“Entrepreneurship is not all roses – if you want to play this game, get ready to sacrifice something” – Jesse Khanh Tran, Co-founder of RENS

We met Jesse Khanh Tran on a sunny Wednesday in June. He arrived a bit late but with a reasonable excuse: He had been bitten by a dog just a couple of minutes ago. It was very unfortunate and we all felt sorry for him. But what surprised us was that Jesse came to the café with a big smile. And the way he told us about the accident was like a good thing had just happened. Jesse explained that he felt lucky a lot because the dog was vaccinated and it was a flesh wound. Later on in our interview, Jesse shared his opinion on “being positive” then we understood why he could focus solely on the positivity of a difficult situation.

Manufacturing has been my passion for a long time.

The first business idea helps me get to where I am today. It’s called Factory Finder. We help small and medium size fashion brands in the Nordics to work with sustainable factories in Vietnam and China. From that business, I have a lot of connections in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Those contacts are very useful and valuable.

I have always been interested in production and manufacturing. The whole process is like magic when it changes raw material into a totally different product with more useful functions.

If you want to become an entrepreneur, apply to work for a growing startup.

My very first job was in Mikkeli – just a small and short-term project. The company produces sustainable jewelry. It’s a great experience. I got to know how to do trading here (in Finland). It was really primitive, what we do now is much bigger in scale and complication.

I would say the working experience is valuable, not for the very first job, but from the first serious job in which I work for DealDash. That one brought me all the connections and knowledge. In my opinion, the first job is very important. If you have your first job in a successful startup, you will see how hard it is to run a successful business, but at the same time, you will realize that it’s not impossible. On the contrary, If your first job is with a failed startup or a big corporation, even though they are two different spectrums, but you will still likely to have the same mindset, which is “It’s almost impossible to create a successful company by yourself!”.

In a failed startup, you can be demotivated and have a negative impression about the challenges in running a business. In a big company, you would feel so small, like you are lacking all the resources, information and money to create something as big as this one. We are usually asked “What do you want to do in 3 or 5 years?” but not “What you want to do in a hundred year?”. So in my opinion, big corporations and small failing startup are the worst options to start your first job. In other words, if you want to become an entrepreneur, apply to work for a successful/ growing startup.

If you see our first prototype, it’s disgusting.

My co-founder – Son and I used to work together in Factory Finder. He used to be a full-stack developer there. Then he moved on to work for Zalando. We caught up after a long time. The one thing we have in common that remains the same until now is that both of us are sneakerheads. And we want to create something really cool, like the best sneakers in the world. How it will be like? It must be sustainable but looks cool and stylish at the same time.

Jesse with his co-founder Son Chu

Because what we see in the market is that, the sustainable products look really unfashionable and customers buy it mostly by ethical reasons. We don’t want to do that, we want to create something really beautiful, affordable, functional, and sustainability just like a cherry on the top, not the main feature.

It used to be a bad idea before it becomes what it is today. If you see our first prototype, it’s disgusting. It was made from organic cotton. But then, Son and I were not happy about it, so we did more researches and found this new material made from coffee waste which has never been used for making shoes. That’s why we put more effort, time and money to search for a way to apply coffee to produce shoes. 

RensThe world's first waterproof sneaker made from coffee waste
Rens - The world's first waterproof sneaker made from coffee waste

We mixed different materials together and created a pattern for this new shoe-making process from coffee waste. We also implement nanotechnology to give more functions to the shoes, it is now waterproof. And the membrane is also made from plastic waste. So the whole shoe is very sustainable.

I don’t need Finnish for that job.

How could I get a job in DealDash? It’s all luck! There were 23 international students in Mikkeli, I believe I’m the only one to get the job in Finland right after graduation. So it’s pure luck. It’s not because I’m better than any other. It’s random. And, It’s life, no matter how good you are, the timing is important. That is something you may not control.

However, they say luck is the combination of preparation and opportunity. I actually had been following DealDash several years before applying there. At that time, they really needed people. So it was really easy for me the process of recruitment. Only one phone call. I was surprised when knowing all my colleagues have 3 or 4 rounds of interview.

I can speak Finnish in daily conversations like in the café or supermarket, but I never need it in my professional life. I think we should use English more proactively, not any other language if we want to build a global company.

Personally, I feel like I’m the stupidest guy in the team.

I would say I am inspired a lot by my colleagues. All of them are my daily inspiration. I personally feel like I’m the stupidest guy in the team. And people who work with me are much smarter than myself. They are so talented, much better than me, qualification-wise, upbringing-wise and background-wise. I could not believe that they are helping me to achieve my dream.

Rens core team members

Because I never can do this alone due to the limitation on my knowledge and ability. I remember back then even when the team were only two of us, my co-founder and I, but it’s still fun. We fit together and have supplementary skills. And now, when the team is growing, the excitement just multiplies. When we hire somebody, they are amazingly good at what they’re doing. In our company, everyone can raise up an idea and give constructive criticism.

