How We Started A $104K/Year Digital Product Management Consultancy Firm [Vietnam]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone, I’m Long and I am the founder of Product Lab - the first consulting company in Vietnam about digital product management.
Product Lab provides consulting & training services about digital product management for startups, big corp, software outsourcing companies. The Product Lab team also cooperates with top universities in Vietnam to provide workshops for their students. Besides that, we have an e-learning course with recorded videos for individual students to learn anytime, anywhere.
Product Lab is the pioneer in digital product management consulting in Vietnam. We are the first player in the Vietnam market from the beginning.
Besides the difficulty of the market leader with a limited budget, Product Lab has some great achievements such as we were sponsored a booth in Techfest 2020 - the biggest festival for the tech industry in Vietnam, hosted by the Vietnamese government; we were interviewed by Hanoi TV - main media channel of Hanoi city - the capital of Vietnam.
We had an opportunity to work with Vinpearl and Vinfast - which belong to Vingroup (one of the biggest corp in Vietnam) to help the product team improve the user experience of their website. And the last thing, we hosted a webinar with BUV - British University Vietnam (one of the biggest foreign universities in Vietnam) with the highest number of BUV students who join the webinar since all students in Vietnam have to learn online because of COVID-19.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I studied marketing management at the Vietnam University of Commerce. After graduating, I worked in a lot of tech companies like Tradekey, Alibaba, then I moved to build my own startup in a marketing agency, eCommerce, logistics, handicraft, etc. I am very interested in technology. I built by myself a startup community in Vietnam with 6000+ members who are startup founders and developers. And through my community, I met Thinh, Boris, and Ben - who is my co-founders in Product Lab now.
Thinh and Boris are 10-year-experienced experts in product development and product management. Ben has 10 years of experience in training, consulting about design thinking - the methodology of product development for a lot of Big Corps in Europe like L’Oreal, LVMH, and BMW.
Through my experience in building a community in Vietnam, I realized that almost all startup founders in Vietnam lack a product mindset. Most of them have technical backgrounds and worked in an outsourcing company before starting their own startup. Thinh, Ben, Boris, and I want to bring our knowledge to help Vietnamese startup founders build products better. We didn’t see any academies or universities in Vietnam that have product management programs for students and enterprises. That’s why Thinh, Ben, Boris, and I decided to establish the Product Lab.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Product Lab sells consulting and training services. So the first step for us is building a consulting process and a curriculum for the course. I list the potential clients that I have in the network in my startup community that we can approve in an Excel file.
I can have a database because I have a startup community and my personal network before establishing Product Lab. Then Product Lab and I approve each potential client and set up the meeting and collect all the questions and requirements of the clients. After doing this repeatedly, we complete the questionnaire that we need to ask the clients to clarify their requirements for consulting services. The questionnaire included questions like:
- What are your target customers?
- Can you tell me about your product vision at the beginning?
- How many people are in your product team?
- Which tool do you use to manage the document of your product?
- What is your churn rate?
After that, we built the sales kit and sales process to approve other clients who weren't in my network before.
Passion is not enough, you need to have knowledge and know-how to do the core business.
Building a curriculum for the digital product management course is challenging for us. First of all, we read and collect all curriculums about digital product management around the world, from top universities like Havard, Stanford, etc to some famous academies like Product School and Mind the Product. Secondly, we list the main modules we need to focus on:
Thirdly, we identify which content we want to input on each slide of each module:
After that, we spend a little money (around $150 for a tea break and marketing material, and we get a sponsor from the venue owner) to host an event to attract people to know about our course and give the discount voucher for each attendee who joins the event. It’s a physical event with around 40 attendees. 50% of attendees are students, junior developers, and startup founders. After that, we have the first class, and then the second class, the third class, and so on.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After having a curriculum and consulting process, we spend a little money to host an event to attract people to know about our course and give a discount voucher for each attendee who joins the event.
We officially launched our business in September 2020 although we started in February 2020 by hosting a warm event with potential customers, partners. Our starting cost from the beginning is just $4000 from 4 of the co-founders. 4 of us don’t receive a salary from ProductLab during 1 year to save money and cover other expenses. We get money for living from our savings or other jobs. We also connect with Hanoi TV to promote our image to more audiences. After that, we have the first class, and then the second class, the third class.
