Coffee With A Stranger Cup 116 Vi Nguyen

Cup 116: Vi Nguyen – Film maker, problem solver and savvy tech founder

Coffee With A Stranger Cup 116 Vi NguyenThe Place: Cherrywood Coffee House

The Cup: Matcha for Vi and a tiny, but powerful Cortado for me.

The Background: Vi and I connected when she sent an email explaining that she’d stumbled upon my blog and that she was a big fan of the project. Flattery may not get you everywhere — but, on the right day, it may land you an invitation to coffee. To be fair, Vi mentioned the start-up she and her business partner were working on, Homads (a new solution for people interested in subletting) and I was intrigued. Flattery + intrigue…I’m fairly convinced, that WILL get you anywhere!

Before we get into Vi’s story, where we find out how a film major ends up starting a tech company, and how a comment about being the kind of girl that would win a bar fight elicited some major changes, let’s cover a few:

Common Grounds:

  1. What is the best gift you’ve ever given? When I first started dating Chris {who is now her husband}, he was struggling with not being sure about what he wanted to do with his career and identity stuff. Being a film major, I gathered up all the people he knew — his family and friends, ex-girlfriends even, and interviewed each one of them and said, “Give Chris some advice.” I turned it into a video. Some of the people have passed away so it’s become very dear to him.
  2. What is the best way to unwind? My husband is my best partner in that. I need someone to tell me to chill out. If he leaves to go out of town or something, he comes back and says, “Why are you so stressed out?” and I tell him, “I’ve been working, I didn’t know when to stop.” He makes me watch a movie or eat, or do something to chill out. Most of them time, it’s about food — making food, going out for food, thinking about what we’re going to eat next.
  3. What book should be required reading for all human beings? The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. I’m not religious, but that would be my “bible”. It gets me through life. Business-wise, two I really love are Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and Zero to One by Peter Thiel.
  4. What’s a food you can’t live without? Sugar! Cake.
  5. Who is your celebrity doppelganger? Being Asian, that’s difficult. People say, “You look like Lucy Liu.” But I don’t. I’ve also found that people often get offended when you tell them they look like someone. I had this college friend and it was his mannerisms that I thought seemed like Steve Buscemi. That’s the last time I’ll tell someone they look like someone.
  6. How did you make your first buck? When I was in elementary school, I somehow convinced my school principal to let me recycle all of the aluminum cans from students. So after lunch each day I would grab the recycling bins and my dad would help me bring the bags to a recycling yard and they would pay me. Granted it was only literally a few bucks but it was a lot for kid.
  7. What’s the most amazing book you’ve read? I really loved Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  8. What’s your guilty pleasure? Movies. Specifically chick flicks. It’s guilty because they are so bad — but it’s a form of escape.

Small Town Girl

Vi was raised in Lake Worth, TX (just outside of Ft. Worth) where she graduated at the top of her class — of 87 students. Vi mentions that she was the only Asian in her class. She left her small town and headed to University of Texas in Austin for college, where she says, it was the complete opposite. Very diverse!

UT is definitely known for being a great place to learn. But being in such a festival- and party-heavy city, it’s also known for things like tailgating before football games and wild antics on 6th Street. Vi says, “I was there for one thing — to study. I never even went to 6th street.”

Vi studied Film and Sociology and ultimately wanted to work in non-profits. She studied film, because she found the idea of making documentaries fun and she thought it would be a great hobby. Her first job involved a move to Houston where she worked at a non-profit for Vietnamese Americans. Vi tells me she was surprised to realize it was her film degree that was being utilized far more than her sociology degree.

When the grant she was working under expired, she gave a lot of thought to what was next for her. Reapply for the grant and do more of the same, or maybe branch out and explore something else?

Launch

Starting a business was the choice she landed on, with a woman she had met doing the non-profit work, and along with the career change, she decided it was also time for a change of venue. Vi tells me, “I moved back to Austin because I missed the trees! I have such love for the city — it’s very liberal. I always felt like I never fit it in Houston – it’s so corporate. Austin is real chill and I felt 100 times better here. I wanted to freelance. I generally have 2-3 projects at the same time.”

As if all that change wasn’t enough, Vi and her boyfriend Chris tied the knot the same month they moved back to Austin. And bought two cars and their first home. Hey, might as well put the marriage to the test right out of the gate!

Vi and I chatted about the wedding and about marriage in general. She laughs when she tells me, “I never thought I’d get married. I used to joke with my family about it. We don’t fit the mold of traditional gender roles. He was raised by women and I am daddy’s little girl. I change my car radiator and he cooks dinner. He helps me in my career and supports me in my choices.” Wow, sounds like two incredibly smart people with healthy ideas about making marriage work. Rule #1 — figure out what’s best for you and ignore anyone who tells you anything different!

Problem Solved

Vi tells me, “During this time (after moving to Austin) I was traveling a lot and used AirBnB to find places to stay. I wanted to put our condo on AirBnB but my husband is completely risk-averse. So I said, ‘Just let me try Air BnB for a year and then we can stop,’ We ended up doing it two years.” Ultimately, it was the rules of the homeowners association that made her give up AirBnB. And when her attempts to find people looking for sublets or longer term leases came up short, she hatched the idea for Homads – an online marketplace for sublets. Like most great businesses, it was created as a solution to the founder’s own problem.

