Ready to launch: Seoul’s new entrepreneurial superstars
To outside observers of Korea, the words “business” and “chaebol” -- the huge family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy -- are virtually synonymous. Examples of highly successful pure entrepreneurs on the ground are few, with occasional exceptions such as search and gaming giants NHN and NCSoft.
It is scarce wonder then that very few parents encourage their children to start their own companies, instead preferring to see them either work for a chaebol, or enter the civil service.
Yet despite an entrepreneurial environment described as “sterile” by Park Jae-uk, a 25-year old start-up founder, there is now a growing band of twenty- and thirty-something would-be internet tycoons in Seoul who are beginning to defy social expectations by striking out on their own.
According to Seoul Metropolitan Government, there are almost 30,000 young people in the city considering starting their own firms.
Park, who actually made the leap despite friends “advising me about stable careers, and making an effort to stop me,” now heads Value Creators & Company (VC&C), a mobile application and web services firm.
The company’s first product, News Gallery, a multi-media app, was released this month. It already has a five-star rating on Apple’s iTunes market, and reached number 26 on the chart of most popular apps.
Though Seoul remains a long way behind Silicon Valley, the city has a community of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who are growing increasingly confident in the so-called “second wave” of the internet boom.
“Government support is high again, and there are a lot of VCs who are much more professional and risk-taking,” says Cho Sung-moon, a former Gamevil executive now based in California, adding that the tech environment reminds him of the so-called “golden era” of 1998-2000.
VC investors range from established names like Softbank -- itself founded by an ethnic Korean from Japan -- to the likes of newcomer Primer, which funds large numbers of very early stage ventures. Such firms are slowly building up a genuine start-up and VC culture, a step up from the isolated pockets of entrepreneurship of the past.
“I envied the culture of angel investment in Silicon Valley so much, but things are changing, and I now see such people in Korea,” says Cho.
There are also growing numbers of proper success stories, which is arguably the most important factor in encouraging the creation of future start-ups.
Other than Gamevil, which listed on the Kosdaq in 2009 and now commands a market value of around US$160 million, there are rising stars such as Wizard Works, a firm that employs 40 people and already generates millions of dollars in revenue. Its 27 year-old CEO, Pyo Chul-min, was chosen by "BusinessWeek Magazine" as one of Asia’s Best Young Entrepreneurs.
It’s people like this who are starting to show other young Koreans that risk can sometimes bring spectacular success rather than spectacular failure. Despite the skepticism of parents, professors, and friends -- and the sad possibility that, to quote Cho, “some may find it difficult to find a girlfriend if one’s profession is ‘entrepreneur’”-- more and more are going to experience one or the other.