Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor, popularly known as MSC in the 90s, will celebrate it’s 20th birthday in 2016; that’s 2 years from now. Besides Proton, MSC was another pet project by former prime minister Mahathir. MSC was supposed to leapfrog the country into the 21st century by having an innovative and multimedia technology hub, similarly to Silicon Valley, and boost the objective of achieving Malaysia’s Vision 2020 (a modern state by 2020).
While the country can certainly achieve its Vision 2020 by a “Self-Proclaimed” declaration (assuming the present regime will still rule by then) together with grand fireworks, lion dance, self-congratulatory advertisements on government-controlled media and whatnot, the same cannot be said about MSC. If MSC needs 18-years to merely become regional support and data centres for international companies as of today, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to predict its new milestone by 2020.
When Malaysia, under Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule, was busy encouraging smart brains to migrate to China, India, Mars, Pluto, but welcoming unskilled foreigners from Indonesia and Bangladesh, the neighbouring countries are moving forward tremendously. Besides finance hub, Singapore is slowly emerging as a global technology hub leader. According to Global Professionals on the Move 2013, Singapore comes in behind the US (1st) and the UK (2nd) in terms of its popularity as a digital hub.
If that was not enough to insult Malaysia’s MSC original initiative, Vietnam, a country which many BN politicians looked down upon not many moons ago, is quietly becoming an exciting technology start-up hub. In fact, Russian investors have played an increasingly significant role in Vietnam’s startup ecosystem with big investments in search engines such as CocCoc and Wada, which both spent over US$15 million each in the last two years on securing Vietnam’s search engine market.
Recently, Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology has secured US$110 million to pump into Vietnamese start-ups in a project called FIRST, which will last from 2014 to 2019. There’re tons of incubators in Vietnam, mostly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. While Malaysians are having walkathons, Vietnamese have their hackathons. Vietnam has produced quite a number of successful start-ups in mobile applications. Now, let’s take a look at 10 sample start-ups in Vietnam that breaches over 1-million users.
[ 1 ] Greengar
Greengar is a startup formed by two University of Southern California graduates: Elliot Lee and Thuy Thanh Truong. In August 2009, Greengar released Whiteboard, an app for collaborative drawing, which exploded to over seven million downloads. With 22 apps for iPhone, 15 apps for iPad, and nine apps for Android, the company’s got over 13 million downloads already before the release of Smartboard on February 11th 2013.
When Thuy first came back to Vietnam after graduating from USC in 2009, she started a frozen yogurt chain, raising up to $400,000 and opening up five branches in Ho Chi Minh city. In 2011, she closed down the chain to go into Greengar full time and is now the CEO, with Elliot having moved onto electric cars.
[ 2 ] Nhom Mua
Credit card or e-payments is still not as widespread as cash-on-delivery (COD) in Vietnam. Nhom Mua was perhaps the most successful group-buying or daily-deals e-commerce business in Vietnam, until its internal conflicts. Nhom Mua pioneered and had the largest market share in the country for 2012, in a crowded 100 other similar enterprises. At its peak, Nhom Mua registered a revenue of almost US$2 million a month. Customers flock to Nhom Mua because not only it provides inexpensive products but also allows convenience payments in either credit card, ATM card or cash-on-delivery.
In 2012, a controversy over Nhom Mua’s management issues and alleged embezzlement scandal hits the company. Nhom Mua’s original founder, Tom Tran was eventually ousted and he went to setup a new daily-deals site – Kay. As of today, the heaveweights in the business include Hotdeal, Mua Chung, Cung Mua and of course Nhom Mua. That’s a very crowded market for Kay, is it not?
[ 3 ] DivMob
DivMob was started by a young Vietnamese Ngo Luyen on Dec 2011 in Ho Chi Minh City. There’re over 10 mobile games produced by DivMob for Apple iOS and Android. Their most successful game, Ninja Revenge, garnered over 1-million downloads in 21-days. Other games include Age of Darkness, Myth of Pirates, Combie Age, Panda Jump, Tank Battle and others.
[ 4 ] Zalo
If there’s one Vietnamese brand to rival foreign champions such as KakaoTalk, WeChat, Whatsapp or Viber, that local brand has to be Zalo. As of Jan 2013, Zalo had only 500,000 users but by the end of 2013, it has a staggering 7 million users. With Kakao Talk almost disappeared from Vietnam’s market and Chinese’ Wechat being boycotted by the Vietnamese users, the market is now being controlled by the three big boys – Viber, whose strengths in voice service, Line, which has advantages in games, and Zalo which focuses on messaging feature.
