VNG AND THE TALE OF A UNICORN
Originally born as a game publisher in 2004, VNG today has grown to be a billion-dollar internet unicorn who does a lot more than games. VNG’s online properties range from digital content, online entertainment to social networking and e-commerce, namely Zing MP3, Zing TV, ZaloPay, and Zalo, enabling individuals to interact with one another more than ever before.
What is the secret behind such transformational growth? The answer is simple; in fact, too simple: they hold tight onto our dreams, and they are not fazed by challenges.
That being said, the dreams that they hold at VNG are by no means ordinary. But they have what it takes to translate vision into action and to make dreams come true: a strong culture of embracing challenges, which identifies and unites talents from different backgrounds.
In this mega story, we wish to share some lesser-known stories about VNG and the people behind its success, hoping to inspire the next generation of youth, businesses, and technology communities.
Our wish, and VNG’s wish also, is to see more and more people embracing challenges, pursuing their dreams, making it through the unknowns, and realizing their full potentials.
Let’s get started together.
The term “unicorn” describes some of today’s biggest companies with valuations over US$ 1 billion. The status of a unicorn typically brings to mind big-money deals and prospects. However, VNG’s reputation is often associated with somewhat atypical concepts: survival, challenges, and marathons.
The whole journey of VNG started in an internet cafe with five young men, characterized by enthusiasm and unyielding spirit: “as long as we don’t die.” Recognizing the potential of the Internet in Vietnam, they chose online games as their first battlefield, and the first online game they tried to publish was Kingsoft’s Sword Heroes Fate Series (Võ Lâm Truyền Kỳ).
At the time, VNG’s sales team had only two members, who showed up at almost all Internet cafés from South to North. Their goal was two-fold: first, to convince the Internet cafés to replace pirated games with copyrighted ones, and second, to convince them to become game card distributors. Expectedly and fiercely, the questions were raised: “What is Võ Lâm Truyền Kỳ?” and “Why do I have to pay?”
Days after days and about a million attempts later, VNG’s persistence paid off: they managed to persuade the Internet cafés to test out something new. The result coming back was astounding: 120,000 accounts were registered for the beta test after 48 hours of the website launch, which then translated into 20,000 concurrent players within one month. The game was a blockbuster.
With that, VNG (formerly known as Vinagame) became the first company to successfully negotiate with an international partner and distribute copyrighted games in Vietnam. Their first battle was won, and it paved the way for a unicorn to emerge.
Despite having a phenomenal online game business at hand, VNG’s Board of Directors had their eyes set on a much farther horizon: to build tech products that transform Vietnamese people’s lives. In 2010, the company changed its name from Vinagame to VNG and officially entered the bigger technology battles. As a challenge to themselves, they set a wild target of “1441” – acquiring 41 million users by 2014.
Entering the scene was Zalo, which soon became the most popular messenger app in Vietnam with 20 million users right in the first-year of debut.
“At first, not many people had faith in Zalo. However, even during the toughest time, VNG leaders still held a strong belief that difficulties were only temporary, and soon together we would cross the storms. This belief was not unfounded; it came from our signature strength: our people,” said Vuong Quang Khai, founder of Zalo.
Zalo’s impressive performance, together with the success of many utility applications such as Zing MP3 (an online music portal), Laban Key (a Vietnamese keyboard), and the rapidly growing online games business, helped VNG to fulfill the target of “1441” in time. In the same year, 2014, the company was listed as worth a billion dollars on the World Startup Report and became the first tech unicorn in Vietnam.
Usually, when it comes to unicorns, people often talk about epic profits or blockbuster products. But for VNG’s leaders, the two things behind its unicorn status are “People” and the spirit of “Embracing Challenges.”
“Always be prepared for challenges” is the motto that helps VNG continue straight ahead instead of going on the other side of the slope after claiming its unicorn status.
