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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E6: Conversation with Hao Tran, Vietcetera Media

In episode six of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia, we speak with Hao Tran, CEO of Vietcetera Media, who shares his journey of running a fast-growing media start-up in Vietnam.

From moving to Vietnam as a young Vietnamese-American to jumping into the media industry and founding his own restaurant, Hao reveals how he runs the show and makes tough decisions as a young CEO, and why Vietnam is such a compelling place for professionals keen to advance their careers and maintain a high standard of living.

A key takeaway for listeners and viewers? Hao shares how at the end of the day, we should all be clear on what we are optimising for at every stage of our career, and the importance of remaining open to different perspectives, even as we focus on our career path and goals.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights in the world of work. Watch the videocast for this episode here.

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Vicky Truong: 
Good morning everyone, I'm Vicky Truong, international candidate manager at Robert Walters Vietnam.  I'm your host for this episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. This episode is a part of our leadership interview series, where business leaders, recruitment experts and career growth specialists share their insights on their career, leadership lessons and the latest talent trends.

Today, I'm very excited to have Hao Tran, the CEO of Vietcetera Media, join us. And Hao, thank you for making the time to join us today.

Hao Tran: Yeah, very happy to be here. And I'm happy to share whatever learnings I might be able to provide to all the listeners today. So, fire away. Any questions you've got, I'm happy to share whatever insights I have.

Vicky: Thank you. And before we get started, right, for the benefit of our audience and viewers here who do not know you yet, could you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Hao: Yeah, certainly. So, my name is Hao. I'm the CEO of a media company here based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It's called Vietcetera, which stands for Vietnam and the word etcetera, which means kind of like so on.

So as a media company, we cover a lot of different things. We're bilingual, we're in Vietnamese and in English, but the Vietnamese site is a lot bigger as you can imagine. And the mission is to bring Vietnam to the world and the world to Vietnam; kind of like Vietnam is at this inflection point where it's rapidly growing, a lot of businesses are growing, people are experiencing new things mostly because they have more disposable income, in addition to just a bigger role in the global kind of order, where Vietnam is like - manufacturing is moving here, the country is rapidly modernising, the young people have I guess taste for more things.

So that's what we're trying to capture and that's what Vietcetera is. Myself, I moved here five years ago. I'm Vietnamese-American. I came here to work for an American company and now I've kind of completely shifted gears and started focusing on this company, which is now about five years as well.

Vicky: Okay. Thanks for your sharing. But I know that you are originally from San Francisco, right? You were born there. So why did you decide to move to Vietnam?

Hao: Yeah, I was born and raised in San Francisco in the US and I moved here a little more than five years ago. Actually, over the past weekend was my five-year mark in Vietnam, exactly five years in Vietnam.

Vicky: Right.

Hao: And yeah, why did I move here? I think, it was some five, six years ago. I was thinking of coming out here but didn't really kind of grasp the potential professional opportunity. So, it wasn't until I met a couple of people actually in Vietnam on a holiday trip that got me thinking more about Vietnam. And then when I went back to the US, it was very lucky timing for me actually. There was a company in the venture capital space that happened to have just opened an office in Vietnam, which I read online. So, I reached out to them and they're based in San Francisco. And they happen to have been hiring kind of junior analyst roles.

So, I kind of put my hat in the ring and they happened to have been hiring. So, it matched up pretty well. I moved from San Francisco to Vietnam for that particular job. And that's what kind of got me here. That's not what I'm staying here for though. I'd left that job a few years ago now. Vietcetera is what I focus on now.

So, this company started around the same time that I moved here. And so, it was a great opportunity for me, and now the business is what keeps me here.

Vicky: Ah, okay, so you move here because of that opportunity. And currently you are the CEO of Vietcetera, the very fast-growing company. And I just heard from you that the company is moving to another office as well. So, it's growing really fast. I'm just curious, why did you choose to dive into the media industry, but not other industries?

Hao: Vietcetera is special because I mean, I've always been a writer, but not like a journalist by any measure. And I don't write publicly that much. But Vietcetera was a great example of what's possible in Vietnam. So when I moved here, I want to work on Vietcetera, because at that time it was a blog where we wanted to just kind of write stories and take photos and design a nice website, kind of showcasing at that time, which is very focused on Vietnam business, new entrepreneurship, and these kinds of things.

