On Monday, he was a speaker at the event “SoICT Talk – Episode 2: Symphony of Startup” at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology together with Hung Tran, founder of AI firm Got It, and Ngo Trung, CEO of tech firm Magestore.
Throughout, Dong, in a dark blue sweater, black jeans and light brown leather shoes, remained quiet and reserved and spent more time listening than talking.
Ta Hai Tung, the host of the event, said at the introduction: “Dong is a humble person, living in a world of his own. Surrounding Dong is a veil of mystery. Dong isn’t like [other] successful people; he doesn’t like appearing in media, therefore Dong becomes even more intriguing.”
But even when asked to unveil the mystery around himself, Dong did not talk much, and seemed hesitant about sharing his story.
He told the students: “For the past 17 years I have only had the computer screen; so there aren’t many stories to tell. I think I had to trade off a number of things to achieve such success. The thing that I exchanged was my maturity.”
Alluding to his decision to take down Flappy Bird when the app was at its peak in February 2014, he said he has been unable to handle pressure since birth, so taking it down was his best option.
Five years ago U.S. pop culture magazine Rolling Stone published an article on the success of Dong and Flappy Bird, the first time he had shared his story with the public.
It said: “By February  it was topping the charts in more than 100 countries and had been downloaded more than 50 million times. Nguyen was earning an estimated $50,000 a day. Not even Mark Zuckerberg became rich so fast.”
It was this success that made CNET name Flappy Bird among the 25 most impactful apps of the decade alongside others such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
In the U.S., some would say a person could be considered financially successful and retire if they earn $1 million. Dong too, while in university, had similar thoughts.
“Back when I was a student, I calculated that once I had $1.1 million I would retire, but now I have multiple times that amount but I still cannot retire,” he said.
Five years after taking down Flappy Bird, Dong now runs a gaming company with a friend, also a former student of the Hanoi University of Science and Technology.
After the smashing success of Flappy Bird, many are waiting for an encore from Dong, which he however thinks is unlikely.
“The probability of achieving similar success is 0.1 percent. I don’t want to say beforehand because [that] will make it difficult to achieve.”
He shared some information about his new game, claiming it “looks very simple but the level of technology in this game is unprecedented.”
Dong provides funding to students for research if they can clearly show what they have done, their projects’ feasibility and the need for the money.
Start a business
At the university event on Monday, the topic of whether one should start a business while still a student was among those of interest to many.
Dong said he has never been part of a startup since started programming at 15, developed games at 17, started working for a gaming company as a sophomore in university, and only started working alone in 2011.
He said there is therefore no answer to this question that would apply to everyone, and people should do what they want as long as they feel it is right.
Hung, founder of the California-based Got It, said students should start a business early since they have nothing to lose by trying.
In the U.S., most universities have entrepreneurship programs for students to come up with solutions to social problems, and this creates a safe environment for students to try, he said.
Starting a business as a student does not necessarily mean a desire to run a company with good products since the greatest value lies in the “business mindset” they could gain, which would help them go far when they work or start their own business later, he explained.
Trung agreed that the experience gained from starting a business early would help students learn much.
He had never worked full-time for any company, and the one time he had worked as an intern for a tech company, he had to quit because he had asked for a raise three times in just two months, he said.
Students could work for a startup first to learn how others do it rather than reinvent the entrepreneurial wheel, he said.
Hung said: “In Silicon Valley, idea is the cheapest thing. There are lots of talented people with the same idea. It is very difficult for you to have something that is unique.
“The difficult thing is to turn an idea into a good product or service, and it should serve or solve a persistent problem that many people face every day.”
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