I’ve learned from the best entrepreneurs here.

I have learned so much from the best entrepreneurs here. One of our first investors of Rens is a top-knot entrepreneur in Finland. We are friends for quite a long time. They believe in me and I really appreciate it. But besides the financial support, I learned a lot about entrepreneurship from them: how they behave in the business world, how they deal with pressure, obstacles and criticism.

I would like to share one lesson I learned about asking for feedback. Whenever I have a new idea, the first thing I ask from people is not “What do you think about it? Do you like it?” but “What you DON’T like about it?”. Because that hard question let people be open and give honest feedback for your own good without being afraid of hurting your feelings. The truth is, you don’t need more compliments for your idea. You are the one who creates it. You already know it’s freaking awesome! The praises from others will just boost your ego, but constructive criticism is what will help you get improved.

Everyone can look perfect on paper.

Your co-founder or partner is the most important factor for success. And it’s not an easy task. In my previous startup, there are 4 co-founders in total, to be honest, we are not a perfect team with complementary skills and common working practices. It’s good to be diverse to have different perspectives and opinions, but a good team requires the harmony in many other aspects.

In order to find the right business partner, you need to work with them. Not necessary for years before starting to create something together, but at least a few months to understand their personalities, traits, and capabilities. Everyone can look perfect on paper, but you only know the truth after some collaboration.

Entrepreneurship is not all roses.

It indeed has some impact on my personal life. I have just ended a long-term relationship. And my work as an entrepreneur is one of the biggest reasons leading to this decision. And this is not the only sacrifice I have ever made. Entrepreneurship is not all roses. If you want to play this game or build your empire, get ready to sacrifice something at the altar of your business.

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. You should have the stomach for dealing with pressure and crisis. I can share my experience with the official launch of Rens we had last Tuesday on Kickstarter. Our team is immensely excited about it but nervous at the same time. It’s an amazingly unique feeling. I don’t know if I want to recommend this or not. Because as a mixed feeling, it feels so good but “hurts” so bad at the same time. Actually, one of the reasons why I like to be an entrepreneur is to have this kind of feeling.

Create a meaningful business network

Start with yourself, find a sweet spot where your passion, experience, and talent match together. Then nurture your own skills and knowledge to have something to offer to others. Focus to that strengths of yours, make something useful out of it. And the connection will come naturally along the process of building your own business.

When you have a decent number of contacts, try to help them as much as you can when they are in need. This is a way to nourish your professional relationships – be generous to give help, and people will do the same to you! And most importantly, be positive, try to spot the bright side of everybody and everything in every situation, focus solely on it. Like Brian Tracy once said it very beautifully – “You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.”

In daily life working with other people, practice listening. You ask your colleagues and employees to work and help you achieve your dream, then you should listen to them. Otherwise, you can choose to be a solo entrepreneur or freelancer.

Also, try to control your emotions, this is not easy, I’m still working on it a lot. Conflict and disagreement are inevitable, but you have to sort them out. Don’t leave any negative thought or feeling for yourself. Be open and express all that you ponder. Don’t let any problems unsolved in the founding team. Otherwise, the issue will multiply and have a negative impact in the long run.

The top four skills an entrepreneur should have

1. Recruiting

I’m able to get to this point thanks to the help of amazingly talented people in my team. It indeed matters who you recruit. You must know how to attract talents. And don’t forget to value and appreciate your people along the way. For me, employees are more important than customers. Put your employees first, take care of them, and they will take care of your customers.

2. The unique skill or know-how in your area of expertise

You don’t necessarily need to be the best in the world but the best in your circle who owes the so-called unfair advantage. What capability you have that others don’t. What you can do but others can’t. A concrete example of this would be your experience that you acquire along the way – the know-how you have after conflating all your observation together.

3. Creating your own luck

Be prepared and take the chance when it comes. Some luck is out of our control. For example, I cannot control the fact that Son is a good co-founder. But I can control my behaviors to support or encourage him to remain or become an even greater business partner.

4. Product building 

Invest your time and effort into the product! Keep building and developing your product until you can have a strong and unique value proposition. This will help you to attract talents. When you have talents to work for your company and together build a better product, you will attract investors. Investors will assist you to scale up your business. And finally, the product will be good enough to attract customers.

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Jesse Khanh Tran is a Vietnamese entrepreneur in Finland. He came to Mikkeli to study at Aalto University back in 2012. He started the entrepreneurship journey on 2015. The team of his first business idea is the winner of the program “Summer of Startups 2016” (Now Kiuas Accelerator). His current startup Rens has just launched a Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday presenting their “baby” after 2 years of dedication – the world’s first waterproof shoes made from coffee waste.


Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
Co-founder of EoF - Ha is a social entrepreneur & writer who cares about children, education, fairness, the environment, and sustainability. Connect with Ha here: https://linktr.ee/ha.nguyen

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