[ 5 ] Not A Basement
Not-A-Basement (NAB) started in 2008 when its three Vietnamese co-founders were studying in university in Singapore. Not only they lived together, they also love reading comics. However there were no good ways to access those comics on mobile. Soon, they ended up creating their own app – Manga Rock. With the release of Mango Rock 2 in mid-2012, it has now over 1-million downloads (and counting). So far, the 20-staffs company has released over 11 Apple iOS apps and nope, they’re not into Android business (yet).
The start-up also has another successful app – Fuzel – a photo collage app released in July 2012. It allows users to knit photos together into pre-designed patterns as well as allow users to create their own custom collages. The app has already passed one million users, with over 250,000 active monthly users. Heck, it even won Apple’s best app of 2012 in the photo category, beating Instagram.
[ 6 ] Money Lover
If Zalo is the answer to Whatsapp, then Money Lover is perhaps the Vietnamese finance app to rival Silicon Valley’s Mint. This app helps users to track and manage their income and expenses over monthly or annual budget. With over 1.5 million downloads globally, Vietnamese-made Money Lover is indeed giving most of Silicon Valley’s developers a run for their money. Available in 28 languages and 45 types of currencies, plus its beautiful design and abundance flexibility, it’s not hard to see why this mobile app is so successful.
At the moment, there’re some bugs and limitations but that’s expected from such a young start-ups. Most importantly, Money Lover is pro-active in listening to users on how to further improve the app. Money Lover is available in Apple iOS, Android and even Windows phone.
[ 7 ] WebTreTho
Established in 2002, WebTreTho is Vietnamese largest online community / forum. As at Nov-2013, WebTreTho, which means “youthful web” has over 1.3 million registered users with more than 15 million posts. The forum generates a whopping 40 million page views and 10 million visitors per month. Also known as “Project Lana”, WebTreTho is one of 42 start-ups portfolio backed by IDG Ventures Vietnam, a venture capital firm which started investing in Vietnam in 2004.
[ 8 ] HaiVL
HaiVL is the site you would normally go for a dose of jokes to cheer you up, literally speaking. The site boasted over 2-million unique visits per day in a year since it was started. Hai means “comical”, “funny” or “hilarious” in Vietnamese. Just like 9gag, the primary focus of the website was to provide a platform for users to share funny images, sketches, videos, photos and whatnot. Their facebook has close to three million “likes”.
Available in both Apple iOS and Android, HaiVL makes its money from advertisements appearing on smartphones and tablets, with majority from the 17-to-30 years of age audience. Not bad for a Vietnam’s 9gag wannabe.
[ 9 ] MC Corp
Minh Chau (MC Corp) was quick to leverage on Vietnamese young gamers huge interest in ancient Chinese and Vietnamese mythology such as Romance of Three Kingdoms – by offering online MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role-playing games). Each user can interact with thousands of other users and enjoy the interactive entertainment content.
[ 10 ] Colorbox
This may sound weird but most of Vietnamese homegrown gaming companies has one thing in common – they normally play games together before starting companies with each other. Colorbox started in 2009 by 7 co-founders, all of them used to work for Gameloft. With present’s 25-staffs, Colorbox has had over 8-million downloads for all its games across Android, iOS, Samsung Bada, Symbian, and Windows Phone. After it’s successfull Dalton, it has released Dalton 2 and Save the Sheep.
Dalton, a fun iOS app that features a running character named Dalton who runs around in a surrealistic universe chopping down natives and strange creatures, was Colorbox’s top app that goes for US$0.99 while it’s second most downloaded app was Twins Candy that sells for the same price. It received VND 10 billion (US$500,000) in investment from Cyberagent Ventures, the Japanese venture capital firm which is known to only invest in companies that have proven themselves in the market.
So, are you impressed with Vietnam’s start-ups so far, considering their GDP per capita is merely US$4,001 (2013) as compared to Malaysia’s US$16,922 (2012) and Singapore’s US$62,100 (2012)? Sure, GDP is not the the only factor but at least it shows that money does not translate to creativity and innovation. Brain-drains is a country’s worst enemy. Like it or not, it’s a matter of time before Vietnam overtakes Malaysia in technology advancement. Who knows, Vietnam could become a “real” developed country much earlier than Malaysia (*grin*). Fancy MSC status logo, anyone?
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