Nhu Tran: Quality Education, One Online Class at a Time

Nhu Tran: Quality Education, One Online Class at a Time

“Education is the only way for us to get out of poverty,” Nhu’s father explained repeatedly when dropping her off at school every morning. He did so rain or shine despite having to run all over the city to sell construction equipment after his paint business went bankrupt. To further her education, Nhu’s older brother even dropped out of school because the family could only afford to pay tuition for one child. A desire to repay such sacrifice motivated her to succeed at some of the world’s top companies and then, recently, co-found an edtech startup. Nhu’s venture, Schola, was built to help devoted parents like hers find quality education for their children.

Born and raised in Saigon, Nhu was an exemplary student, thanks in part to the value her parents placed on education. She received a scholarship to attend Southeast Asia’s top university, the National University of Singapore. While there, she encountered a significant setback: her English speaking skills were not good enough. Many students in Vietnam can excel in reading, writing, and grammar but lack the confidence, skills, and experience for public speaking. For Nhu, this meant her peers in Singapore refused to work with her on group assignments. On one occasion, a classmate even stole her idea, receiving a good grade when passing it off as her own. Nhu couldn’t effectively communicate to convince the teacher that it was, in fact, her idea.

Nhu fought the desire to drop out and instead dedicated herself to a multitude of extra-curricular activities that helped her improve her speaking skills. Upon graduation, she landed a job at Garena, where she helped launch games such as Thunder Strike, which attracted more than 10 million users in Vietnam alone. She then spent four years at Facebook managing the ad portfolios of various Vietnamese companies, helping some of them become among the highest-value accounts in the country.

Making an Unpopular Decision

Nhu’s decision to leave Facebook last year didn’t only affect her. Resigning from a prestigious and high-paying position had ramifications for her family as well. Her parents rely on her for financial assistance, and striking out on her own as an entrepreneur makes their future less certain. Yet she was determined to start Schola to help Vietnamese students overcome the same issues she faced. 

Nhu remembers vividly her encounter with a cleaning lady who works in her office building. Even though she had spent over US$1,000 sending her daughter to English classes, she still couldn’t speak well. To this mother, it was a huge investment, and yet it had seemingly been for nothing. Stories like this devastated Nhu and further convinced her of the importance of Schola.

Schola, the Latin word for “school”, is the brainchild of Nhu and her co-founder Aditya Gupta. It connects students with accredited native teachers around the world for one-on-one classes that emphasize confidence in speaking via an immersive American common core curriculum. For six months, Nhu worked 10+ hours a day at Facebook and then stayed up until 2AM connecting with parents and sharing about Schola, one family at a time. She needed to be sure Schola had potential before committing herself to it fully.

After they delivered 10,000 classes, Nhu knew it was time. Despite the protests from her parents and cautions from her friends, Nhu left Facebook and relocated to Saigon to focus full-time on Schola. It’s been an arduous journey convincing families to part with their hard-earned money. It is especially challenging because when it comes to education, results are often long-term and difficult to quantify. But thankfully they now have numerous real success stories to serve as proof. More importantly, Nhu’s personal story — her family’s sacrifice for her education, her own struggle with English communications, and her effort to overcome such struggle — resonate among many of the parents she speaks to.

Nhu brainstorming with other founders in Saola

From Educators to “Students”

Prior to talking to 500 Startups, Nhu’s co-founder, Aditya, had participated in several other accelerators and had grown skeptical of them. That skepticism persisted when they were invited to join 500’s Saola program; however, it quickly went away. “People here really care, and that’s one of the defining factors. When that happens, we can derive a lot of value,” said Aditya about their time with Saola.

Among many lessons, for Schola, diligently setting and monitoring metrics and KPI’s serves as one of the most important. In the past, they had operated via bootstrapping and thus had a somewhat haphazard way of assessing their growth and accomplishments. For Nhu, she found values for Schola through the depth of experience of the Saola growth experts. They were able to not only show her why taking a more holistic approach was important but also how specifically to do it.

Nhu reveals that one of the biggest challenges for Schola is scaling effectively. Because the company relies on personal interactions and a vast network of qualified educators, her charisma can only stretch so far. Eventual plans to extend to older age groups and countries beyond Vietnam compounds the problem. There is, of course, no certainty she will succeed. 

That said, Nhu admits that she is quite stubborn. Her desire to help Vietnamese children thrive compels her to continue dedicating her time, energy and effort. After all, it was the same dedication that her parents gave her, and this is her way to pay it forward.


Written by Paul Christiansen

NOTE: This article reflects the personal views of Paul Christiansen and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.

