In this our second episode for our pilot week we examine startups and smaller businesses in Korea with two different business stories. Firstly Alex talks with Jonathan Moore, Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars. Jonathan moved from running his own startup to helping other startups find investments and growth opportunities. Then Alex speaks to a business-owning team, Sara Park and Todd Sample, who operate two food businesses simultaneously, Eathentic a social media platform for authentic western food in Korea and Nostimo, a busy Greek restaurant near Naebang Station
Alex examines startups and then, the growing international food scene in Seoul.
Alex Jensen: It’s Tuesday, September 14. I’m Alex Jensen. And you’re listening to koreabizcast with the KBLA. In this time of new beginnings. It feels like a great time to start something new, like a startup, even. Maybe you’re bursting with passion for a new business opportunity. But good advice is crucial. What many people ignore is that nine in ten startups fail. Our first guest, Jonathan Moore is one of the biggest allies for startups in this country. And even if you’ve got only a passing interest, he’s a must listen, and you’ll be able to hear his wisdom from working with some great success stories shortly. In part two, we’ll hear from Todd Sample and Sarah Park, a great example of a business pair who forged their own path by viewing the world differently. And by the way, if you want to give us some feedback, get involved in our koreabizcast community, or just share a great idea. Send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, let’s get your headline stories.
Alex Jensen: Former Prime Minister Chung Sae Gyun is no longer a presidential candidate after dropping out of the ruling Democratic Party’s primary race. He finished fourth in Sunday’s Gangwon primary but has refused to endorse another candidate so far. With Gyeonggi province governor Lee Jae Myoung. Currently well out in front. Meanwhile, the state anti-corruption agencies raided the Office of opposition People Power Party lawmaker Ki Moon over a scandal that’s threatened to overshadow leading conservative presidential candidate and ex Prosecutor General Yoon Seok Yeol. It’s alleged a high-level prosecution official may have attempted to interfere with last year’s parliamentary elections, with Kim suspected of receiving documents from the official at a time when Yoon was still in charge of the prosecution. And Finance Minister Hong Nam Gi has warned of changes in real estate market conditions, insisting there’s a need to strengthen monitoring of the market, with South Korean housing prices soaring despite government efforts to call the market and more people attempting to borrow money to buy homes. Hong was referring to the Bank of Korea’s interest rate hike, along with tougher lending rules and speculation over tapering in the US. Getting a number round up for you the latest daily COVID-19 infections could be up slightly when they confirm this morning. They rose up very slightly to 1419 cases as of 9pm. Last night. On the vaccination front 33.15 million people 64.6% of the population have had first COVID-19 jabs, with 20.06 million now fully vaccinated, and the KOSPI closed Monday up 2.1 points to finish at 3,127.86. Despite a slow start blamed on North Korea’s announcement of a successful test of a new cruise missile, the local currency was down 6.9 against the US dollar falling to 1176.
Alex Jensen: Concerns have been raised in the local media recently over the lack of South Korean unicorns, meaning startups with a market valuation of over a billion dollars US. The country’s produce just one this year, Market Kurly, according to the Federation of Korean Industries, well 291 have been added to the list of unicorn startups globally this year, the FKI saying we need more investment in the local startup scene, Jonathan Moore is very much a part of that he’s been based in Korea since 2006. And since 2013, has been working directly with startups. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Jonathan Moore: Thanks for inviting me, Alex, I’m happy to be here.
Alex Jensen: I’ve given a very short version of your history. And we could probably write a book on the rest. But can you give us a summary of how you became embedded with the startup scene?
