February 19, 2012

Lawrence Sinclair — Bringing Silicon Valley to Saigon

“We empower people a lot. We have our developers work directly with our clients. We have people who it’s their first job, and right away they’re working directly with the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley.”

Lawrence Sinclair
Founder & CEO, East Agile

Lawrence Sinclair specifically chose Vietnam as the place to start his software and data analysis outsourcing business, East Agile.  I chose to interview him because he has created a very Silicon Valley style and working environment to Vietnam.

Lawrence visited my house studio last weekend to test out my swanky new microphone.  Audio and transcript below.

Help me to show appreciation to Lawrence for a great interview — click here to tweet a thank you!

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Harvey. Welcome to the Vietnam Business Leader
Interview Series where I interview and learn from inspiring business
leaders in Vietnam. I’m here today with Lawrence Sinclair, the founder and
CEO of East Agile. East Agile is a software outsourcing company here in
Vietnam. They include among their customers Harvard University, Bank of
America, Twitter and Wells Fargo Bank. Welcome Lawrence.

Lawrence: Thank you Chris.

Chris: Lawrence, I’m sure our listeners would like to understand a
little bit about you and your background and East Agile.

Lawrence: Okay. Well, that makes sense. I’m pretty multinational in my
background. I was born in England, educated in Canada. Spent a
lot of time in the U.S., primarily in Silicon Valley and New
York. I am an economist by training.

Chris: Wow.

Lawrence: But I’ve spent a lot of time in the software industry as a
consultant working with big data analytics and things like that.
Partly from both of those business backgrounds I’ve been very
much of the view that globalization and the integration of the
merging economies in the world are going to be very important.
I’ve been very interested, of course, in software development.
So it made very much sense for me to be involved in setting up a
firm in Asia working with customers in North America primarily.

Chris: What kind of business does East Agile focus on? You mentioned
earlier you worked with large data sets.

Lawrence: Our main focus is to work with emerging new businesses.
Actually, some of our most exciting customers are ones you may
never have heard of. When we worked with Twitter, for example,
no one I spoke to here in Vietnam had ever heard of Twitter, and
they just had less than 30 employees. We help people with
business visions to implement them in the early stage, and we
try to bring best practices from Silicon Valley in terms of the
just way we work and the technologies we use and mix them with
really smart people here in Vietnam to be highly competitive.

Chris: Okay. What gave you the idea and desire to start your own
business, Lawrence?

Lawrence: I think most entrepreneurs sort of basically are always
entrepreneurs, maybe not all, but most. I was always, even when
I was a little kid, I was always trying to start up my own
little businesses. The visions of doing what I’m doing here is
something I had when I was a teenager, but it takes sometimes
quite a long time before you get all the pieces together so you
can do it.

Chris: Okay. And why Vietnam?

Lawrence: Well, as an economist, I look at these sorts of things from the
big picture. I knew that Asia, in general, was the future. That
wasn’t hard. Choosing a place to build that future was full of
lots of potential choices. I’d done stuff in India before, but
frankly I was looking for something a bit more interesting, and
so I looked at the countries in Southeast Asia. I was working at
Morgan Stanley before I came out here, and you know it was cold
and icy in New York. So I just went to Thailand to get a place
by the beach. It’s while I’m in Asia, I’m going to think about
where to go, but basically keep everything a blank slate. I
looked at the economics. The relative purchasing power in
Vietnam is pretty high. I wanted to choose a country that had a
good educational culture and infrastructure and also a place
where it’s relatively low cost. It is very important to me to be
able to go in and build a business with the smartest people
possible. So I needed to be able to afford to hire anyone no
matter how smart they are.

Chris: You believe there are a lot of smart people here in Vietnam

Lawrence: Indeed. It was the key decision was smart people.

Chris: Wow.

Lawrence: That’s really the most important thing. There are smart people
in a lot of places. There are smart people in Silicon Valley
except I can’t afford to hire them. There are smart people here,
and I can afford to hire them, which means that we can do stuff.

Chris: It sounds like you looked at a lot of different countries and
considered many different options and the environment in the
country and the kind of labor in the country, and you decided on

Lawrence: Yeah. I’d never been to Vietnam before, and frankly, I hadn’t
even thought about Vietnam much before I decided to make this
country a candidate. It really just meant looking at the numbers
first, and then traveling around the country visiting people in
various universities and checking out the infrastructure and
things like that. Then in the end, this is a gut feel and you go
for it.

