Though many businesses have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, 33-year-old entrepreneur Nguyen Bach Truong’s firm is still chugging, turning out thousands of toothpicks each week.
The workers at Truong Thinh, a bamboo toothpick firm in Cat Que Commune, Hoai Duc District, Hanoi, are still busy at work even though unemployment numbers in Vietnam have risen over the past several months due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Each day, the team at Truong’s company selects bamboo threads, cuts them into toothpicks, dries them, scents them, and prepares each bundle for shipping.
“I used to rely on farming and husbandry to earn a living but the work was very tough,” said Pham Thi Xuan, 59, one of 15 full-time workers at Truong Thinh.
“Everything has been better since I started working here.
“My current salary is VND5-6 million [US$215-258] each month and I’m allowed to take Sundays off.”
Starting from the bottom
Though Truong grew up in a poor family, he refused to live his life in poverty.
After finishing high school, Truong bounced between odd manual labor jobs before joining the military.
He spent two years in the army before deciding to follow in his parents’ footsteps and begin producing toothpicks.
“But I knew that I could do it differently,” he said.
“I wanted the operation to be more professional than what my parents did.
“I wanted to register a product trademark and build a brand that could reach more customers.”
At 22 years old, the former soldier took a VND5 million ($215) loan from his mother-in-law to buy raw materials for his new toothpick brand.
“My only motivation was to aspire for a better life,” he said.
“I wanted to be independent and not to have to rely on my parents.”
Truong’s business acumen was garnered through long nights spent reading business management books and networking with veteran entrepreneurs.
His first three years was the hardest. Yet he pressed forward notwithstanding financial difficulties.
“If I gave up, I would never have changed my life,” he shared.
Slowly but surely, his business began to thrive.
He was constantly seeking out potential distributors and new markets, little by little building a network of smaller agencies that could get his products out into the public.
“I still remember a customer who rejected me three times. They even banished me from their property, but I wasn’t discouraged,” he recalled.
Now, after 11 years overcoming thousands of obstacles, Truong has built a successful career for himself with a 1,000-square-meter factory where he proudly employs many of his neighbors.
His current annual revenues are about VND20-25 billion ($648,000-865,000) and his profits sit at VND1 billion ($43,000).
The company has 15 full-time workers, each paid a monthly salary of VND6-9 million ($259-389).
He also employs seasonal workers as needed.
Finding own way
In order to differentiate his brand from the yellow toothpicks that currently flood Vietnam’s market, Truong is attempting to find a way to preserve the original green color of natural bamboo in his toothpicks.
In his attempt to produce the perfect green toothpicks, he has tried turning out toothpicks using materials from across Vietnam, including Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang, and Yen Bai Provinces.
“I believe that toothpicks which can maintain their natural color will catch the eyes of customers,” he said.
Truong not only cares about the bamboo’s color, but he also focuses on creating attractive packaging in the hope that his customers will keep the boxes after they are emptied to store other items.
Currently, Truong’s company offers around 20 different products, with boxes of his flagship toothpicks selling VND50,000 ($2) apiece.
He next has his eyes set on opening a branch of his company Ho Chi Minh City and producing chopsticks made of Trac (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) wood in order to target premium customers.
Setting short-term goals
Launching a business is never an easy task, Truong said.
“Despite this huge challenge, we should persevere on such a hard journey instead of giving up.
“I often set three-year goals each time I launch a new product.
“I use that time to persist in my efforts and difficulties.
“If I could get the results that I desire after three years, I can try something new.
“I don’t think you can achieve quick results after doing business for only a few months.
“Doing business takes time.”