#Asia 3 startups, 3 subscription boxes…a new wave rises in Vietnam

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Meet Jouet Box, Ma Belle Box and 2Guys1Box. With diverse offerings and positive word-of-mouth, these startups are looking to be first movers in a new market

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In the US, there’s a wide selection of monthly subscription box services to choose from. For example, many people have heard of Ipsy, Birchbox, and Loot Crate (that deliver geek- and gamer-oriented products) — which are just a few of these kinds of companies. According to Bloomberg, Ipsy, a cosmetics services company founded by Michelle Phan, raised US$100 million last year. And competitor Birchbox, raised US$60 million in 2014, reported Recode. Both services are reported to have annual run rates of over US$100 million, so clearly there is a demand and opportunity in this space.

However, in Vietnam there are many challenges to these kinds of fulfillment services: low consumer credit card adoption rates, the logistics of transporting goods to irregularly-numbered addresses, consumers’ skeptical perception of so-called quality products, Collect On Delivery (COD) policies and expectations, and a potentially uphill battle in educating consumers about a new business model.

Despite these hurdles, three subscription box startups launched last year in Vietnam (all within several months of each other), hoping to be the first movers in this new space and leading the way for similar services.

Jouet Box

In Hanoi, Dieu Linh Nguyen, CEO and Founder of Jouet Box (jouet means toy in French), created the first kids toys box subscription in Vietnam, and it launched in November. Nguyen, who studied tourism in university, continued on to France to study hospitality in 2006 and worked in that industry until 2015. During her time there, she witnessed a huge difference between the average childhood experience in Europe and in Vietnam in terms of education, entertainment, communication, behaviour and general way of thinking — which led her to want to do something impactful for Vietnamese children.

When she first returned to Vietnam with her husband a few years ago, they had the idea to create entertainment centres for children (the couple has a young son), since there were not many places for children to enjoy themselves but the required investment proved to be too costly. Yet, there always was a desire to help Vietnamese children and that’s how Jouet Box slowly emerged.

Jouet Box aims to bring to kids a new way to play by allowing them to make their own toys in creative ways via the kids toy box. Another benefit is that this box will also help parents save time from searching for toys every month, in order to bring their kids something new and interesting.

Nguyen points out that there are challenges to developing the enterprise ecosystem — namely, quality of ideas which don’t take into consideration whether or not there is a market for the end product beyond the founder’s friends and family. Another huge challenge is the lack of human resources development in Vietnamese companies. “Startups in Vietnam need to invest more in people,” she says. Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to become an employee in a startup because it will allow for the development of knowledge, skills and capability in a good environment.

“I now see an explosion of startups in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City,” says Linh. “It’s a good sign. That means people find Vietnam to be a potential market. While it is on the road of development, it needs many new ideas, and startups can bring those ideas to life,” she adds.

For this year, her target is to reach 3,000 active customers by mid-2016 and to be the leader for toy box subscriptions in Vietnam.

Also Read: Is it still too early for co-working spaces in Vietnam?

Me Belle Box

Down in Ho Chi Minh City, Ma Belle Box — the first beauty subscription box in Vietnam — launched in June 2015. Ma Belle Box was founded by Marion Vigot, who arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two-and-a-half years ago after studying in both her native France and England. Previously, she had been involved in different startups in France and Vietnam, focussing on digital strategy and communication. “Beauty has always been one of my passions, and linking these two things in a country where opportunities are growing seemed a natural evolution for me,” Vigot says.

Ma Belle Box only works with officially-distributed beauty brands since there is a big problem with a wide range of online and offline shops selling beauty products that are not official or regulated. Often, Vietnamese consumers ask their friends who are abroad to bring back beauty (as well as other) products so that they definitely know the products are authentic. So part of Ma Belle Box’s mission is to “grow the beauty market, promote official beauty brands, and educate the customers [of] the risks of getting cheaper, non-registered, [and] potentially unsafe products in Vietnam,” according to Vigot.

“The environment (in Ho Chi Minh City) is really attractive, and there are loads of possibilities. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I rapidly understood the huge gap between Europe and Vietnam in the beauty industry. That made me want to bring something I knew from Europe, beauty box subscriptions, to Vietnamese women,” she says.

Until now, there was no avenue that would allow Vietnamese consumers to receive customised and select beauty surprises to try at home. Thus began a long period of market research for Vigot, practically since she arrived in Vietnam because it was essential for her to see the potential of the project and study the market from the inside.