Chris: How has your gut feel worked out so far?

Lawrence: It’s worked out very well actually. When I consider now at the
point where we’re growing and we need to hire more and more
people, I consider looking at other countries, and it’s actually
a little challenging to find a place that would be even
comparable let alone better than Vietnam as a choice. Now having
said that, I came in with the attitude that I knew there would
be a lot of challenges and the attitude of being patient.

Chris: What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in
building a business and in particular building a business here
in Vietnam?

Lawrence: First of all, the way we do things is not very traditional. So
you need to find people and convince them that maybe they want
to take a slightly non-traditional approach. When we started
out, we had no presence. We didn’t have any employees. No one
knew our customers, like Twitter. There was nothing to impress

Chris: I’m sorry, when did you start?

Lawrence: Well, in 2007 we started. In February, I started traveling to
Vietnam and trying to set up offices initially in Hanoi, but
later in Ho Chi Minh. I like to think that we really started
aggressively in September 2007. But technically, we started our
research in February.

Chris: Okay. What were some of the challenges you encountered after
you decided this is the place?

Lawrence: Well, obviously, because I’m actually terrible at languages,
the fact that I was doing business in a place where almost no
one spoke English was a challenge just from the day-to-day

Chris: Could you try a little Vietnamese for our listeners?

Lawrence: No. That would be far too embarrassing. I’m nowhere near as
good as you are. So language is one of the challenges. You might
think infrastructure would be a challenge, but compared to other
places I looked, like India, Vietnam actually has a better

Chris: Okay.

Lawrence: There were things that might have freaked out some people, like
our first office had flooding. We were wading through the first
floor, knee deep in water, pulling computers off and putting
them on tables. But it’s part of the adventure.

Chris: What are some of the characteristics you found in Vietnamese
people that you’ve hired? In the Vietnamese in general?

Lawrence: Well, people are quite entrepreneurial here. They’re able to
solve problems quite creatively. Also, they’re much more open in
many ways to new ideas and new ways than I found in people in
other parts of Asia. We were pleasantly surprised by that. Of
course, the core criteria is that there were some really smart
people here.

Chris: Okay. How do you motivate people on your team? My understanding
is that you have a special environment.

Lawrence: We try to take a lot of the practices from Silicon Valley that
are very, very different from most Asian businesses even in
software development.

Chris: What are some of those practices?

Lawrence: We empower people a lot. We have our developers work directly
with our clients. We have people who it’s their first job, and
right away they’re working directly with the CEO of a startup in
Silicon Valley.

Chris: So you give people a lot of responsibility very quickly?

Lawrence: They are in control of the success or failure of their
projects, and we don’t put people in between. We take a gamble
on people that way. We’re careful about who we choose, but then
we give them the opportunity to do whatever they can.

Chris: What do you look for when you hire people? You look for smart,
but what specific kind of characteristics or personality traits
do you look for?

Lawrence: The way we interview people is sort of designed to get some of
these things out. What we do is we sit down and we pair a
program with them, which means that we sit down and we solve a
problem together. We do this in a way that doesn’t require any
specific knowledge. It requires you to solve a problem, but
that’s only one layer of things. We look at how people deal with
something that they’re unfamiliar with. A process that maybe
they don’t understand yet. Then we lead them through the path of
discovery, and then see whether they’re able to try something
new and embrace it and enhance and then move and then run with
it, and then anticipate the next steps.

Chris: These are like case interviews?

Lawrence: It’s very much like that, yes.

Chris: You give them a problem in the interview, and then you ask
them, “How might you approach this problem or solve this
problem,” and see how they react.

Lawrence: Exactly and there are very many steps. So we can see people on
many levels. Are they able to solve very difficult problems that
require logic that’s much akin to just pure intelligence? Are
they able to work with another person in a collaborative way to
solve a problem? How do they deal when someone asks them to try
something new that they don’t understand yet? How do they deal
with it? Do they resist and push back? Are they willing to try
it? Are they able to then move forward with it as well?

Chris: So you like to look for people who understand what they don’t
know and probably ask the right questions as well.

Lawrence: Yes. That’s obviously a very important point.

Chris: Okay.

Lawrence: What we found, one of the most interesting things is that the
younger and less experienced the person is, who we interview,
the more likely we are to hire them.

