December 9, 2011

Connor Nguyen – Sportsman Entrepreneur

The second guest in the Business Leader series, Connor Nguyen, is blazing new trails in sports training and professional sports in Vietnam.

Born in Vietnam, Connor grew up in Kansas USA.  He has a long history as a sportsman and coach.  He is a certified “Pro 1” by the US Professional Tennis Association, the highest testable tennis coach certification level in the USA.

Connor moved to Vietnam in 2007 and founded the Saigon Sports Academy, Saigon’s first multi-sports training school that teaching tennis, soccer, basketball, swimming and chess.  He also is one of the co-founders of the Saigon Heat, Vietnam’s first ever professional basketball team and part of Air Asia’s ASEAN Basketball League.  The Saigon Heat will have their first game in January 2012.

I caught up with Connor over hamburgers recently.

Chris: What was your first job and the biggest lesson you learned from it?

Connor: My first job was in a tennis club when I was 14.  I did all sorts of responsibilities from teaching tennis, to mowing the lawn, to monitoring the fitness room.  I learned to balance multiple duties and activities at the same time.

Chris: What gave you the idea to start Saigon Sports Academy?

Connor: I have had the idea for a long time.  My particular background is in tennis but I am really a teacher or coach in the general sense.  I have always wanted to apply my experience and coaching philosophy to other sports and activities.

Chris: I understand you’re also starting Vietnam’s first professional basketball team in the ASEAN league, the “Saigon Heat.”  What gave you that idea?

Connor: This was just a combination of many factors combining with timing into a sort of perfect storm.

Chris: What’s your vision for Saigon Heat?  Why did you do it?

Connor: The vision for the Heat is to inspire a change in how sports are delivered and perceived in Vietnam.  To instill confidence that Vietnam sports can have success on the international stage through proper preparation and taking a long-term development approach.  It is also to introduce to the concept of sports can be a very viable business and entertainment proposition in Vietnam if delivered properly.

Chris: What is the most satisfying thing about running your own business?

Connor: By far the most satisfying thing for me is to train and invest in our people and see them develop and grow as the organization grows.

Chris: What advice would you give someone starting a business?

Connor: Think big, but start with the details.

Chris: Can you give a short example of this? 

Connor: We can always exceed the expectations of others and prove them wrong.  We rarely exceed the limitations we set on ourselves.  Have a daring vision, but start with doing things right all the way down to the details.  This is how you can separate and differentiate.  One of SSA’s goals from the start is to eventually be the pre-eminent sports training center in all of Southeast Asia.  However, the company started with just one person trying to deliver the best tennis lessons he could to his students and to keep on improving on this service.  SSA has grown by constantly looking at the details of how we can improve our service and teaching.

Chris: What’s the one thing you wish every new entrepreneur knew?

Connor: The most valuable asset of your organization are your people, invest in them.

Chris: What’s the one thing you wish every new hire at your company knew?

Connor: Ask what you can do for your company, not what your company can do for you.  The rest will follow.

Chris: What was the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a manager?

Connor: Trying to evaluate if an underperformer is not the right fit or just needs more time and support from the organization.

Chris: Who gave you the best business advice?

Connor: John C. Maxwell – “Everything rises and falls based upon leadership.”

Chris: What are the values of your company?  How do you model and show those values to your people?

Connor: SSA prides itself on delivering a high quality service.  We constantly strive to learn more and improve, just as what we expect of our students.  This is a habit in our organization that is practiced on a daily basis.

Chris: Can you share an example of how you yourself model this behavior? 

Connor: I by nature always look to see what wasn’t perfect and how we can improve upon things.  I perhaps have a tendency to be overly critical without enough positive reinforcement.  If I observe a class we delivered and both the players and parents were happy, I often will still ask the team why we couldn’t create more excitement and activity in the class?  I will remind our staff that our bar is not bettering our competition or meeting our customers’ expectations, it’s a challenge we place on ourselves to be the best we can be and continue to improve despite the fact that others believe we are good.  I’m not saying that we are there yet as an organization in all aspects, but it’s a question of approach and attitude regardless of your position in the marketplace or as compared to your competitors.  Just as in sports, it’s much harder to stay #1 than to become #1.

Chris: Do you have a favorite business book?

Connor: I do not have a favorite but I’m very fond of John C. Maxwell’s leadership series and Nuts! about Southwest Airlines.