Why We Invested: Khanh Lê, Founder & CEO of Inflow

Michelle Lin, Analyst (林亭㚬 / 分析師)

Michelle is an Analyst covering investments and community building under the Southeast Asia Arm. Before joining the team, she worked as an assistant manager at Deloitte Financial Advisory, where she helped close various cross-border and local M&A deals successfully. Michelle graduated with a Bachelor’s in Accounting from National Taiwan University and received a Master of Management Studies Degree from Duke University. During college, she was the minister of student activities at College of Management Student Association and was active at the Pop Dance Club. Outside the office, she enjoys hiking amongst many outdoor activities, as well as exploring new things in life.

These days, if you take a look at your clothing tags, you’ll often find the phrase “Made in Vietnam” printed all over them. Over the past decade, Vietnam has quietly become a powerhouse in garment manufacturing. With a vast network of over 6,000 ready-to-wear factories, Vietnam exported a whopping US$44 billion in garments in 2022, ranking the third worldwide after China and Bangladesh.

Vietnam’s rise as an apparel production powerhouse took place while the global fashion industry reached an inflection point. Fast fashion giants such as Shein, Zara, H&M and the likes are locked in both global and local competition to get the latest styles to market faster and more cost-effectively—pushing both brands and manufacturers to completely revamp their operations, especially adapting digital solutions, for this new era.

Khanh Lê, founder and CEO of Inflow, saw these massive paradigm shifts unfolding and set out to create a company that would take advantage of Vietnam’s garment production prowess and address the biggest pain points that brands and manufacturers face, especially with the rise of fast fashion. She eventually launched Inflow in 2022, a B2B fashion manufacturing platform that bridges the gap between international brands and local manufacturers. Inflow not only offers brands flexible order quantities but also helps them reduce average turnaround time from the traditional 120 days to as short as 45 days. 

A hustling founder with a relentless drive to create

Born and raised in central Vietnam, Khanh’s upbringing set a strong foundation for her entrepreneurship journey, driven by the high expectations her parents set for her as the firstborn child to be always “ahead of the curve” and independent. Witnessing her mother’s success operating her small tailor shop, Khanh fostered a deep passion for fashion at an early age. During her college years in the late 2000s, Khanh established a profitable online clothing brand at a time when launching online brands was a relatively novel concept in Vietnam.

However, this modest success couldn’t quench Khanh’s burning desire to create and prove to her parents. Drawn to the transformative potential of digital marketing in fostering the growth of brands in Vietnam, Khanh joined Sofresh Digital, a digital marketing agency, in 2010. As a founding member, she played a pivotal role in building the company from 0-to-1. She was always the one who took on the initiative to launch new product offerings and develop new divisions. For example, Khanh built the content team from the ground up and rapidly expanded it to manage the entire social channel for 12+ Pepsi brands and 4+ Unilever brands, creating an engine that accounted for 30% of all company revenue. Khanh then moved on to building another new division to expand the company’s presence across 360 integrated marketing channels, keeping the company ahead of the competition. 

This journey eventually led to Sofresh’s acquisition by British advertising giant WPP in 2014. Throughout this experience of building things from the ground up, Khanh recognized the strength of her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for creating startups. Driven by an insatiable desire to build and grow, Khanh decided to leave her cushy job at WPP and returned to square one. In 2017, she re-entered the arena and founded NextFit, a personal training booking app.

However, she made many common mistakes that founders often make, from failures in managing co-founder conflicts to premature scaling. Despite Khanh trying everything in the book, the company essentially went nowhere for 3.5 years. Moreover, Khanh had to contend with lockdowns during COVID, which ultimately became the final nail in the coffin. The toll on Khanh was significant, serving as a costly learning experience for her first startup endeavor. Through this experience, she learned two crucial lessons: (1) for a startup to scale, the product must address real pain points in a substantial market; and (2) for a startup to succeed, it’s all about moving fast. Thus, she realized she needed to find co-founders and core team members with a shared the same mindset and northstar in order to move fast and iterate. While the experience may have pushed her down a peg or two, it ultimately served to strengthen her resolve to get back up and try again, leading Khanh to build Inflow.

A great founder-mission-fit for Khanh to take on the garment supply chain

Following a long-winded detour, she eventually returned to her roots and reignited her passion for the fashion industry. After interviewing multiple stakeholders in the space, she realized that SME brands were often struggling with an incessant issue: finding the right manufacturing partners and managing the supply chain efficiently. This problem impedes brand growth as inventory turnaround time is the deciding factor to brand profitability. Khanh then embarked on her next chapter and launched Inflow in 2022, with a vision to establish a platform that empowers brands to scale effectively. 

Paying one year’s worth of tuition in what would probably take the average founder three years, Khanh learned a handful of lessons the hard way, undergoing several painful pivots and iterations while also having only three months of runway left at one point. In late 2022, founders in Vietnam faced a particularly challenging market both in business operations and fundraising efforts. The high interest rate climate made fundraising difficult, and the economic downturn exacerbated the situation, leading to widespread layoffs and making it increasingly difficult for businesses to attract and onboard new clients. Khanh was not exempt from these circumstances. Despite these adversities, Khanh refused to surrender and demonstrated her strong determination to crack the market. 

With a three-month runway, Khanh quickly reached out to various industry stakeholders to collect feedback, including in-person visits with 100+ manufacturers and reaching out to hundreds of brands. These interviews allowed Khanh to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of both factories and brands. She identified that the most significant challenges for customers were the lack of real-time visibility into the production process, hindering decision-making and responsiveness to market demands. As a result, Khanh pivoted the company to become a supply chain management platform, while also introducing initiatives like ready-design catalogs to expedite decision-making for brands and live chats on the platform to facilitate better communication between brands and factories. 

Within only a year, Inflow has built strong traction, securing a network of over 150 suppliers and converting various international brands, spanning Singapore, Thailand, Russia, and beyond. But this is just the beginning. Khanh’s ambitions extend far beyond just garment production execution. She wants to create more value for brands and suppliers, ultimately becoming a truly full-stack digital solution for all stakeholders across the fashion industry. 

For Khanh, who has delved deep into the J-curve over her two-time founder journey, she is now all the wiser, equipped with battle-tested skills and earned insights while servicing an industry that she knows and loves deeply. Although it remains a bumpy road ahead, we believe Khanh’s vision and resilience will drive Inflow to great success. And that is why we have backed her.

At AppWorks, we are built by founders for founders, and our core mission is to support great entrepreneurs. We are excited to be backing Khanh and the Inflow team, including helping them tap into Taiwan’s robust textile R&D ecosystem as well as the broader Greater Southeast Asian markets through our regional footprint. Together with our ecosystem of 532 active startups, we look forward to supporting Khanh’s vision and accompanying her on the journey in becoming an even more seasoned founder.