Digital transformation… has little to do with technology!
Author: Max-F. Scheichenost – Partner, Mekong Capital
5 July 2022
October ’20 – I know, I’m taking you way back in history. But it has been a long journey of partnering with F88 to cause them to transform from an offline-only to an omni-channel business with the eventual goal to be a FinTech business.
This is a story about Digital Transformation. Guess what? It has very little to do with technology!
It was an intense couple of months conversating and working with Founder/CEO Phung Anh Tuan to realize he needed someone who can lead not only the tech team but the organization as a whole in this digital transformation process.
With a clear intention from Tuan standing from the Vision of F88, we successfully onboarded the new Chief Information Officer Dinh Gia Hieu – an experienced and solid Tech/IT leader. I thought, “This will surely speed up the process for F88 to get to the next stage of growth in the digital space.”
Couple of weeks into his new role as CIO, Hieu called me: “Max, I need your help”.
I replied: “Yes, I am eager to help and do whatever is needed”.
He continued, “I need minimum 6 realistic 9 months to re-structure our core application. It won’t scale with our current IT architecture, and we cannot add new microservices and applications to it (such as an insurance platform etc).”
This is a classic example of a technical debt situation in which a company has accumulated so much technical challenges and issues that the IT/Tech team cannot focus on growth initiatives as it is struggling just to keep the daily technical infrastructure alive. And it requires some hard decisions to rebuild the core application/system which takes time at the cost of short-term growth – something difficult to swallow for a high-growth company.
Oh wow… this was the last thing I expected. I tried to keep myself together and asked “Hieu, what do you need from me?”
On the one hand, I was happy that Hieu discovered it. But on the other hand, I felt the pain he and his team might have to face from the growth expectations.
He paused, “I need you to take a stand with me during the next Board of Directors meeting. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but if we don’t do it now, it will cause us more pain and harm in the future. And you are one of the few who ‘gets it’”.
I hesitated… Do I really want to vouch for a person that I don’t really know? Do I want to risk putting my word and thus reputation on the line? Am I willing to limit the growth of one of our fastest growing MEF III companies? But what if they fail in this transition and we lose more than 9 months of growth? What would be the consequences for me if I vouch for this plan and it fails?
It really tore at my ego as I was so organized around the KPIs and short-term results for F88 to achieve that I knew that this decision will not only push them backwards in this competitive landscape but also risks them achieving their Vision 2023. Deep inside though, I felt that this is the right thing to do. And this is most likely the last shot before the technical debt gets so high that F88 will be entering the technical debt death cycle…But could I…would I…dare I put my reputation on the line and vouch for this plan?
I acknowledged Hieu’s request but asked for 24 hours to think through it. I needed the time to get out of the thunderstorm of thoughts and stand from the sky looking at the situation.
This decision and its many risks and dangers rumbled like violent storm clouds around in my head. Then, late in the evening something emerged out of nowhere. A little voice raised and reminded me:
- I promised to be and do whatever it takes for F88 to fulfill its Vision.
- I gave my word to CEO – Founder Tuan to be his partner, and I shared with Khanh Van, the deal leader that we – as one team – should be and do whatever it needs to empower the new CIO.
And now when my performance and reputation is on the line I want to chicken out? NO! That’s not what I committed to.
I needed to overcome my ego and stand in the big picture: the Vision of F88 and what it takes them to fulfill it even if it requires a bitter pill to swallow for the next 6-9 months. “I would stand with Hieu!”
The Board meeting started. My nervousness about how Hieu would handle the board’s growth expectations were soon swept away as I listened to Hieu’s presentation.
He started from the new IT-Tech Vision. He developed a solid plan with 3 phases. He requested no new idea or initiative in the next 9 months with his commitment that he can then finish to build a scalable insurance platform by year end.
He was a true leader, presenting and then listening to input. Standing from F88 and his team’s vision and not being derailed by all the comments and pushback. And the best of it? No one at the end objected to his overall plan. There were a couple of critical comments and good questions, but no one opposed it. All the expected fear and my fight with my thoughts were unnecessary…a complete waste of my energy.
After the board meeting, I spoke to Hieu as I wasn’t sure why he needed me at the Board meeting. He shared with me “Max, you and Mekong Capital were the first investor and partner that I worked with who shared right from the beginning that you are standing in our success. I didn’t need you to say something. I needed you to BE there and BE my stand. And you did it…Thank you.”
Now, writing this story, I feel accomplished.
It was not about me or what I did or did not do. I experienced that I caused someone to transform as a leader by ‘just BEING there’ although I was dealing with my own struggles. And I felt that what I and we do at Mekong Capital is not only causing our investees to generate breakthrough results but that we are transforming people into leaders. And they are thankful for it.
F88 is now achieving their initial success in the transformation into an omni-channel business with digital lending and insurance products. I realized causing a breakthrough in Digital Transformation has little to do with Technology or Digital. It is about People. What it means for me about being a coach and partner to our investees is to BE whoever I need to BE and DO whatever I have to DO so they can fulfill their vision.
Click below to subscribe to Mekong Capital’s quarterly newsletter.
Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.