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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