[Reactor Alumni] This Technopreneur Shows Us There’s More to Winning In The Global Startup Scene
This is the first piece of an interview-commentary series, Alumni in Action, profiling Reactor Alumni on their past and future entrepreneurial journey, sharing insights and anxieties on their growth as entrepreneurs.
Responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Amassing more than a decade of coding, Anh Vu Mai shares about his entry into the electrifying world of entrepreneurship, running a tech startup and what he value-adds to the community through his practice in technology-driven entrepreneurship. Having just graduated from university, Vu has achieved many notable accolades since his first start as a student participant in the Business Leaders Programme (BLP) and Coding Phoenix with us at Reactor in 2013. Most recently, while juggling work commitments, he is also involved in setting up a coding school in Vietnam alongside other personal projects.
Sherman: To start things off, could you share something interesting about yourself? Vu: I have been programming since I was 12 years old, so it has been 14 years now.
Sherman: Programming for more than half of your life — you must clearly be very passionate about it but we want to know what experiences have you had that shaped you to be an entrepreneur? Vu: During my time in RI(JC), I joined a programme called Business Leaders Programme (which incidentally was conducted by Reactor in its early days too) which sparked my interests and gave me the necessary resources to become an entrepreneur. After which, I joined NUS and went on the NOC Silicon Valley programme, where I stayed in the United States for a year-long stint working for a start-up full-time. On top of that, I made sure to spend my time in the Bay Area well and went to a lot of hackathons, worked late nights on the craziest start-up ideas with my friends and ended up starting one with them after I returned to Singapore.
The interviewee (far left)’s team KingFashion presenting their pitch on
the demo day of API World Hackathon Credit: NUS
Sherman: You mentioned taking part in the Business Leaders Programme (BLP) when you were in JC. How has your startup and entrepreneurship journey been since then? Vu: I have had my dream of joining the prestigious NOC Silicon Valley programme in NUS, where I worked in San Francisco full-time for a year at a startup as an intern. It turned out to be the best year of my life so far, where I got to work in a 5-man team, learn a bunch of skills, do a lot of fun projects together with my friends, and build precious relationships that last until today. I co-founded a startup during my final year of university and got real paying customers! Sadly, we had to go separate ways after graduation, so it didn’t materialize eventually, but we were still very close.
Sherman: What was most useful for you during the BLP? Vu: Industry exposure and assurance. I got to talk to real entrepreneurs, visit startup offices, and join startup events thanks to the help of Reactor. Those experiences were especially transformational, when I see older people welcoming young folks like me with open arms into the startup ecosystem, instead of thinking of me as too naive or “not ready yet”.
Sherman: You took part in many hackathons, what are some takeaway experiences that struck you the most?
Vu: A common takeaway from many of the hackathons I have attended was that hackathons are so much more than just winning the prize. In fact, some of the best hackathons I have attended were ones where we didn’t win.
In 2018, I attended Startup Weekend with a bunch of my college friends. They were running their own startup at the time, and roped me in for just 2 days of coding fun stuff together. We got into the finals but didn’t make it past that, yet all of us shrugged it off because we knew we did everything we could have done up until that moment we stepped onto the stage.
We stayed back to cheer on our other schoolmates who eventually clinched many top prizes, whose products absolutely stunned both the judges and the audience. It was a stark reminder that no matter whether you win or lose, you can relish in the fact that you are surrounded by capable, committed, and close individuals, and you can learn so much just by witnessing them work.
Vu with his hackathon team at the API World Hackathon Credit: NUS Computing
Sherman: Heard that you have been involved in setting up a coding school in Vietnam, is that right? How has it been for you to be giving back to the community?
Vu: Yeah, I have been helping some close friends of mine who are based in Vietnam to kick off a new coding school for young adults. It is a spin-off initiative spearheaded by Developh (a student-led non-profit organization in the Philippines) to expand to Vietnam.
Primarily, I handle the technical curriculum and growth direction of the project. There were a lot of challenges because there already exist name-brand local coding schools in Vietnam with established credentials, while we had to assemble a new curriculum and a team of instructors from the ground up. That said, everything eventually came together and we are now running our first classes with registered students that are neither our distant cousins nor next door neighbors. There were moments of doubt where the destination we’re headed weren’t crystal clear, but I eventually came to the conclusion that the journey is already as fulfilling as the destination.
