Taking the plunge — Local APIs leave behind stable jobs to start their own businesses

By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Artisan Cafe owners Lilly Tran and Anthony Nguyen (Photo by Nina Huang/NWAW)

Jon Tam kept a scratchpad by his bed, where he jotted down observations of the world’s respected and admired entrepreneurs and ideas for future businesses and companies that he could someday make a reality. Eventually, there would be many ideas for Tam to choose from. However, the idea that Tam would choose would have to answer the question, “What would I love to do?”

As of March 2012, the state unemployment rate was 8.3 percent. With the high unemployment rate and still struggling economy, it may seem unconventional for someone to leave behind a stable job to start their own business, but a few months later, Anthony Nguyen and Lilly Tran did just that.

The bright idea

The idea came from Nguyen’s mother, who suggested that Nguyen and Tran take over and run a cafe together. The couple had no training in the food and beverage industry. Nguyen, a former data analyst for a commercial real estate company, found himself to be one of many included in the unemployment statistics.

His girlfriend, Lilly Tran, worked in marketing at a Bellevue-based financial company. When the couple acquired the space, Tran struggled with juggling her full-time job with helping Nguyen with the cafe. The couple made a few changes to the cafe’s menu and space, adding their own French-European theme with an Asian flair. Their business, the Artisan Cafe, sits on the corner of 5th Avenue and Vine Street in Belltown.

Jon Tam saw a bit of his life in Ken Griffey Jr., son of a major league baseball player who grew up watching his father at the ballpark. Similarly, Tam grew up under the guidance of his entrepreneur father with whom he attended business meetings and networking events. They discussed business principles.

After graduating from the UW’s Foster School of Business, Tam went to work as a consultant for audit and financial consulting company Deloitte, before acquiring a director role at a local data management and development company. But as was typical of a born and raised entrepreneur, Tam would not be able to sit still for long before he decided that it was time to take his own chances and start his own business.

Tam discussed his plans and gathered feedback from close friends and respected colleagues. One friend in particular, Don Le, a software developer for Amazon, became involved in many of these conversations. Soon after, Le approached Tam with his decision to forego his pursuit of an MBA degree and asked to sign on as a co-signer of their new business. Le was a natural fit for the company.

“I wanted technology to be in the DNA of the company, in the same way entrepreneurship is in my DNA, because I started from it. I wanted that same thing to be in place with Tenacity Sports,” Tam said.

Together, Tam and Le founded Tenacity Sports, a business that seeks to empower local sports communities through leagues, tournaments, and sports-related events.

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Tanacity Sports founders Don Le (left) and Jon Tam (right) (Photo by Nina Huang/NWAW)

With failure comes success

It took many instructional videos, hands on training from a Cafe Umbria barista, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of tries before Nguyen could pull the perfect shot of espresso. Mastering latte art was yet another hill to climb. However, the coffee was not the hard part.

Starting out, Nguyen faced the daunting challenge of operating Artisan Cafe by himself. Nguyen and Tran had conversations about financing, affordability, debt payment, and time to run the business.

For Tran, sorting out the finances for Artisan Cafe was very different from corporate finance.

Luckily, Nguyen’s mom lent her experience from owning a yogurt shop to helping the couple work out a good system. The progress helped Tran gain the confidence to take on the cafe full time.

“It was really up to us how we could succeed. During the first few months, it was hard to see where it was going. It wasn’t progressing as fast as I wanted it to be, but after Lilly quit her job, it’s completely going in the right direction now,” Nguyen said.

Tran soon enjoyed the variety of tasks and the opportunity to be her own boss.

“It’s a lot more exciting and hands-on to interact with more people. I like being on my feet — it’s still stressful sometimes, but in a different way,” said Tran.

“I don’t regret quitting my other job at all — it’s something that Anthony and I built, it’s good to see the progress and to see there’s potential success to come later on.”

The path was not always smooth sailing for Tenacity Sports founders Le and Tam, who tried to start their own Web company on a part-time basis, while the two were still working their full-time jobs.

The endeavor was short lived, but the duo’s tenacity was not extinguished.

The months of brainstorming that led to the formation of Tenacity Sports involved taking the hard lessons learned from their first experience to better the concept of the efficiency of their new business.

“The idea basically came from the lessons we learned from the first startup. Based on that, I tried to figure out the next idea to work on,” said Tam.

The company was incorporated on Tam’s birthday, February 24, 2011, a birthday he shared with another one of his idols, Steve Jobs.

“Our mission is to give people a platform for socially engaging experiences through sports,” said Tam.

“We are really embracing the communities within these sports. We’ve created a place for people to give back in different ways. We’re trying to be the enablers, to help people do more with sports.”

Overcoming odds

Nguyen and Tran have been able to maneuver through many of their initial challenges, thanks to the help of Nguyen’s mom and the support of their friends and family. The same friends and family warned the couple of the pitfalls of owning their own business, which included the responsibilities, the lack of vacation or personal time off, the stress, and the need to grow thicker skin. However, the cafe has gained its share of customers so much so that Tran and Nguyen might consider opening up another cafe on the Eastside.

Le and Tam had more convincing to do when it came to their parents. Le’s parents did not fully understand what he does now, or why he left his good job behind. Le has over time been able to slowly reassure his parents that even in the case of failure, he would be able to use the skills he has gained from this experience and apply it to jobs in the future. But for now, failure is not on their minds.

Tenacity Sports currently hosts flag football tournaments around the greater Seattle area, and group events to Seahawks, Mariners, and UW football games. Other companies have approached Tenacity Sports for collaborations, and the duo’s current challenge is having too many opportunities to pick from.

“Don and I walked away from really good jobs,” said Tam. “We could’ve kept going and lived successful careers. … We were well into our careers, successfully moving up the corporate ladder. We owe it to ourselves to set our goals really high.” (end)

Nina Huang can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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