Ask anyone in Vietnam who the popular online bookstores are in the country and chances are they will point you to Tiki.vn. The e-commerce startup was founded in 2010 by Son Tran. Today Tiki.vn not only sells books but also other products like toys and apparel, making the same sort of expansion in product offerings that Amazon did.
Tran’s first experience with e-commerce was actually with Vinabook, which is also an online bookstore. He worked there from 2009 to 2010. He described his experience as a positive, educational one. However, back then Vinabook was very focused on books in Vietnamese. But Tran, who went to college in Australia, had the vision to sell English books online in Vietnam.
So in March 2010, Tran founded Tiki.vn with a focus to sell international English-language books online. The word Tiki, as Tran explained, stands for “to save and search.” He said that he started by borrowing US$25 000 from friends and family to start importing books to Vietnam and then selling them online. He recalled back when he started his company with just a three-man team:
I didn’t have any space to store books so I had no choice but to use my garage. We didn’t have money so we had to do everything ourselves, like delivering books using our motorcycles.
To understand what books people wanted to buy, Tran even went to bookstores to observe consumer behaviour in person. Without going into much detail, he explains that he observed young females buying more books than males. So Tiki spent most of its advertising dollars on young women. Tran says that getting out of the office to deliver books on his own also helped him to understand the entire distribution process from delivery to interacting with customers on their doorstep.
When Tiki first started out, Tran thought their customers would be 50 percent expats and 50 percent Vietnamese, but it turned out to be more like 0.5 percent expats and 99.5 percent Vietnamese. After just six months, Tiki also started to offer Vietnamese books in accordance with local demand. During this early period, Tiki also became one of the only online stores that was delivering Kindle e-readers. This was mainly motivated by listening to customers.
Today Tiki prides itself on providing excellent customer service to its users, inspired by Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness.” Tran says that every book sold at Tiki is coupled with a custom sized book cover. Social media has also been a central part of Tiki’s strategy for communicating with customers and better understanding them. He believes in getting out of the office to listen to customers, and he says he is always willing to try new things to excite them.
Tiki has about 90 staff members today with about 55 of them are involved with logistics and the rest are in customer service, technical, content, and sales. Tran says there are about 15 000 orders per month across Vietnam, with 60 to 80 percent of them being book orders.
In 2012, Tiki received funding from Cyberagent Ventures. Tran is positive that both Vietnam’s e-commerce industry and Tiki will grow rapidly in the next five years.