I‘ve been living in Korea for over three years now. Moving to Seoul was unexpected and unplanned. But it is most probably the best thing that has happened to me in the last ten years or more. How did that happen? You are about to find out! Read on.
The Email and the Application
I still remember that day I almost deleted that strange long email from a Bulgarian student in Daejon, Korea. I just have gotten back from a lunch break and was trying to fight sleepiness by cleaning my mailbox. Slavina contacted me to help her source tech companies from Bulgaria. She was working for a program from KAIST to do a technology exchange with Bulgaria. Back then, I was quite active on the Bulgarian startup scene and though it’s of mutual benefit if any Bulgarian tech company can do a project with the top engineering university in South Korea.
``Pangyo Startup Campus``
``Startup Campus Helipad``
The project fell apart as Koreans eventually decided to look for technology partners in Isreal. My Bulgarian friend, though, didn’t give up. She was very committed to bringing me to Seoul, as she genuinely believed Korea is a good match for my startup. She convinced me to apply to a startup program that the Korean Government announced called K-Startup Grand Challenge 2016. The program supports international startups to set foot in Korea and helps them do business with Korean companies. Think Startup Chile but even better, as it’s not reimbursement based.
Imagga already had a client in Seoul – KIA Motors’ creative agency doing a promotional campaign for KIA 5 model. We helped them match people’s lifestyle preferences with a model of a car. Our cooperation was smooth and easy. That made me think it might be interesting to find more similar customers. The Asian market is attractive when it comes to emerging technologies like ours – AI image recognition. In Europe, Korea is known for its early adopter’s market, technology advancement, fast Internet, flashy lifestyle, and unique culture.
I wasn’t worried about coming to Korea. Lots of people think it’s dangerous as Seoul is just 60 km from the border with North Korea. I knew it’s a safe place to live and was, in general, impressed by everything I’ve read and watched on the Internet about this country.
``KS Grand Challenge Coworking``
``Lunch time at the Canteen``
So to make the story short, I did apply for K-Startup Grand Challenge and went through the interview process. We got accepted to the program, and one of the four co-founders of Imagga had to go to Korea in the middle of the summer of 2016 for an intensive 20-day introduction program and final pitching demo day. After this final approval, 40 of the pre-selected 80 companies had to participate in the 4-months acceleration program.
That was the beginning of a fascinating journey for me personally and for my startup Imagga. Korea seemed to be a perfect match for a startup company that wants to explore opportunities to expand in Asia. Korean market is big itself. But being in Korea was an opportunity to reach out to the even bigger Asian market. European startup companies are a bit afraid to go directly to China, and Japan is also not an accessible market to set foot.
K-Startup Grand Challenge
K-Startup Grand Challenge was a turning point for our operations in Asia. We already had clients in Korea. But we needed time to understand how business is done here in Korea in general in Asia, and to be close to our potential clients.
``Imagga at the Startup Wall``
``Chris with Yun at Pangyo``
Through the program, we were able to meet with numerous Korean technology companies. Some, we turned into paying customers, others we used to learn and modify our business model and make it more attractive for the competitive Asian markets.
The way the settlement program was designed helped remove the stress and the risks associated with allocating a founder of a startup to a new location. We received monthly settlement funds that covered accommodation and living experiences. Finding affordable short term accommodation in Korea is very challenging. Most of the apartments are available for rent long term and with a considerable deposit, usually between $10,000 and $20,000 or more.
The co-working space we did have access surpassed our expectations for facilities and services accessible to startups. We did have bunk beds and showers, several meeting rooms, conferences, and media room. The startup complex at Pangyo had even photo studio, prototype room with all mobile devices you might need to test an app, cantine with not bad Korean style food, rooftop garden, even gym.
``Your Daily Life in Korea``
``Welcome Pack for Grand Challenge``
One of the best things we’ve experienced during the program was the creation of a bond between fellow startups and helped us learn from each other challenges and share successes. There were around 60 foreign startups, most for the first time in Korea. We all faced the same challenges – not speaking Korean, the spicy food, understanding local business culture, chasing clients day and night. Passing through the same problems made us stay close to each other and created long-lasting friendships.
Getting to know Korean startups and meeting other business through networking was essential for our success. We all know how important your business network is here in Korea. We had the challenge of expanding our network as fast as possible, attending countless startup events.
Is Korea Fit for Tech Startups?
We all know the Korean market is not easy to access and be successful. It’s very competitive and specific when it comes to business culture. Especially for startups without significant experience in doing business in Asia, making it happen in Korea and around Asia is a challenging task.
``Office Buildings at Pangyo``
``Pangyo Startup Campus``
What makes Korea a great entry point for hi-tech innovation companies like Imagga is a couple of factors:
First, you need a tech hub, with a market big enough, high level of technology adoption, and excellent connections to the rest of the region. Korea is a perfect candidate for that.
Second, you need proper business climate – ways to meet prospect companies, feel safe about the IPs of your product, means to be understood in English when you can only say 안녕하세요 in Korean. We tried China and Japan to find out Korea is better suited for a European tech startup.
Third, Korea’s government support. Guiding us through the visa process and business essentials through OASIS made us save time and effort to concentrate on what’s most important for a business – getting paying customers. This is where K-Startup Grand Challenge came to support us. From settling into Korea, providing first-class office facilities, business couching via the designated Korean accelerators, helping us in every step from opening a Korean company, to introducing us to Korean companies, big and small.
``Sunset at Pangyo``
Last but not least, the cultural openness, acceptance to innovation, and the comfort of living in such a safe society as Korea, make the risky journey of an entrepreneur inspiring.
Korea, by no means, is the perfect place to expand your startup business. There so many things that can be done better to position Korea as startup heaven- access to capital, ease of visa issuing, public services in English, and many more.
But if you have a technology startup with a product that has been proven in other markets, if you are looking to expand and adjust your business model to Asian reality, Korea might be a great place to be.
Have you considered expanding to Korea? Do you think Korea could be a base for your startup expansion in Asia? Let me know in the comments bellow!