Within just three days of being launched in October last year, Mr. Dinh Viet Hung’s DesignBold startup had earned revenue of VND600 million ($26,340). The online design tool helps users professionally design their own creations, with all tasks done via its website, which features tools to easily edit photos and design banners, Facebook covers, and flyers. 

Four months after launch, revenue stood at an estimated $240,000, with more than 7,000 customers paying to use DesignBold and 50,000 accessing the free app. About 1,000 free and paying use the service every day. DesignBold, customers have said, brings utility to unprofessional designers and saves money for enterprises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), who would otherwise have to engage a designer at a substantial cost.

Vietnam has some 600,000 enterprises, 97 per cent of which are SMEs, with about 100,000 new SMEs registered in 2016. Mr. Hung therefore expects that DesignBold can support most demand among SMEs in the country given its low price.

Non-stop creations

DesignBold is not Mr. Hung’s first startup. He launched JoomlArt 12 years ago, which provides Joomla template solutions with quality templates and extensions aimed at helping users develop out-of-the-box Joomla sites. He had to cope, he said, with various challenges at that time because international demand was so high and the US’s business environment is different from Vietnam. “In order to sell my products in foreign markets at that time, I had to ask my American friends to act as representatives,” he said. “They opened accounts, consulted with foreign customers, and received payments, which they then transferred to me.” A year after launch it had attracted 100,000 customers and within three years was earning annual revenue of $1 million.  

Joom is an acronym for “Just Only One Man”. When he launched it there was only a small number of information technology (IT) products offering the same functions in Vietnam, so he was indeed a lonely man. Many of his friends disagreed with his decision to give up his job as secretary for projects at the PV Drilling company on a monthly income of $5,000. “They thought I was a crazy and deluded,” he said. “But I didn’t pay any heed to what they said, because I thought that whatever the business, leaders need to adopt a different mindset. We cannot predict the future, but we can create it.” 

His two products are the crystallization of his experience from 13 years working in the IT sector. He began to write the first codes for DesignBold in 2015. Launching technology products is a sensible move, he believes, given rapid internet growth and demand for design tools. 

In contrast to other startups in Vietnam, who tend to target domestic customers initially, Mr. Hung had his sights set on the international market from the outset. With his IT experience, he deeply understood the Vietnamese market and the habits of Vietnamese people, many of whom are willing to pay large sums for authentic clothing or furniture but reluctant to part with even a dollar for IT products. For this reason he decided to go global. 

Because his passion is startups, Mr. Hung contributes to Vietnam’s startup ecosystem via forums and investment. He can see himself in the country’s young startup community, so understands what they must do in the beginning. He shares his experience as a big brother would do to help his younger siblings. Of the many important things startups must consider, the first is selecting the right investor. “The investor must have their heart with you rather than only looking at valuations,” he believes.

Mr. Hung is a self-confessed workaholic but always finds the time to pursue his hobbies. He is especially keen on big cars, and when he drives he can feel the engine beat and the stress fade away. He also loves listening to music. “I’m not a machine,” he laughed. “I’m human and I love the beauty of music.” 

Moving forward

Though DesignBold has achieved significant success, Mr. Hung is preparing development strategies to finalize his product’s functions. In particular, one of DesignBold’s upcoming weapons will be the ability to personalize and deliver deeper solutions to every customer. With the power of big data, DesignBold’s memory will be capable of memorizing data systems relating to design styles, such as colors, fonts, and lines of users, so it can make design suggestions for businesses and individuals. 

Some customers have told him that the quantity of the layout is limited, so adding more layout is another matter to address. He revealed that he really expects to connect with printing companies to provide a final hard copy product to customers. From this he would have a closed production process, from design to print. Such plans are to come into being sometime this year and would support DesignBold’s mission of helping people communicate more beautifully through visual communications and meet demand for online, or digital design publications, and offline communications.

Another feature DesignBold is trying to build to differentiate itself is the localization of design styles and the language used. As a Vietnamese company developing in the global market, DesignBold can solve localization problems through the way it operates. “DesignBold does not create a tool, it creates an ecosystem, a playground for everyone to join,” he said. It seems that DesignBold has filled a gap in the market, given its spectacular growth just six months after being launched. He realizes, however, that he needs to set clear strategies to compete and finalize his product, as the market has a range of options for customers.

Success never comes easy. When DesignBold arrived on the scene there were many other products with similar functions, including Canva, PicMonkey, Infogram, and Stencils. His greatest challenge was therefore competing with major players such as Adobe photoshop. Major players have the ability to develop their human resources and products, while DesignBold was quite small. “It was very difficult to develop and sell DesignBold, because there were other interesting IT products available,” he said. “The DesignBold business is much more difficult than JoomlArt’s.” He still believes, though, that every piece of software can find a different angle and that DesignBold can cover a larger market than its competitors. 

On the surface, it may sound similar to other design tools but in reality it has a much broader scope. Its target is not only to be a regular design software but also a “visual communications ecosystem”, with the design tool being only a small part. The company is now beta-testing a social media planner that aims to make it easier to schedule and post content, and further down the track it will be a marketplace that allows photographers and designers to sell their photos and other creations.

But building an ecosystem is anything but straightforward. Apart from the huge amount of time, money, and people needed to create several interrelated products rather than just one, there is also the question of unity. “The hardest part about building an entire ecosystem is how to make all of the parts collaborate seamlessly with each other so that our users can benefit the most from it,” Mr. Hung said. Though there have been various problems to cope with, he remains optimistic about DesignBold and is patient enough to identify the best solution to develop it in the future.