Xiaoban Café Organic Soya Desserts
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4 friends who started Xiao Ban's dream in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City

The 4 friends do not speak Vietnamese, but get by with a personal assistant who can translate, store managers who speak English, and copious use of Google Translate, says Mr Picasso Hong, Chief Business Officer of Asia-Pacific, with a laugh.

attracted by its modernity, large population of over 90 million, and the fact that other big Singapore companies like Mapletree Investments and Keppel Land had invested there. Singapore is Vietnam's third-largest foreign investor, with investments of US$37.9 billion (S$52.9 billion).

Study trips by IE Singapore and the Singapore Manufacturing Federation introduced Xiao Ban to the business environment and mall owners there. But the company got what it calls its lucky break when it was invited to provide food at an SG50 celebration in Ho Chi Minh City two years ago.

"The response from local guests was very positive, and many asked when we will have an outlet," says Mr Yeow. Vietnam had just opened up the food sector then to allow fully foreign-owned outlets, so they decided to make a move.

Xiao Ban's first outlet - in November 2015 at Mapletree's SC VivoCity in Ho Chi Minh City - came hot on the heels of global names McDonald's and Starbucks. Soon after opening, it was visited by celebrity emcee Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, who surprised Xiao Ban by broadcasting a Facebook Live video of her visit to 1.7 million followers. She had tried the beancurd in Singapore on a visit.

But at the start, the reviews from customers were not all glowing. Mr Yeow says people thought it was a China company and doubted the food quality.The company even changed its signboards twice, from "Xiao Ban" in Chinese characters, which led customers to think the brand was from China, to "Xiao Ban Soya Singapore".

Focusing on the Singapore brand helps gain consumers' confidence, as it is well recognised for being ethical and trustworthy, says Mr Yeow.

Mr Hong adds: "We're excited about our prospects because more people are moving into the middle class, and we've seen the city grow."

Tips from Max Yeow

  • Be flexible and adapt to the culture. For example, you may need to adjust your branding by avoiding Chinese words.
  • Establish networks with local businessmen in the same trade, who can help you understand local business practices, as well as with successful foreign companies who may have contacts who can help when you encounter problems.
  • Focus on the Singapore brand - it is trusted by consumers.

Tips from IE Singapore

  • Consider going into hi-tech, urban development and environment sustainability areas, which the Vietnamese government has been encouraging as it hopes investors can bring in new technologies and knowledge.
  • Hold a long-term view. It is hard to compete with local businesses on pricing, so try to localize the business where possible and think about imparting skills and knowledge to the local workers.
  • Take note of the different cultures in north and south Vietnam when looking for business partners. Businessmen in the south tend to be more open-minded and direct, while those in the north tend to be more diplomatic and place more emphasis on building relationships before doing business.
Article as featured on International Enterprise (IE) Singapore published on 02 APR 2017.

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