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© 2010-2019 500 Startups

Tuan Trinh: Zen and the Art of E-Commerce Recommendation

Tuan Trinh: Zen and the Art of E-Commerce Recommendation

Plummeting three stories and suffering serious injuries to one’s leg, arm, and back could never be considered a positive event, but some people are able to bounce back from such an experience and emerge a better person. That’s what happened for Tuan Trinh. The Hanoi-native spent three months in the hospital and many arduous weeks afterward learning how to walk and return to normal life. The downtime allowed him ruminate on Buddhist texts as well as the lessons he’d learned while studying in Sweden. Simultaneously becoming more willing to take risks and to stop and soak in the “beauty of life,” Tuan recovered and not long after founded NextSmarty, a technology company that allows small- and medium-sized e-commerce companies to more effectively recommend products to customers.


Supercomputer, Buddhist philosophies, and European work ethos 

When the computer store staff installed Tuan’s new super-computer nearly a decade ago, they asked if they could take a photo of it. It was the most impressive setup they’d ever delivered and they wanted to show it off. The fact that he bought it with his wedding money that most people spend on a house or children’s education says as much about his commitment to technology as it does his wife’s support of his passion. The purchase wouldn’t have surprised anyone who’d known Tuan for long. He developed an interest in technology during high school when the internet was in its infancy in Vietnam. After first using the Internet to connect with and make friends across the country, he became fascinated by the fundamentals and theories that powered it. Such curiosity led him to study computer science at university.

Even before Tuan adopted a Buddhist perspective on the trappings of earthly desires, he placed limited value on amassing financial wealth. Upon graduation, he turned down more lucrative positions at outsourcing companies and joined the startup where he had interned during school. He enjoyed the freedom, flexibility, challenges, and opportunities to grow that the position offered. But Tuan was quick to admit what he did not know, and during his four years with the operation, he discovered he needed to obtain a more thorough mastery of computing fundamentals to really explore his interests. He thus decided to enroll in a master’s program.

Explaining his decision to enroll at Uppsala University in Sweden, Tuan says, “They are the best for innovations and well-known for their distributed systems.” While there, he observed a difference between his peers’ and professors’ mindsets compared to Vietnam’s more conservative mentality. They “work smarter, not harder,” he explains, “and they take risks.” He quickly embraced the philosophy.

While visiting his family in Hanoi and waiting for Ph.D. enrolment results in Sweden, Tuan suffered his accident. After recovering and with the support of his family, he returned to working remotely for companies based in Silicon Valley as his health forced him to abandon plans to return to Europe to pursue a doctorate. While he appreciated the work, it didn’t satisfy his natural curiosity, and in his free time, he tried to solve technical problems “just for fun.” So when a German jewelry company came to him looking to increase sales by improving their online recommendation system, he took on the task free of charge; he simply wanted to see if he could do it.

Tuan & his team at “500 Startups Demo Day: A Regional Startup Showcase”

Tuan asks this question when explaining the challenges inherent in designing an algorithm for small- and medium-sized online retailers. Visitors to these sites are less patient than Amazon shoppers, clicking an average of only two to three times before leaving the site. To yield more purchases, Tuan tried to use algorithms from larger marketplaces, but sales at the jewelry company didn’t increase, so he spent two weeks analyzing the data line-by-line to better understand customer behaviors.

The algorithm Tuan developed in response to the information he gleaned from such close study proved quite successful with the site’s conversion rates increasing 55% and return on investment rising 11.5%. Others quickly took notice. RecSys 2017, the recommender system industry’s premier conference, published his paper, 3D Convolutional Networks for Session-based Recommendation with Content Features,” which summarized his findings. The research was later added to a reading list for graduate students enrolled in a course at the University of California at San Diego.

Fearing conflict of interest and eager to act on the entrepreneurship that is “in my blood,” Tuan quit his Silicon Valley positions and founded NextSmarty with aims to do for other companies what he achieved with the jewelry company: increase sales through effective, algorithm-based recommendations that rely on data in different ways compared to the conventional methods used by larger companies.

Tuan’s plans didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. He admits that his initial success may have resulted in some overconfidence, as attempts to expand his algorithms to other verticals such as music streaming and online dating took a lot of time and effort. The team later decided to focus solely on e-commerce. It didn’t discourage him, though. Rather, it reinforced with what he’d learned in Europe: one must take risks, which inevitably involves failure. Being humble enough to accept and learn from mistakes is the only path to success.

While Tuan scaled back his ambitious efforts to expand the business, he never lost his propensity for exploring technologies in his off hours out of curiosity. And while he meditates every morning for an hour before going into the office to attain a sense of balance, he says that when he gets overwhelmed, he takes a full week off to read about and tinker with a technology topic not directly relevant to NextSmarty.


