings.
Now that’s not to say that I have avoided all cultural misunderstandings, but the ones I faced haven’t been huge and I’ve had the luxury of having some Vietnamese friends to guide me through them. So, I would encourage any expat doing business in Vietnam to develop a network of Vietnamese friends who can help you navigate the culture successfully.
3) What’s the best thing about doing business in Vietnam?
The best thing about doing business in Vietnam is the people. My suppliers and clients are all Vietnamese and I really value those relationships dearly. They are wonderful people whom I respect greatly and learn from daily. One of the bottom line values of my company is community. Our tagline is “Bringing people together.” But, it’s not just a tagline. It’s why we do what we do. Whether we are selling direct trade coffee, hosting business workshops or providing professional coaching, we are doing it all for the purpose of bring people together to make our local community a better place.
4) If you could go back and start all over again, what would you do different?
If I could go back and start all over again, I would have started the registration process sooner. Registering a business in Vietnam as a foreigner is not a clear cut and simple task. It involves a lot of time and is often a confusing endeavor. So, I would have started the process much sooner had I known how complicated it really is.
5) If you were to give a tip to someone looking to start a business in Vietnam, what would it be?
If you are looking to start a business in Vietnam, here are a few tips I would give you:
1. Find a job and work in Vietnam for at least a year prior to starting your own venture. This will help you to build a network of local friends and will give you the opportunity to learn about the culture and see better opportunities.
2. Avoid an “Us and Them” attitude toward Vietnamese people. The sooner you realize that it’s just “Us” you’ll have a smoother and much more enjoyable business experience.
3. Hire a lawyer to help you navigate the legal issues of starting a business in Vietnam. If you get have a good lawyer, it’s money well spent.
4. Start something that makes Hanoi a better place. Find a problem to solve through business. Make a product that genuinely improves people’s lives. Provide a service and brings joy and builds community. Products and services that add real value are much easier to sell.
5. Don’t exploit people or the environment. Too many companies are moving into Vietnam to take advantage of cheap labor and weak environmental regulations. We don’t need another one. There’s a old Russian proverb I learned years ago that says “You pretend to pay me and I pretend to work.” So, if you decide to take advantage of the cheap labor don’t be upset if you end up with low quality supplies and unmotivated employees.
6. Learn to see competition as potential opportunities. I am currently partnering with a few of my direct competitors and it’s really moving my business forward in many ways.