Never shying away from challenges, VNG pours massive investment into e-commerce and e-payment. The deal to buy a nearly 30 percent stake in e-commerce startup Tiki is quite a gamble for VNG, especially after the lack of success from VNG’s own 123mua e-commerce site.
Until now, Tiki has yet to see any profit and still requires ever-increasing resources. However, from a long-term perspective, Tiki holds the power of being the largest local e-commerce platform in Vietnam, competing on equal footing with foreign giants such as Lazada or Shopee. And with each new round of fundraising, funds are still racing to pour money into Tiki, guaranteeing its book value.
The e-payment service ZaloPay shares a similar story. So far, ZaloPay remains a pre-revenue business. However, electronic payment is the future trend, and it bears mentioning that Amazon had lost money for decades before it started to make profits and became the world’s top e-commerce empire. Besides, it takes time for new technologies such as cloud computing (cloud), artificial intelligence (AI), big data to be developed and implemented in the local Vietnamese market. At this point, VNG engineers have already integrated AI into some existing products such as Zalo, mobile games, and eKYC, with the constant aspiration to “build technologies for a better life.”
After 16 years of expansion with the current team of nearly 4,000 staff members, CEO Le Hong Minh understands that embracing big waves is the only way to move forward and maintain the unicorn position. Not only betting on big gambles, but VNG is also one of the few Vietnamese tech companies that seek to conquer the international market, claiming the marks of Vietnamese technologies and talents on the global map.
The “2332” target that VNG announced last year demonstrates that ambition: by 2023, VNG aims to have 320 million global users, 32 million users for new products (such as ZaloPay, VNG Cloud, AI); and 320,000 business clients, instead of just focusing on individual users.
With the fact that Vietnam’s population now stands at 100 million people, the target of 320 million users means VNG will undoubtedly have to step out of its comfort zone and expand into new markets such as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, North Asia, among others, in the search for new customers, new opportunities, and new revenues.
This mission seems exceptionally ambitious. And with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading over the world, the challenges ahead seem multiplied. Nevertheless, Le Hong Minh and his teams remain steadfast, as he himself shared, “What helps VNG overcome many challenges to achieve what we have today is the nerve to dream big and the perseverance to pursue, our spirit is “dare to dream, dare to do.”
Indeed, to date, not once has VNG ever shown that they avoid challenges or fear trying, “as long as we don’t die.”
With no liabilities while owning very promising short-term assets, VNG is sometimes described as one that is “sitting on a mountain of cash.” But VNG’s CEO Le Hong Minh once stated that VNG’s people are the most valuable asset of his company. At first, to me, it read a bit like an impractical exaggeration.
However, the more I learn about VNG’s corporate culture, working environment, and VNG Starters (the way VNG calls its employees), the more I realize that his statement was by no means exaggerating. The company indeed goes many extra miles to care for and invest in its employees’ dreams, talents, and well-being.
But what is the difference in the “Growing People” belief at VNG?
VNG’s Vice President, Chief People Officer, Abhishek Mathur, who has extensive experience working with multinational companies including GE Capital and Johnson & Johnson, said that the responsibility to make Starters feel the company like their second home is one of the “key pressure” of the human resources team, especially at a company that treasures people like VNG.
“We aim to create a unique working experience for each employee while ensuring that they can feel a sense of belonging to a big family, thereby wishing to share their visions and passions with other family members.”
In 2019, when the new VNG campus officially opened its doors, CEO Le Hong Minh could not hold back his sentiments. “After many years of having a rental building, VNG now has its own home. This will be the Homebase for VNG armies to return to after the battles in foreign markets.”
At Homebase, employees can enjoy preferential perks and multiple facilities, including various F&B choices, dedicated gym, and shuttle buses. Younger employees at VNG often want to stay back after work to play table tennis or sing karaoke while enjoying snacks and fruits for free. The new headquarter also hosts a kid yard with trained babysitters to support female employees with young children.