And I would do a story like once a week, maybe twice a week, meeting all different types of people and not just technology, venture capital, but also in design and manufacturing, and restaurants, anything. And it was through that, that we ended up going faster. So it was kind of serendipitous. It wasn't like designed where I, as soon as I moved here, I knew I was going to work on media.

It wasn't like that. I think it was just because of a function of being here. You come across other opportunities. So I think that's what I would kind of share to the audience listening too today, that I wouldn't set yourself on just one particular focus, especially when you're young, keep your eyes open, see, what's interesting. Even if you are focused on something, at least listen to other people, because it might influence your potential direction within the career that you're in.

So that's what happened to me, and my company has some parallels to what I was doing in the past. It's all sales pretty much. Because like in media, you're talking to people all day. And I happen to lead the revenue organisation, but also in venture capital and technology, I was working in that division too. So, there's a lot parallels. And I just happen to have this opportunity to grow Vietcetera.

So it went from two people to about 80, so, we're about 80 full-time staff now. We have offices in Hanoi as well, as well as our headquarters here. So yeah, and you mentioned, we're moving offices soon. I never expected to move to an office or scale. We were just working out of a coffee shop five years ago. So that really just showcases, I think if you're just open to things, things will kind of happen and yeah, everything's gone up except for my salary. So hopefully that'll get addressed in the coming months. But that's obviously a part of just owning a business, I guess.

Vicky: Okay. That's interesting. But the thing is a lot of people, including me right, sometimes when I decide to move to a startup company, I would have a lot of concerns because I need to start everything from the scratch and I need to wear different hats.

But for you, and then you move to Vietnam from San Francisco, you could have a lot more opportunities to join large companies. Why did you decide to move to a startup, and started everything from scratch?

Hao: Yeah, I think joining, the question about joining a bigger company or a smaller company, it has to really do with what you're optimising for at that moment. I mean, I have no family, so I don't have to worry about other people. Basically, I can just worry about myself so I can optimise more for learning and opportunity rather than let's say, things like salary or compensation. I understand obviously people with different life phases have other things to think about. So, I can't make a blanket statement. But I think in Vietnam in particular, there's not as many large companies with the kind of same structure and mentorship and career development opportunities as in the US, and it's purely a function of the fact that Vietnam is still an emerging country.

So, will it change? Of course it will, and have more opportunities. And there's great companies now, don't get me wrong. But I think the number of companies and also what industries they're in might be very different than in the US, like if you're a young person today in Vietnam, like technology companies are all that rage at the moment.

However, if you'd look at the kind of maturity of this industry compared to the US, it's very different. So young people should keep in mind that just working for a tech company in Vietnam. Most of them are startup companies, or are really big companies. There's no like middle ground tech companies.

And so whatever path you choose, keep in mind like working for a startup, while you might have more upside in terms of career development or opportunity to work with certain types of people. You also might give up things like learning because when you're working for a startup, you optimise really for the startup rather than for yourself.

So, it's kind of a bet on if this startup continues to grow, you’re obviously coming out of the ground level. So, you'll get more responsibility and challenges in a good way earlier than you would for a bigger company. But I think that also tells you about Vietnam. I think comparing the two, this country is a startup country in a way. There's a lot of maturity in industries, like real estate, agriculture, manufacturing, but not so much in other things. So depending on what you're interested in, a startup might be more compelling than a bigger company.

Vicky: Yeah, I totally agree with you. Even though I am in Robert Walters right? Yeah. You said that the company is growing to 80 people right now. So as a young leader, how are you managing, motivating and developing the trust among your team members, especially in this very uncertain time.

Hao: Yeah, I think I've actually never managed anyone before this, before Vietcetera. I've always had like interns or people that were junior to me, but I never was really managing them. Like I didn't manage their career path or like their compensation or anything like that. I just was like more of a mentor, because I was like a couple years older or had more experience on that particular role. So I've had to learn everything in terms of leadership. And managing teams and stuff like that. I think, this whole idea of managing teams and leadership, I think you can only do it by doing it rather than just like reading books. I mean reading books and whatever can only help you so much. I think in practice, there's so many different variables, like what’s people's needs and challenges and opportunities are, and really understanding those. I think for me, it's been a lesson of a lot of patience, but also empathy, and at the same time being decisive, like if you have to make hard decisions, there's always a silver lining to it.