MBA students are taught to swim on dry land, while entrepreneurs jump into the water before learning a single stroke

The company has grown steadily since its 2016 founding, eventually attracting interest from 500 Startups Vietnam. In addition to giving financial support and advice on a wide range of issues including HR, staffing and growth, they suggested he join their first-ever batch of the Saola acelerator. The timing was perfect. As NextSmarty expanded, Tuan increasingly had to manage day-to-day business operations that don’t come as naturally to him as technical matters. Saola taught him how to better interview customers and interpret their comments as well as get sales and technical teams to share a vision.

A variety of expert lecturers with different backgrounds meet with Saola participants to share tangible advice and theoretical knowledge about many of the business matters Tuan has never formally studied. MBA students are taught to swim on dry land, while entrepreneurs jump into the water before learning a single stroke, Tuan says of his time before Saola. He’s done a great job keeping his head above water up to this point, but the accelerator taught him critical skills to move forward.

After a more-than-one-year relationship together, NextSmarty recently hired its first CEO. For many, giving up key responsibilities may be seen as a loss of power, but Tuan is uniquely humble and realistic about his strengths and weaknesses. He believes a CEO will allow him to focus more on the pinpoint efforts he excels at. This, along with what he learned through Saola, should spur vertical expansion in Southeast Asian markets with the ultimate goal of being the premier recommendation tool for small- and medium-sized e-commerce companies in the region. 

In addition to gaining more clients, Tuan hopes to investigate the interplay between online and offline customer trends. He’s observed an interesting back and forth between the two and is eager to see how AI can facilitate better experiences in both areas. Mindful to supplement these business goals with mental and spiritual health, he says he hopes to go on a week-long meditation retreat sometime soon. Rather than distract from his goals, such moments for reflection helps him maintain perspective and remember “we only have one life.”


Written by Paul Christiansen

NOTE: This article reflects the personal views of Paul Christiansen and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.

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814 Mission St., 6th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103, USA

© 2010-2019 500 Startups

Mike Villar wants to put romance back into advertising

Mike Villar wants to put romance back into advertising

A battle-hardened marketing veteran, Villar wants you to practice constraint. “Relationships escalate one step at a time. Selling without a story is like asking someone to marry you on a first date,” he told the dozen startup employees going through Saola, an accelerator program run by 500 Startups.

The entrepreneurs come from a handful of early-stage companies; their bios read any combination of data scientist, Silicon Valley veteran, Ivy League grad, competitive programmer, competitive gamer, mathematical physicist, computational biologist, 3x founder, defecting corporate lifer. To some of them, “sales” is a dirty word, an oil slick contaminating the purity of science. That’s why 500 summoned Villar: a high-functioning storyteller who’s obsessed with “putting narrative to data.” Villar said f*ck you to sales (as we know it) a long time ago. He levitates above the content scrap yard. He’s seen the matrix of advertising. He wants you not to flush that precious VC money down the toilet by buying tone-deaf Facebook ads. 

Villar dropping truth bombs about paid advertising

Before choosing a career in business, Villar spent five years in pre-med: “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. After taking comparative anatomy and slicing people open, I realized that this was not working out for me.” Wired for science, he follows a data-driven approach to marketing religiously. Villar peppers his talks with acronyms from ARPU to CAC to UGC SEO, using metaphors culled from poker, casino and slot machines (if you start to see a theme here, “Paid marketing success is just controlled gambling,” he confirms.) The guy has digital marketing down to a hard science. Back home in the Philippines—also known as ‘America junior’—Villar runs an agency called Growth Rocket for e-commerce clients, most of them based in America. In his former life, he failed miserably at starting up (twice) and lead marketing for a few companies including ZipMatch, a real-estate marketplace, also a portfolio company of 500 Startups. In 2016, ZipMatch sent Villar to Distro Dojo, another startup program under the brand of 500. “500 Distro Dojo is growth marketing accelerator that invests and trains startups around the world,” reads a message on the official website. Villar still fondly remembers the intensive program: “The beauty of programs like these is that you gain access to experts. Apart from Saalim (Chowdhury) there were a couple of other experts who flew in and just looked at the products and rapid-fired ideas to improve.” 

When Saalim Chowdhury, director of the Saola program, put out a feeler on his LinkedIn to see whether anyone was interested in coming to Vietnam to mentor startups, Villar was among the first to answer. “When you transition into an established industry or a cushy job, you kinda miss feeling alive. You miss that urgency where everyone is on the same page and not just kicking back and becoming complacent. Startups bring that out, and you don’t see that a lot anymore. This week has been really invigorating for me,” he talks of working with the Saola startups. He continues: “I miss the pace. I miss the problem-solving. The problem-solving in startups is unparalleled, something you’ll hardly see in a traditional, established enterprise. Every day you’re solving a new problem. That makes you feel alive.” 

