Eye on Korean Startups with Seoul Space’s Richard Min
Seoul Space is a startup accelerator that isn’t focused just on the success of individual startups, but on creating an ecosystem that’s conducive to the success of many. Richard Min, Co-founder and CEO of Seoul Space, recently took the time to chat with AT&D about his insights into the Korean startup landscape through the lens of his 16 years of experience in Korea.
Richard Min lends his experience as a ‘serial entrepreneur’ to Korean startups. Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/V3k8g2
Min has an extensive background in the IT industry and during his last 12 years in Korea, he spent eight running a digital marketing agency. When smartphones began hitting Korea, Min and his friends could sense that it was “the big one” that would disrupt the market.
“Mobile was big, and smartphones like the iPhone were about to launch in the market,” Min explained. “Three years ago, we thought it was a good time to start something up.”
Joined by David Lee, at the time, Google’s first International Director, and Chong-pil Yim, who had a background in the entertainment industry, the three co-founded Seoul Space. With their different backgrounds and expertise, it turned out to be a good partnership.
There were no Silicon Valley type accelerators at the time, but they observed that there was a growing international community and the earliest startup founders tended to have some global experience and English skills. Instead of creating a large, structured organization, the founders of Seoul Space decided to look at what Korean entrepreneurs needed to succeed globally.
“Unlike other accelerators in Korea now, we grew organically,” Min said. “By building the ecosystem, we want to support the rising tide of all startups and cherry pick the ones we think will be superstars.”
Seoul Space bills itself as ‘Korea’s Premier Startup Accelerator and IT Hub.’ Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/XTn69i
Building a Startup Community
As evidenced by the blog posts covering industry trends and weekly lunch events such as ‘Dosirak Wednesday,’ Seoul Space isn’t interested in simply being an accelerator, but in fostering a community.
To that end, Seoul Space has a four-fold approach.
First, the acceleration of selected startups includes education and mentoring in addition to help in securing that all-important investment. Second, it uses the media to give startups global media exposure. Third, events have proven to be a good platform for startups to not only learn from and network with one another, but also to meet potential investors and global tech leaders who would normally be difficult to access. Fourth, Seoul Space functions as an agency conducting tasks such as inbound services.
While Seoul Space has an open format and receives startups on an ad hoc basis, the organization also has an accelerator track called Kstartup Accelerator. It accepts startups in batches and works on a more structured three-month schedule.
Standard Chartered Bank’s Martin Berry joined a recent ‘Dosirak Wednesday.’ Photo Credit: http://on.fb.me/VWCmng
The Ajumma Effect
As the leader of Seoul Space, Min cited culture as one of the biggest barriers that he faced. In Silicon Valley, having a failed startup or two under your belt is chalked up as good experience. But in Korea, failure is seen as shameful and young people gravitate towards stable jobs at a company or in the government rather than risk starting their own business.
It’s unconventional, but Min described his target audience as ajummas – those famously tough middle-aged Korean women who wield a lot of power over their families as well as sidewalk space.
“When we hear moms bragging that their son or daughter is an entrepreneur, we’ll know we’ve succeeded,” he said. “Once we get a rise in success stories, it’ll be easier to convince them.”
According to Min, other critical barriers include legacy financial structures that don’t support early-stage companies, indicated by a lack of angel investors and early-stage venture capital. There is also a dearth of role models and mentors to provide support for would-be entrepreneurs.
Especially in Seoul, real estate is prohibitively expensive for small companies. Min said that not only was cost an issue, but traditional offices typically only offer cubicle layouts instead of co-work spaces that are more useful for startup teams.
It’s not all bad news, though. Relative to the US and Silicon Valley in particular, entrepreneurship is still in the early stages in Korea, but it’s growing rapidly. Korea has all the makings to be the leader and springboard for the rest of Asia. According to Min, more progress has happened for Korean startups in the past three years than in the last 10. He predicts that there will soon be an explosion in startups, particularly in mobile.
“The trend of smartphones opened up the market,” he said, referring to the market-disrupting turning point in Korea.
It seems that the key to Seoul Space’s success was not trying to copy Silicon Valley accelerators, but giving Korean entrepreneurs what they really need. Here’s a look at some of Seoul Space’s most promising startups, according to Min.
SPOQA – Offers a service called Dodo, an “extremely simple iPad based customer loyalty and marketing platform for local merchants and stores.” Merchants can market to customers via the Dodo platform when they check in with their phone number at the counter. “They just closed a significant investment round as well and hired 40+ interns,” Min pointed out.
Shakr Media – “Easy, beautiful video creation” initially targeting the lucrative wedding and baby markets. “Shakr is also funded by Dave McClure’s very hot Silicon Valley accelerator, 500Startups. It’s the first and only startup in Korea to get funding from 500Startups,” said Min. “This was a significant milestone and signal for the Korean startup industry. We are proud and excited that 500 chose one of Seoul Space’s startups.”
Adby.me – Social media advertising platform that just launched a new service called coo.ki that offers “incentivized curated content.”
DiDi Ads – The consumer-facing brand of Didi Networks, which offers digital display network advertising from any location.
Trazy – Portmanteau of the words “travel” and “crazy,” this is a “localized travel site.”
Wable – An open, mobile marketplace for students.
K-POP tweet – “Crowd-sourced K-pop tweet translations” to help you understand celebrities’ tweets.
(This is the second in a series of articles about Korean accelerators. Read our first one and keep checking back on our blog for more posts in the series.)