Corporate photo of Vu, as a technical advisor in Developh Vietnam
The reason why I helped create Developh Vietnam was that I wanted to help people around me gather more programming knowledge — a purpose which was already accomplished in the process. I mentored the technical team within the organisation, and shared with them as much technical knowledge as I could.
People often think for me to succeed, I need to get millions signed up for my hypothetical franchise of classes across the nation, but honestly watching even the first dozen of students of my class enjoying the lessons and showing their appreciation for it was all worth the sweats and tears.
Sherman: Is there anything from your experience at Developh Vietnam that you discovered was particularly riveting?
Vu: I handled the interview of all of our current instructors of the course, and was surprised at how many of them were just excited to impart their knowledge and watch others grow. Many of them were college students, and one was a female high school student entering college in just a few months. It was incredible how knowledgeable they were given their age, while already so earnest in their intentions.
At the same time, these “teachers” were also excited to learn more from me, whom they regard as a professional programmer with industry experiences. This embodies the very spirit that I personally feel strongly about, the cycle of absorbing and imparting knowledge. I call it the Knowledge Robinhood: taking knowledge from the wise and distributing it to the uninitiated.
Developh Featured Credit: Developh Vietnam
Sherman: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Vu: Defeat your insecurities by looking at it from a different perspective or rephrasing it with a silver lining. “Am I too young?” Well yes and I better start making mistakes and taking the plunge now! When I’m married and/or financially responsible, I can no longer pull such stunts. “What if people don’t like my product?” Then they can tell me how it is bad, and how I can improve it! Do not conflate this with self-complacency or burrowing your head in the sand. This is simply reducing the inertia required for you to remove the ‘aspiring’ from ‘aspiring entrepreneurs’.
If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes - then learn how to do it later!
Sherman: What was your key driving force to pursue entrepreneurship? Vu: The people I surrounded myself with were very driven people, some of which went on to create really successful businesses themselves. The entrepreneurship journey is tough and uncertain, but having a community of creators constantly cheering each other up and inspiring each other was vital to my pursuit of entrepreneurship.
Sherman: There is a saying that ‘you are the average of the five people you surround yourself with’. Were there any people that have inspired you thus far?
Vu: That one quote has become more and more relevant as I progressed further into my adulthood. When we are young, it’s easier to make new friends as we graduate from one school to another once every 5 years or so. Yet as we become adults, the friends we make will likely be ours for life and will influence it greatly as we go along.
The CEO of the startup company I worked with in San Francisco now sends me messages from time to time and even bunked in my apartment when he came to visit Singapore. We discuss tons of startup ideas, ways to improve our lives, how to make the world a better place, and it’s fulfilling just to have conversations like those.
Rusydi, the CEO of Reactor School, was also a major figure in my life. He brought me into the startup world, and still provides me with valuable advice from time to time. These two people keep the startup fire burning in me.
One final special mention is my mom, who has relentlessly been the driving force behind many of my achievements thus far. I now talk to her regularly on plans for my future, and it’s great just to have someone who supports you no matter what crusade you are pursuing.
Vu’s hackathon team at the API World Hackathon, preparing for the final pitch
Sherman: Do you believe there is some sort of formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
Vu: Being a computer science graduate, I have to say, yes there exists a formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur. However, that function is full of variables, and deriving it could take forever. Does it mean that we just throw our hands up in the air and call it a day? Certainly not, and doesn’t it sound all too familiar to those who know Machine Learning?
For the uninitiated, many Machine Learning problems have the same premise, where we have to approximate a really difficult function by going slowly iteration by iteration, inching closer to the optimal result, by a process called Stochastic Gradient Descent. In the end, we don’t know what the exact formula is, but it’s good enough that it’s used so widely today! I’d like to think of entrepreneurship as the same process, where we consistently improve ourselves and our product bit-by-bit, until it’s good enough.
Sherman: What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Vu: One: how to grow. Two: how to talk to people. Three: how to not be too emotionally attached.
Growth to me consists of two parts: experience, and reflection. Everyone has experience, but not many people reflect. Make sure you revisit what you learnt, what could be better, what you have done well. It helps you grow as a person.
