Start With Why – Startup World Lesson Learned

It has been 2 years since I first knew about startup world from attending VYE entrepreneurship bootcamp in Vietnam which was instructed by Prof. Tom Kosnik from Stanford University. Time flies by and it’s time for me to sit back and realize what I have learned from this detour to take part in the roller coaster of an entrepreneurial life. It’s going to be a long series because these are what I have absorbed from the past 2 years.

Part 1. Start with why

Albert Mai - Start with Why - Golden Circle adapted from Simon Sinek - Created with

Many people may question why I made a long trip from Vietnam to Singapore to Sydney in the middle of university when my classmates are busy with assignment, GPA and internal clubs. Why I joined startup world. Why I chose the hard path over the paved one. First, it’s because traveling to a developed country and keeping an eye on my own hometown helps me to be able see what may happen next. Yes, it’s just like traveling through time machine to the future. Secondly, startup community is an open community where people help, learn and share valuable knowledge with each other. They give before get, embrace challenge and uncertainty as a part of the journey to succeed. I find myself perfectly fit within the community and I really like the joy the feeling of helping others. Unlike the corporate world where you keep secret, play bad and learn by yourself to climb the ladder. Another cool thing is you will be the early adopters of latest technology, knowledge and tools what will transforms the world. Regarding my path, I don’t call it a hard path but an enjoyably challenging way of life. I have to admit that I have failed more than university can allow and more than the GPA of 4.0 can bear with a frequency of 1 – 3 times a month from personal life to career development to building relationship to professional work. Those things can’t be learned at university or in your comfort zone but when real life splashes water of truth into your face. It all started when I questioned myself why I exist in this world right in year 1.

Lean Startups still fail !

A usual problem for young entrepreneur is to start business just because everyone is doing startup, the technology is hot or it generates fast money. I don’t mean that money is bad, instead it’s good because it’s a tool for you. You may be applying all the latest technology and methodology like responsive web, openstack, flat design and lean startup to increase success rate. Those are just the what, how, who and when. At the end of the day, it comes down to why you are doing what you are doing. What makes you stay up late at night and wake up early in the morning that you can do 24/7 for years to succeed.There is a recent article says that applying only lean startup won’t take you to the glorious road anymore. The reason is everyone knows how to validate problems, how to prototype MVP, how to pivot, how to iterate and “the successful rate of startups is still low and they still fail” – Dave McClure. If you don’t know lean startup, I have to say, you are far too behind. Fortunately, if you are reading this article, you still get the best part of both world.

Albert Mai Think Bigger

Now visionary lean entrepreneurs will lead the game. What’s more important is your vision and passion for your startup. When you keep iterating and pivoting your startup, it may force you to derail from your original vision and you start to lose passion in it. This is not an assumption but a fact, I have seen and talked to many entrepreneurs in Singapore and Sydney who quit their own startups to go back to corporate world or join other startups. If your passion is not huge enough and you cannot imagine the big vision to pursue it, leaving your own startup is guaranteed. Kim Heras – founder PushStart (Accelerator in Sydney) stressed at the Rackspace startup competition (with involvement of Robert Scoble) that always start your pitch with why. He doesn’t care what your technology is,who your team members are, how good you are and how big the market is until he understands why you solve this problem and why it’s you but not anyone else by telling your real story. It’s easy to understand, investors put money in and they want to make sure you will pursue it til the end and work day and night for it without quitting in the middle. Everything else can be learned and he can mentor you,he can introduce you to his network but he cannot train you to be passionate with your startup and to build the vision for it. Indeed, you must be the one to share your vision with him, not vice versa. Lacking vision and love for your startup idea (not ideas, please. No one cares about your ideas anymore) can’t take you far.

You are a zombie, aren’t you?

In personal life and career perspective, since you were born, no one tell you to explore the why and you are always forced to follow things from adult, school, your friends, surrounding community and expectation of society. You don’t know the meaning you do what you are doing. You wake up every morning because it’s your responsibility. If you don’t, you are afraid of getting fired, losing points in climbing up the corporate ladder. Be honest with yourself, without responsibility to do house chore, homework or friend’s calling to play football, do you wake up at the same time or until noon at the weekends? This is why it leads to the painful problem of education that we all fed up with studying (yeah it’s me. Many successful people quit because they find it’s useless, waste of time and money) or just come to school like zombies or robots…You may have the best technique and tools to get high grade. Admit yourself, are those things you want to do for life? I even feel pity for those who are totally brainwashed by education to become a gear in a huge machine, to climb the corporate ladders and wait for big corporate to seek and invite you. They invite you because they want you to fit the missing part in their giant machine (In fact, they still run well without you). Those company’s perks, your family’s pride, your friends celebration and jealousy blur your eye. Joining a big company is not what you are born to do. If it’s not you, there is always other people who are waiting to replace you. Lacking of vision, motivation and passion takes you nowhere in your career.