Like there was a time, three years ago when we had to downsize the company because we were pivoting to focus on Vietnamese language, or there was a time where we focused on English and we wanted to switch to focus on Vietnamese. So, we had to downsize the organisation to make it leaner, to then grow for that other kind of path. And obviously no one really likes to make those decisions. But actually, when I was thinking about it, obviously I didn't say it when I had to downsize, but it was actually better for everybody because no one wants to be part of an organisation that is downsizing or in particular, a department that's downsizing, right? Because that means you have less resources, potentially less opportunity. So, in a way, for those that had to depart, they went on to other things and hopefully better things even for what they wanted to do.

So, I think it's no science really, every company is very different. And the way that we build the company culture at the very least is just about trying to drive a certain mission. I think that's also very important, especially young people today, they really want to be part of something where there's camaraderie and a common goal. Yeah, so I would say that, hopefully that answers the question.

Vicky: Yes, you did. And then, I mean, we know that you have worked with a lot more senior leaders from different companies. So putting yourself out there - how do you develop the trust from them and get the buy-in from them to work with you?

Hao: I think we're lucky in our business. We're a content company, we're a media company. And so, the quality of our content and the exposure that we give to ourselves in a way, helps build confidence with people. So for example, I run a podcast, a couple of them actually, but one of them is focused on business innovation.  And so, we've had the privilege of meeting executives and senior people at various types of companies. And when others listened to that podcast or watch it in whatever format they're interested in, they see me as the CEO, I'm able to have these conversations and articulate them but also the guests that we have can really enjoy hopefully those conversations, or they have something meaningful to share. So that builds a lot of confidence with people. So, people have like preconceived notions when they meet us in hopefully a good way. And so, we're very cognisant about hey, we want our identity to be known for innovation and engaging high level stakeholders and getting them excited about whatever we're talking about. So that helps me a lot when we engage with clients or customers or readers or anyone, they kind of have an idea of what we do already and who we are as people. So, it's easier that way.

I think a lot of, I would say though, I mean, we're a media company. But every person and every company should also think like a media company, where your public image - you don't have to be out there all the time, but at the very least, have your LinkedIn profile or how you present yourself on social media, it's everywhere nowadays. Or maybe you don't even present yourself on social media, that tells you a lot about who you are and what your identity is.

Or even things like email etiquette. Or all these little things, even your WhatsApp, if you have like a photo or you don't have a photo in WhatsApp, that tells you a lot too. So, I think for us, we create so much content, not too much content, but it's out there and especially, it's bilingual. That's another big thing, even though Vietnamese is our bread-and-butter business. The fact that we have an international, as in English language edition, that helps us communicate with certain people who are not Vietnamese. And even though that group is much smaller, they happen to be other kind of decision-makers as well.

So that helps us build a channel of trust, even if they're not in a business that is or they are in a business that's very Vietnamese-facing because let's say they're a foreigner who is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but they can't read in Vietnamese, but obviously their business serves exclusively Vietnamese. They use our channel, understand us in English, and then they also work with us in Vietnamese, so it's been quite useful.

Vicky: Yeah, thank you. That's very cool. It's really aligned with the mission of Vietcetera from the very beginning, right? As a bridge. And we do know that like beside Vietcetera, you're also the founder of the CTY kitchen and bar, right?

So, Vietcetera is a media company in that industry, and then you move to the F&B. The thing is you are running multiple businesses concurrently. So, I'm just wondering why you decided to start your own business, while Vietcetera is growing so fast, especially in these very diverse industries.

Hao: Yeah. So, food and beverage. Yeah. I've been doing it for a few years now. This is my second restaurant actually. And I grew up in the industry back in the US. So I like to think I know how it works. But I think the answer there is like people say they like to focus on just one thing and there's other people who will say try a lot of things. I think for me, well, one, I'm not going to do more than this. I think I might do more restaurants, but only if the team and concept are very solid and I have a lot of leverage. So that was the big thing. So, this is my second restaurant. The first one that I had I sold it a couple of years ago. It's still open.

But the second one, I actually had all the pieces in place before I even committed to the project. And so, I knew with very strong confidence that it would probably work. So I knew like the chef and the general manager and our kind of head bartender. I called all of them before I signed the lease to the building, and they were all available, and they were all very interested in the concept.