While pushing the startup founders to conduct growth experiment at the same high speed, Villar also wants them to reflect on the core of their stories. Amid a whirlwind of a week in Vietnam, Villar sits down with 500 Startups to talk paid marketing, founder support, and modern customer courtship:


Have the 10K-foot view

“To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Villar cites the law of the instrument as the main reason marketers are wasting resources. “But once you see the whole picture, you don’t become defensive if one channel doesn’t work. You typically see that with specialists, people who say, ‘We’re gonna make everything happen with SEO.’ No you’re not. Because that just doesn’t work. You have to take a step back and look at everything and form a holistic understanding of it,” he adds. Villar encourages sharing this vision with the whole team: “People need to be able to correlate the work that they do for the company with the bigger picture, and not a lot of companies do that. Again, you need to be able to zoom out and have the 10K-foot view, as opposed to be myopic.” 


Jab, jab, jab, right hook

Back in 2017, Cision anticipated that “the biggest change [to paid media] will be a pivot to storytelling and relationship building.” Villar echoes other marketing professionals in this emphasis on story: “There’s no sale without the story; no knockout without the setup. Remember jab, jab, jab, right hook. If all you do is throw right hooks, you will get KTFO’d.”

Naturally drawn to narratives, Villar enjoys graphic novels and worldbuilding with his son. “My personal mission is to read my kid a bedtime story every night until he’s not interested in bedtime story anymore. What we both enjoy is the choose-your-own-adventure kind of story. And those don’t have books. I’d lay down a scenario for him and basically ask him to choose what he’s going to do as a character in the story. For example, I’d tell my kid a story, ‘You are an intergalactic astronaut who fights evil. You see a spaceship in the horizon, what are you going to do? Are you going to approach it, or are you going to run away?’ That kind of story.”


Extract the ‘why’ from the data

A story, by definition, needs a point. As Villar puts it, “there’s always a story behind the data. I always tell my analytics team that everyone can put a report together. With digital marketing, there are so many data points that sometimes people are obsessed with very shallow metrics: email open rate, email click rate, post engagements, etc. The question you should be asking is how that influences your brand, and how that drives the bottom line. How does that translate into value for your client? Piece that story together and put things into narratives.”


Take care of your engine before burning more fuel

When asked about a daily habit, Villar cites meditation as the most nourishing. As with many startup founders, a lot of what he does is self-imposed suffering. Villar recommends meditation for startup founders who’re dealing with anxiety: “At the end of the day, you take a step back and you feel like everything is okay. If you zoom into the everyday chaos of your life, everything feels hopeless and f*cked and there’s no end in sight. But if you could excuse yourself from that battle, climb up the mountain top and feel like ‘okay, I just need to do this and this,’ then it’s not that bad.” 

Villar knows too well that founders don’t have the luxury of work-life balance, but agrees that a part of VC funding should go into making sure founders don’t crash and burn. Sitting in 500 Startups office with a coffee in his hand at 6PM, he shares: “I don’t buy into this hustle-until-you-die culture. At the end of the day, you should still care for your health. Hug your kids. Do whatever makes you happy.” He then returns to taking evening calls with his team based in Los Angeles and Manila.


Written by Lace Nguyen

NOTE: This article reflects the personal views of Lace Nguyen and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.

San Francisco
814 Mission St., 6th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103, USA

© 2010-2019 500 Startups

Road to Demo Day: a founder’s perspective

Road to Demo Day: a founder’s perspective

Guest Post: Kela Ivonye is the CEO and co-founder of MailHaven, a smart mailbox that tracks and protects your packages. 

Demo Day is an invite-only event hosted by 500 Startups for investors to get a first look at the startups from the accelerator program, meet the founders, and network with other attendees.

For founders, it’s the culmination of four months of hard work. As a batch company at 500 Startups, you start preparing for your last day on Day 1. That two-minute pitch on stage at Demo Day is our opportunity to show hundreds of top-tier investors what we’ve been working on.

The first thing Batch 22 learned about Demo Day was to have fun, be genuine, and to own and tell your story. The message from 500 was clear: You belong here. And you deserve to show your hard work to a crowd of great investors.

But that doesn’t mean the road to Demo Day was without its bumps.

“Is This Useful?”

Our cohort had all types of personalities: Outgoing, reserved, critical and optimistic.

