Edgy Labs recently sat down with award-winning entrepreneur Tri Nguyen to discuss marketing trends and business development opportunities for 2017.
Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Marketer of the Year startup TKM Labs, Nguyen’s success personifies why Houston has all of the ingredients to be America’s next Startup Hub. We’ll be exploring why the “Space City” is positioned for Next-gen growth in our three-part collaboration with the Houston-based digital marketing entrepreneur.
Tri Nguyen is young, educated, talented and motivated.
And, it’s clear that his success is rooted in his ability to see a disconnect of information and leverage existing infrastructures to close the gap.
Since graduating the University of Houston Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, the serial entrepreneur has co-founded five companies and already working on his sixth.
His most recent startup, TKM Labs, was just awarded the American Marketing Association Marketer of the Year for a platform that Nguyen developed in 28 hours. Just 2 weeks after launch, the experiment had acquired over 4,500 user signups, over 250 business leads, and a valuation of $250,000 in immediate revenue.
The Law of Accelerating Returns means that more data has been created in the past two years than in the entirety of human history.
Technology and iterations like the internet have decentralized established institutions (and even made some of them obsolete) by facilitating the access to virtually limitless sources of information.
With so much information out there and just as much talent, how do we go about organizing it to know what we have?
How can we make use of tools that we don’t even know we have?
Nguyen sees an enormous disconnect of information, and his style is using all of the resources at his disposal to mitigate it. His talent is seeing the potential for demand and building the technology to leverage it.
Lured into an Award-winning Lifestyle
When Nguyen sees the potential for demand, he is really recognizing where there is no platform to centralize that demand. He uses technology to use existing infrastructures to funnel that demand into one, user-friendly place.
“The question then became what if you could incentivize people to do certain things by giving them a reward, but using infrastructure that they already know, love and use regularly?”
While visiting Chicago to attend a VR event, Nguyen was floored by how intently everyone on the street was looking at their phones. They were trying to catch ‘em all, and walking just about anywhere to do so.
“It was the first time I’d even seen an app drive foot traffic like that,” says Nguyen. The Augmented Reality Pokémon GO phenomenon clearly presented a new opportunity for businesses to use lures as a marketing tool to boost revenue.
More importantly, the fact that the game is wildly popular meant that a rapidly expanding, highly engaged user base was just waiting for someone to tell them where to go and when – a situation that is every advertiser’s dream.
The question then became what if you could incentivize people to do certain things by giving them a reward, but using infrastructure that they already know, love and use regularly?
“We wanted to tackle location-based advertising and influencing user behavior in a win-win scenario for both the users and the businesses,” explains Nguyen. “While Fortune 500 Companies have the opportunity to work directly with Niantic to implement paid campaigns, SMEs do not have the same opportunity. User acquisition varies greatly for each different type of business, and Niantic implements campaign based on a Pay-Per-Visit model, which can be extremely costly.”
The abundance of demand but the lack of infrastructure led Nguyen to create and launch LureDeals. In one day.
The next day, Nguyen got a call from the Director of Innovation at Edelman PR. “I didn’t even have Google Analytics installed yet,” laughs Nguyen, “but we saw 3,000 users on the first day.”
The entrepreneur has a style for developing apps in one night, having them go viral and receiving insatiable attention because of it.
In 2015, when Texans defensive end J.J. Watt announced that he was single and looking for the right one, Nguyen immediately recognized an opportunity. “What if there’s an app to help J.J. screen women who would be eligible to date him, based on how well they know him,” Nguyen wondered.
He immediately started developing an unofficial app that presented a 20 question quiz, and if users scored 100 percent, the results were automatically tweeted to the football player’s handle.
So, what strategies does the marketing master see for the immediate future of online advertising?
From Pay-Per-View to Pay-Per-Click
Every brand and everybody seems to be a content creating machine with their own blogs, apps, and ideas broadcasting continuously to the world.
No matter where you are or what time it is, as long as your batteries are charged and your signal is good, users and business alike are competing for growing markets with increasingly limited attention spans. “Viral doesn’t happen organically anymore,” insists Nguyen.
For advertisers, this oversaturation of content has led to what Nguyen calls an “arbitrage of attention”.
“Everyone has 24 hours in a day, and everyone is fighting for a piece of that,” notes Nguyen.
“Admittedly, strategies like Google Adwords are oversaturated because everyone is using them. But, at least for the foreseeable future, they’re here to stay for the simple fact that they allow advertisers to capture a user when theY Are most receptive.”
What makes the difference for online advertisers, however, is understanding the user’s intention.
In the past, TV advertising worked so well because viewers didn’t have a choice: it was the only medium. The “same place, same time” model delivered thousands of engaged users in front of the set for a known amount of time.
Today, both the medium and the strategy are practically obsolete because users now have a choice: they have the ability to skip commercials, and TV is no longer the only medium.
Nguyen believes that social media marketing, in general, will be hit and miss and Facebook is still undervalued. This is because people use social media like Facebook primarily to talk to friends and family– not necessarily to shop or be solicited.
Therefore, the fact that users are not as receptive to advertising on social media platforms creates a situation in which advertisers invest resources in a space that might be full of their desired demographic, but still not seeing lucrative returns.
Social media offers enormous potential, but it is important to leverage it correctly.
Even TKM Labs has used Facebook and Reddit ads as well as PPC to drive organic traffic to achieve numbers like 1000 users a day. The social media platform can be used as an indirect marketing tool to increase visibility, but should not be used to aggressively target and chase down users with advertisements.
