April 14, 2012

The Other Side of the Table

This looks just like the table I sat at in July 1998.

I just left my job as CEO of VietnamWorks.

After six years making VietnamWorks into the largest, most successful and most profitable jobs website in Vietnam I decided it was time for something new.

Why?  Because of an epiphany I had in 1998.

Between my first and second year of business school in 1998 I joined Lehman Brothers in New York City as a Summer Associate.  I worked in the Global Technology Investment Banking team.

My big project that summer was working on an IPO for a software company, Analytical Graphics.   As part of the process our deal team traveled several times from New York to Analytical Graphics’ office outside Philadelphia.

During one of our visits the co-founder and CEO, Paul, gave us a tour of the office.

Paul was an earnest man, very passionate about his work and the company.  As he showed us different areas and gave us demonstrations of the company’s software he greeted every colleague he saw by name.

“Good morning, Sarah!”

“Good morning, Paul!”

Each team member Paul greeted returned his “good morning” with warmth and enthusiasm.  From Paul’s voice and face I could see that he was proud not only of his software, but also of the working community he and his partners had created.  I could tell that his colleagues were proud of their work and proud of the company.

Then we sat down at a big conference table to review the prospectus and IPO marketing story.  Paul’s team on one side, our investment banking team on the other.

I looked at our team.  I looked at Paul’s team.  Then it hit me.

“I want to be on the other side of the table.”

I realized that, as investment bankers, we were just processing deals.  The Pauls and Analytical Graphics of the world were creating!  Creating products, creating teams, creating dreams.

I’ve done a lot of creating at VietnamWorks over the past six years.  But I haven’t yet created a company.

It was time for me to move all the way to the other side.  Time to feel all the anxiety and excitement of an artist sitting before a blank canvas.

  • Good luck – I’ve just resigned my post as head of marketing and
    communications for Vietnam for a large non profit though not with such
    grand plans in mind as yours.  If there is a similarity it’s that there
    was a slow realisation that this wasn’t quite right for me and while
    “sticking it out” was an option that would only ultimately make me
    accept something that still wasn’t right.

    I’m also increasingly of the mindset that the sky is the limit for
    communications these days while marketing appears increasingly, at best,
    akin to accountancy (fine if that’s your bag) and, at worst,   the very
    opposite of the transparency that comms professionals have accepted is
    the future.

    Finally I also think that with the power in the hands of everyone in
    terms of promoting (and criticising) products and services, there’s no
    pretending to be the good guys anymore.  CSR has to be more than just

    Still, while much of the world may appear a mess economically, I can’t
    imagine more fun times to be around.  Instagram reminds us of what can
    be achieved by capturing the imagination.

    Good luck with your blank canvas.

    • Thanks Steve.

      And congratulations on your own jump without a parachute.  It takes courage. 

      You and I are about the same age.  Lately I’ve realized that life is quite short.  I suspect you’ve had the same realization. 

      As CEO of VietnamWorks for 6 years, I had “been there, done that.”  I was in my comfort zone.  I really want to have the experience of starting and running a business.  It will be very rewarding for me.

      Just gotta settle on an idea!

      • I tend to yo yo between being self employed and employed. Both fit in different ways.  What I’ve never done is be part of anything larger than a one-man outfit.  I can imagine that a small start up must be tremendously exciting.  Funnily enough it’s not about finding something especially dynamic now it’s finding something that fits well enough for me to want to grow within that organisation.

        Trouble with current job is I looked around and realised that even success didn’t look that appealing and success wasn’t exactly a given.

        • “Trouble with current job is I looked around and realised that even
          success didn’t look that appealing and success wasn’t exactly a given.”

          That’s it right there.

          As I get older I realize that life is quite short.  Time really is the most precious thing we have.  Don’t spend it doing something that doesn’t turn you on. 

          Something else will come along Steve, of that I have no doubt.

  • Viet Hong Le

    Good luck with your plan Chris!

