Memebox’s Path to Global Dominance
(originally published in the Maeil Business Newspaper, which is South Korea’s WSJ, where SparkLabs’ has a monthly column)
While catching up with Dino Ha, Co-founder and CEO of Memebox, this week, I was reminded of why we accepted him into our first accelerator batch back in November 2012 when we launched SparkLabs Korea.
Our positioning as a new accelerator was “to help Korean startups go global” which Memebox embodies this the best so far for any of SparkLabs Korea’s portfolio companies. But it wasn’t just about Memebox, but about Dino as a leader and CEO as to why we accepted him into our program. He is still such a great balance between confidence and humility. I’m a bit of a leadership junkie since going through the Coro Fellowship (1996), one of the top leadership development programs for public servants in the U.S, before I pivoted into entrepreneurship and technology. It boasts alumni, such as Senator Diane Feinstein, Senator Tim Kaine (former Vice Presidential Nominee), Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Craig Ehrlich (former Chairman of the GSM Association), and many others. Leadership comes in many forms, but one quality that is an asset across many sectors and organizations is knowing what you don’t know and executing on it. It’s difficult in practice because it takes humility and sincerity that many strong leaders do not have, but it’s what makes great leaders and Dino has this in spades.
As we caught up on Memebox’s recent milestones, we also discussed his thinking as its CEO and what he’s learned so far. Memebox has raised over $190 million, recently signed a partnership with Sephora and will be launching another codeveloped line in the coming months.
“Hi, Dino. Looking back, what were the driving factors of Memebox success in doing well in the U.S., China and elsewhere?” I asked.
“Going global has to be something you believe in as a company because there is so much more complexity in terms of management, financial costs and communication costs for the company. If Memebox were to just focus on Korea, we would have grown faster and had greater revenues at this point, but it was worth.”
“Why was it worth it?” I followed up.
“We learned a tremendous amount from entering the U.S. market. It was the quality of talent that couldn’t have obtain by solely being in South Korea. For example, our VP of HR was the VP of HR for Salesforce. She brought her global expertise and then her network of talent. Not just her, but others who helped us get access to Silicon Valley’s network. Even though it’s just a handful of people at Memebox, these infusions especially at leadership levels has been really a factor to our success,” Dino explained.
“What was the tipping point of success in the U.S.?” I asked.
“There wasn’t a tipping point, but a mentality that we learned. It wasn’t about comparing ourselves or taking the path that Uber or AirBnB took. What we learned, especially the past 3 years, was that it is more than about revenue. Once we focused on our strengths as a company, it allowed us to attract and secure partnerships with companies such as Sephora.
It’s an exciting stage of growth for us. Even things that you mention or write about, such as Korea’s innovation leadership. Korea is the first to bring ideas to market in the world, but it was always someone else that scaled it. Memebox wants to do both. For example, we want to marry Kpop and Kbeauty and make both scalable and sustainable, so we signed a content collaboration with a few Kpop artists and brought them to San Francisco. This effort will be announced in early 2019,” stated Dino.
“What were the most difficult aspects about entering the U.S. market?” I asked.
“It wasn’t so difficult, but more confusing. It was confusing because there was so much information and there were so many options to pursue,” Dino said.
“Well, then how long did it take to figure things out?” I followed.
“I think we are still figuring things out. Our potential hasn’t been unlocked in terms of revenues and profits, but the foundation has been set. We have truly become world class as an operation and as a company in many things.
This was only possible because we had this ambition from the beginning, and SparkLabs had this ambition for us from the beginning. I believe you have to have this ambition but also a vision beyond five years for a company’s success. You have to think in terms of returns and success more in a 15 to 20-year timeframe.
If I were to do it again, I would start from the U.S. while have a good size team in Korea. South Korea has great talent, but it’s so competitive locally. Entering the U.S. market first would allow us to access the knowledge and network sooner than later,” Dino explained in detail.
“Amazing. I never heard you tell me that before. Hey, appreciate your time, Dino, in catching up and sharing your insights with the thousands of entrepreneurs in South Korea and around the globe.”