Vigot advises aspiring entrepreneurs to do their research and know their market well before starting. “It is vital to know your market and potential customers before launching anything. If you don’t carry out research you are guessing, and building a business on a guess is not sustainable,” she says.

As for the future, Ma Belle Box is currently looking to hire a business development and strategy manager as well as to raise funding this year. The team is currently focussed on Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi where it wants to increase customer base and then expand outwards from there.

A new edition of Ma Belle Box is available every two months, and the team is currently preparing the launch of the fourth Edition at the beginning of 2016.

Also Read: From New York to Ho Chi Minh: A 12-year startup journey and a big exit

2Guys1Box (2G1B)

And finally, another mashup: two Hanoians who studied in the US and then eventually moved to Ho Chi Minh City to found 2Guys1Box, a monthly product discovery service tailored for Vietnamese consumers. The boxes range in price from VND 369,000 (US$16) and VND 499,000 (US$22) depending on the pre-order length of time of three to 12 months.

The startup, co-founded by Nguyen Quang Thai and Nguyen Dang Khoa, seeks to provide a new form of experiential shopping by building up anticipation in consumers each month in order to break the monotony of standard online or offline shopping. In short, the founders want their customers to view the 2G1B concept as “getting a monthly present for yourself” instead of just buying stuff. It has been operating since May 2015.

They weren’t always on track to creating their own startup, though. Nguyen Quang Thai originally studied interior design and then worked for a Japanese design company in Hanoi until he met people who inspired him to start something on his own. And Nguyen Dang Khoa studied business administration and management and ended up working for a Fortune 100 firm in the US, before realising that corporate life was not for him.

Now Nguyen Dang Khoa manages the daily operations of 2G1B including strategy and marketing while Nguyen Quang Thai handles the post-sales, design and business development aspects.

On the startup scene in Saigon, Nguyen Dang Khoa says, “I think it’s quite a different scenario from Hanoi. Mostly I guess it’s because of the differences in the way of life. Saigon is a much more open ground for any kind of startup because people welcome them and they are willing to spend a lot more. It’s the simple concept of supply and demand: we clearly saw these differences in our sales records where Saigon folks would pre-order our boxes way ahead in advance, whereas Hanoi folks don’t mind pre-ordering later in the cycle because they want to see a couple items in the box first.”

At first, the Co-founders were not sure if the concept would be well-received but they quickly earned the trust of their first customers, who in turn helped to spread the news of 2G1B via word-of-mouth.

Over half a year later, they remained true to the original concept and even expanded to 2 Guys 1 Box For Her—targetting women, as the name implies. The team plans to expand the appeal by reaching additional niches, while keeping current customers in mind, and look forward to receiving feedback from customers who receive their upcoming boxes.

The duo even offers some advice for those who want to take the entrepreneurial plunge: “Find something that you’re good at and make an income out of it. You don’t have to be an expert (although you will become one on the way) to get yourself running, you just have to like what you do and enjoy it. We ourselves are not fashion designers, we’re not stylists, not any sort of gurus — we just like fashion and we care about our daily outfits. Thus, we decided to pick the goods from our point of view for our customers and hope that they love them too. And please remember that you always have to know your audience. The moment you lose sight of their interest and needs, it’s the beginning of the end.”

Batch of innovations

What sets the Vietnamese box services apart from their American counterparts is the frequency of the products (with the exception of 2 Guys 1 Box). While Birchbox and Ipsy have monthly offerings, Ma Belle Box and Jouet Box have staggered editions of their products.

Overall, these kinds of services seem like an effective way to deliver samples into the hands of Vietnamese consumers while at the same time eliminating unsafe, harmful or fake and low-quality products. So, it might prove to be a safer way for companies to innovate in a controlled environment and collect feedback before launching a new product. But one issue might be maintaining the high-quality personalisation aspect as these services scale.

Also Read: Are Vietnamese startups ready to take the world by storm?

Taking a step back, this base subscription box model can be applied to other areas beyond beauty and toys — perhaps for anime comics, for college preparation, or for infants. Or even a celebrity edition-themed box each month: imagine boxes that are curated by Vietnamese celebrities as part of a fan club. And then why not tap into the merchandise (or product placement) from the most popular Vietnamese movies in theaters?

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how these kinds of services evolve and expand outside of urban areas. Which subscription box services will be the first to reach rural consumers. Those distribution channels have yet to be established but it’s not out of the question that one day these or other similarly curated services will be available to Vietnam’s 90-plus million population.

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at elaine[at]e27[dot]co

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