Jonathan Moore: Sure. So, as you said back in 2013, I started working with my first startup, as a co-founder. It was an education startup, and we made applications for language learning. And we pretty much built it from the ground up. So, when I joined, there was just four or five people. And I joined as a co-founder, we ended up going to 40 employees across five countries. We raised some money, and we did pretty well for the time, and especially for that period of time. And after that experience was pretty good. I started doing my MBA. At the same time. We also ran our first accelerating program with us startups who wanted to come to Asia. And then after that, I started working more with startups. As opposed to working with my own. So, acceleration basically. So, if people don’t know what an accelerator is, it’s basically giving support to startups to help them grow. Sometimes in exchange for equity, sometimes for cash. I was mostly working on government projects where the government was investing into the startups, I would run the program, and help them wherever they needed help to grow globally, find some success, etc. So that’s pretty much what I’m doing now for the past several years, is designing these acceleration projects, and helping startups one on one to grow and find global success, and basically mentor them.
Alex Jensen: And I know you got a really cool startup pitch event, which I’m kind of imagining, like a Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank type thing, but you can set the record straight for us and tell us how we get involved in it. How is the startup scene in Korea right now, this focus on unicorns, for example, seems to be a little bit distorted, it would be it would be like, wanting to have a business show like this and only focusing on the conglomerates.
Jonathan Moore: Right. So sometimes I think the government does put a bit too much focus on the number of unicorns that Korea has. It’s actually not that bad. Korea has at last count 11 unicorns and you know, the number changes throughout the year when, when Coupang IPOs You know, it went down a number because you’re not considered a unicorn anymore once you IPO. So, the number fluctuates, but it’s still about number five in the world after Well, let’s see, you’ve got the US, China, the UK and India who are using give it the top four spots. But generally, Korea’s number five, it could be number six if Germany is doing well. So that’s pretty good considering the population of Korea, and the recent, you know, their very recent economic growth right within the past several decades. So, I think it’s actually doing quite well. Again, the government does put a bit of focus on the word unicorn. And I think, personally, there needs to be a bit more growth on the smaller and growing startups to help them become unicorns.
Alex Jensen: It also then filters into all sorts of opportunities, if you’ve got a collective effort, that’s not just focusing on the top, whatever tiny percent it is of unicorns within the country startup landscape. And I wanted to ask you what it’s like in the pandemic right now, for all of them operate. Is it really, really tough? Or have some been able to seize the opportunity?
Jonathan Moore: You know, I really think it depends on the type of startup of course, just like as we see in the real world, brick and mortar restaurants are struggling, but those doing takeaway are, you know, taking off, delivery, startups are doing quite well. It’s the same with startups. So those who have looked at software solutions are really seemed to do well. In Korea, specifically, there hasn’t been that many SaaS startups and SaaS is software as a solution. There hasn’t been that many. But now, many are starting to look at that as a way to do well, during COVID. You can offer a solution online and have a monthly subscription. And it doesn’t really affect, you know, meeting people offline or anything like that. So it really does depend on the startup. I know several who are doing really well, they’ve had their best year or two in their history of their company. But there are others who have failed. But that’s, you know, that’s just what it’s like being a startup 90% of startups fail. So, you know, I can’t say whether more are failing more than others. But what’s interesting is that the government in Korea does give a lot of support to startups. So, there’s typically tons of cash coming in to help them with paying salaries and office space and things like this.
Alex Jensen: Well, that’s perhaps a measurement of what it’s been like during the pandemic. Has that fallen a bit like has the government been able to help as much in the last few months?
Jonathan Moore: From what I’ve seen, I don’t know about the past few months specifically, but they seem to be on track with the past several years. And they’re spending over $1 billion per year on the Korean startup ecosystem. That can be in the form of grants, and you know, other types of programs. But I haven’t seen it slow down. If anything, it might may have increased. I don’t know that for sure. But I do talk with startups, and I’ve seen them getting more grants and more opportunities, just because you know, they’re not able to pay their staff and things like this.
Alex Jensen: If I was to come up to you personally and ask you for advice and ask you to help me with my idea. Let’s just say the idea itself is good for a moment. Being a foreigner number one and trying to do it in this environment. Now what would your general advice be?
