I had the privilege of interviewing with Gwendolyn Regina Tan, SGE’s Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief. SGE is one of the best online publishers dedicated to the Southeast Asia startup and entrepreneurship scene. SGE is one of beSUCCESS’ partners and serves as an online ecosystem where fellow entrepreneurs, investors & venture capitalists, technologists, developers and business plan competition organizers discuss their experiences on entrepreneurship and enterprise in Singapore.
Startups In Korea: Her Perspective
“This is actually my first trip to Korea,” she began, before we moved on to talking about the strengths and weaknesses of startups in Korea. What caught her eye? She liked Aircast.me the best, amongst many other promising startups (I’ll be publishing an article on them, so watch this space!). At beLAUNCH2013, Gwen had so much spirit and her bubbly personality shone through all throughout the interview. She is extremely talented, previously having been a partner at Thymos Capital. She is one of the Board of Advisors for the Singapore Innovation & Productivity Institute and for Social Media Week 2013, and is a Worldwide Judge for Imagine Cup, Microsoft’s premier student tech competition.
In our discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of startups in Korea, Gwen mentioned that she was “surprised that some of them could not even name US competitors”.
Now this is a big, big, big problem. This is perhaps it is the most common trait of Korean startups. At consultancy meetings that EICG/beSUCCESS did with Korean startups, I also found that startups who were so focused on ‘going global’ (usually, this means the US) failed to have any solid grasp on the US market, failed to name US competitors when asked, and held on to the idea of ‘thinking globally’. Conducting a SWOT analysis would be one of the first intelligence tasks for a startup would be to gain competitive advantage by gaining market awareness and competitor capabilities. “The whole team should have a solid market and competitor awareness. It’s not just about the CEO.” Gwen added.
In defense of Korean startups, one might say that that ‘dreaming big’ is important for startups. I do not agree with that as such. Sure, there is no excuse in 2013 not to think globally, and startups do not suffer from a monopolistically competitive market as such. But having unrealistic expectations (e.g. instant user growth) doesn’t help anybody.
Going Global Is General: What It’s Actually About
“Going global is actually very general. In Korea, there are only 50 million people – so it’s still quite small. When people talk about ‘going global’, it’s about picking a bigger market to play in.” So it’s not about ‘learning English’, because you could be targeting the Chinese market, or the South East Asian market. In fact, that is the ‘tried and true’ method for Korean startups to go to Japan, then South East Asia, before going to China and the US, because they are such huge markets. Again, going global is actually about picking a bigger market to play in, not the biggest market to play in.
Going back to Gwen’s point, this is why specifying the business objective and identifying internal and external factors of the startup will be absolutely essential before jumping into ‘learning English’ and building bridges with people.
Cross promotion always proved to be a major factor in successfully bringing together (and expanding to) foreign markets. At a SparkLabs/beSUCCESS collaborative event a few months ago, as part of SparkLabs global mentoring program, Charles Huang (co-creator of worldwide hit game Guitar Hero) famously said that “for every Psy, there’s an MC hammer wanting to break into each other’s market”.
Korea’s Unique Strengths
There are so many startups “trying to do things” – many other people around the world face similar issues as Korea. But then Gwen raised one interesting point that perhaps only a non-Korean would be able to see very clearly. The advent of the mobile age has opened up the possibility for Korea to compete on a global stage and develop Internet products in parallel with the rest of the world – if not better.
I asked her to clarify what she meant by that: why is Korea so special, and why should that be relevant to startups here or startups wanting to expand to Korea?
She continued: “[Korea is unique] because number one, the whole infrastructure is very high. Even when you’re mountain tracking, you get 3G. That is amazing! Koreans are unique in that they are super high connected, wherever you are. That is an incredible, incredible advantage to this country because the world is currently moving towards the direction of having connectivity everywhere, albeit at a rather slow pace. If Koreans are living in this semi-future reality, you can build a whole market for it and be ready ‘when the wave hits’.”
Keyword for 2013
For Gwen and many others, the keyword for 2013 is “Internet of Things”. Another word is “connecting”.
She concluded: “you have to be active, and have to be open about sharing others’ perspectives…. So the next big project for the Korean startup ecosystem is [about] bringing people together – beLAUNCH2013 is so well done, and there’s a lot of energy here. It’s the second time it’s been held, right? I really think it will be able to grow quite a lot. I’m really looking forward to it.”
*Special thanks goes out to Justin C. Yu, who so kindly helped me with conducting speaker interviews at beLAUNCH2013.