Orange t-shirts, the signature color of VNG’s logo, are always spotted on the tracks surrounding the Campus. VNG Run Club is among those boasting the largest membership for now, with hundreds of active members. Regular and creative internal activities have strengthened the bond between VNG employees. Every year, a generous budget is allocated for team-building activities, and it is a rule that all teams take at least one trip together each year to better understand one another.
Earlier this year, amid the peak of COVID-19, during the first quarterly meeting, which was live-streamed among all employees working from home, CEO Le Hong Minh delivered a moving speech to his large family, like the eldest brother: “This is time for us not to think much of interests or business, but instead think about our family and partners. This is the time for us to care for each other.”
In VNG family, it is easy to notice that the younger members always have a chance to be heard and offered more room to grow.
Minh said at VNG, human resources development does not mean recruiting employees, giving them a salary, and dismissing them if they are not suitable for the job. Here, all the freshers will be able to learn through practical projects, teamwork activities, and upskilling activities. They will be able to learn from all their colleagues and seniors. VNG gives all juniors the time and space to grow and develop themselves – with a generous and patient attitude hardly seen in other organizations.
Outsiders might be well surprised at how VNG’s employees have an amicable relationship with their bosses. Starters can easily come across their SMTs at the canteen, gym areas, pools, and especially coffee shops within VNG Campus. Many of them may even have the CEO buy them free coffee if they meet him by chance. Minh revealed that by walking around and talking to youngsters, the leaders of VNG are often inspired by their youthfulness and courage.
Quarterly, VNG holds an event called “VNG Connect,” where the top leaders answer any Starters’ questions. Employees can join the event directly at the Campus or watch via live stream from their offices across Vietnam. The question can be anything, ranging from the canteen’s food options to VNG’s “go global” strategy. Any question is answered with transparency.
VNG leaders tend to have the friendly looks of any typical tech guy. They wear T-shirts and khaki pants, along with sneakers at most events. VNG leaders are also interested in running, hiking, and mountain-climbing, always being side by side with their teams in UpRace, a community event initiated and organized by VNG since 2018.
That friendly and casual atmosphere is, in part, a way to show appreciation for different cultures at VNG. “I have not even once tried to force VNG and its people to match my own standards,” Minh affirmed.
VNG leaders understand that young people, particularly talented ones, always seek for places where they can prove their capacity, solve new problems, and contribute to the community. To some talents, sometimes the technology challenges hold more appeal than the pay package. Therefore, VNG continually involves young talents in challenging projects while allocating resources for their professional and leadership training.
Additionally, VNG is proactive in establishing collaboration with leading universities via VNG Code Tour or Fresher Programme, enabling students to engage in practical projects with attractive pays.
“Grow people’’ has never been just a slogan at VNG. The leaders here place a persistent trust in people, like a straight line that has been drawn already, and people go along with it. “During the most difficult moments, members of the executive boards and I firmly believe that obstacles are temporary and we will overcome them all. That faith is by no means unreasonable, but coming from VNG’s signature strength: our people,” said Vice President Vuong Quang Khai as he recalled a milestone of the Zalo app many years ago.
At that time, the trial product encountered a severe error which caused an eight-month delay in its launch compared to other rivals. Had it not been for that unwavering faith at VNG, Zalo could not have made a remarkable breakthrough and risen to be the most popular OTT app in Vietnam.
As the founder and leader of VNG for the past 16 years, Le Hong Minh’s spirit and attitude have deeply influenced the company’s culture as well as its 3,000 Starters. On VNG’s 16th birthday, our reporter at Vietnam Plus had a discussion with him through a medium that has become typical in our post-COVID-19 world: online interview.
– Looking back on the journey for the past 16 years, what do you think is the proudest milestone of VNG?
Back then, we started as young gamers, full of enthusiasm and drive. Today, VNG is a large company with more than 3,000 Starters, having 11 offices in 5 countries. We are proud of having products serving tens of millions of users such as Zalo, ZaloPay, ZingPlay, Zing MP3, among others, in more than 100 countries and territories.
