Running a business in a communist country

The evidence, as best as I can read it, suggests that for any given culture and level of education, the greater the freedom to compete and the stronger the rule of law, the greater the material wealth produced. – Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence

In his book, Greenspan emphasizes the importance of deregulation and argues that the economy works best when people have the freedom to make their own financial decisions. 

It’s pretty true in Vietnam. I’ve been working here for 4 months now, and this is what I’ve learned so far:

You need permits and licenses for just about everything

You need a permit to hold an event. If it includes a musical performance, then you have to invite a government official to a full rehearsal a few days before the event. After he sees the entire program he will then make a decision whether or not to give you the permit. You also need a permission to sell tickets (i.e. pay extra tax on the numbers of tickets sold) and a separate license to be able to advertise your event. All of which involves lobbying. 

Corruption with a capital C

Corruption is everywhere. But it’s not as visible and as welcome as it is here. People readily expect to be bribed to do their job. This includes the police officers, the firemen, the customs officers, the cleaning staff… And the owners of the biggest indoor stadium in Ho Chi Minh City.  You cannot get anything done without money.

People don’t Google

Due to the heavily regulated media, much of what’s going on overseas isn’t being translated and not a lot of people speak English. Despite Google’s successful presence in Vietnam, any new proven concept still has to come with a ton of instructions. And so every business has to educate its customers. E.g. The biggest ticketing company in Vietnam provides instructions on their home page on how to buy a ticket. Event organizers have to explain where to buy a ticket in much greater detail & banks have to explain how to use a credit card. According to Reuters, 20 percent of Vietnam’s population of 87 million have a bank account.

You can skip steps

This is a great “side effect” actually. Due to the stagnation caused by heavy regulation, you don’t have to learn through trial and error as much. Some other developed country has done that for you and so you can just apply what has worked in other markets to your business.

*I wrote this post in 2014 while running Comic Con

Asia and its business card culture

‘Aren’t business cards outdated?’ I thought to myself the first time I received one in a meeting. Then I received another one, and another one, until I realized I will be receiving them at every business meeting. Granted, I come from the startup world. I realize there are times when business cards are still very useful, especially in big corporations. But I thought I was running a startup in Vietnam. How you greet people in Asian cultures seemed just as important as how you hand out your business card.

The process is the same every time – If you’re younger (which I always was), as you say hello, you hand over your card with both hands and if possible, you give a little bow. You do this to every person in the room, until all members have received your card and you receive theirs. Make sure to start with whoever has the highest position. If you’re older, you still hand out your card, but you don’t make the first move. That’s what I was supposed to do, but I never did.

I would be throwing these stacks of cards away thinking how bad this was for the environment because people are using paper for redundant purposes. I would wonder why people wouldn’t use their smartphones and if it’s really necessary to get one every single time. I refused to make one for myself and my co-founder, even though I knew we were the younger ones, so we were technically more obligated to follow the customs. At a lot of the meetings I already knew their names and had their phone numbers to begin with, which made me feel even more awkward. From producers, to managers, to receptionists, regardless of gender or age, I would be getting their card.  

Then I realized that I don’t have to understand. After a lot of inner rebellion and resistance, I realized I’m the odd one out here. If I met a Japanese in Europe and he was chewing out loud, I would think he is being disrespectful. For him it would probably mean showing appreciation for the meal. Business cards should be looked at the same way. It’s become a part of the local culture that I should either respect or be considered disrespectful. Perhaps one day everybody will catch up and rely on their smartphones to exchange contact information, like I’m used to in the US. Or perhaps this will be the tradition for years to come. Either way, I don’t have to understand. 

*I wrote this post in 2014 while running Comic Con.