There is no greater time to be in Korea than now.
Yes, that’s coming from a Korean American that has lived his entire life in the Bay Area and landed in Seoul 10 months ago. Hard to digest right? ( I can feel the collective eye roll of native Koreans )
이사람, 진짜 미쳤다…
My grasp of the language is mediocre at best, and baristas still cringe when I trickle in my order. Taxi drivers inquire, “where you visiting from?” when I request my destination, and I’m fully aware that I’m years from understanding the detailed nuance of current Korean culture. But I will tell you, there’s something incredibly special happening in Seoul. Something is stirring…
The traditional conveyor belt that harbored young professionals from college graduation to traditional large corporations is cracking, and a new generation is gravitating towards risk and massive reward. The dormant but innate entrepreneurial blood of Korea is awakening once again.
My time in Silicon Valley, what some refer to as the mecca of startups, taught me much. One of the most significant being, the early telltale signs of what will be life altering companies and technology. Today in Korea, I see those signs sprouting. A new generation is beginning to rupture the hardened fault lines of tradition to make way for a new time. A new way of life. The pieces have been accumulated for what will be another historic chapter for Korea.
I moved to Korea to join a rapidly growing startup called Baedal Minjok; Korea’s largest food ordering app (consider it the GrubHub of Korea ). This company and it’s CEO, Bongjin Kim, are revolutionary in many ways (another post), but what truly drove me across the Pacific was the larger opportunity to get in on the ground floor of building the next generation of Korea.
This country is currently in one of the most unique periods of it’s history and it will be this decade that will define it’s next century.
Korea’s meteoric rise can be largely attributed to the Chaebols ( family owned conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai ). While many host differing views on them, for the purposes of this post they set the context of why I so strongly believe startups will be critical for the future of Korea.
It’s crucial to understand just how intertwined the fate of Korea’s future success or failure rests with these Chaebols. Samsung alone owns nearly 23% of the nation’s GDP. While much of the success of modern day Korea can be attributed to these companies, one has to recognize the precarious predicament Korea has now been slotted into. Every egg is in the basket. If one falls, so goes the nation.
Take for instance this scenario, if by chance Facebook or Apple were to suddenly file bankruptcy and collapse tomorrow, while a major loss to the US economy, America as a whole would be able to continue on. Korea doesn’t have that luxury.
If one conglomerate topples, the domino effect of this fall would leave a catastrophic path of economic turmoil. Purchasing power would be all but obsolete, restaurants and small businesses would shut down, nightlife would come to a halt, taxi drivers would remain idle, and the heart of the country would come to a murmur. This bustling 24–7 metropolis would simply go dark.
And yet it is here, right now, where others see risk and instability, that I see a once in a lifetime opportunity be a part of a revolutionary moment for a proven winner. Korea has no other choice. It must build.
For the pioneers, the global craftsman, innovative daredevils and cultural poets; Seoul is your next playground.
It is here that Korea will do what it has always done best. Prove the world wrong.
There is no greater time to be in Seoul than now.
To make sense of my initial claim, it’s critical to first understand Korea. This futuristic cyber world is pulsing in a domain years ahead of many modern cities around the world. Yet, it was not long ago, 1965, that South Korea’s per capita GDP was less than that of Ghana. Even more surprising, North and South Korea’s GDP were nearly identical as recent as 1970.
So how did this country pull off this global miracle?
The answer can be found within the heart and soul of it’s people. Every success story is driven by it’s people. It’s talent.
While other countries have entrepreneurs, Korea is an entrepreneur.
Seoul, I’d argue, is the greatest global product the world has ever seen, and what it has managed to accomplish in just one generation is nothing short of spectacular.
If Google started in a garage, Korea started in the ashes of war. Hope was a commodity even the wealthy had a hard time possessing, and yet it was from this ground that the Korean people would begin a trajectory so profound, it’s likeness is unprecedented.
The country launched ( it’s current iteration ) after the Korean War ( 1950–1953 ) with humble beginnings. Infrastructure was a paved dirt path worn in by foot traffic, and neighborhoods were constructed with weather as it’s greatest adversary. South Korea has no natural resources and very little arable land. A country not even half the size of California; a featherweight in the global ring.
What it had though was talent. Incredible, indestructible talent. An inner fire and gut wrenching grit that can only be forged through generations of pure survival. For 5,000 years Korea has withstood over 400 invasions. Korea shouldn’t even exist, but it does. The country’s history has produced a people that are intensely sharp, deeply passionate and wholly unrelenting.
Korea “IPO’ed” on the global markets with it’s people, and in just two generations built the likes of global behemoths such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, and Posco. These “product divisions” have dived into the mainstream arena as if it’s been ruling the yard for ages. Little do people know just how far these companies have come in such a short time.
It is this history that has me in awe, and also championing that the next generation of world changing companies will come from this small peninsula. You can not bet against the Korean people. Up and to the right; the economic forecast. Challenges? Plenty. But let me ask you, does it look like Korea has ever had a problem with overcoming challenges?
Every great startup from Facebook to Uber, Airbnb to Kakao, starts with one fundamental variable: talent.
Korea is loaded with pure home grown talent. 98% of Koreans graduate from college; highest rate in OECD. The greatest hurdle this young generation of Koreans face has little do with external forces, but whether they will look inside and dare themselves to be great.
Silicon Valley isn’t a geographic location, it’s a movement.
30 years ago Uber was not zipping around San Francisco, and Airbnb wasn’t the go-to option for your vacation stays. These companies formed due to the entrepreneurial habitat formed by the migration of thought leaders, dreamers and risk takers. Year after year, the infrastructure of capital and imagination melded to take the current form of Silicon Valley.
The beauty of a movement; it can happen anywhere and at anytime.
Civil rights and marriage equality are not movements confined to the US, they are universal. At any moment, a single voice, an uncaged thought, can spark a national firestorm of change. Entrepreneurial firestorms spread by consuming fuel; cultural, political, and technical architects.
What makes The Bay Area so special is the collective energy, wisdom and infrastructure that cultivated one of the most unique environments of our generation. However, this movement is not relegated to a small piece of land in California. Movements are a belief system; a rebellious religion that proclaims: “ I will change tomorrow.”
That religion is now taking root in Seoul.
The entrepreneurial fuel is here; incredible talent, ultra modern infrastructure, and a government that is ‘all-in’ for the growth of Korea’s next generation of companies.
If Seoul’s startup ecosystem is successful, it will not look like Silicon Valley, it will simply look like… Seoul.
There is an energy here that is unbridled. A new generation of dream seekers are marching. An entrepreneurial uprising has arrived, cultivated by native hope; the ground is swelling. The movement has begun.
You want a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only build a world changing company but shape a nation’s future?
Welcome to Korea. Welcome, to The Rise.
In my next piece I’ll go in-depth on the 3 fundamental pieces I believe will be key to Korea’s rise and development of it’s startup ecosystem.
Elite Talent. Dynamic Infrastructure. Entrepreneurial Soul.