Last Thursday and Friday I attended Seoul K-Global Startup Engine 2015 networking event.
A lot of people I meet here ask me : « Why did you choose to come to Seoul for the beginning of your exploration year in Asia ? »
I wanted to spend a month in a big Asian capital. I wanted to feel the energy and atmosphere. With the 5 senses. With my brain, but also my body and my heart. Asian immersion.
I wanted to understand better how the future beats here, taking into consideration the heritage of the past and the cultural differences. See how people live, and become part of this reality for a little while.
I knew Tokyo already. I loved it but I wanted to discover a new environment. I could choose Singapore, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Seoul.
I chose Seoul intuitively. A kind of middle ground between Japan and China. It attracted me because I felt there would be a balance between tradition and modernity. Innovation and spirituality.
« It will be Seoul » appeared as an evidence. I knew no one there but now we live in a global village, right ?
So I booked my one-way ticket. It felt a bit crazy, but it felt right.
I am creating from scratch my exploration program and everything is possible. This led me to develop a new way of living.
I listen to my intuition and my heart to make choices (yes it sounds cheesy, but it really works and it feels good haha !) ; I settle my intentions ; then I focus my attention ; then I do my part. Lastly, I let go. I trust life to do the rest. And I accept things that happen to me as something I will learn from and that is part of the path.
I have not invented this methodology ! I have read an inspiring book by Deepak Chopra : « The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire: Harnessing the Infinite Power of Coincidence » (« Le livre des coïncidences » in French).
Among my intentions, I wanted to connect to the ecosystem of startups and innovation here.
I do my part
I tried to develop my network, sending many emails and asking people to connect me to relevant people.
I went to Google Campus Seoul.
It is a coworking place located in Gangnam which is part of the « Google for entrepreneurs program ». As they express : « We build community hubs, called Campuses, where entrepreneurs come to learn, share ideas, and launch great startups. »
Last Wednesday at the Google Campus, I was feeling desperate and helpless : I felt that I could not manage to get introduced to the right people ; or people did not reply to me.
I started speaking to the guy working on the same table as me. Jack Jeon.
I asked him if he knew the person managing the Campus – who I could not connect to through LinkedIn.
Jack happened to be working with KJ who was organizing a startup & accelerators event that took place the 2 following days !
KJ offered me to participate. I did not really fit in any categories of participants. So I would be « Media ». Writing a blog, I felt it was OK 😉
Ô joie ! I love serendipity.
K-Global Startup Engine 2015
KJ works within Accelerator Korea (among other activities) and is the coordinator/organizer of the K-Global Startup Engine 2015 program. The program aims at helping Korea’s tech promising startups to get selected by worldclass accelerators such as Chinaccelerator (Shanghai), The Alchemist Accelerator (San Francisco), Seedcamp (London)…
40 teams (or entrepreneurs) are selected and participate to a pre-acceleration one-month program that includes training and mentoring.
To know more about K-Global Startup Engine it’s this way !
So last Thursday and Friday representatives of the international Accelerators came to meet the startups for the first time.
On the first day, the Accelerators presented their specificities and strategy to the startups, partners and coorganizers of the event.
The next day, the 40 startups pitched on stage.
There was of course time dedicated to informal networking.
Startups in Korea ?
What I share here is what I have understood from my conversations with Korean people and expatriates since arrived 1 week ago. So it may be incomplete, simplified… Please, do not hesitate to comment !
Over the past decades innovation was the preserve of huge companies which dominated the economy such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, …
Over the last years, the economic development slew down. Korean major companies need to develop their ability to be truly creative. And this is a real challenge because of the Korean culture – at least in the Western perspective.
Yes, Koreans seem to have a strong ability to change, and the country is known to be evolving very quickly.
However, big companies have deeply rooted systems that restrain their ability to innovate and develop a creativity culture :
- The education system teaches people to learn as robots a massive amount of information instead of developing critical and creative thinking – in this country, children go to « agwon », that is to say that they have private lessons after school and study until 10pm everyday (what ?? what about the priceless childhood innocence and careless time ?!)
- The Korean culture deeply values consensus and harmony – the word « disruptive » sounds like an antithesis to the Korean culture… Innovation means risk-taking, who would like to take the risk to fail and « lose face » ?
- Performance assessment & promotion do not really value performance – people are promoted because of their seniority and loyalty – there is no point in trying to overachieve
- Big companies may be aware of the need to move from a culture of « working harder » to « working smarter », things do not seem to actually evolve. For example, people have to stay long hours at work even if they are not productive – they have to show that they are present.
Given this context, the government became more and more interested in startups as a source of innovation and a means to fuel the long-term economic growth of the country.
Startups in Korea have a hard time finding investment because the Venture Capitalism system is not strongly developed – the economy being dominated by big companies and conglomerates in the past.
Since a few years the government devotes a lot of resources to help startups develop their potential and get funding.
Still a counterculture
I love entrepreneurs because they are people who are curious and open-minded. They take risks. They have to be courageous. They are in a permanent learning process and love it. They are humble because eventhough they succeed and achieve amazing results there is always the next challenge and they have to put themselves into question all the time. They are generalists who have to develop many talents. They have to keep a strategic vision while getting their hands dirty focusing on details and operational work.
They inspire me. So I love spending time with them.
I spend time with young startuppers here and here is what I understood.
More than in other cultures I feel that the Korean « startupper » mindset is a counterculture. The path they choose really does not correspond to the conventional vision of success in the Korean society !
Here is the classic model :
- Going to the best universities – they’d rather take a gap year or interrupt their studies to learn from hands-on experience rather than spending so much money and wasting their time
- Finding a job in the most renowned companies – it would have no meaning for them to comply with meaningless and rigid systems and procedures ; doing uninteresting tasks and working for others’ objectives ; obeying to bosses whose authority is based on seniority. They prefer to invent the future and impact the world transforming their ideas into action.
- How do they make money ? I don’t know much about that yet – they work hard to convince incubators and venture capitalists to invest on them.
- Getting married / having kids : they will focus on that later…
Not surprisingly, many of them have spent time abroad and became familiar with other models.
Their parents usually have a hard time understanding them.
They have the courage to choose the life they want to live.
As I mentionned, Korea is a country that evolves fastly. Things are changing, little by little. These people are pioneers. It will be very interesting to see how things change in the years to come !