Seoul Space cultivates startups in Korea
On a recent evening at Seoul Space, an incubator for start-up companies, the office is oddly quiet ㅡ many of the young entrepreneurs with the agency are out for dinner in Seoul’s business district of Gangnam.
Call it the calm before the storm.
Those present work diligently on the Internet, mobile and gaming companies they hope will conquer the world. At the drop of a hat, they are ready to hop up and tell any listener what their idea is all about.
Cultivating that tenacity is part of the goal for Seoul Space, which provides workspace, seed money and mentorship for promising businesses. Though entrepreneurship is still novel in Korea, the incubator believes that is about to change.
“Up until now, Korea has been famous for being fast followers,” Richard Min, co-founder and CEO of the agency, said. “But now the spirit of entrepreneurship is starting in earnest. There will be an explosion and it’s really exciting to be a part of it.”
The 39-year-old Korean-American, who has a long resume in the IT industry, says a confluence of factors make the country ripe for a boom of new ventures, after many start-ups left the market after the dot-com bubble burst.
Now barriers for entering the technology market, including startup costs, are low. The government is pouring money into innovation. And Min believes the penetration of Apple’s iPhone has allowed small developers to access the international market and shown that the local one notorious for protectionism may become more accessible.
“Everyone here is trying to move upstream towards the source of innovation,” he said.
Next big thing
Korea is often viewed as difficult to penetrate due to the dominance of local conglomerates and a homogenous population that has favored the homegrown.
There is also the long-held mindset among workers to seek the stability of employment in a large firm over entrepreneurship, Min said.
“The culture until now has not supported being an entrepreneur. But all these (aforementioned) factors are going to make a platform that’s going to make it okay. People will realize that Option C exists.”
Such conditions led Min, who founded the first pay-per-click search engine in Korea, and David Lee, an early director of Google, to start Seoul Space as an industry blog in 2009. Sensing a dearth of a start-up community here, the pair began discussing opening a co-work space for entrepreneurs to work in a communal environment.
With the addition of co-founder Yim Chong-pil, head of an entertainment promotion company, Seoul Space kicked off, taking on entrepreneurs and organizing events for global companies such as Facebook and Twitter to expand their local presence.
Their enthusiasm flows to those they work with.
“We’re hoping one of our products will become the next million-dollar idea,” said Bruce Lim, whose company KTL-Apps has a desk at Seoul Space, where it has developed an application for medical students to study on their mobile devices.
The 35-year-old said the incubator exposes him to many valuable networking possibilities ㅡ from the media to the government as well as those in the industry ㅡ he would not otherwise have.
At a nearby desk, Don Lee is soon to launch Wable, an online classified ad mixed with social networking for students. He says that by matching requests with service providers, the site will introduce a new interactive, real-time experience to Korea, and later hopes to scale the project for other markets.
“Whenever you need something you can get it right away,” he explained of his product. “Say you want to learn drums, and I am a drummer. I would get your request, a chat room opens up and boom.”
According to Min, such ideas ㅡ good for both the local and global markets ㅡ are exactly what Korea is looking for.
Tech giant Samsung has brought on the agency to cultivate new talent. For the government ㅡ which says it is looking for the Korean Mark Zuckerberg ㅡ it is organizing a wide range of events from a 100-day accelerator program to “start-up battles” where entrepreneurs compete and pitch their ideas.
A big challenge, Min says, is teaching young innovators to think outside of the local market and to scale their ideas for the world. He also stresses that despite the many success stories, entrepreneurship is risky and rigorous.
Still, with Korea rising and Northeast Asia booming, he said now was the prime time to enter the market, for both start-ups and global players.
“We are seeing the laying down of an entire new industry of start-ups and innovation,” he said. “It’s a rising tide. And we want to be an enabler for people who have a dream.”