Chris: Why do you think that is?

Lawrence: It’s strange, but I just think that when you graduate from
school and you haven’t got that many years of experience, your
mind is just still very open and flexible to new ways of
thinking and ideas. I think after awhile people can get very . .
. they have their idea of what’s the right way to do stuff, and
they found it works for them and they don’t want to change. We
can’t hire people like that.

Chris: Okay. It sounds like you have a very interesting environment
with a lot of committed young people.

Lawrence: Well, it evolves over time. Frankly, a lot of it is built by
the team themselves. We have some people who take leadership in
building the social aspect of the business. I can tell the
evolution of the company, to some degree, just by listening for
how much laughter there is from one year to the next.

Chris: How much laughter? So you promote having fun?

Lawrence: Yes. That’s a sign that people are happy and feel comfortable
where they are and they feel free to express themselves.

Chris: What’s the one thing you wish each new hire in your company

Lawrence: That it’s okay to ask questions and also that they shouldn’t be
afraid to be right. They shouldn’t be afraid to feel that people
who have been there before them might not be doing things the
best way and that they may have something to add.

Chris: That maybe they shouldn’t be afraid to be assertive.

Lawrence: Exactly, yeah. That’s always every new . . . when you’re
dealing with people who are relatively young, regardless of the
country, being able to contribute and stand up and feel you have
something to contribute takes a bit of time.

Chris: Okay. One of my experiences managing here in Vietnam has been
people are often very reluctant to challenge the boss,
especially the CEO, have a differing of opinion, say, “Hey Mr.
CEO, hey Chris you’re wrong.” How do you create an environment
where people are comfortable challenging you and coming up with
new ideas that might be different from what you said?

Lawrence: Right. First of all, very much the way things are done does not
involve my telling them how to do it. So there isn’t much of
that going on because they’re in a situation where they have to
figure it out. We have a process. We teach people a process that
we work with, but the process is very much about creating
transparency and creating a dialog with our customers. It’s
called agile development.

Chris: Okay.

Lawrence: It’s not about specifically what to do, but just how to make
sure you break down the barriers of communication. I feel that
there isn’t a lot of need for people to have any concerns with
telling me what to do because they’re free to do whatever they
want with their time.

Chris: People in your organization are free to do whatever they want?

Lawrence: Frankly, if people want to go take a nap in the middle of the
afternoon, no problem. They want to go and spend half the day
playing foosball, no problem. At the end of the day, they’re
accountable for being successful with their clients. When they
deal with their clients, they’re leading them in terms of
getting stuff done too.

Chris: This is a really different environment for many companies in
Vietnam. How do people, new people react to your environment?

Lawrence: Like I said, a lot of these people don’t know any better,
right? They haven’t learned the wrong way yet.

Chris: Okay.

Lawrence: It’s like, “well sure, isn’t this the way everyone does it,”
might be the reaction of some people. Some people who might be
set in their ways a bit might say, “Hey, you can’t do it this
way.” Sadly, sometimes we have really smart people who have to
move on because they need a more structured environment. They
need to be told what to do.

Chris: Your kind of environment is not for everybody.

Lawrence: No. No place would be for everyone.

Chris: Got it. Do you have a favorite business book?

Lawrence: I don’t actually spend a lot of time reading business books,
but I have been reading “Crisis Economics” by Roubini recently,
which is all about where the global economy is going. I spend a
lot of time thinking of the big picture that way. Roubini was
very helpful to me in the mid-2000s, helping me to understand
where the economy was going before the crisis. So I owe him a
debt of gratitude for studying him before.

Chris: Okay, great. Thank you. My last question, some of our listeners
might be interested in learning more about East Agile, or maybe
even applying for jobs with East Agile. What advice would you
give them?

Lawrence: They should look for East Agile jobs on VietnamWorks.

Chris: Okay. Thank you.

Lawrence: We’re always advertising there, and we’re always looking for
smart people. They can go to our website, EastAgile.com. We blog
about a lot of these agile development practices that we follow.
So they can learn about that. Basically, if they apply, we’ll
look at their résumé and if they look like they’re smart, we’ll
definitely want to bring them in and spend some time learning
how they think.

Chris: Okay, great. Lawrence Sinclair, founder and CEO of East Agile,
thank you for joining us today.

Lawrence: Thank you.