Vietnam Exclusive - Coffee with Founders: Son Nguyen, CEO of Dat Bike
Last time on our Vietnam Exclusive - Coffee with Founders series, we learned from the foreign talents who have moved to Vietnam to build Vietcetera, a media tech company connecting modern Vietnam with a global audience.
This time, I got a chance to chat with Son Nguyen, CEO and Co-founder of Dat Bike, who gave up his high paying engineering job in Silicon Valley to come back to Vietnam.
Son Nguyen on a Dat Bike Weaver
Dat Bike is recognized by the Vietnam Ministry of Transportation as the first Made-in-Vietnam electric bike and the only on the market that can rival the traditional gas bikes in terms of performance.
Despite receiving investment interest from Vietnamese industrial corporations who want control-type ownership of the company, Son and his team chose the venture-funding route (which can be more challenging for hardware startups) to retain their vision and commitment to customers.
Son shared with me the deep motivation and mission behind founding his company and certain challenges in pursuing a hardware/deep-tech startup.
Leaving behind a cushy job abroad to create real impacts in the motherland
Born and raised in Danang, Son was interested in software engineering early on; in high school, he was one of a few selected students to compete in national and international Computer Science competitions. After high school, Son left Vietnam to pursue his Bachelor and Master Degrees in Computer Science from University of Illinois.
With a strong technical foundation and engineering interests, Son kick started his career as an engineer at some of the top companies in Silicon Valley, including Microsoft. Surrounded by early tech adopters, especially when it comes to electric cars (think Tesla), Son was inspired to mirror the technological solution to solve a large existing problem in Vietnam.
Son shared some interesting statistics: 85% of Vietnamese people use gas bikes daily to commute, which contributes to the increasing air pollution in the country. Electric bikes seem like an obvious solution to the problem, yet the adoption rate was low: only 3% of the population use electric vehicles.
Digging deeper, Son realized that all incumbent electric bikes have low power (only ⅓ vs. gas) and short range (50km). Most of them were made for the China market where bikes are smaller and meant to carry a single person on short distances.
In Vietnam, people use bikes for everything; they commute to school & work, visit friends, or go shopping. The whole family must be able to sit on the bike together. So, there needs to be major adjustments for electric bikes to fit the Vietnam market.
Witnessing the increasing adoption rate of electric vehicles in both the U.S. and Europe, Son is bullish on a similar future adoption trend for Vietnam and Southeast Asia, where more than 200mn people commute with gas bikes daily.
Having seen no existing solution in the market that entices consumers to make the switch, Son decided to move back to Vietnam and build an electric bike from scratch that not only goes faster than a gas bike, but also allows users to travel the whole week without a recharge.
“At Dat Bike, we design and make electric motorbikes with a single goal in mind: no one in Vietnam should have to a wear face mask when going out.” - Son shared.
Creating a “moat” by hyperfocusing on tech and product development
The very first Dat Bike prototype was created in Son’s apartment in 2018. Fun fact: Son actually self-taught himself how to build an electric bike, as his background is in software and not hardware.
After several iterations of the prototype, Son finally let some of his friends and colleagues test ride it. To his pleasant surprise, all of them loved it and some even decided to invest. That gave Son the first conviction he needed to continue pursuing the idea.
YCombinator's Sam Altman test rode an early version of Dat Bike
Fast forward two years later, Dat Bike has built a Vietnam-based factory, managed 150+ suppliers, and delivered its Weaver bikes to hundreds of customers. Yet, the road to get to where they are today wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
Dat Bike takes a software-first approach to build their bikes, where the team focuses on a lot of small, incremental iterations instead of focusing on big releases like the traditional approach.
In addition, the team has spent a lot of time optimizing and improving performance & reliability, aesthetic designs, ease of manufacturing, and regulation compliance. Son estimated that to get to the commercialized version today, his team has gone through thousands of iterations.
The team’s hard work and hyperfocus on technology and products have yielded impressive results in a relatively short amount of time. Dat Bike Weaver is recognized by the Ministry of Transportation as the first Made-in-Vietnam electric bike.
Not only does Dat Bike Weaver run faster than gas bikes, it is also more economical for consumers. For instance, a 100km-ride on a Weaver bike only costs users $0.25 in electricity, 10x cheaper than riding on a gas bike.
More importantly, the team has also integrated the most advanced battery management software to extend their bikes’ battery life to more than 10 years, which is unheard of in Vietnam. According to Son, other competing electric bikes in the market only offer ⅓ the power and ½ the range of the Weaver.
Optimistically looking ahead: A future full of opportunities
I asked Son how he feels about his accomplishments so far, to which he responded:
“We want to change the whole landscape with multiple electric bike models based on the tech foundation that we develop in house. We want everyone in Vietnam to ride electric bikes. This is just a start.”
For the next 12 months, the team will be heads-down focusing on optimizing sales & distribution channels to bring the Weaver bikes to more Vietnamese consumers. Son is also very excited about what new features and technical developments that the team has in the pipeline.
Most importantly, Son wants to prioritize Dat Bike’s customer service. The team wants to bring a whole new experience centered around the joy of owning a Dat Bike. The experience does not stop at purchasing the physical product, but it starts with the joy of test riding the bikes and ends with being a part of a support community and the electric revolution.
To quote a Dat Biker:
“It rained heavily the other day and my bike stopped running, probably because of a leak somewhere. The next day, I contacted customer support, and to my surprise, 2 support guys showed up immediately that afternoon at my house to pick up my bike. They fixed the bike and returned it to me the next day; everything happened within 24 hours. They even patched up a hole on my tire. Dat Bike really has top-notch customer service.”
Want to test out a Dat Bike Weaver for yourself? Dat Bike is hosting a test ride event in District 3, HCMC on September 27, 2020. Their wait list gets filled up pretty quickly, so use the code HF here when signing up here to get priority access.
Dat Bike is a pioneering Made-in-Vietnam electric bike maker, revolutionizing the electric vehicle industry in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
Are you raising money for your start-ups? Apply with Hustle Fund here.
Mai Ho is a venture partner at Hustle Fund, covering the Vietnam and Southeast Asia markets. Mai was born and raised in Vietnam, and later graduated college in the U.S. with a double major in Accounting and Finance. Mai has 10 years of experience working in London, Singapore, and San Francisco, from equity research at Goldman Sachs to Growth/User Acquisition in Silicon Valley. Previously, Mai co-founded and exited e-commerce marketplace BigBalo.