So, some activities were met with skepticism. For example, acting coaching. Not everyone immediately saw the value in meeting with an acting coach. For me, it came in handy right before I presented. For an engineer, a storytelling session might seem like a waste of time, but it proved to be critical to learning how to make your passion resonate with others.

We were also taught techniques to ease our nerves. Nervousness is natural, but preparation can help minimize it.


We practiced, practiced and practiced some more. Practice is the key to a successful presentation. It’s the ultimate equalizer. Whether you’re a veteran presenter or a novice, with enough practice there is no difference. This was a calming factor for my cohort. There’s no need to fear presenting, as long as you practice enough. Shoot for more than 100 renditions. After that, it will come naturally. You won’t have to rely on memorized words because your mind will readily offer up a synonym for any word you forget.

And the 500 mentors were there for us each and every time. “We are here and will be available at your request to practice morning, afternoon and evening. Those who take advantage of this are proven to do the best job,” they said.

Have Fun

We were encouraged to have fun while we worked and to take breaks to enjoy the company of our cohort. Every Friday, a different startup hosted a happy hour. The two happy hours leading up to Demo Day were the best. In the penultimate week, I saw our cohort grow even closer.

One of the antidotes for our Demo Day anxiety was the time we spent together. I’d like to talk more about it, but what happens in Batch 22, stays in Batch 22. 😉



“Building a startup is hard, but building one alone is even harder,” is a quote founders hear a lot.

Demo Day was a team effort, and the work the MailHaven team performed behind the scenes was the most important. Leading up to Demo Day, they allowed me to focus solely on my pitch for a week, while they took on running our startup. And on Demo Day, my one job as presenter was to be high energy and trust that my practice and repetition would get me through.

At 9am, we started setting up, my energy was high and the rest of the cohort were giving each other motivational high fives and taking photos while we worked. In the fleeting moments of our time together physically, the need to capture the excitement was irresistible.

By time the pitches started, I was so excited to help my cohort and Mailhaven make sure the audience would not forget our stories. And while Demo Day was the grand finale to our program, it’s really only the beginning in building our companies.

Demo Day in the Words of Batch 22 Founders

Tomi – Mobile Forms

“Preparing for Demo Day was filled with a lot of ups and down. I had a unique challenge, how do I describe an African problem to an audience based several thousand miles away and who have probably never been to Africa before? I started by putting my story on a word document and sharing with colleagues and batch mates to get feedback. The feedback was mixed. Some got the problem, others struggled to understand. This gave me nightmares. I spent days locked up in my room until I got something that spoke to 90% of the crowd – and Boom! I rewrote my story. Kept working on my pitch.

By Demo Day, my pitch story and I had become one. So, when I took the stage I spoke with my heart and the rest was for the audience to decide. I was super happy to hear we were featured No. 2 standout pitch on the day. I nailed it!!!!!! :)”

Shuo – Mira Financial

“It was fun seeing everything come together on Demo Day and every company sharing their vision.”

Charu – NextPlay

“It was a unique opportunity to share our progress in front of 300+ investors and media. We got featured on TechCrunch, built a pipeline for fundraising and, more than anything else, it was a Once-in-a-Lifetime experience that we shared with our batch mates who have become lifelong friends.”

Vittorio – BotSociety

“Demo Day was an incredible experience. Think about the day you graduated mixed with investor-speed-dating mixed with the adrenaline of stepping on a stage in front of 400 people. It has changed how we communicate company goals and achievements. Being a chatbot design company means that we are used to designing long conversations. We tended to do that as well when talking about the company itself. We are now able to condense to two sharp minutes. That would have never happened without DemoDay.”

Srikant – Curio.io

“Preparing for Demo Day actually helped us really make our pitch razor sharp and tell our story as efficiently as possible. The day itself was quite exhilarating and it was great to have Curio.io be shown off to so many investors and people in the media.”

If you’re interested in Saola Accelerator Demo Day, get the latest updates via our newsletter and Facebook page.


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© 2010-2019 500 Startups

5 things you’ll learn in the 500 Startups’ accelerator program

5 things you’ll learn in the 500 Startups’ accelerator program

Written by Poornima Vijayashanker

As a founder you might be thinking, “Is a startup accelerator program worth my time? What could I possibly learn from a startup accelerator program that I couldn’t just learn on my own?”

I’d say if you have a network filled with prospective investors, employees, customers, and attorneys who have years of expertise on the ins and outs of your the particular market and industry your company is serving, and of course, the time to share all of it, you’re all set 😉

Don’t have it all? Here are 5 things you’ll learn, specifically from the 500 Startups’ accelerator!