Jonathan Moore: Don’t do it. No, I’m just kidding. Well, first of all, being a foreigner does have its challenges. I’m not gonna lie. Everyone I know who is a foreigner who has started a company in Korea has had specific struggles. You know, you have to have a partner in my experience you it’s great to have a partner, who is Korean who can help you with many aspects, there are certain grants and opportunities available for Korean citizens. On the other side, there are opportunities only for foreigners, but they’re not really the same. You know, there’s much less opportunities. There was a few organizations that supported foreign startup entrepreneurs, one of them has closed already just a few months ago, that was the Seoul Global Startup Center. But there are other programs that still exist, such as Seoul Startup Grand Challenge, and the Seoul Global Center. I think that’s what it’s called. It’s It’s similar to the other name. Yeah, so there are, you know, programs available support programs. But I still think Korea is a great place to start a startup. Because, you know, you’ve got this population, that’s well educated, right? I mean, you know, this, as well as I do 70% of the population that’s graduated from university. You know, there’s tons of FTA agreements with other countries, it’s got a major economy, number 12 in the world, very fickle in demanding tech cut consumers who are always wanting to try new things. And of course, the most important is that, you know, they’re really highly developed infrastructure and, you know, really fast internet. So, it makes, it makes, you know, these people really interested in trying new trends and jumping on the next bandwagon.
Alex Jensen: So, the idea of thing that I just took for granted, I would obviously have to get that past you or somebody if I wanted support, if I came along to a Podium Star event. And I understand this is the biggest English startup pitch event here in this country. And there are a couple of events coming up in the fall, hopefully, even with a COVID era. What would I need to do? And how would you be judging it?
Jonathan Moore: Right, so we usually work with startups who are already a little bit settled, right their early stage, but they may have received a little bit of investment. It could be from no investment, really up to a few million dollars. Those are the typical startups, we call them early stage or seed stage startups. Some startups have received series A, which you know, 1 to $5 million, somewhere around there. But generally, it’s in that range. If you’re, if you just have an idea, you’re probably not quite ready for Podium Star, we’re looking for startups who are ready for investment. So, they’re ready to connect with angel investors and VCs. So, if you have an idea, you’ve already built it, and you have a prototype, you’re already starting to see some customers, whether they’re paid or unpaid, then you might be ready for podium star. So again, they have an MVP, which means the product that’s you know, ready to be sold, you’ve got maybe a small user base, or maybe you don’t, and you’re ready for the users. And you just need the extra help. Basically, what we do is we help each company tell their story and the way that investors want to hear. So, we’ll help you with your investor pitch, which is something many companies struggle, not just in Korea, but around the world. They’re not sure what investors want to hear, they’re not sure how to approach them. So, we’ll help them with that side. And we’ll help them design their whole pitch deck, which is a fancy word to say, you know, their, their PowerPoint file. And, again, we invite the investors and accelerators, some pretty big ones from Southeast Asia, the US and Europe. And we, you know, put this article on the stage and really just let them do their thing. And hopefully, a connection is made. We’ve helped startups become acquired by companies like Kakao, we’ve helped startups raise investment, increased their customer base revenue and things like this. So, you know, we’re really looking forward to the next couple of events. And, yeah, that’s Podium Star in a nutshell.
Alex Jensen: How do we find out about the events? So it’s really easy to remember our website is just podiumstar.org Right now we have two events coming up. But actually, it’s good. You mentioned it, because of COVID, the dates for what for both of them are actually changing Pretty soon, so they will probably both be in October. Again, the new date will be posted on the website. And of course, I also posted on LinkedIn. So, if people want to connect with me on LinkedIn, they can just search Jonathan Moore and maybe Jonathan more Korea and I will definitely pop up And I’m always posting the latest updates on podiums are there.
Alex Jensen: You mentioned the tech sector before? Are there any particular industries that excite you at the moment that if someone was coming to you with that pitch, would grab your attention aside from everything else?
