Journey to the Vision
Author: Do Thi Khanh Van – Director of Investment, Mekong Capital
30 May 2022
When looking at how F88 is currently accelerating from strengths to strengths, you can’t help but wonder what caused them to create such results. And if I tell you: ‘It started with the shared vision!’, you will probably laugh at how self-evident and vague it sounds. If so, heed this cautionary tale and see just how powerful a shared vision can be—and how destructive a lack of it is. I chose to share this story not only for the entrepreneur community but as a reminder for myself in how I partner with companies to always live in a shared vision.
After receiving MEF III’s investment in 2016, a new chapter of F88 began as the three founders and long-time friends: Tuan, Hung, and Tuyen declared the Vision 2020 of “Being the number 1 lending chain in Vietnam”. Without acknowledging what was required of a strategic Vision, they quickly found difficulties in taking the next steps toward this future they envisioned.
10 branches were opened during 2014-2015 only to be quickly closed and replaced by 10 other locations. The three struggled to see eye to eye, unable to paint a common vivid picture of the Vision. Whether to do traditional pawn lending or vehicle title lending, which customer segmentation, criteria for store location or defining accountabilities among founders’ group… are all the questions left unanswered.
While each of the founders brought unique and important strengths to F88, each also brought his own mindset of how to achieve F88 vision and a unique way of performing his job that created great and growing challenges. Underneath these surface disagreements, deeper unworkability began to build.
Tuan focused on long-term strategies but was not interested in detailed operations. Hung was an excellent salesman on the field but always struggled to comply to organizational rules. Building systems and processes were the strengths of Tuyen to make F88 a well-managed company. However, the new processes introduced by Tuyen made Hung felt controlled.
The trio had fallen into the rabbit hole that snared so many friendship-based businesses. They got stuck in the many “unsaid” complaints about each other and couldn’t find a way to communicate effectively to move the organization forward. Bit by bit, Tuan lost faith in himself and his partners in successfully running the company together towards accomplishing the Vision.
Tuan brought the idea of hiring a professional CEO to a board meeting however immediately received resistance from Chris Freund (at that time the Deal leader of F88). With a firm belief in the unlocked power of the 3 founders, Chris asserted: “You guys can do it.”
The F88 trio respected Chris but couldn’t believe his words. Even after listening to Chris’s stories about how Mekong Capital and then Mobile World went through the same crisis during 2008-2009, and how each company and its founders transformed, the 3 F88 founders were still far from convinced.
Late 2016, Mekong organized a trip to Thailand for the founders to visit SAWAD and MTLS, Thai’s leading lending companies. In a market smaller than Vietnam, after only 10 years of development, each of these companies has a nation-wide network of 2,000 lending stores and was valued at more than US$2 billion. Seeing the similar characteristics of the market and product design, and the success these companies had gained, the future of F88 became so clear and real for them. They confidently mapped out 300 lending stores nationwide in 2021, focused on vehicle tile lending -if, and only if, they could overcome their floundering leadership issues. Even though their doubts about their leadership ability lingered, they were sufficiently inspired to try Chris’s recommendation to transform themselves instead of hiring outside CEO talent.
And so the three took part in a 9 month long leadership coaching program offered by Mekong Capital, with the hope they can generate new actions for breakthrough results towards the Vision. Being next to each other all day had brought the spark of their friendship back. They encouraged and motivated each other through the abstract and challenging assignments, where a big part of the work was remembering only the good side of the partners, letting go of their point of view about each other, giving each other direct input on what worked and what did not work in their working habits, their leadership—all in service to their commitment on a shared vision.
Coming out of the coaching program, they found a way to listen fully, and communicate so openly and deeply with each other. The relationship between the founders shifted into looking deep into the meaning of the work they were doing together. Quickly and naturally, they declared their own unique Mission and Vision for F88, one that truly reflects who they are for each other and for the world: “Changing the society’s prejudice on secured lending services by transparent and professional services; By 2021, F88 is the no.1 secured lending chain in Vietnam, with 300 stores nation-wide.”
Living in a shared vision was the first step in the chain reaction of F88’s transformation. Tuan became a visionary leader putting all his energy into communicating and inspiring every team member to believe in the vision and the founders. Tuyen stepped up from a system architect to becoming the COO covering talent and culture, be the coach for hundreds of managers of all levels. Hung was not only a frontline sale leader, but moreover, he became a mentor for the sales and operation teams about ownership and achieving breakthroughs. The synergy they created had been inspirational for all employees to see themselves as part of a big picture, playing a bigger game. By end of 2020, F88 achieved the Vision of 300 lending stores, one year earlier than the target.
Being partners to celebrate our investee’s breakdowns to breakthroughs, I saw a common pattern that is the power of living in a Shared Vision. Look at what happened at F88. It all traced back to one transformation of the 3 founders during 2016 when they created for themselves an authentic belief in a vivid and realistic picture of the company’s 5 years future. Will a Shared Vision do the same for you?
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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.