PreMoney 2018

1. The startup accelerator program keeps up-to-date on what is going on in the fundraising market.

The fundraising market is continuously in flux.

One area of flux is the amount of investment. In a span of 15 years, the private investment market has gone from contracting to expanding to contracting again. Many factors contribute to this caterpillar effect, here are a couple:

Fundraising typically expands during a period where companies have exited by either going public or have gotten acquired. As a result, founders decide to put their new funds to use by becoming an angel investor or contributing to private investment funds in hopes of receiving better returns than what public markets are providing at the time. Venture capitalists operate the same but manage other people’s money and receive it from limited partners.

Contraction soon follows an expansionary period, and how much depends on if there was a glut of companies that received funding, who couldn’t raise additional capital, were not able to successfully exit, or if limited partners and angel investors start pulling back and scrutinizing investment practices and areas. Usually, they go into a holding period until one of their investments has successfully exited.

As a busy startup founder, do you think you’ll have time to keep up with the flux?

In the 500 Startups’ Accelerator, our staff is dedicated to keeping up with these trends. You’ll have an opportunity to meet with them, and learn what matters to the success of your company, such as:

  • how to grow your company to attract investment
  • how much capital you need to raise
  • which investors are actively looking at companies like yours and writing check
  • what are acceptable or unacceptable deal terms, for you and your investors

PreMoney 2018

2. The startup accelerator program knows how investors think and will prep you for meetings.

Another area of flux is how investors evaluate companies for the various stages of funding, e.g., Seed, Series A, B, C and so on. Here are a couple of examples of this flux:

10-15 years ago, a first-time founder who had built a prototype (irrespective of the industry they were disrupting) could probably get meetings with investors and raise around $250K of seed capital to get going. Fast forward, and today, first-time founders better have traction, traction, traction, and know what that means concerning their industry and business model. Not to mention having answers to questions like why now, why them, why they chose specific distribution channels, and how their product is defensible?

The investors who previously wrote $25-$50K checks to 10-20 founders are now deploying larger checks to fewer founders.

Plus, it’s hard to tell how an investor is evaluating your company.

  • Did they say no because they have 10 other similar investments?
  • Did they say no because they have seen 10 other similar investments fail?
  • Did they say no because have talked to 10 founders like yourself, and they don’t think you and your team are the ones to execute?
  • Did they say no because they think the market you are going after is contracting?
  • Did they say no because they don’t understand how the market you are going after is expanding?

Hard to say, and you probably won’t get a ton of detailed feedback even if you ask! However, having invested in 2000+ companies, you can count on 500 Startups to teach you what will and won’t resonate with other investors.

500 Blockchain Track

3. The startup accelerator program connects you to other founders. You can learn how other founders run their companies.

Everyone has their style of leadership, but entrepreneurship can get pretty lonesome without a trusted peer group to lean on.

The 500 Startups’ Accelerator provides co-working as part of its 3-month startup accelerator making the daily grind a lot more manageable and friendly.

Here’s why other founders found it invaluable:

“At the low-point of my startup, I had a serious founder issue that I could only chat with my fellow 500 Startup founders. Thanks to 500 Startups’ accelerator for the great friends and family, who provided me solid advice and support when I was down.” — Aaron Blumenthal

500 Batch 24 Demo Day

4. The startup accelerator program stays up-to-date on the legal landscape.

If you’ve launched a product and are making money, do you need to worry about legal?

You have probably received advice like: “You don’t need an attorney to start a company!”

It’s when there’s a “people problem” staring right at you, such as a disgruntled employee, co-founder issue, or customer complaint that you think about getting legal counsel.

Even waiting until things go well is too late. Founders who start looking for counsel when they need an LOI, convertible note, or some other legal document drawn up become THE bottleneck to closing deals!

Not to mention that business law is also in flux.

Do you know what general solicitation means?

Case in point, as a founder you need to know what the boundaries of doing business are in the US and abroad. 500 Startups brings in attorneys to give talks and share best practices around building a company. They also showcase what to look for and how to work with legal counsel.

This alone ends up saving you $$$$.

500 Batch 20 Demo Day

5. The startup accelerator program provides access to growth marketers and growth marketing techniques

“There are many marketing channels. I’ll try them all till I find the one that works!”

However, do you have the budget, time, and energy?

You might think of hiring an agency or a growth hacker, but finding, vetting, and hiring them can be challenging!

The challenge with going with an agency is that they typically require a 6–12-month retainer and usually a minimum of $3K-$5K per month, not including ad spend. In case you’re curious ad spend, depending on your market, could be a minimum of $2K to $10K+ per month.