After 16 years, we are moving beyond the Vietnamese market’s limits towards the global market’s challenges. We set a new objective for the next five years – 2332 (320 million global users; 32 million users for new products, i.e., payment, artificial intelligence, and 320,000 business customers by 2023 – Reporter). We will do our best and utilize all our resources to accomplish that mission. Even though we might not reach those ‘crazy’ numbers, in the end, I hope my teams to share with me the understanding that what’s more meaningful is that we will continue to have great experiences together for the next five years (and even longer), more stories that we can be proud of, and more unforgettable moments as we embrace our new challenges.
-More specifically, what are those challenges?
In the past five years, many companies in the market, such as Grab, Uber, and Airbnb, have gradually moved from online to offline. But offline is an area that we don’t have an advantage in yet. We do not have a lot of presence in the market, that is a big challenge. If you remember, our first attempt at e-commerce was unsuccessful. When you test out a new service, there is a lot of knowledge to learn and a lot of money to invest.
The next challenge comes from the internal structure of VNG itself. Now at the age of 16, VNG is no longer a fast-paced and fresh-faced startup. Although I do not want to admit this, I can undoubtedly feel it. We waste much energy on trivial things just to “follow the right processes and procedures” but sometimes forget which one is more important. Many people who have been long with VNG began to feel the weight of responsibility on their shoulders instead of the joy of work. The biggest internal challenge of VNG is to balance the stature and structure of a large enterprise with the spirit and speed of a startup team.
– With such a challenge, what helps you “keep the fire” for VNG for all these years?
As the CEO, of course, there must be headaches. But who could be unhappy when their products are accepted and used by millions of people or, better yet, billions of people? The influence on the community is an accomplishment powerful enough to outweigh all of our less pleasant emotions.
As we step forward, I get the opportunities to do new things and, from there, gain new knowledge. For many people, challenges can become exhausting. But for me, as for many people who work in technology, challenges are a drug that we cannot quit.
Moreover, when encountering new things, I find myself able to change and improve my mood while knocking over things that are no longer relevant.
And finally, the feelings of comfort that you get when working with people you love and trust. I always find joy in helping young people grow. It is because I myself used to be a young person who was happy and excited when I learned new things or conquered the first milestones. When a group of people heads in the same direction, that emotion and synergy can be incredible.
– So, for the next 3 to 5 years, what are your goals for VNG?
An important lesson we have learned over the past five years is that, while we maintain our success and stay occupied with current products, there is still a need to be relentless and never hesitate to experiment with new products and new directions. Building an “uncertain” future is both a terrifying and yet exhilarating experience.
In the next 5 to 10 years, VNG will continue to be a company that “Build Technologies and Grow People. For a better life.”
– You just mentioned “Growing People.” And in recent conversations with students or the technology domain, you seem to share more about this topic than the technology itself.
After 16 years of development, VNG has started to notice the undoubted limitations to our growth. To grow further, we need to elevate some of our businesses to a scale many times larger than its current size. Secondly, VNG must enter new business areas and markets that it has never done before. This pursuit requires constant improvement of the capabilities of the people of VNG, from technologies to products and business capabilities. To put it into perspective, if you want to fight a battle without enough good soldiers, you will fail sooner or later.
Building the next team that will take over the leading roles of VNG is a long-term project that will take many years. There are certain departments that I expect would take a decade to identify suitable candidates.
People development is a matter of interest to almost every company and is carried out at numerous levels. However, I personally feel this is the most important thing to do, even more than building products.
– After determining that people development is the most important thing to do, how does the VNG’s approach differ from other companies?
In the past, like many other companies, we also applied the philosophy where everyone would be told to jump into the water, those who float and swim for the shore fast will win.
But gradually, we started to have a different point of view. That VNG is very patient with the amount of time people take to learn and grow. A person might not swim well but can be very good at jogging and cycling. It is extremely crucial to give them a second chance to unleash and explore their hidden potential.
