Can Korea Become a Startup Hub in Asia?

October 10, 2011

9:45 am

In Korea I witnessed a startup scene still in the process of organizing itself – but its organizers see big prospects for entrepreneurship in their Kentucky-sized country.

“This is the best time it’s ever been in Korea to do a startup,” says Richard Min, cofounder of coworking space and incubator Seoul Space. “It’s a perfect storm of events happening – cultural, social, technological, and global trends.”

If a storm is coming, the first lightning strike was LivingSocial’s August acquisition of TicketMonster, a leading Korean daily deal site. Startups in Seoul looking to follow in its path have access to Seoul Space, as well as a media organization called OnSuccess, which is reporting on local startups, partnering with international media, and hosting conferences. Or they can attend events like V-Forum and GO Venture, a monthly meetup run by a former chairman of HanaTV.

Would-be entrepreneurs in Korea can now build apps for the iPhone, which landed there in 2009. Min sees Korea as a springboard for launching apps and other products into Asia, particularly the “Wild Wild West” of China and the “very mature and large market” of Japan.

The startup bug is also entering Korea via the West, as Koreans who were born or spent time abroad see the possibilities of entrepreneurship in countries like the United States. Min, born in New York himself, says that only half the startups at Seoul Space have Korean-born founders. Tae Woo, the 22-year-old founder of Korean ebook startup Moglue, was inspired by his time working in Silicon Valley. “In Silicon Valley, there are lots of young entrepreneurs talking about their dream and vision,” he says. “I realized, ‘What am I doing right now?’ So I decided to start a company.”

These grassroots trends are seeing encouragement from the Korean government, too. You Noodle’s Korea Incubation Pilot Program, supported by the federal Small and Medium Business Administration, is a competition that finds entrepreneurs who want to target the United States and brings them to Silicon Valley for training. That administration also supports entrepreneur clubs at universities, “Biz-Cool” programs to teach teenagers about business and finance in school, and the Youth Entrepreneurship Foundation, which may raise as much as US$8 million in funding from government and private sources.

These factors are certainly stirring up the tech scene, but Koreans, like many of their neighbors, have a history of conservatism that clashes with the risk-taking spirit of the entrepreneur. “They grew up thinking they had to take the safe road. That factor is still so ingrained,” Min explains. While Hong Kong’s safe road was working in finance or real estate, Korea tempts young graduates with jobs at megacompanies Samsung or LG. Min has seen many brilliant programmers from Korea’s MIT, Kaist, who have “no idea, conception, or desire to think about what a startup is.” Language may also be a barrier to Korea’s startup success, as English is less widely spoken there than in some other Asian countries.

Despite these difficulties, the community’s leaders are optimistic. “There is a big storm in South Korea because of the mobile apps,” says OnSuccess founder James Jung, referring to the iPhone’s entrance. And Min predicts a tidal wave, or 해일 (“hae-il”) in Korean, that will propel the country’s tech community forward: just as Korea’s K-pop stars made entertainment respectable, so will the entrepreneur have his day.

“This tsunami is coming. Those motions are not going to stop,” Min says. If he’s right, we should all be watching the eastern horizon.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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