Hiring a growth hacker is similar to the agency, you’d need to hire someone on an ongoing contract and set aside funds for the ad spend.

The other BIG issue is that if you hire a growth hacker-slash-agency when you aren’t sure which channels your customers are on, you will blow through a fair amount of money running experiments. Of course, growth hackers and agencies don’t mind. They are getting paid to run experiments regardless.

Moreover, while they do their best, they cannot guarantee results immediately, which is why they ask for the retainer.

At the 500 Startups’ Accelerator, we’ll walk you through experiments, and help you optimize the results.

The 500 Startups’ Accelerator assigns each company an advisor focused on distribution. Their sole role is to help you grow, grow, grow.

These are experts who know what is and isn’t going to work and why, which saves you time, money, and energy!

Chandini Ammineni who runs 500 Startups’ growth program says:

“Startup founders tend to do what’s the next coolest thing in marketing, instead of what is right for them. Part of that is lacking focus and not knowing how to prioritize. The 500 Startups growth program, helps startup founders figure out next steps for the stage of their company. We have people on staff who have worked with hundreds of early-stage startups and have amassed a wealth of knowledge. They know what does and doesn’t work based on the size of a company, customer segment, product type, pricing, and other factors.”


NOTE: This post first appeared on 500.co under the title “5 Things You’ll Learn In The 500 Startups’ Accelerator Program


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More on Saola Accelerator

More on Saola Accelerator

Image: 500 Seed Accelerator Batch 23

This is a “saola”, a long-horned ox so rare that it’s often called an “Asian unicorn.” (nevermind that it has two horns!). Saolas are found almost exclusively in Vietnam.

I believe there are other Asian unicorns to be found in Vietnam, which is why 500 Startups Vietnam is pleased to announce the launch of the Saola Accelerator, our version of 500’s flagship program in San Francisco with local experts weighing in. It’s the right time to build a springboard for Vietnam’s next tech unicorns. Read on for more information about the current landscape, what Saola aims to do, and what kind of startups we’re looking for!

(tl;dr — Apply here now: bit.ly/500saola)


The Current Startup Landscape, Briefly

Vietnam has shown how much it can do with very few resources. From one of the world’s poorest economies in 1990, it has averaged nearly 7% annual growth since; no wonder Bloomberg has called Vietnam “Asia’s newest tiger economy“. The BBC has even speculated that this country could become the next Silicon Valley, though I would like to think that Vietnam’s entrepreneurs are building something else, with meaningful value-add especially to the world’s emerging economies.

Early-stage Vietnamese startup founders are symbolic of this scrappiness. They have demonstrated the courage to take the entrepreneurial leap, the heartfelt candor to attract early hires, and the all-in hustle to hack out a product and bring on customers, and they have done this with very little financing and experienced guidance compared with more mature ecosystems. Some startups have hit meaningful scale anyways, such as VNG (thought to be Vietnam’s first unicorn), Sendo (closed $51M Series D led by Softbank Korea), Topica EdTech (closed $50M Series D led by North Star Group), and Momo (closed $28M from Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered Bank). They’re empowered not only by the pursuit of financial gain, but by the desire to benefit Vietnam as a whole and to bring Southeast Asia up to par with any developed region of the world. Hence the presence of 500 Startups Vietnam and our belief in the birth of more unicorns to come.


First-Stage Accelerators

Being a founder may be one of the loneliest jobs in the world, but they shouldn’t have to “go it alone”. In more developed startup ecosystems, there are usually many accelerators. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 700 accelerators (Crunchbase searchBrookings Institute study), providing financing, knowledge, skills, access to customers, hands-on operations & growth help, and/or social & emotional support. 500 Startups, Y Combinator, Techstars, and Mass Challenge are among the more notable accelerators. Yet many other accelerators struggle or fail, due to various reasons including too little mentorship, lack of business development, misaligned stakeholders, and others. (Read: it’s really hard to run an accelerator!)

Vietnam is plainly earlier in this journey. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, there are fewer than 50 self-described accelerators and incubators. The most active programs include:
– Topica Founder Institute (TFI), the Vietnam chapter of global startup launch program Founder Institute
– Vietnam Silicon Valley (VSV), a public-private partnership with the government of Vietnam
– Vietnam Innovative Startup Accelerator (VIISA), a joint venture between local technology company FPT and investment firm Dragon Capital

These programs have generally worked with founders in their earliest stages, as reflected by their programming (e.g. TFI’s) and their investment amounts (TFI – N/A, VSV – $20KVIISA – $15K). Yet several notable Vietnamese tech startups have emerged, such as Appota (TFI), WeFit (TFI and VIISA), Lozi (VSV), and WisePass (VIISA). The programs have played a role in startup formation and founder education, which is why we’ve been happy to spend time with participating founders in trainings, mentor sessions, etc. However, Vietnam has been lacking in programs specifically for founders that are ready to scale.

