Go East, Young Man

It used to be that the buzzword was “go west” to seek your fortune. But in the 21st century, it is Asia which attracts the young entrepreneurs

While Western newspapers are awash with stories of unfettered immigration, overcrowded cities and increasingly fractious multi-cultural societies, what gets less air time, is the tide of emigration flowing in the opposite direction. Hundreds of educated, ambitious young people from the West are leaving their home countries to set up shop abroad. And Ho Chi Minh City is one of the many cities around Asia caught in the wave of reverse immigration.

It is estimated that 15 percent of British graduates now live abroad, the number of Spaniards living overseas has increased by 20 percent in just the last three years and in Ireland, a third of graduates plan to emigrate. And it’s not hard to see why. The average house price in London is GBP625,000, youth unemployment figures in Greece stand at nearly 60 percent and in America only 16 percent of those who graduated from high school between 2009 and 2011 have found full-time work. With the economies of the West still stalling, it is little wonder Generation Y has heard the roar of the Asian tiger and bought a one-way ticket eastbound.

Armed with nothing to lose and a few years experience working in Western economies, young people are flocking to Asia’s fastest-growing cities. And many of them, inspired by the boom-town mentality of a country on the cusp of an economic awakening, have opted to set up businesses. Fresh off the boat, through their Western eyes, they see a plethora of opportunity in a market that’s ripe for the picking.

But this doesn’t mean pursuing the entrepreneurial dream isn’t without its challenges. While there is opportunity, realizing it is another story.

Bringing Home the Bacon

On leaving university, Christian Taylor opted to move to HCMC where his brother was living at the time. Uninspired by options in the UK, he came out for three months to teach English. Two years later he is still here and more committed to Vietnam than ever. In two month’s time, he’s hoping to open the doors to Saigon’s first bacon bar, The Hungry Pig.

But it hasn’t been a straightforward journey. He’s been beset with hours of licensing paperwork and red tape, had two potential landlords pull the plug at the 11th hour and has found it hard building relationships in a new industry when he doesn’t speak the language. However, after six months of hard graft, he has just signed a lease, and the first bacon butty is set to be sold in July.

The concept is simple: the Vietnamese love pork (40 percent of meat consumed in Vietnam is from pigs); bacon – the jewel in the porcine crown – is yet to make it big in Vietnam, so why not introduce them to one another? And it’s not just any bacon – this will be bacon that is home-cured and home-smoked by Christian and his team. The starting line-up of cures is set to include maple, hoisin, black-pepper and chili, served in your choice of Panini, baguette, wrap or good old fashioned white sliced bread.

A niche market, perhaps, but Christian is confident there’s an appetite for this style of food. The fast pace of the city lends itself to fast-food, something big corporations like Burger King and KFC have been only too quick to muscle in on. The Hungry Pig is hoping to fill the same gap, but in a more sustainable way. The bacon is from high-quality well-bred animals and Christian is working with Saigon Children’s Charity to recruit staff who’ve been trained through their vocational training programs.

So, if he was in the UK would he be doing this? “No way, the overheads would make it unfeasible. And it’s just such a crowded market there. The joy of being in Asia is that people tend to copy each other – every coffee shop is the same as the last. So by doing something a bit different, you have a real opportunity”. Christian is hoping curiosity will draw both Vietnamese and expats to the – slightly unconventional – new kid on the block.

seed plcSowing the Seeds of Change

Across town, Tom Simpson is a different kind of entrepreneur. Tom moved here in August last year having spent the last nine years working in digital planning in London. Frustrated by the limited career progression, the ever-more daunting task of trying to get on the UK property ladder and spending hours on London’s swamped public transport system commuting, he asked a headhunter to keep an eye out for jobs abroad. Within weeks, he’d been offered a role in HCMC and moved out here.

Just nine months later he’s handed in his notice and is taking his first steps into the self-made life. His company, The Seed, is a data management business that will enable companies to deliver online advertising more effectively. He says it’s just one of a host of digital businesses that this market is crying out for, but there just isn’t the expertise.

Tom sees the digital landscape here as being like London was 10 years ago. Not only does that mean that opportunities abound, but that Vietnam can leapfrog 10 years of digital revolution in the West through importing foreign expertise – like Tom. And he’s not alone. The supercharged, evermore tech-savvy markets of Southeast Asia are proving to be first-choice destinations for young, tech entrepreneurs around the world. As blogger, Tomo, of Saigonist.com, observes, suddenly “there’s something we can call a scene… There are wannabe entrepreneurs…There are hackathons. There are training programs. There are incubators.” And for Tom, and others like him, it’s hugely exciting: “It’s like being in the Wild West.”

As with Christian, Tom admits that the low living costs in Vietnam made making the leap that much easier. “When I was in the UK, I had a lifestyle that I had worked hard for – the thought of giving that up for a new business idea was a massive sacrifice. But living here, that decision is much easier. I’ve done the hard part, which was moving here. The rest is easy.”

While cities like HCMC enjoy the benefits of this new breed of immigrants, and with Europe’s economic outlook growing dimmer still, it looks as though it will be some time before the tide changes and they start heading home.

Further Info:
The Hungry Pig
www.thehungrypig.com (coming soon)
144 Cong Quynh, D1

The Seed Plc
www.seedplc.com, launching in July

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