Jonathan Moore: Yeah, so the two events we have coming up, I pretty much chose them because of my own personal interests. And what I see as a trend. The first one is, it’s not necessarily a really new trend. But industry 4.0, which is basically the way factories and cities are changing. So, you know, you look at the older industrial revolutions, you know, from, you know, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, the newest one, we’re calling smart factories. So, imagine combining a factory with 5G, internet and automation, artificial intelligence, people who have solutions for this, how to make factories work smarter, that interests me. And the other event we’re doing is on green tech. So, any kind of solution that’s sustainable, good for the environment, these kinds of things, that that’s what really interests me, and then recently, but you know, I’m also really interested in pretty much everything else, it just depends on my mood. But there’s always something interesting in every industry, whether it’s FinTech or biotech, Korea is really doing well at biotech recently. And we’re definitely interested in scalable solutions. So not a one off, you know, small medium business, like a coffee shop or something like that. But a start a true startup really should be scalable. If there is an interesting startup out there, I don’t invest personally, but I do, I am able to connect them with investors in my network. So yeah, really any kind of startup that scalable, but the four things I look at, and other accelerators and investors look at are four things. So, one, they have a great idea, they’re solving a good problem with something really cool to the market is big and interesting. Three, they have an amazing team. So, you know, they’ve got a great background, they gel together, they have a few different team members from different backgrounds, they, you know, they really complete each other. And for they have some traction, they already have some revenue or some customers, some partnerships, they’re doing something right, that to prove themselves, they have some credibility, basically. So, if they have those kind of four things, we’re totally ready to have them a podium star and introduce them to investors.
Alex Jensen: A final question, not wanting to end it on a down note, but it’s very important that people don’t become part of the 90%. But obviously, statistically, it’s very possible, how would someone whether they’re going through Podium Star or not whether they’re at the very, very beginning idea stage are a little bit further along, one of the general piece of advice that you would offer that would help them avoid being a failure.
Jonathan Moore: I think most of the startups that fail, overwhelming majority, they have failed to find a product market fit. That means they’ve started building a product that they haven’t even that there’s no customer validation, they haven’t really realized if people want this. So before building a product, or solution, whether it’s software or hardware, do your market research, make sure this is actually something people want. And don’t just start building something, build something after you find a problem. Those are the startups that are really doing things that are great. So, once you’ve identified a need in the market, then think of a way how to fix it, not the other way around.
Alex Jensen: Jonathan Moore, it’s been so helpful hearing from me, I’m sure lots of people would benefit from that. And I hope that this is the beginning of our own special startup here with this podcast project, and we’ll be able to hear from you more in the future.
Jonathan Moore: Yeah, I hope so too. Yeah, thanks a lot for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Alex Jensen: Good luck with those podiums or events. Thank you. You’re listening to koreabizcast with the KBLA and if you want to get involved as a sponsor, or have a business opportunity you want to share, email us via email@example.com.
Let’s head straight into part two, as we have a dynamic duo doing their best to elevate the restaurant scene here in Korea. They’re even coauthors of a book about food and travel, Todd Sample and Sarah Park. Great to have you here.
Todd Sample Sara Park: Hello. Thank you for having us. Happy to be here. So let me see if I can actually pronounce this book title. There’s no English version. We should say that from the outset, which means is great Korean practice for me and perhaps for others. There’s two parts of the title one is yogwan opsi danada, which is basically traveling without a passport. All right. And then misik uro sega iju, which is some is a gourmet food. Can you clarify for us?
Todd Sample: Yeah, it’s kind of a gourmet trip around the world. very intriguing. And is this something that came about because of COVID that so many people were dreaming about traveling, but that you thought all foods a great way for people to do it at home? Or was it already in the works?