Why do you exist in this world, mate?

Visionary Entrepreneur - Steve Jobs - Albert Mai's Startup Journey

Why is understanding the why important? Upon realizing the why, you cannot wait to get up to do things you love, you go to sleep easily because you’ve just done something great that add value to others or society. This is so true for me and you can ask for testimonial from my girlfriend and project partners like and when I stay until 2am and get up at 7am. I work on a ferry on the way to work without feeling forced to do it. The “why” here does not only comprise of “why you are doing something” but also “why you exist in this world”. It requires you to understand yourself and to dig deeper in your heart and your deepest desire. The easiest way to illustrate is doing things that you love and the market is willing to pay for it. Investors now put money in more for the right people and the right team than products and ideas. Companies and startups are willing to train you to join their team as long as you are truly passionate at the problem they are solving catch the vision they are pursuing and willing to learn new skills. The journey to explore it will not be easy because you will mistake your liking as your true passion in the first few admission.

If you are interested in finding out how I explored my why and my journey. You have two options:

  • Subscribe to my blog (on the right panel): which you will receive update of my journey and interesting article about Vietnam startup (Sweet! Two deals in one)
  • Follow me on Twitter and watch out for my [Blog] tweet

[Startup World Lesson Learned Series – Start With Why – Albert Mai’s Uncollege Journey]

Vietnam Startup from Perspectives of Overseas Investor – Jeffrey Paine

Jeffrey Paine is one of my friends who helped me a lots during my 6-month adventure in Singapore last year. He is straight forward, friendly and a true spirit of investor. Currently, he is found partner of Golden Gate Venture. Well, a special thing to remember about him is he is called as Dave McClure of SE Asia which is so true. I have this conversation with Jeff to explore what he thinks and feels about Vietnam startup after his trip as judge of Satellite Echelon from 16 – 21 April 2013. He spent 6 days in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi to meet up with more than 25 local startups. He also shared that Appota, Tapmee and GHN really impressed him.

Common points of Vietnam startup

According to Jeff, there are four common points among those startups he met

Solve local problems. Have highly technical team. Many bootstrapping startups. E-commerce seems to be popular

In Vietnam, ICT education is highly focused during high school education so students have chance to play and hack things since the early stage. Five successfully (in some ways) case that I am so proud of technical side of Vietnamese startup are Socbay, CocCoc, Kleii, Appota and MisFit Without any support from government – no scheme or grant, bootstrapping is the only way and option for startups when they are not ready for fund raising. Many lucky startups successfully got seed round from angels based on their network. As a matter of fact, network, introduction and relationship is always important in all industry and circumstance. It is even stressed more in startup industry in Vietnam when you start as a small team, no one knows who you are.

Up to now, there are no platform for startups to promote themselves except for overseas online media that are covering SE Asia including SGEntrepreneurs, TechInAsia and E27. Looking on the bright side, Vietnamese startups know very well about local knowledge so that they can localize successful model then got acquired by overseas companies later. Two recent examples are Vietnamworks – En-Japan and VON (HRVietnam, – CareerBuilder.

What are strengths or advantages of startup in Vietnam?

Jeff also shares another key strength of starting up in Vietnam

The cost of operations is low as such it is easy to pivot or to test several ideas/ products

I totally agree with him at this point and another 2 expats in local startup community holds the same opinion. This is the reason why MisFit Wearables team including Sonny Vu and John Sculley (former Apple CEO) set up development in Vietnam after raising $7.6M and are recruiting talents massively. Low cost of operations also leads to another advantage for investors when funding through stages is lower which is $5k – $25k for seeding and $100k – $500k for series A, $1 – $10M for series B…

What about challenge for local startups?

On the challenging side, Jeff’s concern is

Knowledge or experience going regional or global is limited, needs more help and capital.

Although there are annual entrepreneurship activities from government, it still cannot create huge impact to tech community. Most of reason is because they do not update from latest trends like government scheme/ grant, lean startup, design thinking,… and not focus much on tech startups. This leads to issue that entrepreneurs lack of structure and important skill set to be able to scale the platform and product. They execute with their own ways which can be good but will waste time, capital and resource on making the same mistake from others whereas they should have learned  and not to make it. In the case when startups localize from successfully model, dominating the market, there are only two things left maintaining the marketing leader and finding buyer/ acquirer.

