“From tech to business, marketing, then back to tech, it was a long journey home for me,” says Doan Kieu My, Founder of YellowBlocks, the ecosystem builder that’s connecting Vietnam’s startups to the world.
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After just 8 months since its founding, YellowBlocks has built more than 60 strategic partnerships with major local and global names, boasting an extended reach of more than 100,000 audience in the tech and startup space. It also onboarded 80 guest advisors, each with decades of experience in different parts of the world. Everyone is eager to help Vietnam unleash its tech potential.
In July, YellowBlock is hosting the first ever elite cruise across the Saigon River, where major business-to-business stakeholders come aboard, literally. From their guestlist we already spot names like Viettel, SGInnovate, European Blockchain Hub, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, IBM, and Ernst & Young.
Awe-inspired by YellowBlocks’s rapid growth, we sit down with founder Doan Kieu My at their office to recap the journey that got them where they are today.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Doan Kieu My, but I often go by Kimiko. I’m a strategy consultant specialised in emerging technologies such as AI, Blockchain, Cloud and Data.
I founded YellowBlocks in 2018, which is my main commitment today. Besides that I’m the Chairwoman of Vietnam Node, a branch of European Blockchain Hub, and I double as Chief Marketing Officer at Startup Vietnam Foundation.
What problems does YellowBlocks solve? And how do you do it?
We like to think of ourselves as the gateway between Vietnam’s tech ecosystem and the world.
We aim to make Vietnam a more attractive destination for foreign investors. Venture capital firms now face a lot of informative and cultural barriers when discovering the Vietnamese market. For instance, it can take them months to find the right investment opportunities or a reliable piece of information. YellowBlocks is at the heart of the ecosystem, so we help them fast-track this process and point them towards exactly what they need.
The startup ecosystem of Vietnam is still fragmented. There need to be more collaborations and partnerships to realize its full potential. By connecting diverse groups of stakeholders, we help them tap into collective resources–and ultimately, solutions.
Cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as those among technicians, business people, and marketers are key to effective problem solving. Yet it is also challenging because people from these different fields don’t always speak the same language or work the same way. That’s where we come in and bridge the gap.
As technology advances, problems get more complicated, and solutions get more sophisticated. We offer communication and management strategy through our network of advisors. Our analysts and project managers help drive tough projects to their end results.
Which dots did you have to connect before the inception of YellowBlocks?
The first dot started when my parents gave me my first computer, at age 6. When I turned it on for the first time, I knew our world wouldn’t be the same. The computer felt like a whole new chapter full of possibilities.
I soon learned technology was a powerful tool capable of changing the way we organize our society. I knew early in life that I wanted to be where the change was–to be in tech. So 16 years later, I graduated with an engineering degree in one of the top European institutions.
However, by then I’d been familiar with the tech environment enough to know I didn’t want to sit at a computer all the time. I was most energized when I needed to bridge the communication gap between technicians and their business or management colleagues. I like a working environment where I could run fast and make things happen. So I took an MBA and ended up in business and marketing for a good 6 years. That was the second dot.
After a career leading multimillion-dollar marketing projects for brands like Coca Cola, I returned to the tech sphere in 2017. I got to meet many global partners and venture capital firms. I heard again and again that Vietnam was going to be the next big stop for investment in 5 to 10 years. It was first a prediction, then a lot of what happened in the past two years strengthened the statement.
I knew the time was right for me to step up and help build the tech ecosystem of Vietnam. That was the third dot, leading right up to the inception of YellowBlocks.
It took me a whole decade to connect the 3 once fragmented dots I’ve made into something unique and valuable to society. Along the way, I’ve been told that my technical degree was a waste of time, or that a marketing manager can’t speak in tech terms. But I’ve learned that engineering is an approach, and tech is an attitude. I’m a tech geek at heart, one obsessed with optimizing process and maximizing value. I’m glad this time the value I add is social impact, and not just money.
Let’s talk about your people. Which ‘blocks’ of humans is YellowBlocks made of?
We are essentially a diverse network of people synchronizing for same goal–to unleash the tech power of Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We want to harness the collective capability of the private sector, the academia, the government and the tech community.
