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September 10, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Tommy Nguyen shares advice on growing a start-up during most recent “Vol Court” session

When you have Shawn Carson as the interviewer and Tommy Nguyen as the interviewee, you need to fasten your seatbelt for an energizing, insightful and humorous conversation, and that’s exactly what happened during Wednesday’s second session of the fall “Vol Court Speaker Series and Pitch Competition.”

As many of our readers know, Carson is a long-time player in the local start-up scene who now serves as a Lecturer in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). Nguyen is one of three Co-Founders of StoragePug, the Knoxville-based company that serves the independent storage facility industry and captured both the “Judge’s Choice” award and the “Crowd Favorite” award in the 2018 “Startup Day” competition.

I don’t think I have ever seen Nguyen when he was not smiling. He’s a UTK alum who immigrated from Vietnam to this country at a young age and thought until his senior year in college that he would become a physician. His wife thought he was not that inspired by his chosen profession, so she enrolled him in a couple of computer courses and, as they say, “the rest is history.”

Today, the start-up that he and two classmates founded in 2017 has 16 employees as it expands the customer base for the eCommerce platform that handles business functions for individuals who own just one or a few self-storage facilities. The most recent hire was a start-up Founder from San Francisco who has relocated to Knoxville and, in Nguyen’s words, “He’s loving it here.”

In his transparent, engaging manner, Nguyen readily admitted that “we (the Co-Founders) lucked out.” Kirk Huddleston, the father of Co-Founder Matt Huddleston, owned a storage facility in the Rocky Hill area of West Knoxville, and he needed a better way to do business. That insight about what similar facilities needed was invaluable and provided one of the important lessons that Nguyen shared.

“You have to have a real customer in mind, but it helps if you have a real person in mind,” he said, an obvious reference to his Co-Founder’s father. Near the end of the 60-minute session, he came back to the point about timing, saying, “You have to put yourself in a position to be lucky.”

In response to Carson’s question about the importance of company culture, Nguyen had an intriguing answer: “We started thinking about company culture too late, but also at the right time. If we had done this at the beginning of StoragePug, it would have been highly inaccurate,” a reference to the early vision, mission and values which are better stated today.

Other advice that Nguyen offered included these tidbits:

  • “Find people who will challenge you to get out of your comfort bubble.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are people willing to take risks and invest in something bigger than themselves. You don’t necessarily have to be a Founder. You can be an early hire and early adopter.”
  • “Sometimes it’s okay to get your head out of the sand and enjoy life. It (also) doesn’t hurt to enjoy the work you do.”
  • “Make a positive, lasting impression” on people.
  • “Learn to pull the parachute and do it in time,” something he learned in an earlier start-up.

One of my favorite points was advice that Carson gave him during a practice session before the “Startup Day” pitch in 2018. Presenters were allowed four minutes, but Nguyen’s pitch ran eight minutes. Carson’s advice was straightforward: “Think about who you are talking to and what they care about.” The pitch was cut to four minutes, and he won the competition.

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