There are actually support from the community itself , however, it is not strong enough and lack of bond and structure between groups. One real example is the Facebook Group “Launch“. Although it has 5k + members, it’s very messy and looks like an ads marketplace than discussion group for entrepreneurs to collaborate. Admins have discuss over and over for year to improve it but nothing happens. We need a real leader with a heart, a mind for growth of startup ecosystem with sufficient capital support. Although there are many problems in Vietnam, it is also opportunity to fix them and we still have a lot of room for growth and improvement.

What can help to boost the startup ecosystem in Vietnam?

Jeffrey does believe the local startup community is growing very fast, hence it needs

More investors should be groomed to do more deals.

SaVVi is the first angel investor group/ forum in Vietnam. There are not many activities from the group that can create a huge impact for the community and crowdfunding concept is still new. Meanwhile, there will be more overseas investors approaching and set up locally. In the past year, StartupLabs co-invested in seed round for 3 startups, GREE Ventures, Silicon Straits and Golden Gate Ventures have kept an eye on all local activities and Silicon Straits will set up office in Ho Chi Minh soon this year.

What is your prediction about Vietnam startups and your future plan with Vietnam?

Jeffrey does confirm that

I am very bullish about Vietnamese startup companies and we at Golden Gate Ventures will be looking to invest in early stage companies in Vietnam.

And the final point that Jeff is impressed by Vietnamese startups is:

Very hardworking founders.

This is so true because most of all Vietnamese entrepreneurs are more risk taking. Without many supports, they even work harder to achieve success. They work through day & night and over the weekend when they are already in the game. This will also become another key advantage of local startups.

Thank you Jeffrey for the conversation and the sharing. I will summarize key words about Vietnamese startup and ecosystem as follow:

  • Full of problem -> Opportunities to solve and monetize
  • In developing -> Room for growth
  • High technical skills -> Strong product
  • Low cost -> Easy to bootstrap, validate, pivot and test +  Opportunities for overseas investors to enter and overseas companies/ startups to expand
  • Highly risk taking -> Get things done
  • Unstructured -> Need leaders & opportunities for educational startups (like General Assembly)
Jeffrey Paine and Albert Mai's thought on Vietnam startup

Albert Mai and Jeffrey Paine at Failcon Singapore 2012

Here is the Vietnamese version of my blog.

Personal Development Tips with Algorithm


People are talking and studying how to code online through MOOCs a lot these days. You question yourself why they are doing that. And have you ever wondered what is the relation between algorithm and personal development? The below content will show you some personal development tips in relationship with algorithm in programming.


Giving a first array and another array. Check if the second array is included in the first array and return the position of the matching number in first array. If not, return -1. Example:

  • [4, 7, 3, 0, 9] and [3, 0] -> Return 2
  • [4, 7, 3, 0, 9] and [5, 1, 2] -> Return -1
  • [4, 7, 3, 0, 9] and [7, 3, 1] -> Return -1

Same question. After 2 years of self-learning in real world, confronting ups and downs and achieve the [im]possible. The way I approach to this question is totally different. Not the same anymore. I also suddenly realize that the way we solve algorithm also can be applied into our daily life, self-development and business world. This is why there is an urge and the stress of importance to learn coding for both young kids and entrepreneurs on many medium. These are what I have learned from solving this algorithm. (I am not saying my algorithm is good, there is always a better one)

1. “Setting vision and goals”

Before thinking of the solution for algorithm, programmers always have to understand the clear goal of the requirement, input and output. In real world, Steven Covey advises to “start with an end in mind” from 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. It’s setting the goal that you have to start with first hand before taking any action. Do not wait until you reach the last line of the code to realize that you do not solve the problem required by customers which usually be illustrated as until reaching the end of the ladder- your career and life to realize it is lean on the wrong wall.

[In this algorithm, programmers are required to check if the sub array is included in the array and return the rank of number in array that matches with first number in sub array. If the array does not include the sub array, then the system has to return -1] 

2.  “Finding a niche” (or the overlapping)

Narrowing down your market. In this algorithm, I eliminate cases that are obviously wrong from first sight which will definitely result in -1. This helps the system to stop starting the loop in those specified cases and saves a lot of effort for the system. In career path, you have to define area where you skills and domain that you are good and passionate at matching with huge demand in the market which can be illustrated as the overlapping between surplus and scarcity segment in finding startup ideas by Sangeet. Seth Godin said “Small is the new big”. For business, it will help you to know your ground, which market or customer segment that you won’t touch (at least at the current stage) so you can be super-focused, go lean, reduce unnecessary burning rate and run faster in the marathon.

