Korea’s Secret Sauce and Other Musings on Why I’m Starting Up Here

Hint: It’s not gochujang, nor is this a story about cooking.

So I was asked to join a panel discussion about starting a business in Korea as a foreigner. One of the questions was, “Why are you doing business in Korea and what benefits does it bring you personally and to your business?”.

Full Disclosure: I am a Korean-American. Although I was born in Korea, I lived in the States for most of my life starting from 2 months old.

So yes, I am very much American, in tune with the culture and can relate more with Americans than I can with Korea (and as you’ll probably discover in my writing style anyway). I could probably start up a business in the States, but currently I’m not and here in Seoul, South Korea. I did work in Corporate America for about 12 years, mostly trading bonds in the asset management industry.

I now run a startup called TripRadius in Korea. It’s a tour guide hailing app that works a lot like Uber for people. When you book a guide on our app, that very person (friendly and eager to serve) will come over to you in just a matter of minutes. They’ll show you around their hood, take you to their favorite places to eat and show you how they enjoy their everyday lives. You can say that we are selling tours, tour guides or even travel experiences. But what I believe we are doing is commoditizing the widespread hospitality in Korea that just comes naturally to each and everyone living here.

If you’ve ever experienced Korean customer service, hospitality or what they call A/S (After-service) over here, you will recall how top notch the experience was. Wait times are short, service reps are humble and respectful. Just think about how all the Korean airline stewardesses you encountered on your flights were and how they go the extra mile. Just think about how you can go into a restaurant in Korea, get great service without the expectation of any tip. In Korea, I actually like staying at 3 star hotels when I have to personally pay for them. Even though they might not have the 5 star amenities, you will still always get 5 star service from them.

This is not coincidental in Korea and it’s a trait that is in-fact inherent within Korean culture and society. Structure on how to greet new people is embedded in the language and rooted from its Confucian values. So starting TripRadius or any business based on customer service makes sense in Korea. And it’s when we make this work here, is when we can take this to rest of the world and prove that this kind of travel hospitality is indeed possible.

But Korea’s natural endowments are not the only reason why I am here. There is another reason. A reason I didn’t know about until I started getting settled here.

There are 2 social problems in Korea that really bother me. One is the youth unemployment rate. The normal unemployment rate across the board in Korea is stable at 3.6%. But the youth unemployment rate (ages 15–29 y.o.) is 9.8%. That’s a huge disparity. Sure, the baby boomer generation is healthier and not retiring as fast. But the youth over here are not embracing the available jobs here because they want the cushy jobs at Samsung or the lifetime stability of a government office work.

The second social ill that really gets me is the suicide rate in Korea. It is the highest in the entire developed world (OECD). I had close loved ones who have taken their own lives, so this one hits hard. And it makes me think: to have the highest concentration of suicides take place in a single nation, just think about how many more people you have on the brink of that who are currently suffering with severe depression. What is the systemic problem in which this is rooted from?

I tend to think of myself as a pretty open-minded, positive guy so it’s hard for me to relate with people who can’t handle the hand they’ve been dealt. But at the same time, I do believe now that there is a purpose for me here in Korea. That is to speak truth into the lives of the young people here. One of the aspects of my job I look forward to the most is the training of the new local guides for the TripRadius network.

The process is we first spend about 20 minutes over the phone going over a series of interview questions. We then invite them into our office to meet a few people on our staff and then to train them on how to use the app as well how to be a good guide. We talk about the core values of TripRadius and touch upon the skill sets they need in order to be successful with it. We also get into safety and how to avoid accidents. From beginning to finish, at any point, something can trigger any of our staff to say this person is not suitable to be a local guide for TripRadius. It could be for any number of reasons: maybe their English was not good enough or something tipped us off about their mental state. We also reject candidates who we feel might not have good chemistry with foreign travelers. A lot of them see this as an opportunity to simply make money. And that’s not who we want to let in. If you know anything about this business, it’s that there’s a considerable amount of opportunity cost that people don’t think about. When you allow yourself to be at the service of travelers, you forgo a lot of opportunity to do anything else. So you better know what you are getting yourself into and just love being around people in the first place. Otherwise this is not going to be a sustainable business for you.

Anyway, going back to the time I spend with the Locals, I do believe this is an important time when I can be working with the youth and influencing them however which way I can, one person at a time, one group at a time. To speak truth in their lives and to rewire their brains about the lies they’ve been told about what it means to succeed. About self-awareness and establishing core values. And to always be a positive influence and older brother to them. And that any one of them can call me up at 4AM if they need help. I know I’m starting to sound like a high school coach now, but these are things that I really believe are missing in the society right now.

But I do have to say, all of the local guides who get accepted into the TripRadius network are outstanding people and I love them to death. I do believe that as they do more and more tours for TripRadius that it will build their skill and tact level so that one day they will be able to face any situation in their lives and be successful. It also gives them building blocks to one day find their calling to either startup their own company or work in that dream job over at Facebook or Ottogi in Korea. I’m not so worried about these guys.

But there is still a good percentage of candidates that do not get accepted into the TripRadius network. And you can pretty much figure it out. They might not be the most loved people. They might not be the most desired. Some might see them as the rejected caste of society. But I don’t see them that way. I still believe it is my calling to work with these people. To understand them. To love them just the same. And although they might be a work in progress, to extend them the same promises I gave to the TripRadius Locals above.

I want to sit down and really work with them. Do a book reading on Simon Sinek’s, “Start with Why”. Do some volunteer work with them. And for me, I would consider it a huge success if I could lead one of these guys into their calling, whether it be to start their own business or to work at a company so that they can be fully embraced by society. Or maybe I’ll just discover that they don’t want to be embraced. But at the very least, get them to learn the basics to simply do tours for themselves so that they can become more and more confident in the world.