Start-up Seoul is a new series featuring players in Korea’s emerging tech start-up scene. This is the first installment. ― Ed.
When Korean-American Joon Oh was making his way from Samsung salaryman to bootstrapping entrepreneur of MangoPlate ― his restaurant discovery start-up that fetched 6.7 billion won ($6 million) from U.S. investor Qualcomm Ventures last week ― he realized that to get connected with the start-up scene in Seoul, he either had to join several networks he didn’t mesh well with or go his own way.
He found the existing groups for Korean start-ups stuffy and formal, like education sessions, and sought a collaborative space where people could make friends, exchange ideas and learn from each other, all with the aid of delicious craft beer.
“I reflected on my experience back in the U.S. where people were always mingling, sharing ideas, sharing concepts, testing whatever they were thinking,” said Oh, who built a consulting career in Boston before managing global development deals for Samsung Electronics in Korea. “And it was done in such a fluid way where I just felt like something like that was missing here.”
It turned out he wasn’t alone in that feeling. Oh “took a picture of Silicon Valley and copied it” to found the Seoul chapter of the Google for Entrepreneurs-backed networking brand Startup Grind last August. And its explosive popularity, with monthly events regularly attracting over 100 people, reflects the booming interest in Seoul’s start-up scene, especially among English speakers and global-minded entrepreneurs.
MangoPlate chief Joon Oh, organizer of Startup Grind’s Seoul chapter, poses during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul last week. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
The creators of fast-growing local start-ups, like couples app Between, food delivery service Baedal Minjok and crowdsourcing translator Flitto, have been eager to share their experiences with young start-ups via fireside chats, Oh said. And as the group was one of the only ones hosting such events in English in Seoul, he has been pleasantly surprised at the mix of foreign and Korean entrepreneurs who have come out of the woodwork to mingle freely with each other.
“It gave a new definition of networking to the Korean society,” he said. “(Mentors) would talk about how they started, what kind of mistakes they made, how did they overcome this, what did they particularly do in situations where they didn’t see something coming. … All this stuff is honest, truthful conversations which are really difficult to find in public places.”
He noted how crucial networking was for the growth of his own start-up, as building a relationship with Qualcomm Ventures director James Kwon helped to pave the way for its multibillion won investment in MangoPlate ― a deal he said signals a growing interest from abroad in Korea’s budding start-up industry.
“Every big country has a big restaurant discovery service. … In Korea, that’s just completely absent,” he added, noting conditions in Korea like market size and tech infrastructure are making the local food-tech industry more interesting for foreign investors.
“So one massive opportunity, big market, absence of a player … they thought this was a great opportunity. They believed we would be the right company that could succeed in this market.”
Personal connections with other quickly rising start-ups like Hotel Now, Socar and Between have also led to joint promotions that have seen “tremendous participation” from users, he added, with MangoPlate’s user base growing to 1 million users since its founding in April 2013.
Above all, communication between small start-ups is crucial, as their lack of resources forces them to put their heads together to learn from each other’s missteps, he said.
“At the end of the day, start-ups are all very tiny companies. … So we have to learn from others’ experiences and we can fine-tune them,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re all helping each other get through this.”
The next Startup Grind event features a fireside chat with Dino Ha, CEO of cosmetics delivery company Memebox, on July 22 at Maru 180 in southern Seoul. For more information, visit startupgrind.com/seoul.
By Elaine Ramirez (email@example.com