And then the landlord is actually a friend from university and she and I, we're not best friends, but we talk, and we know each other very well. And we have a very good relationship. And when she said it was available, I was like, Oh great. We have a great landlord; as long as I pay the rent, we shouldn't have a problem. It happens to be in a big tower too. So, the tower is not really going anywhere. So, I think my reply to that would be, I think focus is very good, but you know, feel free to dabble in other things, but make sure you have leverage.

And by that, I mean, make sure you have all the pieces in place, and you have the expertise or the understanding of the industry before going into it, like I would never open a restaurant if I never had done one before, especially given the circumstances of what's going on right now in the world. But I knew that with all the pieces that we had, and by pieces, I mean like partners, the designer, the building, all these different things, it was very easy for us to actually pull it off. But I do advocate for focus as well, like I think beyond my media business, which is my primary focus, and then the food and beverage venture, if I were to do more things, it would be within those two categories rather than doing something completely different as well.

I mean, it's possible, but I would only do it if I had the right team, the team is probably the most important element. So for the food and beverage venture, even though I'm the principal, I don't need to operate because we have partners who are much better than me operating it. And we happen to have mutual trust and understanding that everyone's role is kind of like this.

And my role within that organisation, aside from finances, is like marketing and branding. And we have leverage to that through the media company and just myself, I happen to know a lot of people. So, it's quite easy. You didn't have to build the structure for marketing, it was kind of there already. So, you just plug and play a little bit.

Vicky: Yeah. Lucky you!

Hao: I am, I do consider myself lucky, just knowing the right people and they happen to have wanted to participate too. It's not about just knowing them; they happened to be available at that time. That was very serendipitous. So, we were very fortunate for that to all come together.

Vicky: Yeah, thanks. And you used to work in the US before and now you have been living and working in Vietnam for five years. Have you noticed any differences in the working style between the US and Vietnam?

Hao: I think based on my very limited experience and again, I'm only 28, and I only worked in the US for two years. But I would say, especially comparing myself when I was 23, 24, compared to 23, 24-year-olds I know in Vietnam, I think and it happens to grow with just time too, so like, I don't know what Millennials and Gen Z are like right now in the US, it's obviously very different, but I would say in general, Vietnamese young people are very motivated.

I think they're very eager to learn and they're hustlers, whereas in the US, not so much. I think they're more like privileged. But also young people in a place like the US are very individualistic. They optimised for themselves, like purely. And I think that's a good and bad thing.

The good thing is like okay, you look after yourself more, but also the bad thing is like, you don't know how to do teamwork or collaborative things as much, especially at a younger age. Whereas Vietnamese people in my experience are very much the opposite. And I think that's a generational thing.

I think in the US too, you have a bit more structure and mentorship, you have more like, just experienced people in general. You have that here too in Vietnam. I mean depending on the industry, like technology, you're not going to have as many experienced technologists or people that worked in industry purely because the industries are younger here, and certain types of businesses, haven't really been around as much. So like, let's say e-commerce or payments companies in the US, they've been around for ages and there's tons of them. They've had tens of thousands of alumni from these companies in Vietnam. You can't say that. I don't think even one e-commerce company has even 10,000 employees. And most of them are quite young. So in terms of just experience and mentorship and things like that, there's much less of that here. And that'll just kind of pass with time.

Vicky: Okay. Thank you. And do you have any advice for overseas-based Vietnamese professionals who are currently looking to return back.

Hao: Yeah. I think overseas Vietnamese, I think, it's a great time to explore kind of returning or moving to Vietnam, depending on if you were born overseas or you're born in Vietnam. I think it's a great time because the quality of life from a lifestyle perspective is, if not the same, is better than the US I would say for a lot of reasons.

But also, the professional opportunity, especially if you've got three, five, four more years of experience, or even much more than that, actually 10 years, 15 years, it's actually a very compelling place because Vietnam industries are looking for more leaders, at the very least senior leaders that know their trade and expertise very well. I think if you're younger, maybe get a couple of years of experience wherever you are first and then come here. That would be my overall suggestion. But in general, it's a great time to be here.

Vicky: Yeah. Thank you. Yes. And I know that, starting up and running a business is very challenging, especially like in your case, you run different businesses. So, I'm just wondering, have you ever felt like giving up when you know, things don’t work out?

Hao: Yeah. There've been many times. And even at the moment, I'm not thinking of it at the moment, but there's been a moment in the past few weeks where we're going through some challenging financial structuring at the moment that just requires a lot of attention.