The first block is our network of advisors such as David Lang and Tony Wheeler. They are experts with decades of experience in startup ecosystems from all over the world, captivated by the growth of Vietnam and ready to help accelerate that growth. We’re incredibly fortunate to be their trusted platform to make things happen.
The second block is our strategic partners–organizations working to build and cooperate in the ecosystem–who could reach tens of thousands of audience in the tech/startup space. They are universities, publications, accelerators, companies, and associations such as Nhip Cau Dau Tu (The Vietnam Business Review), Viettel, SGInnovate, European Blockchain Hub, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, IBM, and Ernst & Young.
The third block is YellowBlocks’s team of content creators, business analysts, and project managers. The first generation of Vietnamese growing up in the internet era, they are sharp learners and doers. They are eager to catalyze changes in their country. As colleagues, they are a wonderful source of energy to be around!
What have been your favourite moments ever since your start?
I was selected as a delegate at Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue this year, a bilateral initiative incubating collaboration between young leaders from a broad spectrum of society. YellowBlocks’ impact as a tech ecosystem builder was recognized alongside that of social entrepreneurs, artists, doctors and leaders–people who have built bridges, run funds, and saved lives.
We’re so happy that more and more people have recognized the tech industry for its potential of underpinning massive social and economic changes in the country. The supportive feedback both nationwide and internationally to YellowBlocks was more than we could ask for. We are only getting started; we can’t wait to show you the next big thing we’re on.
Startups are hard stuff. What were the challenges that you had to overcome?
Connecting and developing a tech ecosystem is intangible work, which sometimes is hard to convey. We have to be extra persistent when we onboard new partners or staff. The vision is long-term, so we need to build the right body of sustainable partnerships.
YellowBlocks was built from scratch. Like many startups, we have to maximize on limited resources and options. We’re building operations and doing business at the same time. We balance short-term gains and long-term strategy at the same time.
Because of that, sometimes I feel like a lonely juggler. But most times I’m astonished by how far the lonely juggler has come with her team. I think all startup founders and staff deserve a pat on the back for choosing the less traveled, often bumpier road.
What’s your business philosophy?
Having lived in Europe for years, my business philosophy was heavily influenced by the way the Europeans build their society–that is towards long-term cooperation, honesty, and integrity.
That means to do the right thing when not under watch. That also means to take a share of the cake so that there’s still cake for other people in the room. If you want to take a bigger slice, you have to help others make a bigger cake!
That’s why partnerships with YellowBlocks are always win-win-win. The first two win’s are for you and me. The last win is for society. This also speaks to the Vietnamese value of community. After thousands of years thriving on an agricultural economy, the Vietnamese are essentially collectivists who like to care for one another.
My working style, however, failed to be as relaxed as the Europeans and Vietnamese I know. I work with a lot of workaholic Americans (laughs). Over time I’ve internalized their work ethics and passion for delivering results.
What makes you confident about your company and the future of Vietnam?
I was convinced to be confident in Vietnam by experts in the field. The country continues to grow at an unprecedented speed for the past decades, dubbed a ‘miracle’ by World Economic Forum. Google’s third e-Conomy Southest Asia 2018 Report compared the internet economy in Vietnam to a dragon being set free.
Just last month, I joined a national think tank hosted by our government where we laid out a digital strategy spearheading transformative efforts in science, innovation, and technology. That gave me an overwhelming stream of thoughts on what we could achieve in the near future.
Imagine Vietnam in 2025. What will the startup ecosystem look like? Where will YellowBlocks be in that ecosystem?
Today Vietnam already embraces foreign expertise together with local specialty. Within 6 years, the tech and business population will enjoy much more open access to structured, curated, and transparent information. Many legal and social barriers will be removed.
We also expect that the local ecosystem, exposed to international frameworks, will mature closer to global standards. This will unlock tremendous investing opportunities in the tech space.
YellowBlocks will still be a boutique consulting firm. We’ll have built case studies and a decent reputation by then. Together with the rise of the startup ecosystem, we’ll enjoy more business and impact opportunities. There is a lot of work for us now. There will be a lot of work for us in the future.