Eliminate wrong cases in Coding and Finding niche market

3.  “Setting key metrics”

Most of algorithm has loops which works like iteration in startups. We have to understand the current state of the business/ life/ career and to plan in advance goals, actions that we want to achieve in a specific time frame. In business and startups, we have to clarify definition of each key metric and to set out targeted metrics for each iteration weekly or bi-weekly so that other team members can understand from looking at your plan or lean dashboard by Pollenizer. Otherwise, we cannot measure growth rate, burning rate, whether achieving targets and may reach nowhere in the end (or even loop forever till system crash). The same in career strategy, what if you do not know which industries, domains, areas, skillset and network that you want to develop throughout your life and what is the expected growth in each development cycle, you are just a zombie, die trying.

Key Metrics in Programming Loop and Startup Iteration

 [“i” which is an integer (int) is the metric to be assessed during i < a (a = predefined period). “i” will start with value 0. After each loop “i” is increased by 1 which means that the loop should have a – i (after + 1) to go before ending the loop]

4.  “Working backward”

For this algorithm, instead of jumping into comparing integer by integer which I used to do 2 years ago (lines of code will be shorter but it will take more time for system to work on – inefficient). Now I start by looking for all possibilities to solve it and always keep in mind “Is there a better way for the current one?” So that I can lay down right strategy to approach the problem. Because we are required to return the position in array that it starts to match with sub array. So when I start backward from last digit, the final checked integer will also be the position I am looking for.

The same as in career, after choosing the right path, you start planning backward from your dream – goals – long term – short term – action plan like in this article, not the other way around. How about business? It also follows the same rule but the only difference is to start with vision/ mission of the company – being acquired, going public and continuing to run it. However, in startup world, we have one more pre-requisite step which is problem to be solved before going to vision. Therefore, the full reversed path for business is (problem) – vision/ mission – goals – long term – short term – action plan.

Looping Backward in Programming and Working Backward in Business

5.  “Knowing when to stop” (It’s enough!)

When you reach this step, congratulate to you! #Awesome! You have set your goals, metrics and strategies. You are running your business smoothly, developing your career path successfully with your deepest passion. It seems that nothing can harden your way now. What if one day you are diagnosed that you’ve got cancer (May be not that bad. Other syndrome can be obesity, fatigue, heart attack, eyesight, bones or joints) due to unhealthy lifestyle and lacking of exercise or receiving warning that your relationship or family on the verge of corruption. Well, you know what will happen for sure if you don’t hit the brake. This step is usually missing in most of people’s plan. In algorithm, programmers always have to define circumstance that will stop the loop or terminate the running code immediately and return error.

Ending Condition in Programming and Know when to Stop in Career

In Dec 2012, founder of Anphabe – Vietnam’s LinkedIn shared at an event that before she start this company, she worked for … which required her to travel a lot.  Until one day, during her overseas business trip, she received a call from her husband that their child was in severe sickness at the hospital. Then, she immediately returned back to Vietnam. After their child recovered, she knew it was enough for her in achieving a lots in the corporate world that she decided to startup.  From this story, I have learned that we should set key milestones when we will check back what is important to us whether it is in “red zone” or still safe. Everyone has different criteria and priority ranging from health, money, wealth, position, family, love, friends, personal development and hobbies… which we better picking out only 3 to 5 key elements, set key metrics and specific time frame when we review them back.

Extras: Habit Development Model

I develop this further from Grace Bella on rewarding and adopt from the method in “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.  A habit is developed through time when there is a cue to ignite the action (routine) with a reward upon accomplishment. I go further with the negative result which help us to realize what will happen if we don’t do the activity. Moreover, it is widely spread that motivation is not really a good push anymore whereas fear becomes a replacement to take you further. In this tool, it even trains you to face your fear every day which is the only to overcome it.

If Else Condition in Programming for Habit Development

If Else Condition in Programming for Habit Development and Personal Development

Recommended Reading List:

  • 7 Habits of Highly Successful People – Steven Covey
  • The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
  • Start with an end: How Companies Can Grow Bigger and Faster by Reversing Their Business Plan – David Lavinsky
  • Startup Focus – Mick Liubinskas and Phil Morle
  • Rework – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson


Vietnam Startup Overview

A brief about Vietnam Startup Scene

Vietnam – a country of 100M citizen but if you search “list of startups in Vietnam” or similar key words/ phrase in Google or even Quora. You hardly find any accurate or sufficient resource for Vietnam startup scene. If there is, it is normally from overseas media. Why?