Todd Sample: It was already in the works. This, Sara and I, we’ve had our company Eathentic for the last five years. And so, we have been introducing international authentic international restaurants all over Korea, through social media and through events for that period of time. As a result of that, to kind of give a little bit bit a little bit of background information in Korea, of course, Koreans are very much interested in eating out. And their way of finding which restaurants are quote unquote good is generally through a Naver search of like, for example, Gangnam. Station matjib so much it means delicious restaurant. So, this month tip designation is a little bit subjective, and sometimes somewhat suspicious, because the designation is not, Well, it’s subjective, first of all, and at the same time, I don’t generally go to places based on someone’s designation as delicious. I like to go there and figure it out myself and find out if it’s if it’s really good. So, so this matjib, designation, we thought is a little bit not ideal. So, we’ve been trying to figure out a different designation, especially when it comes to international food. It’s as you know, there’s so much localization of international food here in Korea, there’s no filter to find out which places are really serving barbecue, done in the southern US style way. So, we recognize this, this hole in the market and the huge need, but no one was reading it. So. So over the last five years, we’ve built up a really strong social media following of about 130,000 mostly Korean people, and have been introducing these restaurants quite regularly. And so, the book was kind of a base based on that work. And it just so happens that, you know, thanks, thanks to the pandemic, this book being released at this time is actually quite ideal for us.
Alex Jensen: How does it look in terms of a regional divide that comes out of this book, because even within Seoul, there are certain neighborhoods that are far more authentic with their food offerings than others, and it tends to work on the basis of how far you are from the center. And that continues. The further you go regionally. Anyone who’s done much traveling around cities like Jeonju, Daejon, Gwangju, anywhere pretty much outside Seoul or Busan, you might find it hard in certain places to find anything like authentic foreign food. Does that come across in the book or did you manage to unearth gems just about everywhere?
Todd Sample: Yeah, we found places from Paju to Jejudo. So, I was recently in Nanyangju, which is, you know, not necessarily the mecca of international foreign food in Korea. And I was driving on this really windy country road and came across a restaurant with only Thai writing on the side went inside only Thai people are working there, the menu is only in Thai, you’re in the middle of nowhere. And it’s an authentic Thai food experience. So, there are more of them than we might think. And so, we wanted to shine a light on these kinds of restaurants because it’s not just about tasting the food, it’s also about getting exposed to the culture, and getting exposed to the people from that country who are doing things in Korea and adding value to our lives through what they do.
Alex Jensen: Sarah, Korea has changed a lot over the years, even in the decade plus that I’ve been here. Of course, not withstanding the gems that you find in Namyangju and beyond. Even if you look at a place like Itaewon, it has transformed in a decade, and then from the decade before that it had also transformed. Yes, there’s a high turnover of restaurants, but there is definitely a feeling that more people are attempting to produce authentic food even if it’s authentic Italian or authentic American barbecue or something of that nature. whether they’ve achieved or not your book, I guess will judge but do you feel that the Korean palate is changing in that direction as well? Or what do you think’s behind this transition because it’s certainly not as a result of more foreigners being here
Sara Park: As a number of people to who traveled abroad, and then they experienced outside of Korea and after they come back they just got to know about outside even the food and to culture as well. So, they missing their you know their experience back there. So, they also looking just they taste of outside I mean the abroad already stored in their palette. So, the brain their palette also recognized already about the differences of Korean food and other countries food as well for food. So, they just tried to want to navigate the more different food as they, they have a chance to travel other countries.