And it's difficult because you have to, at the same time, operate the company, in addition to doing this extra bit of work. We're raising a new venture around a financing and it's a very challenging process to complete. And we're almost at the finish line, but I think just managing your own expectations and taking time to relax; it's okay to not work 18 hours a day. Actually in the past few weeks, I've just been leaving the office early and just only working six to eight hours a day, it's actually fabulous, I think that's normal actually. But just keeping in mind and just pace yourself, I think.

But in the past, when we were much smaller and had less leverage, there were many times that I wanted to stop and I think what kept me going was just the idea that we knew we were onto something that was interesting and useful for people, our customers basically. But also, I had some great teammates who were also individually quite motivated. So you don't want to let other people down when you're working together. So, I think there's no perfect answer for that, but it's okay to be slow occasionally; you don't need to be going super fast all the time.

Vicky: Yes. So, looking back, what is the key to your own success that has led you to where you are today?

Hao: I think persistence is one thing for sure. I think another thing that's less generic is I think while I've been starting this company and working on this and doing other things, I think just having more perspectives. So I was going back to what I was saying earlier, it's okay to focus on one thing and just go for it.

But it's also important to really hear other perspectives, and see what else is out there, even if you're not going to actually go with it because it gives you more kind of understanding of what's possible. I think without that understanding you might be leaving opportunities on the table, or you might be approaching your work too narrow-minded. There’re always ways to do it better and more efficiently, or just be happier or whatever. I think just hearing from other people gives you a bit more of that perspective. So, in my case, for instance, when I started Vietcetera, well, first I never expected to do that, so that was one nice thing.

But through that, I met tons of other people in other industries I would never have met, like when I was living in the US, I only knew other people working in the same industry. It just happened to be like that where I was living. But coming to Vietnam, you suddenly meet like fashion designers, people doing restaurants, people working across a lot of different industries.

And that gave me opportunity to start a restaurant, actually two of them, right? And that's been a very special experience. And then in other ways too, it's given me a bit more curiosity to look into other things and which has paid off wonderfully as well I won't elaborate, but basically also failures so it's not all successes. So, I think it just makes you more at least a well-rounded and understanding person if you at least just listen.

Vicky: Yeah, thanks. We all have moments when we feel down; we have our ups and downs, right? So, when you are feeling down, do you have any role models that you look up to, or at least, inspire you in both your personal and career lives?

Hao: I think well I have no family geographically where I am physically, but I think at least here in Vietnam, I have a great team and a good business partner. So, we talk a lot together and can share those challenges pretty openly. I also have a great network of people who are going through similar kind of experiences, and by that, I mean, other entrepreneurs in particular, so it's great to have peers basically and people that you can kind of trade notes with and just share ideas. So that's also very good.

Vicky: Okay. Talking about Vietcetera, I know that Vietcetera just celebrated its five years anniversary. So, congrats on that. And just wondering, how has the business been so far since its founding in 2016, and what is next for the company and for yourself?

Hao: Yeah, I mean, we've been going from strength to strength every year. And the mission has never changed, which is the great thing. And I think that's very important to a business. You can change your business strategy, but I think the mission as a business, if it's very consistent, I think that gives you something to build upon, whereas if it keeps changing, people don't really know what you're doing from like the client or reader side, but also from internal, I think people might not understand your business very well and your vision.

So, I think keeping that kind of consistent and strong is very important. And as far as like the next five years or however long, we want to keep that mission the same, if not strengthen it. But also, always have a growth mindset, an innovation mindset. It's important to always have that momentum. If you're part of a business, you will know that everyone has their challenging moments, like revenue goes down or a key person leaves or something like that. But the thing is, everything is always possible to turn back.

So, as long as you have this innovation, kind of growth mindset, people kind of feed off that energy. So, it's important to always have objectives that are always looking up, even if it's not a good year in general, there's ways to always make sure things are moving along; there's traction somehow.

Vicky: Yes. Thank you for sharing. It's really insightful. Yes, I think this episode is going to the end already. So once again, thank you so much for making the time to come to our office and do this recording. And we have gotten many insights and takeaways from your sharing. Thank you for that. And for our viewers and audience, stay tuned for the next episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. See you guys soon.

Hao: Thanks everyone for listening, and thank you to Vicky and also to the Robert Walters team for making this happen.

Vicky: Thank you.

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