Learn how to interact, build relationships, and gather a great team. Guess who you’ll be building a product for? People, most certainly. You can certainly do it solo, but is it healthy? You need people to push you through tough times because it will get tough.
Finally, know when to move on. Taking pride in what you have built is important, but keeping things around for no reason rather than the fact that you built it can be unhealthy. Learn to let go.
Sherman: What key activities would you recommend entrepreneurs to invest their time in?
Vu: Read books and listen to podcasts, but only in small doses. I recommend “How I Built This” by Guy Raz from NPR, and the Indie Hackers podcast by Courtland Allen. Block out distractions while you work, by turning off your phone or work at a library/cafe. Meditate. Sleep enough. Your mind is not a machine, and even a machine needs rest.
Sherman: What motivates you?
Vu: Seeing people around me putting in their best, and seeing people I helped grow make great strides on their own. Some people see entrepreneurship as a means to an end, but I see it slightly differently. My end goal is to help people lead better lives, and in the process I have already begun to have such an impact on people around me.
Sherman: How do you generate new business/project ideas?
Vu: I jump on ideas that keep me up at night. Things that I can’t stop thinking about, drawing plans up in my mind at 2AM, and can’t wait to work on the next day. If you have the luxury of sleeping soundly, look to loved ones who are kept up at night, and help them out.
Sherman: What are some struggles, obstacles or pitfalls you have encountered as a programmer/entrepreneur?
Vu: As a maker-programmer, I have always enjoyed the process of creating something, more so than the final product itself. It has been good for my productivity but detrimental to my goals: I kept restarting, or switching ideas, when I got bored of the current one. However, since I started working full-time at various companies, I have learned to love products that have been around for a while rather than a clean slate with perfect code. I now feel it is always better to pick up from where you’re at, use what you have learnt and add on to the product, while improving the existing parts over time rather than starting over. Even I myself is a work-in-progress, and I’m messy, but I have since learned to love my own imperfections.
Sherman: In 1 sentence, how would you describe your entrepreneurial journey?
Vu: A drama series with a lot of plot lines that is still unfolding, and with every passing year I’m seeing it all coming together.
Sherman: What was your experience like, interning at Trance, a technology-based dance app startup?
Vu: Working at Trance, in my opinion, was the most authentic startup experience I could ever get. I remember the 5-person team squeezing onto a table in a co-working space, hacking away at new features every week, and celebrating every success together as a family. It was also a dance technology startup, and I’m a dancer, so we all danced together sometimes to the dismay of some other teams at the co-working space trying to work in peace. Oh, did I mention I stayed in the same house with the CEO? Absolutely amazing guy, and I got to listen to all of the visions he had for Trance, how he was going to achieve it, and how it will help people. This whole experience has reminded me how much I wanted to build a company, and helped me have a clearer picture of how that company should be in my mind.
Vu posing for a photo with his colleagues from Trance in Silicon Valley, United States
Sherman: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In terms of career development and entrepreneurial growth?
Vu: I see myself joining a startup in the near future soon — just shows you how much the startup life beckons me back into its embrace. I’m also working on an education startup on the side, and we are conducting our trial classes very soon. In terms of career, I’m hoping to be more of an engineering manager rather than just an engineer, as I foresee myself running a team of programmers in the future. I dare not say anything for sure beyond the near future, because the startup life is full of uncertainties. Naturally, every prediction I make about 5 years into the future will turn out horribly wrong, that I am sure of.
Vu: #PeopleFirst. The reason why I stepped foot into entrepreneurship at all to begin with was because I wanted to help people. When I want to build a large product, I need to build a team by guiding them or finding the right ones. Furthermore, interacting with machines and programs is always a game of Simon Says, but interacting with each and every person is always a different ballgame.
Without prioritizing and empowering people, my entrepreneurial journey would have ended long ago or wouldn’t be as meaningful as it is now.
To our Reactor Alumni, share your entrepreneurial journeys with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dear Teachers, Reactor School is online! Find out more about our EntreCamp (Virtual Edition) and Design Thinking (Virtual Edition), now available in Bootcamp and Masterclass format. Interested to run an Entrepreneurship Programme for your School? Contact us now.
Written by Sherman Tham
Sherman is the Marketing Ensign at Reactor School, and a Reactor Student Alumni.
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