Another significant difference is that during its 16 years of development, VNG does not consider business goals to be of utmost importance. There are business units whose highest priority is to create a good product that is valuable to the user or to the community. We still appreciate the user and usage metrics rather than business metrics for many of our key products.
– Talented people are always hunted. How does VNG retain its staff?
In general, talented people want genuinely difficult and meaningful challenges. When they work on a leisurely and comfortable job, they will soon get bored despite the high salary.
I still tell everyone in VNG that each person’s starting point may be different, but the most important thing is to persevere and never give up. Over time, perseverance will help us cultivate skills that people who have chosen otherwise will not acquire.
VNG also gives people room to grow and make their own decisions. Putting more decision-making power in each employee’s hands is highly important so that everyone can work and create to the best of their position, without too much control and strict management all the way to the first-level, as long as we stay connected and on the right track. We trust everyone to do their job well. People tend to show incredible growth along the way. When you talk about an operation with outstanding performance, people often think that we build a system with numerous modern facilities, lots of processes, and lots of control. Yes, we have those things, but we don’t put a heavy priority on them. What we are good at is building many teams that are capable of working independently in VNG.
Another point of pride for everyone at VNG is our integrity. It might sound funny because integrity should be a must in all working environments. But in reality, not many places, including multinational environments, have managed to maintain this. So for those who value integrity, I believe they will be able to work for a long time at VNG.
– Many people are curious why VNG chose a rather rustic theme like “Think about each other” for its 16th birthday?
Actually, this topic came from a sharing I had with Starters during the social distancing period in March. Back then, I told everyone that it was a very special moment that we probably would never experience twice in our lives. Many departments have brought up their worries with me that sales and business targets would be severely affected by the pandemic. I just wanted to reassure everyone that there are times when we should not dwell too much on numbers and business pressures. Now is the time for us to think more about each other, about our families, colleagues, and partners.
In a broader sense, on VNG’s 16th birthday, we want the people of VNG to think about the journey of “Build Technologies and Grow People” that VNG pursues, to appreciate the good things and the good time everyone is sharing together.
The ’Weird Workspace”
of a Vietnam unicorn technology company
Photos Thuan Thang – Quoc Dat
In November 2019, VNG Campus had officially opened with a total area of 52,440 m2, having modern design combined with open-working space, entertainment, convenience, sporting space, etc.
The home base of VNG staffs located in the side of Saigon River. The roof is fitted with a modern solar power system, providing electricity for the entire operation of the building.
The building is designed with spacious campus and outdoor spaces, both being environmentally friendly, and encouraging employees to move between the divisions.
Starter (VNG’s staff) go into the office by the mainline and using a modern and colorful magnetic card.
The working space has an opening design, many trees, and limited walls, encouraging interaction and communication between people. By that, the coordination between departments and staff becomes more efficient.
Verdurous, clean, and bright space brings an exciting working spirit.
A working corner of VNG game product operating team.
Even meeting rooms are also designed in an open-space, stimulating creativity and brainstorming ideas. VNG also focuses on investing in high-end technical equipment to be compatible with the “national technology products” developed by VNG staff.
VNG CLOUD’s lab has been in operation since the beginning of 2020, is the place to display outstanding cloud computing products and services that the company is operating and providing.
Data Center is located in the heart of VNG Campus.
Working space combined with teamwork angles, relaxing, flexible time …
both professional and comfortable like being in a cafe on the weekend.
The Campus’s highlight is the immense space, filled with natural light in the Atrium central lobby, which specializes in organizing corporate events. This is also a place to relax, chat, and read books of Starter every lunch break, especially cheering together to cheer the matches of the Vietnamese football team.
To provide the essential needs of Starters, the Campus has convenience stores such as 7-Elevent stores, The Coffee House…
As a relaxing location, the swimming pool at VNG Campus uses salt filtration technology (not using chlorine for disinfection) which is skin-friendly and environmentally friendly. This is not only a place to relax for Starter after a stressful working day but also a place to practice between “Iron Man” VNG.