Korea Startup scene – you piss me off, but I still love you

It all startups with a ton of post-its…

So after quitting my job (a lot of backstabbing drama there about which I will write when things calm down, let’s just say I was accused of being ‘too emotional’), I got finally time to do everything I wanted to use my energy on: meeting inspirational people, Startup Weekend, working on new crossfit skills. But I most importantly, I finally had time to activating Seoul Startups.

What is Seoul Startups?

Come here!

It started as a brain child of 2 expat UX designers, who recognized a need for some sort of networking space for people like themselves: foreigners who work in/ work for/work with startups and startup organizations in Korea. The thing is, as much as the Korean government trumpets about Seoul being the global startup hub of the future, the current facilities, events, programs, offers are 98% in Korean.

Alas, there was a need for SOMETHING, so the two guys created a website with an extension to a Slack group, where people could share information about doing business in Korea, experiences, news, job posts and anything else that was somehow connected to the local startup scene.

At one point the founders left Korea, asking me to keep on admining the community. So with 400 members and growing, I decided to hold our first offline event on February 19th.

30 people showed up, including Minha Kim from MoneyToday, who wrote a nice article about us.

But instead of just sitting around and ‘networking’, I initiated a team discussion on what the current local startup scene is for us and what we could do, as a community, to improve it. I would like to share the results of that with you.

Result of Seoul Startups survey: we are a diverse group of warriors!

The good…

Free coworking spaces!

Korea is highly-dense, consumption-focused market (especially with cosmetics and beauty but not only), equipped with super-efficient, high-speed network infrastructure. ‘High-speed’ is pretty much a keyword here: not only when it comes to telco technology but also work, life, delivery services etc. You don’t have to wait around too long for anything here.
Whatever gets said later on, it must be acknowledge that the government support for startups (in diverse sectors) is HUGE here, when it comes to funding, education, overseas promotion.  

The local workforce is very well-educated, very smart and capable. Multiple free coworking spaces and living prices lower than SF or NYC, together with startup visa program (OASIS), add up to very good basis for turing Korea into an international startup/tech scene.   

The bad…

Typical Korean startup event… not fun.

Let’s start with the government programs. There is too much of them. On top of being run very inefficiantly (*cough* shady) by civil servants whose business and startup knowledge is limited to ‘Startups101 on Weekend’, there is just. too. many. That results in very little community and organic support and activities, relying to survive for years on government grants (as long as you use ‘keywords’ of the year in your applications). But most importantly – startups are not failing. Failing is part of being an entrepreneur. You fail 100 times or more before something kicks off. And each time you learn and grow as a bigger person. But in Korea failing a business is failing as a person (also from the law-standpoint!). And with the declining economy, the government is determined to have companies not go under officially, to keep numbers up, and unemployment down (that’s not working very well, recently).

VC… the funds are mostly government grants. There may be some Korean ‘unicorns’, but really are they? And have we heard about any successful exits?

And on top of that…. All that support is not really available to foreigners. Not that they are not eligible (with the right visa and a registered business), but the whole K-Startup website is only in Korean and works most efficiently in Internet Explorer. With Seoul Startups, I’m trying to change that, but there is so much I can do non-profit, in my spare time.

And then we have more social issues. Even the ‘young and funky’ startup scene is conservative, rather passive, run but middle-aged and older gentlemen (VERY limited female founder scene). It’s hard to network, not only as a non-Korean speaking foreigner, but also as a younger person (god forbid female), without proper, beforehand connections. Not to mention, most networking events are… NOT fun.

What can we do?

It starts with YOU!

We won’t change the world overnight. And we certainly cannot change Korea, the country where we are guests. But we can start taking small steps, that may inspire and impact people here to make the startup scene a better place for everyone.

    • Continue building a vibrant community with a strong clear voice. Maybe one day that voice will reach the decision-makers.
    • Sharing information, solutions and experiences – ‘give first’ is my favorite motto. We all go through some tough situations here, but maybe someone out there already went through something similar and can share advise on how to get out of the hump? We may not be able to count too much on government agencies, startup organizations but we can count on each other.
    • Holding regular events/meetup in English, where people can network, learn, discuss. And, most importantly, have fun.
    • (as foreigners) Learn Korean, learn English (as Koreans).
    • In the long-term create an impactful global event like Slush, WebSummit or Rise. Which main theme is FUN.  
  • Creating a strong community support for entrepreneurs, something like the Family. Showing the Korean startupers that they don’t have to be government/corporate dependent and the world is really their own oyster.

What do you think? Where should the Korean startup scene go on from here? Where can we take it to?

Not related, but one of those less-polluted days..

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