This article is also available in Vietnamese.
Starting your entrepreneurship journey is always difficult; but it is even more challenging when you do it in a foreign country. Nevertheless, since its launch at the beginning of 2020, Hikifood has been succeeding as the first e-commerce in the Netherlands, serving the Vietnamese community.
For Vietnamese living in The Netherlands, including several members of Viet make it., Hikifood has become a common place to “visit” whenever we miss our home country’s food.
We had the chance to talk with two co-founders of Hikifoods, Hien and Kiet. They kindly shared with us their entrepreneurship journey, and their aspiration to bring the taste of home to all Vietnamese people living abroad. They encouraged people to dare to try and fail when pursuing your entrepreneurship dream. At the same time, it is important to connect with people along the way, and build trust in your customers.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and what brought you to the Netherlands in the first place?
Kiet: I went to the Netherlands when I was 19 to pursue a bachelors degree in Information Technology. The main reason then was quite simple: the tuition in the Netherlands was more affordable compared to other countries. Another reason was that people in the Netherlands speak English very fluently; therefore, studying and living there without speaking Dutch would not be too difficult.
The story of me staying in the Netherlands after graduation can be considered as an act of faith (laugh). Back then, I actually had received a job offer from Vietnam and I intended to take it. However, after a football tournament, I unfortunately broke my leg and so I could not make it back home yet. At the same time, I got an interview from a telecommunications company in the Netherlands. I went to the interview with my broken leg and crutch and, to my surprise, got the job. Probably, it was because they were feeling bad for me (laugh). That’s how I came to stay in the Netherlands.
Hien: I went to France when I was 17. After graduation, I stayed to work in Paris and moved to the Netherlands. When working in the Netherlands, I really liked the Dutch’s way of doing business. Also, the Netherlands was full of opportunities for the logistics and import-export business field that I was in. Thus, even though I came back to France for a while because I missed the country and my friends there, I eventually moved back to the Netherlands to build my career here.
How did you found the Hikifood as an e-commerce site?
Both of us have stayed in Europe for more than ten years. Every time we visit other cities outside of the Netherlands and try Vietnamese food, we realize how diverse the selection is there. In some cities, there is an entire area dedicated to Vietnamese food. For example, Dong Xuan market in Berlin, Sapa market in Prague, or 13th arrondissement in Paris. This got us wondering many times why there is not such a place in the Netherlands. Especially when we consider that the number of Vietnamese expats living here is also large and growing fast.
We have known each other for a long time and always wanted to do something together. Hien works in food import-export, thus we thought: “Why don’t we build a marketplace designated for Vietnamese food right here?” However, we both had our full-time jobs, thus opening a physical store did not seem plausible. Then the idea of building an e-commerce store instead of a physical store emerged. Kiet works in IT and has experience in building websites, so it would totally make sense! This way, both of us could use our own expertise and knowledge to build our first child together. That’s how Hiki (Hien & Kiet) was born.
While running Hikifood, what challenges did you encounter?
The first challenge was how to develop an online shopping habit for Vietnamese, mostly for older generation. They are actually an important customer segment of Hiki. At the beginning, we received a lot of questions from these customers: how to find certain products on the website, how to check out and pay for an order, etc. Sometimes, it took us up to 30 minutes just to explain to a customer end to end the process.
Some customers not even have an email address, in which case we also helped create one for them so they could proceed with the order. Or several were used to the traditional way of buying via Facebook. They just gave us a list of products they wanted to buy and asked us to deliver. Then, we had to explain to them that they needed to go to the official website and follow the instruction because we did not take orders via Facebook.
Seeing that quite a number of customers had trouble with online shopping, we created videos in Vietnamese and updated detailed instructions on the website so people could easily follow. Thanks to this, we saw a huge decline in the number of customers asking us for technical help. Once the customers were used to this new way of shopping, it took them only a few minutes to finish the whole process. This eased the burden on our team in answering technical questions so we could focus on more strategic activities.
The second challenge was how to manage different sources of products. There is no single supplier who can provide us all the products we need to maintain our business; hence, we needed to develop a network of suppliers to diversify our product portfolio. This comes with certain difficulties in keeping contact with all our suppliers and managing to get all items to arrive at the same time. Optimizing the distribution of products on our website in certain weeks, to make sure our customers will always come back to Hiki is also something we have to consider. These are on-going challenges we face, which we are striving to solve and find better solutions for.
What is your motivation to keep working on Hiki despite those challenges and what is your outlook for Hiki?
Our greatest motivation is that we understand the value we are bringing to our society. One of our main goals when building Hiki was to bring the taste of Vietnam back to the people who are far away from home. Therefore, when we receive feedback from our customers about how authentic our products are, how we’ve helped them to feel at home through our food, or how they can cook a delicious meal for their family using our ingredients, we feel extremely motivated to keep moving forward. Especially this year during the pandemic, when most people could not travel back to Vietnam, the fact that we bring home closer to them means a lot more both to us and to our customers. Thanks to Hiki, we are able connect with many Vietnamese living in the Netherlands, and feel that we are helping our community to grow stronger.
In the near future, we hope to diversify our portfolio even more to also include other Asian products, so that we can target more customers in the Asian community. At the same time, we aim to reach out to European customers, perhaps by offering ready-made meals with a certain marketing strategy, so that more local people are aware of authentic Vietnamese cuisine and our products. This is our own way of bringing the taste of Vietnam to the world.
What are some lessons learnt from building Hikifood that you want to give to young people ?
You must try out different things. You will, most likely, fail during the first few times, but you will learn and gain experience from it. Especially when living abroad, where everything, such as the people and the culture is foreign, it is more likely that you will not succeed from the start. But, learn from those mistakes, be preservant with your ideas, you will soon see that success is around the corner.
Broaden your network and get to know people. Each of the people you meet has a story to tell and you will for sure learn from it. Some of those stories will be critical advice for you to build your own career.
Build trust in your stakeholders from the very beginning; it will serve you later on. For example, as said earlier, at the beginning when Hiki just launched, we received a lot of questions from our customers because to them everything was new. Instead of giving a vague answer, we spent time guiding and helping each of them and made sure that every question was addressed.
Also, our products are very diverse, ranging from fresh food, frozen food, or premade meal. Thus, sometimes we are not able to deliver to our customers the products in the highest condition. This is mostly due to shipping and packaging. In those cases, we strive to listen to the customers’ feedback and find the best solutions for them, instead of focusing only on what would be profitable for the company. Thanks to this, we see a steady number of customers who always support Hiki. This gives us strength and motivation to continue with our mission, to “build a stronger Vietnamese community in the Netherlands.”
Have a look at Hikifood website at https://hikifood.com/.
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