Because Product Lab is a consulting company and most of us work remotely, most of the expenses are the salary of employees, hosting, domain, Google Suite, and marketing budget. 4 of us funded the Product Lab amount of money to start. The biggest lesson we get is optimizing every cost and using all resources we have to bootstrap at the beginning.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launch, we have used different channels to acquire different customers instead of using only one channel. For example, with companies, we attract them by joining a lot of business events and hosting business events by ourselves. Then we send emails to each contact that is interested in our service and follow up until we have the meeting and send them a proposal.
But with individuals, we identify students and people who are working in the marketing industry in Vietnam as potential customers. Instead of approving them by Facebook Group, we use OnMic - which is the ClubHouse version of Vietnam.
The founder of OnMic is a KOLs in the marketing industry in Vietnam so almost all users in OnMic come from the marketing industry. And there is no English audio show on OnMic at this moment. So we are the first English audio show and also the first audio show about product management. That is the reason our audio show gets a lot of attention from users on OnMic.
Digital Advertising seems not to be a good marketing strategy, when we run ads on Facebook and Google Ads, we get few leads. We know that because most people in Vietnam don’t know about digital product management, the conversion rate from digital advertising is very low. Most of our leads come from social media, events, and a few from SEO on our website.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
2020 and 2021 have been a hard time for all companies around the world, especially Vietnamese companies when the COVID-19 came and the government imposed a lockdown on the city. But it was also an opportunity for us when a lot of companies want to digitally transform their traditional business and they need at least a product manager in their digital transformation team.
Now, we have a small team with 4 co-founders and 2 employees. We intend to launch a Product Management Mentor Program and maybe some new courses in 2022. We hope we can contribute more to the product management community in Vietnam next year. And we also have a plan to expand our business to the Southeast Asia region if we are successful in the Vietnam market.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It’s not been a long but not short journey with Product Lab until now. 2 years is the time I learned a lot of new things. First, if you want your team to work full-time remotely, you have to build a remote working culture at the beginning. The in-person working culture is very different from the remote working culture such as: when you work in an office, you can communicate and fix everything very quickly. But when you work remotely at home, with less quick communication and focus, you need to clarify every task with deadlines and emergency levels. If not, the task will be delivered slower.
Second, my team has to balance the different working cultures among the 4 of us. Ben and Boris come from European working culture where the working rule is standard but Thing and I come from Vietnam where everything is a mess and people are crazy to work day and night to get money. This was our biggest problem. But we overcame it by creating the working agreement which is the list of mutual things that each of us wants or doesn't want to do to work better.
Finally, if you want to work with your co-founders, not for a day or a week or a month, but 5 years, 10 years, even 20 years, you have to respect your co-founders. Each person has strengths and weaknesses. And even the smartest person is not right all the time. So if you are willing to accept the weakness of your co-founders and forgive their mistakes, you and your co-founders can go along.
In Product Lab, every 6 months, we have an internal activity called “360 review”. That means each person will write and speak everything that we think and feel about our co-founders and don’t judge anything, just listen and feel and respect.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use Wix to build my website because it’s easy to use. I use Hubspot for CRM, Slack for internal communication, Jira for task management, Confluence & Google Drive for document management and Facebook, LinkedIn and Mailchimp for PR, marketing.
The hardest thing when my team uses a lot of tools with different systems is how to integrate everything so the operation can be smooth.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, I spend most of my time on workshops or meetups to hear real people tell their stories and experience. One of my favorite speakers is Mr. Dung Pham - Former CEO of Uber Vietnam. I had an opportunity to hear about his story and passion with Uber, Uber drivers after Grab defeated Uber in the Vietnam market.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I have some advice for other entrepreneurs who want to start a business:
First, you have to really understand what you will do. Passion is not enough, you need to have knowledge and know-how to do the core business. For example, if you wanna start a digital marketing agency, you should get a job in a famous digital agency or in a marketing department of a big company to get an overview.
Second, you should prepare enough money for living for at least a year. Because you may not get any money in 6 months, or even 1 year since you start your business. So you need to have an amount of money for personal activities to survive.
Third, finding the right team or right co-founder is very important. It’s like you find a wife or a husband for marriage. So you have to judge everything from their ability, character, and ambition to choose your suitable co-founders.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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