  • CoachLeaders

    Awesome, wish all the best. Look forward to hearing the outcome

  • Khoa Mai

    Good luck and All the best for you, Christ! I believe you can do it! Being an entrepreneur is totally awesome. I hope one day I will have a chance to meet you again as I also have a huge passion for start-up. There will be an awesome start-up event coming in Hochiminh in 17th April. You should catch it up at 

    • Thanks Khoa.  The event looks cool.  I’ll check it out.

  • @layered

    It takes a lot of guts to jump out of one’s comfort zone to build another. But your explanation displays the motivation and passion needed to be entrepreneurial and creative in building a new company. So does Steve Jackson’s comment above. So best wishes to both of you and I will be looking forward to hearing about your progress along the way.

    • Cam on chu Mel.

      Yeah, there have been a few times I’ve asked myself “What are you doing?” 

      But then when I thought about the alternative of staying in my comfort zone, it seemed like waking death.  (Sorry to be so dramatic, but that was the feeling.)

      I draw inspiration from Helen Keller, who said “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

  • Dear Chris

    I am Nguyên, the organizer of your meeting with Vietnamese
    MBA applicants in Hanoi about 3 years ago.


    Singapore. My major is general management and I really enjoy the programme

    I am doing internship as Value Consultant at SAP Asia in


    One time 2 years ago, I saw you on Nguoi Duong
    Thoi. And I really learn from you sharing about leadership, your charisma. 
    I just browse through your blog and saw that you just left
    Vietnamorks, so surprise. I hope you all the best in the next journey ahead.
    I really hope to catch up with you in Singapore or in Sai Gon some day. I
    already follow you on Twitter, my account: http://www.twitter.com/vnbui . I really like
    your writings on the blog, a lot of lessons I can learn from. Thank you very


    I want to connect with you on Linked-in too. My Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/in/vnbuiBest Regards

    • Thanks Nguyen!  Yes, I remember you. 

      Looks like we have some common interests.  Just followed you on Twitter.

      Please do come back to Vietnam after your degree.  We need management talent here!

  • Evelyn Nguyen

    The true reason comes from the heart, becomes the greatest motivation for all we are doing.  We love your stories, they always show us the way from our hearts to our lives.

    Thank you so much.

    • Wow, thanks for your touching comment Evelyn.  I’m glad you like my blog. 

      Keep commenting please….

  • Giang

    Congratulation, Chris! 

    I followed your blogs few months ago, at some moment I have a thought “it seems Chris will do something of his own soon”. And you did.

    I shared the anxiety and excitement with you when starting something new for your own. Wish you all best luck. If your venture is in Saigon, love to know you in person some day.


    • Hi Giang – haha, funny you figured out what I was going to do. 

      Yes, I’m in Saigon and likely will stay in Saigon. 

      It may make sense to get some like-minded people together to talk about these ideas sometime. 

      Are you in Saigon?  What’s your business?

      • Giang

        Yes, I am in Saigon, and also enthusiastic to make my own venture. I have gone through different ideas in retail business and consulting services, will need to come down to one.

  • Congratulations and all the best to you. Whatever you do, it must be another rocket, I believe it, anh Chris ;-)

  • The Northener

    Thank you for such an inspiring sharing…

    Once in a while, I need to make change for my life and this time had come recently, so I jumped out of my super comfort zone and have been taking some risks.

    I’m 80% happy and excited about this, the rest 20% is a bit of “was it the right thing to do?” but now reading you, that question disappeared. I will just follow what my heart and my guts tell. I prefer a life of hundreds of “oh well” than a life of just one “what if”

    You are definitely invited to see the change I’m making for my life, when it’s ready ;)
    And I would love to be posted of how you drive your life too.

    Your official follower.

    • Hey that’s great “Northerner!”  Let me know what happens. 

      When starting something new and big I think it’s natural to feel “what it the right thing to do?”  But without risk there can be no reward.

      Think of all the achievements you’re proud of in your life.  Were they easy to do?  Were you always certain it would work out?  No!  But looking back you feel great.  Important to keep that in mind.

  • Marc

    It’s a great experience!

    • Thanks Marc!

      Yeah, there are certain moments that clarify everything. This was one of them.