I have been a funk for the past month about the lack of progress in our Vietnam business. Hence the lack of postings here. But the break to this funk might just lie in writing some posts about business, which might help me to see a way through the morass we seem to find ourselves in.
It makes sense that other countries in Asia might offer a model for what is now happening in Viet Nam business. Certainly, Viet Nam's neighbor, China, is undoubtedly the best model since it is also a Communist political system, has had tremendous influence on Vietnamese culture over the centuries, and is about 15 years ahead of Viet Nam in its development as an emerging industrial nation.
Therefore I have started reading a variety of blogs focused on China recently, and will try to draw some parallels to China and apply them to Viet Nam.
One of the blogs I have been reading every day is the China Law Blog, written by Dan Harris, an attorney from Seattle who travels extensively in Asia. He posts two or three times daily on his blog, and the posts aren't just simple references to other internet items -- they are always very well researched and thoughtful with original analysis and thinking. Judging from the time stamps on many of his posts, he must be one of those rare people who don't waste much time sleeping, which is probably a good trait to have when you are constantly traversing time zones.
In one of his posts today, he gets to the heart of my current angst here in Vietnam business -- the impossibility of participating fully in the business networks here (as in China). Dan quotes the conventional wisdom, espoused in this case by Janet Carmosky of China Prospects, Inc., offering market research and network referrals to foreign businesses wanting to enter the Chinese market. One of her business principles states that the key to dealing with China is to get into a network of connections, called Quanxi in China.
Dan counters that participating fully in the local business networks is impossible for foreigners to achieve. He states that "I also think that Westerners who actually believe they are in a Chinese network are, almost without exception, operating under a potentially dangerous illusion." Then quoting his attorney partner, Steve Dickenson, who has been involved in China for 30 years and lives there: "How can I compete with people who are from the same hometown, have the same uncle, went to the same high school, the same college, have the same culture? I can't."
On the other hand, I understand Ms. Carmosky's point that you can use business connections to better acquire "the knowledge and skills needed to work effectively with Chinese organizations and individuals." But we have learned that we have to guard our own identity and not become trapped by these connections.
My American business partner and I have been laboring under the assumption that we have been truly accepted by those in the network in which we have operating. It has become painfully clear over the past weeks that this is not the case. This has lead to much time wasted in many blind alleys and mazes of tangled relationships that kept us from our real goals. I have come around to the conclusion that we just need to follow our own inclinations, watch out for and advocate our own interests, and work with as many different partners as we need to in order to further our own business goals.
We may retain our primary partnership with a local Vietnamese network, but we have learned that we cannot wait for them to hand us business, and we need to find our own business both within the partnership as well as outside the partnership.