Why hasn’t the startup scene in Korea expanded globally?

One Korean entrepreneur’s perspective

May 24, 2016 · 7 min read
Downtown Seoul / photo by Sean Pavone

This article was originally published in Korean by Jongjin Choi, founder of the coworking space HiveArena, and has been translated by Jobbatical.

A lot of people talk about “going global” in Korea. First, I’d like to share a post I wrote a few days ago after taking a look at the program created by our government. It made me think I’d rather they invested in fostering talented people within the country and give them the same kind of sponsorship.

Primarily, I think they are mistaken about what “global” really means. Do they think entrapping foreigners with material benefits will make them return to Korea the year after? Next year, they will have to provide the same, if not better, benefits. If you look at things from a foreign perspective, there are so many other destinations around the world, including Southeast Asia, which is a lot more culturally diverse and offers much cheaper costs of living.

The policies aren’t going to change because someone like me criticizes them. But I’d like to share some thoughts about “going global.” There are 2 approaches to this: 1) Should we expand our startups into the global market? 2) Should we create a global environment within Korea?

Should we expand our startups to the global market?

This is not an easy question. Even when you look at other countries in Asia, such as China, Japan and those in the Southeast, the cultures are vastly different. America and Europe are even more so. I don’t know the details, but I understand that our government has sponsored startups to help them go to Silicon Valley and various other countries. It’s a good attempt, and I’m sure there was a lot of progress as well.

But I think a little differently about going global. The most important thing about global expansion is to meet with, learn from and understand the local markets (customers) and clients. Going global is about boldly attempting to penetrate an unknown market you won’t understand if you don’t go there yourself. That’s why living abroad for several months is vital — especially if your business involves offline services. (If you aren’t willing to live abroad in the first place then it’s probably better to give up on the idea of going global and focus on your local market.) Sure, you can get a local partner and open an office there… but even that takes several months. And it requires finding a partner you trust enough to manage the region. It takes time to find this trustworthy partner.

photo credit

Many Koreans view Southeast Asia as inferior countries where “migrant laborers who work in Korea” come from. But this is a market that is evolving at a much faster rate than ours, especially in the startup sector. The total population of this region is 600 million and a lot of the people who work at startups are those who have studied abroad in the U.S. or have experience in Silicon Valley. If you talk to these people, countries like South Korea and Japan aren’t even on their radar. The nearest foreign market that concerns them is China, and their farthest competitor is the U.S.

For the past several years, I have worked hard to build a network with a focus on Southeast Asia. If a startup wants to go to SEA, I can easily introduce them to founders and community managers of co-working spaces there.

Imagine if you or your team ventures into an unknown market and you’ve got someone with local knowledge helping you to solve problems. You would have a huge advantage over someone who has zero knowledge.

But I can’t introduce these people to just anyone. The reason being that these are friends I’ve made over time through effort. Would you introduce your cherished friends to a complete stranger? To get these connections, you would need to be my friend first.

When I see that you’re a genuinely awesome person, I will introduce you to my friends. This rule is not news to anyone who knows the power of networking. (For instance, we all have those experiences where we’ve put effort into emailing someone with no response, only to have them respond immediately once a mutual contact gives a referral.)

Should we create a global environment within Korea?

The first thing we should do is to provide incentives for talented foreigners, such as visas. I am surrounded by foreigners who can’t open businesses in Korea even though they want to. We need to provide them with visas so that they can have an equal standing ground as us, to compete with us. That is the way an ecosystem works.

Korea is not a cheap country to live in. Compared to Southeast Asia it is very expensive. We pride ourselves on our high cost of living to rival Japan. Despite this, I have many foreign friends who stay because they love Korea. The fact that they stay for so long in Korea even though they don’t get any benefits means that Korea has a unique selling point, and it also means that they are capable of finding ways to reside in Korea. So a financial incentive is unnecessary.

Cost of living in Korea vs Japan / data provided by NomadList

Instead, we should actively solve visa and other legal problems for skilled foreigners who have been proven to be able to survive on their own. To emphasize once more, we must help them so that they can compete with other Korean startups.

And rather than financially supporting foreigners who do business in Korea, it would be better to support Koreans who do business on foreign soil. Why should we sponsor foreigners who can’t even survive in our market, when the really skilled foreigners are perfectly capable of finding the means to live here on their own? (Mostly on tourists visas.)

If I ask my international friends (especially developers and designers) why they reside in Korea or visit frequently, they often say the following:

“The internet here is the fastest in the world. Everything is open 24/7 and there’s always a ton of stuff to do. The people are very kind and speak English. There’s no need to worry about a terror attack; it’s very safe. Public transportation is excellent (especially the metro–it’s fantastic). The food is delicious.”

We already have strong selling points, but are not leveraging them properly. (The foreigners in IT surprisingly aren’t familiar with K-pop).

Foreigners who have visited our space are unanimous when they say that Korea is a great country and that they would love to visit again.

We need to help those who are already in the country, rather than snatch other foreigners who are motivated by financial incentives. We need to help those who are willing to come to Korea in the first place.

I believe we have enough strong points to appeal to foreigners. We just have to listen to the foreigners who are already living here, and help them out.

The most ideal vision would be one where Koreans and foreigners who love Korea work together innovatively to expand into the global market. And in order to do this, we need to be friends with them first, even if it takes time.

Want to experience these moments yourself by working with colleagues from around the world? Explore career adventures in 30+ countries here.

The Global Future of Work

Old models of work and hiring are becoming obsolete, and innovation is happening around the globe. Here, we offer food for thought as you ponder the future of work. Enjoy, and feel free to respond!


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Work Where You're Happy https://jobbatical.com/jobs

The Global Future of Work

Old models of work and hiring are becoming obsolete, and innovation is happening around the globe. Here, we offer food for thought as you ponder the future of work. Enjoy, and feel free to respond!

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