A startup at the heart of Vietnam’s mobile explosion

When Flappy Bird exploded onto smartphones worldwide, mobile app fever hit Vietnam and within a few months mobile app development became ‘sexy.’ A year later, the phenomenon of the game is still echoed at tech-related events throughout Vietnam. At the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, former ambassador to the EU Madam Ton Nu Thi Ninh said that the younger generation of Vietnamese should be proud of Nguyen Ha Dong, the mysterious creator of Flappy Bird. She admonished those who downplayed his accidental fame and encouraged the audience to aspire to his success.

Then it’s no surprise when I hear stories of students and mobile app developers quitting their jobs or leaving school early to find their own ‘Flappy Bird,’ hoping to strike big on the App Store lottery. But all of this eagerness and pride in Vietnam’s mobile industry might just be a lot of hot air that will soon fizzle out. While the country’s tech industry is more mature and developed compared to its neighbors, there are still serious hurdles to overcome. The smartphone penetration only recently broke 50 percent of the population, consumers are still not familiar with using apps besides playing games, and payment remains a barrier for making money on mobile. In other words, the local market is still struggling, dominated mainly by mobile ads and games. Therefore, it naturally makes sense that Vietnam’s mobile developers rely on clients and outsourcing work as their main source of income. What about freelancers who aren’t part of big companies? This is where Applancer, a new freelancing and recruitment platform dedicated to mobile app developers, comes in. On the surface it appears that Applancer may be at the heart of Vietnam’s mobile ecosystem but, it might even be creating it.

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“The key for us has been the growth of Vietnam’s mobile app development ecosystem. When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, we’re hoping more developers can get jobs and their skills are ready for the world stage,” says Nguyen Huu Binh, CEO of Applancer, who used to work at FPT, Vietnam’s largest tech company, as head of mobility. After leaving FPT, Binh started his own mobile outsourcing studio, where he witnessed struggles amongst mobile app developers. Applancer’s office sits in a corner of the southern branch office of Appota, one of Vietnam’s dominant mobile platforms. It’s a logical fit for Appota, who was an early seed investor into Applancer. Appota is keen on encouraging Vietnamese mobile developers to produce more original content and apps for the local market.

According to Do Tuan Anh, founder of Appota, he’s keen on the partnership. His vision for the partnership is to lead a strong mobile development community that can produce content for Vietnamese users. Applancer, if successful, could play a meaningful part in growing Vietnam’s mobile developer community. And it just might be in the right place at the right time.

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Chicken and Egg Dilemma

To get on the platform, developers must submit a form, a portfolio of prior work and a video of themselves, then the Applancer team uses this to determine if they’re ready to be listed online. In addition to the freelancers, there are also 20 studios listed that can take on larger projects that freelancers cannot.

At the moment, Applancer has over 15,000 mobile app developers on its platform – 3,000 of that added in the last several months. In a country where there are tens of thousands of engineers being trained annually, this might be a drop in the bucket, but the engineers on Applancer’s platform are vetted by a 15-person team daily. Binh tells me that Vietnam has over 200,000 engineers, mobile developers only account for about 10 percent of that. If these numbers are to be believed, Applancer is on pace to have a database of nearly all of Vietnam’s mobile developers by the end of the year, albeit only a fraction of them will display publicly on the site. These are impressive numbers for a startup that’s less than a year old.

Although the developer stats are impressive, Applancer is finding its footing on the other side of the chicken- egg dilemma – something which most platforms face. The startup has 40 new projects currently listed and looking for developers. Six projects are currently being worked on by developers and studios on the platform. Although Applancer has worked out the kinks of getting developers onto the platform with the help of partnerships with four education institutions to serve up new talent, the number of projects is still disproportionate. Getting projects on the platform is likely Applancer’s next frontier. But Binh says he’s intent on building an ecosystem, not just a platform. “Since my background is in mobile outsourcing, I’ve seen the kinds of things that mobile developers struggle with. And at the same time, in the last seven months working on Applancer, I’ve started to see opportunities in Vietnam. That’s why we have four main product categories now: the freelancing platform, Topdev, Head hunting, and Events. They all weave together to make Applancer. So you see, we’re basically trying to build all the tools that make life for mobile developers much easier.”

Let’s take a step back and take a closer look at Applancer’s so-called ecosystem. When you head onto Applancer.net, it may appear at first to be a freelancing platform. And indeed, it is. But if you click around, you’ll start to see tools that Applancer has built for mobile developers. This includes a marketplace where other mobile developers can download or purchase code and designs to aid in their own projects. It also has a tool called UX Tools to help mobile developers prototype designs so clients can comment, edit and give feedback on designs.

In addition to the freelancing platform, Applancer provides a headhunting service for companies looking for developers who’ve had more than three years of experience. For those in recruitment, they’ll know right away that this is indeed a more lucrative function than general listings. But Binh is more proud of his referral system, “The key here is that we’re also allowing engineers to recommend their peers into the headhunting and freelancing platform. If their recommendation gets the job, they get a percentage of the referral cost.” The referrals paired with the offline events Applancer runs, both monthly and annually (including Mobile Day, Android Day, MAIT Awards, and GameOn), keep Applancer in the minds of mobile developers throughout Vietnam.

Binh thinks that Vietnam has a lot of hidden potential in terms of outsourcing. “I really hope that any business person that wants to build apps thinks of Vietnam first. And in order to do that, there needs to be major shifts in how mobile developers are trained while in school and in training after school.” Because mobile is still so new in Vietnam, it’s clear that Applancer is going to have to do most of the legwork in building up its user base simultaneously with its own tools plus supporting the larger community around it. “There’s a hidden potential here, we just have to tap into it,” Binh adds.

BIO: Anh-Minh Do is the editor at TechInAsia.com for Vietnam, focusing on technology startups, trends and companies. Minh is on the board of Starthub.vn – a database and forum for startups dedicated to the growth of Vietnam’s business ecosystem.