I ask Vi what was the most significant thing that happened to her in the last 30 days, and she tells me it was happily saying goodbye to 2015. She says, “2015 was our worst year. I don’t know if you know this, but Asians are very blunt. My mother-in-law, I love her, but she’s blunt! She had her fortune told and she said the fortune teller said it was going to be a great year for us. I think she was trying to prove he knew what he was talking about, and she said, ‘He said you’re really dark, you know, and not that pretty. But very smart! And it’s going to be a good business year.'” It wasn’t! In fact it was the opposite. So I joke with my husband that I must be very pretty since he was so wrong about everything else.”

Vi and her husband were working with a contractor on building an in-law suite onto their home. After the contractor took their money and didn’t complete the work, they are now in a lawsuit suing them for fraud. Vi says that it has turned into a good thing. She adds, “We have had great people come on board to help us. A good attorney and a great new contractor. And Homads has started getting into publications which has lead to lots of invites and good things!” Check out the article the Austin Business Journal wrote on Homads at the start of the year.

More or Less

I want to know what Vi wants less of in her life. She tells me, “I want to care less. In my family I’m always the one who connects people — the one who is close to everyone. My sister does her own thing and she doesn’t care. That’s what I want less of, is for my mind to freak out about things.”

And what does she want more of? Vi says, “More of not being complacent. I want to reach more and do more. Maybe this is what I say every year, but I want to be more fearless. I have a friend who asks, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? You die.’ That’s what she says! But it’s true, because if you’re dead – that’s it. So I’ll remind myself of that and pump myself up by saying, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?'”

Who You Know

I think everyone has an idea, or several, that they whole-heartedly believe, that most people think is nuts. I ask Vi what that is for her and she tells me, “I think, at least in the US, it’s all about who you know. I think a lot of people disagree because of the whole American dream idea. We think that if you work hard enough that we’ll be recognized — which I think happens for a certain amount of people, but I think a lot of it has to do with what connections you have. This is conflicting for me because I am a product of the “American dream” with my parents being refugees and working their way to put us through college. But as I get older, I am noticing the need for connections as well.”

How about a lesson Vi wished she had learned sooner? Vi says, “Saying ‘No.’ In fact, I have a tattoo based on this. (A gorgeous watercolor wing on her shoulder). After I got married, a whole lotta stuff happened. Our wedding was so Asian, and for the most part, it was for our parents. Of course, they wanted us to have kids right away! My husband and I are both pleasers — we were always the ones to make our parents happy. But I started practicing saying no and it’s been liberating!”

A Different World

I ask Vi what she is ridiculously good at and she says, “Problem-solving. I can Google anything and find the answer. I changed my radiator by watching videos and learning on Google. I grew up low-income and our school was not good. I had teachers complain because I wanted to learn calculus. I had to self-teach myself a lot of things. When I got to UT I found out a lot of people make you feel bad about yourself because of your education before you got to UT.  My response was – I’m in the same room as you – that means I got here. If you were to sit in my position from my school, would you have made it here too? That’s a big thing when you look at people. Where are they coming from?”

Wow, how true is that? So often we view the world exclusively through our own lens and rarely give thought to how different life is for everyone else. The fact we are sitting in the same classroom, or office, reveals nothing of the paths we took to get there. It’s a snapshot of a tiny flicker in time — a blip. And though we could never possibly know everyone else’s story — we can absolutely know it’s nothing like our own.

Read Into Your Life

When I ask Vi what her message would be, if given 30 seconds to make a speech to the world, and her are her thoughts, in her own words.

Vi Nguyen – In Her Own Words

Vi’s message is clear. Live life on your own terms. We cannot possibly make everyone else happy with our decisions, so worry less about making others happy and focus instead on creating a life that makes you happy. Whether that means ignoring traditional gender roles in a relationship, waiting to have kids until you’re ready, or solving your own problem by creating a business. Choice is a powerful concept and it can lead to misery (when you surrender it) or freedom (when you embrace and own it).

As Vi’s story proves, it’s not always easy to pave your own way or take the road less travelled. But like her wise friend says, “What’s the worst that can happen?” To which I’d add, taking the chance, stepping into the ring, making the leap — no matter the outcome, is far more rewarding than living with the regret that comes from playing small. Live your life in such a way that you never find yourself starting a sentence with, “I wish I would have…”

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If you enjoyed this interview, “Like” the Coffee With A Stranger Project Facebook page and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming interviews with new strangers and other fun stuff. If there’s someone in Austin you think I need to have coffee with, let me know and I’ll do my best to sweet talk them into having coffee with a stranger.

One thought on “Cup 116: Vi Nguyen – Film maker, problem solver and savvy tech founder

  1. Oh my gosh did I need this today! Saying No to things that feel like obligations, and saying Yes to the things I consider priorities. I couldn’t agree more regarding the importance of this, and also how hard it can be to actually put this idea into action when the opposite has been the “go to” for years. (PS I LOVE the video that Vi did for Chris! What a thoughtful, creative, and priceless gift!!!). Thanks for sharing, Vi and Melissa!

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