This Singaporean Is Helping Vietnam's Micro-Entrepreneurs Build Digital Supermarkets
Geoffrey See’s Shoppa works with Vietnamese female micro-entrepreneurs to bring daily necessities to underserved communes across the country
The Ready For Launch series asks questions of entrepreneurs to get the inside story behind a new startup or product launch.
More than 90 percent of Vietnam’s population live outside of its two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and many smaller towns don't have a supermarket. Considering the country’s high social media penetration rate, one Singaporean entrepreneur came up with a solution.
Geoffrey See started Shoppa with his co-founders, Van Tran and Sean Ang, in August 2021 to bring daily necessities to the millions of Vietnamese living in smaller cities and towns. The company does this by working with local women to build micro-enterprises online that deliver groceries to customers in every commune in the country. Earlier this month, Shoppa was invited to join the coveted startup accelerator Y Combinator as the only Vietnam-focused venture in the retail and social commerce space.
See previously founded and led Choson Exchange, a social enterprise that has trained thousands of North Koreans on economic policy, business and law. It also groomed numerous startups founders and micro-entrepreneurs in the country through its programme.
Below, See shares more on Shoppa’s mission and his North Korean experience.
Please introduce Shoppa.
Shoppa puts a digital supermarket in every commune in Vietnam. Our team works with female micro-entrepreneurs to bring daily necessities to 86 million Vietnamese living in smaller cities and towns.
What’s the story behind the startup’s founding?
My co-founder Van Tran grew up in one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam without ever seeing a supermarket in her childhood. My other co-founder Sean Ang spent more than a decade as a retail executive at NTUC Fairprice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain. We found that many Vietnamese still live 20-to-30km away from the nearest supermarket and would travel the distance on weekends to purchase products that are less available in their local area.
Modern grocery retail still only makes up 9 percent of the Vietnamese market. For comparison, it is 47 percent in Thailand. As income rises in Vietnam, we believe that this will change significantly and we want to be part of making that change happen.
Why did you choose to go into social commerce?
I spent more than a decade training micro-entrepreneurs in North Korea. Most of them were women and small-scale retailers. When I first saw how, in China, app-based selling took away the risks of buying the wrong products and how it taught sellers how to set prices and manage customers on a messaging app instead of at a physical store, I was hooked. Here was a far better model to train people to be better retailers than sitting in a classroom!
How long did it take you to get from idea to launch?
We started testing the idea in Thailand in early 2021 and decided to switch to Vietnam in May. But due to Covid-19 restrictions, it took us until September—and two whole months in quarantine—before we could reach our target market to launch a minimum viable product. Despite many Covid-19-related disruptions, we were able to grow our revenue by 10 times within two months of our launch.
Who is Shoppa’s target consumer?
We bring low-cost products to lower-income segments at very affordable prices. As such, our consumers are found in smaller cities and towns, have lower incomes and less access to the selection and quality of a supermarket. Our “Chi Shoppa” (Sister Shoppa) or micro-entrepreneurs are generally influential community leaders, mostly female, who want to share a great deal with their friends and neighbours.
What is its value proposition?
Great prices, a community experience, and a supermarket at your neighbour’s doorstep. For our micro-entrepreneurs, instead of spending US$25,000 to set up a mom-and-pop shop, they get to sell a wider selection of products online for only US$25 in working capital.
What’s the size of the target market?
Most Vietnamese live outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, some 86 million people or more than 90 percent of the population. Vietnamese also spend around US$80 billion on groceries a year.
What’s the biggest obstacle you face running a company in Vietnam?
Our customers live in smaller towns and cities and are distrustful of outsiders. Sometimes I ask myself how much an urban kid like me, whose only experience living in a small town was studying at Yale University, could understand our customers. When I started Shoppa, I avoided staying in Hanoi and moved our entire team to one of these smaller towns so we could better understand our customers.
What’s most exciting about being an entrepreneur in Vietnam today?
My dad was a hawker; he sold drinks in a food centre in Singapore. So I imagine that what I do helps micro-entrepreneurs like him. I also worked in Vietnam for more than three years prior to this. I love the pace of change and the people; I love the opportunity to contribute to the rapid growth here; and most importantly, I love the opportunity to build bridges between Singapore and our Southeast Asian neighbours!
How has your experience of doing business in North Korea shaped your approach with Shoppa?
On one of my trips out of North Korea, my flight caught fire. I woke up to a smoke-filled cabin. The plane started dropping and I could feel the pressure build up in my ears. I thought I was going to die. We eventually made a rough but safe emergency landing.
This came on the back of difficult months when projects were moving too slowly, sponsors were cutting funding because of escalating tensions between the US, South Korea and North Korea, and sanctions were ramping up. We were no longer growing. I got off the flight tired, shaken but also empowered with new urgency and meaning.
I had spent a decade building something I was proud of, but I also realised how much time I had wasted sustaining a dream when we hit a growth ceiling. Every week I am unable to grow my impact is a wasted week. I am alive today after that flight so that I can make every week of my life count for something.
For Shoppa, that means making sure we can keep scaling our impact and touch more lives.