The Value of Negative Role Models

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It AKA How to Run a Successful Business Into the Ground  in One Easy Step

I often use this theme when talking about countries, e.g., the US as a positive and negative role model for Vietnam, but this time it’s about a small business in a big city.  It’s an object lesson, a case study about how not to run a business.

brokeOnce upon a time there was a highly successful Italian restaurant in a city known as the economic engine of Vietnam.  Every night, the place was hopping, full of happy customers, tourists, expats and Vietnamese, drinking red wine and eating pasta, salad, pizza and other delicious Italian dishes.  The service was good, the quality was good, everything was good.  Life was good at this popular eating establishment.  I also have to assume that the profit margin was very good.  What was not to like?  Win-win.

Suddenly, the owner’s wife, who my sources tell me is a vegetarian, decided that she wanted to change the “concept” of this highly successful Italian restaurant and remove meat from the menu.  (Italy’s a vegetarian country, haven’t you heard?)  She decided that since she’s a vegetarian, all of her customers should be, too, at least while they’re in her restaurant.

Too bad they didn’t agree, which is why business has decreased by an estimated 90%.  What used to be a hustling and bustling place is now a culinary graveyard.  Mostly empty, quiet and  hemorrhaging, financially speaking.  She also laid off the long-time Italian manager no doubt in an effort to save payroll money.  (Whatever they paid him, he was worth it.  He could schmooze with the Italian customers and kept the place running like a finely-tuned machine.)  In the early days, I once asked him if he was the owner.  His reply:  If I were the owner, I’d be sitting on a beach right now.  As an Italian, he enhanced the atmosphere of this Italian restaurant in Vietnam.

i love italyNowadays, customers walk in and are greeted by staff who inform them that the restaurant no longer serves meat.  What, you ask incredulously, you mean just for today?  (Is there a temporary delivery problem?)  No, forever (or as long as the “new” restaurant lasts or until it reverts to its original, money-making “concept”).  In hushed tones, the staff later mention how busy they used to be and how few customers come now. They look at new customers, such as they are, the same way a hungry dog looks at its meal the second the second before it hits the floor.  (I wonder if the original owner is saying “I told you so” yet?)

Here are two online reviews.  The first one represents the minority opinion that in spite of its enthusiasm and self-righteousness is not going to keep this restaurant financially afloat.

“New menu is bravissimo!” (4 of 5 stars)

New owner has removed red meat from the menu, helping [large Vietnamese city] live up to it’s reputation as the best Vegetarian dining city on the planet. The ingredients are fresh, the pizza crust thin and crispy and the wine list very good. I’m all for the make over.

 “Terrible menu change” (1 of 5 stars)

Old owner gone while new owner is clueless… Menu changed to no meat. Skip ____ as the new owner wrecked what was a fine venue.

If you’re curious and/or naughty and want to know the name of said restaurant, Google it!  The name is not important; the story is.  Besides, it’s not like it’s a state secret.  As predicted, plenty of unhappy customers are making their views known.

Moral of the story?  Give ’em what they want.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  If your eye doesn’t cause you to stumble, don’t gouge it out and throw it away.  If you want to have a vegetarian restaurant, don’t cram your personal culinary (philosophical?) orientation down your customers’ throats, figuratively and literally.  Check out the market and create a new restaurant.  There are a number of vegetarian success stories but, to my knowledge, none involve tinkering with (or sabotaging?) an existing concept.

Buona fortuna!


P.S.:  If there’s a change of heart for financial or other reasons, reversing course is not going to be easy.  It takes years to build a successful restaurant business, but weeks to send it into PR and financial freefall.

Challenge to Industry Competitors: Take Your Game to the Next Level!

Dear IEinV Followers,

I know that many of you are US and foreign higher education colleagues because of the feedback I receive.  Included among the “others” are some government friends and competitors.  The latter drop by to see what I’m up to and to see what (free) information they can glean from my posts for their own businesses.

So why do I occasionally provide information that can be classified as “market intelligence”?  The reason is simple.  It’s an opportunity to talk about two of my favorite topics, international education and Vietnam.  It’s also a chance to assist those colleagues who have a personal and/or professional interest in Vietnam by sharing information and, occasionally, commentary about such information, with them.  The others are along for the ride.  The more the merrier, in my opinion!

Innovation Over Imitation

Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.
Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.

To those competitors who choose imitation over innovation, and that’s a fairly long and growing list, unfortunately, I have two reading recommendations.  The first is an article I wrote last December for University World News (UWN) entitled Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment (Vietnamese translation) The second is an article to which I refer in the UWN piece, Why copycats are the best thing to happen to your company, written by Brian Wong, CEO and co-founder of Kiip, a mobile rewards network based in San Francisco.

Here’s one of the “money quotes” that I commend to you:

In Silicon Valley, the reward for trailblazing with true innovation is often a trail of “copycat” businesses following closely behind, seeking to profit from your idea. Sometimes the copycat is dead on arrival (see: too many examples to list here). Sometimes it pays to be the copycat (see: Germany’s infamous Samwer brothers). And sometimes the copycat goes to court (see: Samsung).

copy pasteAs someone who has had this happen multiple times to my company, I am no stranger to this form of “innovation.” But those experiences have helped me look at this much-maligned trend in a new light and shaped an opinion that many will likely disagree with – copycat businesses should be welcomed. Embraced, even.  After all, what is a copycat business other than evidence that you’ve created a solution that taps into and services a real need?

Take Snapchat, the Valley’s darling du jour, which has set the precedent for disposable instant messaging. In late 2012, Facebook launched Facebook Poke, a messaging app possessing an eerily similar feature to Snapchat’s signature disappearing act. A year later, after Poke didn’t pan out, came the $3 billion offer. But Facebook actually ended up being its own worst enemy here. Their cloning attempt had the opposite effect on Snapchat – instead of feeling intimidated, it increased Snapchat’s confidence in what they’d built. They now knew that their DNA wasn’t just something others could transplant and call their own.

