Alumni Profiles: Minh Q Tran (MBA’00D)

Is life after INSEAD like playing golf?

Why did my life journey bring me to INSEAD? In 1999, I was a country manager in consumer goods in Malaysia. At that time, I wanted to change function to venture capital outside Asia in financial services. So, doing an INSEAD MBA was the logical path for me.

In May 2000, Fontainebleau Golf Club, INSEAD Match Play, Alumni vs Students:
I met Peter Skelton, President of the Salamander Golf Society on a beautiful Saturday morning on a golf match play between alumni and students. “Young man,” he said “Today, you are a student playing against alumni. But tomorrow and forever, you will be an alumnus playing with students.” I did not understand at first but, looking back and getting closer to my 20-year reunion, I now understood what he meant. Playing golf is very much like managing your career. Mine has been in venture capital.

Why you can drive longer after INSEAD

I think that the MBA has taught me good fundamentals. With techniques, you achieve better things than you thought. The MBA was like a big solid bertha golf driver. You drive longer so distance helps even though it does give you a par. So, it helped me to go places I could have dreamt of without having passed through Fontainebleau. I met incredible friends from the school more so after graduation with alumni where I lived, i.e. Guetersloh, then New York and then Helsinki. Funnily, I met some classmates in New York one year after graduation and in some ways, I felt that we were like ‘Friends’ in their coffee shop. It is where I started my career in corporate venture capital.

On campus, I had an incredible chance to be recruited by the Bertelsmann Graduate Program for young MBA entrepreneurs. This two-year assignment was almost a P6 session for me. It took me to media ventures in corporate venturing both in Europe and in the US at their New York headquarters. These were the times when Bertelsmann invested in Napster, the online music platform. From the initial corporate venture capital, I then joined Nokia Ventures in Helsinki. It was then a venture capital team backed up by one Limited (even strategic) Partner (LP). During that time, the venture capital industry witnessed the birth of the iPhone and with it, the emerging investment trends in mobile app and services. Then, in 2008, I moved to Paris and joined an EU VC independent firm where I launched their FinTech practice. It might be strange but investing in FinTech during the financial crisis was a period full of opportunities. I looked mainly at remittances and mobile payments in the SoLoMoCo (Social, Local, Mobile and Commerce) domains.

How my swing improved from tips by INSEAD Alumni

While teeing off to hit fairways and greens, you can be sure of one thing. You never land where you thought you could be. In my career, with my INSEAD classmates, it felt the same way. There is no perfect game plan with your swing. So, it is a constant adjustment to get closer to your objectives.

Landing on the green is about learning from others and how they did before you try the shot. In that respect, I interacted with many INSEAD alumni throughout my career. Almost every move has been with somebody’s help. And, at a certain point, you feel confident about your game and are ready to take THE shot. Confidence came with successful exits that help to build your track record. My first milestone was the trade sale of 10x revenues, in a startup in a network that we funded two years for <€5m but managed to grow sales to 15m€ in 15 months.

In 2012, the week after my son was born, I had to pitch at AXA. It is when I started to raise my own fund with the Insurance Company as first LP/Investors. Hopefully, I said to myself that more LPs will come. “Finger crossed!” said Nicolas, a classmate, when he learned about the venture firm. It turned out that many LPs liked my concept. The fund grew from €10m to €400m within five years. Good times for a proof-of-concept. But as GP (General Partner) and Directeur Général of AXA Ventures, it was not what I wanted to do. My belief is that the VC model is broken and there are more opportunities in investing differently.

What I learned to putt better at the Salamander Golf Society

Nineteen years after graduation, somewhere around the same golf course in Fontainebleau, I had a beer with Peter Skelton after a game. He pointed out “Uncross your fingers, you’ll putt better!” Next year, I’ll go to my 20-year-reunion and looking for the next Students-Alumni match play.

In 2018, five years after the AXA Ventures’ advance, I co-created Odysseus Alternative Ventures with successful entrepreneur Christophe Reech. We look at a blue ocean strategy for VC investing in the combination of technology ventures and alternative funds. It has never be done before and in order to create such a global franchise, we need to become entrepreneurs in a new breed of venture and asset builders. An illustrative example is to invest in AirBnB and create a real estate fund to buy flats that will use AirBnB to find customers.

So, “is life after INSEAD like playing golf?” I asked Kris, my wife, that question when we first dated. You don’t reach your goals, you get frustrated by your game. You keep trying after missing. Your game never gets perfect… To make a birdie, you need to go through many bogeys… She never answered that question. She does not play golf. But we passed our 10-year-anniversary so I’ve kept asking…

September 2019