Admittedly, strategies like Google Adwords, and PPC in general, are oversaturated because everyone is using them.
But, at least for the foreseeable future, they’re here to stay for the simple fact that they allow advertisers to capture a user when the user is most receptive and open to buy. This offers the potential for a greater ROI.
In choosing Facebook or Google Adwords, Nguyen suggests seeing which costs more and assessing if the cost is worth your ROI.
And what about VR marketing?
Nguyen co-founded TKM Labs partially because of his fascination with the emerging technology and foresees that VR marketing will resemble the nascent days of Facebook advertising. Essentially, strategies could go either way, being potentially characterized by an unobtrusive experience or annoying popup ads.
VR offers the fixed, undivided user attention that TV did, which could proliferate aggressive tv commercial-style pop-up ads and similar strategies. However, VR also offers the same caveat as social media: people use the technology for a primary purpose other than being marketed to.
Product placement will surely be a strategy for larger brands. For SMEs, however, a Snapchat-style platform might be more effective.
Snapchat is inherently ephemeral, but in this case, this characteristic is an asset; by making content available only for a limited amount of time, brands can leverage the same “tune-in tactic” that TV did 60 years ago to capture audiences when they are most attentive and most receptive.
Moreover, content with a limited lifespan also helps create a sense of exclusivity with users by giving them behind-the-scenes access to a one-time experience.
“The most successful brands on Snapchat tell a story,” says Nguyen. While other platforms like Facebook and Instagram introduce users to the brand that advertisers would like for them to see, a platform like Snapchat introduces users to how the brand actually is.
Virtual Reality is already allowing users to step into the center of an experience they might never have otherwise. Combining VR technology with a platform like Snapchat has the potential to take users behind the scenes in previously impossible or impractical ways. Such a platform, for example, would introduce users to the company staff working for their favorite brands or participate in a factory floor walkthrough for their favorite product manufacturers.
Regardless of the direction brands take, Nguyen hopes that VR advertising will be more curated than a Wild Wild West grab for attention.
Beyond his undeniable skill and mounting experience, Nguyen’s passion is what personifies both Houston’s entrepreneurial capacity, but the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.
“In building teams, you’re often looking at a compromise between skill, experience, and passion,” explains Nguyen. He combines all three.
“When we Houstonians do [take risks],” Nguyen says, we’re tenacious as hell. We’ll do whatever it takes to make it work before quitting.”
When Nguyen built both of his most successful apps, he did it for fun. He built them in one night not because he was up against a client deadline, not because he was being paid to; He did it because it’s what he loves to do. Nguyen is doing what he’s good at and doing what he loves, and it’s this kind of passion for technology that we love at Edgy Labs.
When you love something, it’s easy to take risks, and the aside from passion, risk is a key ingredient for getting a Startup off the ground.
“When we Houstonians do [take risks],” Nguyen says, we’re tenacious as hell. We’ll do whatever it takes to make it work before quitting.”
Diversity is one of the main drivers of innovation. Great minds may think alike, but two heads are better than one. Immigration is undoubtedly one of the biggest factors that have contributed to Houston’s rapid growth and helped make it the most diverse city in the US, and Nguyen himself was originally born in Vietnam and immigrated to Houston as a child.
“Houston’s filled with a very diverse group of talented people,” notes Nguyen, “spanning many different industries, and all tackling very different problems.” Different points of view and approaches to problem-solving in the same place increase the likelihood of solving problems in the quickest and most efficient way.
Nguyen’s experience in the University of Houston Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship’s Commercialization of IP program was what initially proved to him how centralizing information only speeds up innovation and expedites returns by making the information as accessible as possible.
“Building a company from the ground up is never easy, no matter how many times you do it,” explains Nguyen, “but the education component reduces the pain of going through it.”
“Of course, having the education alone doesn’t make one an entrepreneur – it’s the application of the knowledge in the real world that separates the successful from everyone else.”
As a member of the second class to go through the program, Nguyen was able to build on the research, projects, and accomplishments of the preceding class. Similarly, the third class after Nguyen’s was able to build on Nguyen’s work and so on.
This snowballing of information not only provides access to high a wealth of quality research and information but also provides a record of case studies on strategies and ideas put to the test, of what works and what doesn’t.
Aspiring, eager entrepreneurs in the program then have a base that each class refines and strengthens in a kind of intellectual evolution with each generation more well-adapted to the business environment that they will engage.
Like Nguyen’s experience at the University of Houston, technology gives us a way to organize the plethora of constantly increasing data out there into actionable insights.
More importantly, reducing testing times not only reduces time to market but also reduces costs. Organizing information makes it easier to find the most relevant data as quickly as possible. Finding information more quickly means using it more quickly, which means faster results.
“Of course, having the education alone doesn’t make one an entrepreneur,” says Nguyen, “it’s the application of the knowledge in the real world that separates the successful from everyone else.”
And, Nguyen’s success can be directly attributed to how he’s applying what he knows.
Just like he looked at Pocket Monster chasing enthusiasts on the street and saw an untapped opportunity, the serial entrepreneur looks at Houston’s vast resources and sees the potential for incredible growth.
“I believe that Houston has a lot of potential and has made incredible strides to move towards the ecosystem that will define Houston as a startup capital in the last few years. We’re sure as hell going to be known for some profitable long-term companies.”