Only time will tell if they made the right move, but it underscores the importance of concentrating on the road ahead, not who’s lurking in your rear-view mirror. Copycats have no visibility into the inner workings of your company or what you have in store. No matter what, you’ll be ahead of the curve because they can only replicate what you show them. In this sense, objects in mirror are not closer than they appear – they’re months behind you. (my bold)

Keep Your Eyes on the Road Ahead

keep-your-eyes-on-the-road-semmick-photoI’ve noticed this trend as it relates to Capstone Vietnam.  Brian’s advice and mine?  Keep your eyes firmly on the road ahead, ladies and gentlemen.  Be a leader not a follower, an innovator not an imitator.  Purge yourself of the copy/paste mentality that precludes creativity and will ultimately hold you back.  Be a worthy competitor.  Take your game to the next level – for the sake of your company, your clients, the industry and your country.  It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business in the long runAmen. 


P.S.:  Bonus –  Jack Ma’s 3 tips to building a successful business (Vanessa Tan, Tech in Asia, 6.7.15), based on the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle.

innovation steve jobs

Keynote Address: “Intercultural Competence as a Cornerstone of Innovation”


I was honored to be invited to give the keynote address at the recent annual Conference of Business Innovation, organized by the FPT Leadership Institute.

First, a word about the parent company.  FPT, Vietnam’s leading technology company, was founded in 1988 as The Food Processing Technology Company.  Its first contract was  to provide computers for the Russian Academy of Sciences in partnership with Olivetti in 1989, which laid the groundwork for its IT department.  A year later, the company was renamed The Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology and the rest, as they say, is history.  In addition to its dominant market position within Vietnam, FPT’s operations are global in scope, with clients or rep offices and companies in 16 foreign countries, including Laos, Cambodia, America, Japan, Singapore, Germany, Myanmar, France, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, United Kingdom, the Philippines, Kuwait, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Keynote Address

Since my topic was Intercultural Competence (IC) as a Cornerstone of Innovation (Mối giao thoa văn hóa là nền móng cho sự sáng tạo), I started off with some comments about innovation, which is a hot topic in Vietnam.  Just in the past week or so, I’ve seen media references such as “Vietnam Needs More Innovation:  Experts” and “Vietnam Needs to Foster Innovation to Sustain Growth, Report Says.”  I added that Vietnam needs innovation to foster sustainable development, which is more far important than growth in the long-term and for quality of life.  While there are many examples of innovation occurring in Vietnam, including at FPT, a copy and paste mentality is still prevalent, including in my industry.

conference graphic

During the remainder of my allotted time, i.e, one-hour, including 20 minutes for Q&A, which turned into a half hour, I briefly defined the concepts of innovation, culture, intercultural sensitivity (a mindset) and intercultural competence (a skill set), introduced the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), a framework that describes the different ways in which people can react to cultural differences organized into six “stages” of increasing sensitivity to difference, and offered an overview of a related tool that measures intercultural competence, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).  I also mentioned foreign language proficiency as an integral component of IC, discussed ways in which people can develop IC, referred to some recent research that proves overseas experience makes us more flexible, creative and complex thinkers, pointed out some ways in which the US and Vietnam differ within this context (i.e., to Vietnam’s credit and advantage) and shared some useful resources.

The US and Vietnam:  A Study in Cultural Contrast

handbook of ic competenceIn discussing the contrast between Vietnam and the US, I drew from a co-authored book chapter entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens – The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam” (with Dương Thị Hoàng Oanh), which was published in 2009 in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (Darla Deardorff, editor).  One of the points we make is that nationalism, which is predominant in the US, is a cognitive and affective barrier to developing intercultural competence and global citizenship.  In Vietnam, where national identity is rooted in patriotism, it is easier to create globally competent citizens.  In general, young people here are more open, interested and curious about the world beyond their country’s borders and are not burdened by a nationalist worldview, or ideology, which exalts one country above all.

A Great Leader of a Global Project with a Multinational Team

A “bonus” was an overview of a case study about Sir Ernest Shackleton, a Anglo-Irish explorer, who participated in four expeditions to Antarctica in the early 20th century, of which he led three:  A Great Leader of a Global Project with a Multinational Team.  The story is as much about leadership as it is about leading a multinational team.  While Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17 failed, he succeeded in that he and his entire team survived the tragedy. (Source:  “Intercultural Competence in Business:  Leading Global Projects,” Robert T. Moran, William E. Youngdahl, and Sarah V. Moran; The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, ed., Darla Deardorff).

pm-1 (maa)
Making a point. Photo: Hoàng Anh Tuấn

In Conclusion

Among the conclusions were:

  • IC gives you the ability to work successfully with clients around the world
  • IC can play a valuable role as a catalyst for innovation, including with multinational teams
  • IC can give you a competitive advantage in working with foreign clients and partners

Participants ask a number of excellent questions, including some of my impressions of Vietnam after living here for nearly 10 years, ways in which Capstone Vietnam been innovative, some related to IC, others not.  I was gratified to see so much interest in IC on the part of FPT.  It’s not surprising, given the company’s international operations and its focus on innovation.  Just as FPT has been a trailblazer as Vietnam’s leading ITC company, it’s exciting to think that perhaps it will be a trendsetter in this area as well.

Article in Vietnamese:  ‘Giao thoa văn hóa thúc đẩy sự sáng tạo’ (29.11.14)  If you don’t read Vietnamese, just use a service like Google Translate to get the gist.