Prioritising people over short-term profits has helped the company grow to a 1,500-strong workforce and a valuation of roughly $30m, according to Nguyen.
However, as with most entrepreneurial career trajectories, Nguyen’s journey has had its ups and downs. In 2010, he left behind a promising career with the global soft drink giant PepsiCo to pursue his dream of running his own business. Months later, he founded Urban Station, a predecessor to the Coffee House that taught him how to run a business the hard way.
“I had no idea about brewing coffee. I had no idea how to manage people. I learnt everything on the job,” he says. “For six months, it was all loss: all my savings, all the money I saved from Pepsi, it was all gone after six months. I nearly went bankrupt… I thought: ‘Wow, was that the right choice? If I stayed with Pepsi, I would have a ton of money now.’ At the time, my parents were very angry; they didn’t want to talk to me.”
Nguyen recovered from his initial stumble and went on to make a success of Urban Station before moving on to his second chain. But more important than his economic recovery, he is at pains to point out, was the soul searching that the early failure forced him to do. It was, he says, a process that paved the way for his future success with the Coffee House.
“The first business, I did without a purpose. But now I see very clearly that my purpose is serving people. It is a very beautiful purpose that wakes me up every morning. It gives me energy,” he says. Later, he adds that the business measures its success by “calculating how many people we deliver happiness to every day” – a criterion he doesn’t define but says reaches as high as 30,000.
Now armed with a clear vision, Nguyen has ambitious plans for the Coffee House. Next year, he plans to open 50 new stores. His friends call him crazy, he says with a smile.
But Nguyen is well aware that in order for his company to thrive, it must constantly adapt. It is the reason why, on the floor above us, a team of 20 IT staff is developing ways to ensure the company remains relevant in a world increasingly defined by automation.
“Currently, we have to be good at finding new locations and building new stores, but in five years we will have to be good at selling coffee online. So we built the team and the IT system and try to do things differently, try to find the next trend to go to market,” he says, before giving a demonstration of the company’s mobile app, which allows customers to pre-order food and drinks before arriving at the store or get them delivered to their home address. Since launching six months ago, it has been downloaded by more than 200,000 people, roughly half of whom use it on a regular basis.
I ask Nguyen why he decided to employ an IT staff larger than many of the city’s tech startups rather than outsource the work to a third party.
“Because I see the picture very clearly,” he replies. “In the future, we compete by delivering a personalised service to our customers. In the future, we compete by knowing our customers’ personal lives.”