500 Startups Vietnam has been aiming to fill the gap with our straight seed investment:

  • We have invested very actively. We invested in 18 startups from 2016 to 2017, which made us the most active VC investor in Vietnam over that time (compared with other investors in TFI’s 2016 and 2017 annual market reports). And our 2018 startup total has surpassed our combined total of the prior two years.
  • We have offered a variety of tactical business support, including connecting founders with potential key hires and business partners, supporting PR, reviewing UX and IT infrastructure, etc.
  • We have provided advice for fundraising including strategy, messaging, and connections.

I’m pleased to say that most of our startups are making substantial progress so far. Among those we invested in more than 1 year ago, more than 70% have raised additional capital or exited. Our startups have raised more than $90 million from downstream capital. 3 companies are already “centaurs” or on track to be soon. 2 companies have closed money from Sequoia. 1 company has been acquired.

But there’s so much more to be done: investing in more startups, supporting our portfolio companies scale to greater heights, and generally helping to elevate the ecosystem.


Announcing the Saola Accelerator

Since our first Silicon Valley accelerator batch in 2010, 500 Startups has worked with 1,000 companies in more than 40 program batches around the world, including the Americas (e.g. San Francisco, Mexico City, Miami), Europe (e.g. London, Stockholm, Berlin), the Middle East, and Asia (e.g. Seoul, Kuala Lumpur). Lots of hard lessons learned during that time, but we think we’ve gotten pretty good at it. 500 Startups is often called one of the top accelerator programs in the U.S. (including Forbes and Entrepreneur); and we even teach best practices to other accelerator managers.

We’re excited to bring that experience to Vietnam. We’ll invite one of our experienced partners to direct the accelerator and have an all-star cast of folks to help localize the program and work closely with participating companies. I’m also excited to be doing this in partnership with GS Shop, Korea’s foremost retailer with a very active corporate venture team (nearly 500 direct and indirect portfolio companies internationally). GS Shop and 500 Startups have had a close relationship for years, with investments and collaborations spanning from Korea to the U.S. and the Middle East. GS Shop plans to send aides to the program and also match 500VN’s investment in select portfolio companies.

This all means that participants in our accelerator program can get

  • MOAR support — scientific, actionable, no-bullshit help — from our accelerator team members with real experience on strategy, product, marketing, sales, & business development, fundraising, and international expansion.
  • MOAR money. US$100,000 net investment from 500 Startups Vietnam, plus a potential additional US$100,000 from GS Shop for select startups
  • MOAR perks. Access to US$500,000 in perks (free or discounted services) from more than twenty 500 Startups partners including Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.
  • MOAR community. The global 500 Startups family of more than 2,000 founders and mentors are here to support each other, be it resource allocation or wrestling with the most difficult questions 24/7.

As with any of 500’s programs, I expect that we will make some mistakes and need to adjust some things along the way. But overall we’re aiming for this to be a transformative experience for not only participating startups but also for the broader Vietnam startup ecosystem!


What We’re Looking For

Any startup can apply if it (a) is a tech or tech-enabled startup, and (b) has a Vietnam connection (e.g. serving the Vietnam market, having a Vietnamese co-founder, and/or having a meaningful portion of the team in Vietnam)

Those are just basic criteria. From there, we’re looking for startups with several of the following:

  • Great founders with commitment, integrity, speed, coachability, and resilience
  • Compelling product that is truly solving a real pain point, and doing so substantially better and/or cheaper than competing solutions. Bonus points for companies using deeper technology.
  • Big market opportunity, e.g. large and/or fast-growing
  • Meaningful traction. Founders often ask us what number they should hit before applying for funding. Unfortunately there’s no single metric or fixed level for this. Each business has its own numerical story to tell. Check out these posts by a16z for an idea of some metrics that we may look at.

Apply here now! bit.ly/500saola
Early Bird / Early Unicorn deadline: January 2, 2019 (your best chance to get in!)
Regular deadline: January 20, 2019

Late deadline: February 15, 2019 (applications are still considered)

PS: thanks for the regional coverage from:
Tech in Asia,
Vietnam Economic Times,
Nhip Cau Dau Tu,
Vietnam Investment Review,
and others!

NOTE: this article first appeared on 500’s website under the title “Announcing the Saola Accelerator in Vietnam”.

This article reflects the personal views of Eddie Thai, and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.

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© 2010-2019 500 Startups