When Vietnamese people hear the name Gcalls, many are quick to remember that it was the first technology startup to receive a one million–dollar investment from Vina Capital through the reality television show Shark Tank Vietnam. Few imagine the tough but exciting road the company’s young founders have had to navigate even after securing funding.
Nguyen Xuan Bang (left) and Pham Tan Phuc presenting on Shark Tank Vietnam, a reality television show. — VNA/VNS Photo
Gcalls is an integrated call management centre that helps micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) optimise digital resources and upgrade their sales and service capacity.
It has developed a web-based call center. The startup’s software breaks down communication barriers between buyers and sellers. It allows anyone to shop on any e-commerce site regardless of connection speed.
No pain, no gain
Pham Tan Phuc and Nguyen Xuan Bang, both born in the early 1990s, graduated from HMC City’s Polytechnic University with degrees in engineering. The two boys had nursed the idea of starting an IT company since their first year at the university.
During their university years and shortly thereafter, they worked for technology companies to learn basic business practices and prepare to run a startup.
“When choosing a part-time job, I always asked to work in sales or marketing to learn how to seek customers for our product in the future,” said Phuc.
Phuc and Bang’s first project, called Clicknow, started in 2010 with the idea of building a social network for companies to share office events and join in friendly competitions.
“This was my first startup,” said Phuc. “I was the business developer. I still remember the day I reached out to five guys with a text message: ‘Hey, do you want to change your life and the world? I’m serious, let’s start a business.’”
To secure startup capital, the group of six applied to extend the tuition fee at their university and collected more than VND12 million (US $513) to buy equipment. With so many strong, young personalities in the group, they failed to focus their product development – the most important aspect of the project. Each member of the team had an idea of the direction they should go; failure was inevitable.
After their first venture failed, Phuc and Bang started an app called HRkey, a social network map for recruitment based on spatial data.
They chose this project because while businesses are struggling to find qualified employees, university graduates still cannot find good jobs.
“To get businesses’ attention, we both applied to work at recruiting firms,” said Bang. “When we got to the end of our interviews and the recruiters asked if we had any questions, we introduced our app.”
“I know we surprised a lot of people because our product was exactly what they needed.”
But once again, the two entrepreneurs failed to build lasting success. Although HRkey met consumer needs, it was hard to make it profitable in Viet Nam because each enterprise has its own recruitment process. It was too difficult to create a universal product, and building custom software for each business was too expensive.
After the project died, Bang decided to study abroad while Phuc created an app called Thasa anti-fake map. This project secured a US $3,000 investment from the World Bank, but eventually fizzled out because there was not enough funding to implement it on a national level.
Despite the string of failures, Bang and Phuc were not discouraged.
While working for e-commerce companies to make a living, Phuc realised the potential of the e-commerce market in Viet Nam and the world. The development of this sector has increased the number of exchanges between buyers and sellers, but long-distance telecommunications infrastructure in the country is not stable enough to keep up.
After listening to Phuc’s pitch, Bang decided to return to Viet Nam in 2015 to help start Gcalls to enable users to exchange information more efficiently.
Perseverance and consensus
With Gcalls, they were determined to build the product base from the beginning. They identified small and medium enterprises as the target customers to attract before developing it for other groups.
"I sent information to investment funds everywhere although it was very difficult to get feedback,” Phuc recalled. “At that time, we had not come out with a specific product. Our business was just two guys and a paper describing the product.”
After many introductions, word of the project reached Australia Telstra Telecommunication Corporation. Telstra asked Phuc and Bang to set up a business in Singapore and invested SGD40,000 (US $29,109) in the project through the Muru-D fund.
“We were lucky to land this investment to fund the first phase of the project,” said Phuc.
It could be luck, but the founders of Gcalls had focused market research and a clearly defined business vision by the time they attracted their first foreign investor.
After Telstra, Gcalls received capital from a number of other investors totaling 280,000 SGD so far. To reach the rest of the region, Gcalls is still looking for new strategic investors.
“In Viet Nam, what you do today, someone else will do tomorrow,” said Phuc “At the time Gcalls was created it was pioneering, but now, there are many similar applications. This is a challenge but also an opportunity.” — VNS