The start of Vietnam Startup Ecosystem

Startup in Vietnam has gone over 3 generations since 2000 (meaning I am in the 3rd gen). Actually, even I was surprised to learn this as I used to assume to exist only 2 gens. During the first 2 gens when people in the world kept an eye on America, what happened in Vietnam did not catch much attention from the world. This resulted in most contents were in paper media (of course there were online contents but not much) and we could not track it. Now when people change focus on Asia including Vietnam, which also caused the tremendous appearance of 7 startups in media focusing on tech & startup to cover the scene here within 1 year (Yes, in 2012!). Unfortunately, all of them are in Vietnamese and most of them serve local community’s needs. Hence, they race to catch up with latest news and trends in the world, not looking up in the past making a big gap in the view of foreigners about funding landscape. As Gwendolyn from SGEntrepreneurs said in a conversation with me in late Jan 2013: “Vietnam is still a Black Hole to many”.

Back from 6 months adventure in Singapore startup community last year, I came to realize that the community here needs a lot of exposure and appearance to outsiders. As I experience the same problem, I made a decision to start the mission of clearing the “Black Hole” and help overseas interested parties who are in the same situation

Another reason is that I want to give back to the community, the entrepreneurs who gave me opportunity to learn and to experience entrepreneurship. I hope the below slide can give you an overview of current startup scene in Vietnam.


How is the current Vietnam startup scence?

Up to this points, there are up to 500 startups including all 3 gens (Surprise!!) in Vietnam and I expect it to continue to increase. The startup community has started to boom since 2011 from the first StartupWeekend. From 1 event per 6 months in 2000 (kind of) to more than 2 events every week! One of important elements of startup ecosystem is co-working space and fortunately, there are the first 5 coworking space which are based in Ho Chi Minh and Ha Noi. Well, two is not enough, there must be more. Does anyone plan to invest in opening more co-working space here? I must say the current incubators are not effective enough to create meaningful impact.

What’s more? In 2012, there were a lot of visits from overseas media, incubator, investment funds, startups and university regarding E27, TechInAsia, JFDI, StartupLabs, Expara, Chartio, RackSpace, SoftLayer , Golden Gate Venture and Stanford University. Stay tune to learn more about Vietnam.

As a matter of fact, beta version is not perfect, therefore, I welcome all feedback and correction.

Thank you for your time and interest !

Have a successful and happy Chinese New Year !

How has life brought me to what I am doing today?

In 2010, I hit a question of what made me stand out from the rest of my classmate if I do everything the same: career path, student clubs and the same degree. Then I started to spend more time outside study and to get out of university comfort zone to find breakthrough opportunities. In 2011, I was lucky to join an entrepreneurship VYE bootcamp by Prof. Tom Kosnik, Startup Weekend Hochiminh and joined Keewi team with Mike Tran.
Believing there are much more things outside Vietnam – the comfort zone, at the start of 2012, I participated in ASEANpreneurs Youth Leader Exchange by NES in Singapore – the moment when I explore how exciting and active startup community here is. Four months later, I came back to this country.
I put all of my efforts to have opportunities to participate in Echelon 2012, Lean Startup Machine, Failcon, TechVenture and Building Lean Startups and exact 45 other tech & startup events in 6 months as well as to build network with nearly 100 inspiring entrepreneurs. During this time, I also co-organized Startup Grind Singapore events with Son. They taught me many lessons, one or the other way.
Came back to Vietnam in the end of 2012, I did many stuffs to contribute to the growth of local startup community with what I have learned and earned from Singapore. It’s getting hotter day by day.
Feeling that there are still a lot of things I need to learn from other developed countries and successful startups. Once again, I started the next journey in Feb 2013 to Australia which is one of the fastest growing startup communities in the world with a high numbers of disruptive startup to sharpen my skills and expand my network there.
Some projects I am doing:
  • StartupDigest: a system with weekly email that includes list of tech and startup events in Vietnam delivered to you once a week. You will never miss any valuable opportunities again without spending hours crawling the web and socil network to find events to attend
  • SGEntrepreneurs ( an online media that covers tech and startup scene in Southeast Asia including Vietnam
  • This blog which I will write about startup and personal development
  • Startup community connector between Vietnam, Singapore and Sydney
  • Project of my life: my career!
To Angelia Le, the one that always stays by my side, the most important part of my life who always comes with me to everywhere in this journey and my life.



  • Gwen: Thank you for asking me this question.
  • Mike Tran: You are a great founder who supports me since the start.
  • Jun Kiat (JK): Thank you my dear friend, you always help me a lots during this journey! I always remember you.
  • Jeffrey Paine and his team: You are the most friendly VC I have ever known. Thank you for all of your helps.