South Korea is a nation on the move. Its economy has never been stronger, and its workforce never smarter. According to The Economist, Korea spends “a larger share of GDP on tertiary education than any rich country other than America,” and the government has done its fair share of public spending to raise employment, while favoring practices that encourage the growth of large-scale businesses. The result is, by the end of 2011, Korea will be richer than the European Union average in Purchasing Power Parity terms.
Still, despite Korea’s ongoing achievements as a star pupil in the newly industrialized pantheon, the road ahead demands more than just business as usual. That’s where innovators like Richard Min are playing an important role. Min is a Korean American entrepreneur who has been active in the South Korean fields of technology and finance. He’s currently the co-founder of SeoulSpace, a start-up incubator where he works with like-minded tech firms, including social networking giant Twitter, while introducing new business models to Korea.
Min has been professionally active in Korea for over ten years. He’s witnessed the country as it coped with the financial crisis of 1998, the international popularity of K-pop in the decade that followed, and is now riding at the crest of a consumer technology boom that began over two years ago. From working for the South Korean Ministry of Finance to consulting Fortune 500 companies, Min knows a few things about forging a direction in a country that’s going places, plus he’s got some advice for those headed to Korea.
AsianTalks: Richard, what transpired to bring you to Korea, and how did you create the idea for SeoulSpace, a start-up incubator that encourages innovation?
Being Korean by descent, although I was born in the US, I’ve been back and forth growing up. After graduation I began working here for the government, for the Ministry of Finance, during the financial crisis. There has been some travel since then, but I’m pretty much rooted in Seoul.
I’ve been in the tech industry for the last ten years in Korea, and with SeoulSpace, it’s kind of I guess what you could call a “perfect storm,” meaning a lot of factors came together for this to happen. And the elements have been brewing for a while, with all our co-founders being in “the same zone” when we crossed paths.
But even before that I kind of rode the first bubble way back in the 1990s, so I’ve been in the start-up entrepreneur game for a long time. In Korea, I started the first PPC (Pay-Per-Click), or search advertising company, an innovation at the time. I’ve definitely experienced the history of Internet development in Korea.
AsianTalks: And how would you describe the Korean business environment?
Korea has very traditionally been a “walled garden,” in terms of the market, it’s been famous for kind of being the “giant killer” in the Internet for everyone coming into the market, and failing miserably and spectacularly! And we’ve been watching that trend from the inside out for a while, for a long time now, and in the meantime doing a lot of consulting.
AsianTalks: But do you feel the Korea market is changing, with the rise of consumer technology? When did you see the first inklings of change?
It all started changing recently, with the entry of iPhones into Korea, which was the first true, disruptive technology to be successful here, which was followed by the Android, and that served as a Trojan horse for other elements. Then there’s also the world trend towards start-ups, venture funds going worldwide. I would say, even five years ago, there’s no way this could have happened. And given how things are coming together, (my team and I) decided to give it a shot. Now the government is trying to propel innovation. My inspiration for creating “a start-up for start-ups” is basically all those factors coming together.
AsianTalks: You’ve mentioned your co-founders a couple of times, and many would consider you lucky for finding the right people at the right time. How did you build your network in Korea? Is it a challenge for a foreigner or a Korean American returnee?
(Laughs) I don’t know about lucky! I’ve been in the trenches here for a long time, had to pay the dues, to know the inside out, and have people understand that you yourself are understanding of both sides. Then again, the market forces and global trends all came together, and justified what we were doing. Even ten, twenty years ago, for Korean Americans or foreigners coming here was unusual, especially for the older generation, but now with K-pop all of a sudden so huge in Asia, and with Korean culture going out, and new arrivals coming in, the lines are more blurred like never before, especially with the emergence of social networks.
AsianTalks: When most Americans think of Korea and technology, they immediately think of Samsung. But is there more to the picture? And is there a great entrepreneur in Korea you think is making an impact right now?
Well I guess the one person who gets the most press, or I would say he has made the most buzz recently, because he is the best example of what entrepreneur could be, is Dan Shin of Ticket Monster, who is also very young, Korean American, and within a year-and-a-half built a new industry out of his start-up, in Korea. He then sold his company to LivingSocial for unofficially $350 million. So that’s an example of having an idea, being international, and coming here to implement, grow, then successfully exiting.
(Ticket Monster is South Korea’s largest social buying site, much like Groupon, that began with no revenue in May 2010 to $24 million in mid-2011.)
AsianTalks: And as a key member of the exciting tech community in Korea right now, what is the ultimate goal of your career? What makes you get up in the morning?
Well, it’s good to know we’re making enough waves on the global scene, where we get a lot of inquiries not just from local start-ups, but from other Googles wanting to enter Korea. We’re even doing an official, Twitter Developer Teatime Launch, and that’s being sponsored by KOTRA, a Korean government agency trying out innovation.
So that’s good, right? The government’s saying, we can sponsor this event, and Twitter’s saying, hey, we want to come to SeoulSpace, and have you guys help us reach out to the developer community, and the local developers are excited to see a new channel, where they can go and not actually work in a cubicle for 30 years to be in management, to earn approval. In that sense, I certainly feel good about what we do, and I certainly hope everyone else is on the same wavelength. So in terms of my ultimate goal, I’d like to be able to say that I was a pioneer for creating the Silicon Valley of Korea.
AsianTalks: Foreigners heading to Korea for the first time are probably unfamiliar with the lay of the land there. Do you have any suggestions for newbies that will ease any culture shock?
Culture shock can come even when you go to the convenience store, and the little things you take for granted are different from America or Europe, wherever you are used to. It kind of freaks people out, and they start thinking, “it shouldn’t be that way,” or “what’s up with it working that way.” But if you realize it’s just little things, and kind of go with the flow, it helps to ease the pain.
Then there are stereotypes. I guess what people don’t realize is Korea is a homogenous culture. There’s a very small percentage of foreigners here. And that’s something someone from the US has taken for granted, namely that there it’s very international all the time. Imagine a small town, but with 49 million people, and they’re in the same vibe, same flow. So when you’re in a homogenous culture like Korea, and you’re as international as you are, the subtleties we had growing up in the US aren’t there, and stereotypes Koreans have, or their derogatory comments can be taken by foreigners the wrong way, because we’re not understanding it’s just great people who don’t have the need to understand, or grew up with, the subtleties of political correctness that Americans are accustomed to.
AsianTalks: Lastly, when you aren’t working, where do you go to chill your brain, eat some good food, or listen to music you like?
I think a great place to go to is the Gangnam area, where it’s very trendy but there’s also boutique-y places where you can hide away if you want, but still take in the vibe and the pulse of the city. There’s a new street that’s trendy, called Garosu-gil, in the Sinsa area, and they’ve got a whole strip of cafes, little restaurants, where you can just go read, or tap into your smartphone.
For live music, there’s a a whole area, called Hongdae, that’s famous for being very international, and having good, underground subculture bands.
Believe it or not, international foods have gotten better, they’re pretty good now. So if you want international food, you go to Itaewon, there’s some great restaurants there. There’s Tasting Room, an Italian restaurant in Cheongdam. For Korean it’s great to hit the pojang machas at 3am, they’re these little stands but they sell food for really cheap. That’s where I go to hit the Korean flavors.