My colleague Vallabh and I conducted an exclusive interview with the CEO of KakaoTalk, Sirgoo Lee.
Sue J. Hur: Hi Sirgoo, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us. This will be a great opportunity for Korean startups and entrepreneurs.
Vallabh Rao: Yes, thank you so much for sparing the time for us.
Sirgoo Lee: Thank you.
Sue: Phil Libin said that it's dangerous for Korean startups to think and see themselves as a 'Korean' startup, because once you want to o global, you cannot build barriers around yourself. When Kakao first started, did you see yourself as a Korean startup? Did you want to go global in the first place?
Sirgoo: I think that mobile apps are, in nature, global products because when you launch it on Google Apps or whatever, everyone knows about it. But there was no 'success model' from Korea. There were a few companies that tried being global - for example, there was 'Cyworld' in Korea. They thought it was really easy to take that service and launch it in the US - but it doesn't work that way. You really have to think about how your service can be tailored to an individual. I'm not sure if there is such a thing as an 'international culture' but it's difficult to separate yourself from being 'Korean'. It's reflected.
Vallabh: Can you give us some examples where your bias is reflected in our decisions?
Sirgoo: I'll tell you about an experience I had with my former company - we acquired a Chinese company and we looked at the design. It was very poorly designed in that it was text-heavy and everything was in red. So we changed it to have less text and changed the design and the color scheme. And people started leaving. Chinese people want dense text, the color red. It's not solely about the design, either. It could be about the functions that is foreign to others. For example, Koreans have a concept of 'minihome' (in Cyworld). That can be seen as too girly for others. As for KakaoTalk, our dream in March 2010 was to have 100 million users. Now we're up to 80 and 90.
Sue: Do you have any specific advice for Korean startups?
Sirgoo: If you can come up with a very good service, you can succeed. What points do you want to secure for your users? You can have a variety of ways to package your service as a global product. Things have gotten better than 10 years ago. There are a lot of companies that want to help you go global. Go to events and conferences such as beLAUNCH and see what they're like.
Vallabh: What worked for KakaoTalk?
Sirgoo: We never actually marketed KakaoTalk overseas - we suspect that Koreans living overseas imported it. There is some independent growth overseas however. We need to analyze the data and see how everything worked. So for example, the market in the Middle East really liked the 'group chat' feature. We're learning as we go and although we have no 'reference points' as such, but to keep a competitive edge we have to try different things.
Sue: I suspect you get asked this question about Line, Joyn, WeChat, (Vallabh: and now Hike from India!) - what do you think about all these new services coming in to play?
Sirgoo: We try not to focus on the others. We're concerned about what our customers want, what our clients like. Receiving feedback from our customers is very important to us and that is the main focus. Reflecting their needs as quickly as possible is what we're about. If you keep eyeballing others, that wouldn't be so good.
Vallabh: But there is a huge market, you would agree.
Sirgoo: There is a huge market, but the thing is that people download a couple of apps to try and see what they're like. So, in the end it's about what they like. Optimizing that to the customers' needs is important.
Sue: So you hope to expand globally one day?
Sirgoo: Yes, hopefully, one day! (laughs)
Sue: Thank you Sirgoo again for spending time with us. It's great to have you here at beLAUNCH2013!
Sirgoo: Thank you Sue & Vallabh!