The idea of starting a small or medium-sized business in Korea for a foreigner can be daunting.
In addition to language difficulties, Korea is also the home of the “chaebol,” powerful business conglomerates that dominate the market, so it’s easy to think a business idea may become lost.
Acknowledging the relative lack of support for small and medium-sized enterprises, Seoul Global Center’s business team developed its Business Start-Up School aimed specifically at foreign nationals.
“Other than the requirement to make an initial capital investment of at least 100 million won ($90,000) at the very beginning, I would probably say that the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges for foreigners trying to start a business in Korea,” said Seo Young-Ju from the Business Consulting Team at Seoul Global Center.
“Although Seoul has improved a lot to become a ‘global city,’ still foreign residents face difficulties on things such as document work for legal matters because there is no English service readily available. Especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, finding experts in each field of business who can provide English services is very challenging.”
Aspiring expat entrepreneurs attend a class at the Seoul Global Center’s Business Start-up School. (Seoul Global Center)
Going into its third year, the Business Start-Up School runs quarterly and is in high demand. The program involves 10, two-hour lessons spread over two weeks, and includes presentations from professionals in legal, accounting and business services, covering everything from visa requirements, business infrastructure, banking, tax, and business-relevant laws.
Applicants for the program must submit a full business plan, and demonstrate a readiness to start a small or medium-sized enterprise in Korea. Places are tight, with an average of two applications for every place.
Seo believes this is because increasing numbers of expats are seeing Korea as a viable location to open up a variety of businesses, from small-scale import and export enterprises, to restaurants, retail, and even language and consultancy services.
“Considering all the future potential coming from rapid economic growth in China and other Southeast Asian countries, Korea can be a perfect place for any business to establish itself,” said Seo.
“There is excellent infrastructure here, such as all the advanced technology and development in IT field. You can be at the center of current, IT-advanced technology development and at the same time capitalize on the amazing potential within the entire Asian market.”
Of the 115 graduates from last year’s program, 10 have gone on to open their own business.
“Considering the initial capital investment they had to make, and the difficulties faced by smaller businesses in getting government support, I would say it is not a small number at all,” said Seo.
New Zealand mountain hiker Roger Shepherd, who completed the course in November last year, was trying to establish himself in Korea after being appointed honorary tourism and goodwill ambassador when his guide book “Baekdu Daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine” was published in July.
Shepherd began a love-affair with mountaineering in Korea in 2006, and after returning multiple times for subsequent hikes, decided to make a career out of his passion for the Korean highlands.
Quitting his position with the New Zealand police force, Shepherd moved to Seoul in March 2010 and began investigating possible business ideas around hiking and mountain-promotion.
“I had no clue in the world what would be required of me to get a business visa. In fact, I thought it would probably wouldn’t be possible, because I was thinking that you’d need to be a multi-million dollar investor here,” he said.
Initially trying to garner support through diplomatic channels, Shepherd found that embassy staff were more accustomed to dealing with large-scale trade agreements rather than assisting a small business start-up. He was pointed in the direction of the Seoul Global Center where he found the business school.
“Doing the business course was imperative,” he said. “With all the information I learned from the course I was able to visualize what needed to be done for me have a business here in Korea. And I was surprised at the amount of support there was for business ideas in this country.”
Shepherd is now deep in the development stage of his Hike Korea business, which will focus on the promotion of Korean mountain culture through tourism-based services such as guided hiking tours, and through sponsored hikes publicized in the media.
“The Koreans love my concept because they very much love the mountains. So the idea of a foreigner being in this country promoting mountains and promoting mountain culture appealed to them,” he said.
The business course also introduced Shepherd to a variety of services and people that he admits would have been difficult to find on his own, and allowed him the opportunity to apply for six months of rent-free office space at the Seoul Global Business Support Centre in COEX.
“If you are a foreigner by yourself with no language skills, you need to do these courses. You’d be banging your head against the wall trying to find out the information by yourself.
“In Korea and Seoul, networking is very important. People tend to want to do business with people they know. And if they like you, and they think your idea is good, they’ll back you. ... You need to work with the system, not against it. It’s very important.”
According to recent figures released by Seoul Global Center, there are now more than 250,000 expats living in Seoul. Since the center opened in 2008, they have received more than 336,000 visits from foreigners seeking assistance with living and working in Korea.
Of the 26,000 counseling sessions conducted by the Seoul Global Center in 2010, more than 9,000 were related to work, and another 645 were about finance.
About 4,000 focused on administrative issues, while other main counseling topics were immigration, health, telecommunications and tourism.
This year the expat support center hopes to continue developing and promoting business courses, while also strengthening online counseling services through a revamped website and new smartphone applications for “mobile” counseling.
By Hamish Boland-Rudder (firstname.lastname@example.org)