Todd Sample: That’s why we wanted to focus on the travel aspect of it. So even though it’s a food book, it’s a travel book, actually, in the bookstores. It’s it’s, it’s categorized in the travel section, not in the food section, which is kind of interesting. I think one of the things that we’ve tried to focus on in the book is that even trying to go on, go beyond like authentic Chinese food or authentic, more Argentinian food, from region to region, the foods are different. And there are chefs here focusing on cuisines from one specific region. And that’s the kind of information that we have gained through our interviews and discussions with the chefs and with the owners. So, we look at it from the outside. Oh, it’s a Chinese restaurant. Oh, it’s an American restaurant. But then you go inside, and you start talking and oh, wow, this chef, we there’s one Chinese restaurant in, Itaewon. In Naoksapyeong, actually, which was in Gwanghwamun before and this guy, he used to work at the consul, the Korean consul in Wuhan, China. And he was just enamored with the region’s food. And so, when he returned to Korea, he opened a restaurant, focusing only on Wuhan food. And so, when we think about, hey, let’s go have Chinese today. Well, you know, that’s actually not correct. You can have a dish from Wuhan today and from Shanghai tomorrow, and from Hong Kong The next day, and from farther west, near Tibet, the day after that, and one of the things that we’ve benefited tremendously through our activities the last five years is actually when we go to a restaurant, we make it a point to speak with the owner with the chef, and not just for our book, but to find out what the backstories are to find out what their region is to find out. Yeah, what’s their specialty, and even if foreign people cannot are not able to understand what’s written in the book, they can see through the overall theme of the book that these restaurants have stories.
There’s a Japanese restaurant we know. I’m not sure how familiar you are with sumo wrestling, but sumo wrestlers, they eat a Japanese food called chanko nabe. It’s a it’s a noodle dish, very hearty food in order to gain weight, and so that’s what they eat several times a day to gain the girth that we all know they have. And so, what’s interesting is that when a sumo wrestler retires, they’ve been wrestling their entire life so they don’t go to school. They don’t go university and they don’t really have a trade, but many of them when they retire, which is a big deal in Sumo culture. They cut their top knot and then they open chanko nabe restaurant in Japan. So, there’s a restaurant in Itaewon where the owner who’s Japanese and who was a former sumo wrestler. His father was a sumo wrestler as well and had a chanko nabe restaurant in Japan. And the father died but the mother is still operating the restaurant. So, this guy came to Korea married a Korean woman opened his own chanko nabe restaurant. When you think about the culture of Sumo the mystery. It’s not an Isakaya. It’s not udon know, who don’t it’s not some kind of street food. It’s really important part of their culture. And there’s so much tradition there. And his restaurant is decorated with trophies and pictures and his father’s things and and so when you go there, you’re immediately like ho, wow, this is so different. And we want people to recognize that restaurant experiences can be like this. So, whether you’re foreign or whether you’re Korean, of course, Koreans will be able to read or Korean speakers or will be able to read the details. But we just want people to know that if the restaurant is featured in the book, there’s a story there. So, if possible to speak with the owner, speak with the chef and try to find out what that story is because then in a market where it’s so competitive, like Korea, there’s so many restaurants to choose from choosing the one that has the story, because everyone’s having a tough time regardless of COVID is such a competitive sector here. There are people who are really really really trying very hard to share their culture, their region, their specialties. Sadly, they get grouped into this a Japanese food or this is Italian pasta, or this is American food like those things don’t really exist. region by region, culture by culture influenced by influence. These are the stories which never existed in Korea before but now these restaurants are here. And there’s a market for that and I think the number of social media social media followers We’ve had and the the diverse appeal that our events have had, show that the market here is ready and willing to accept, again, these authentic food and cultural experiences.
Alex Jensen: And where can we find you on social media?
Todd Sample: The account is called @toddsample_eats. So, you can find it under @toddsample_eats or if you search for Eathentic, our company’s name is Eathentic. So, if you do a search for @toddsample_eats or Eathentic you can find it there on Twitter and Instagram. So yeah, it’s the timing is just right.
Alex Jensen: For anyone who’s listening to this, who in their field is thinking they’d like to publish a book, How did you find the process? And would you recommend it as you’re just that this is a time accumulation. So that’s really important. So, we just write down all our just our experience in social media. So, you probably you can be made in a short time, it’s already, this is our five-year-old story, right? So probably, if you want to make a book or you want to publish a book, probably you have to write down little by little and find a really unique angle of a touring the world. So actually, just even we publish it just in matjib guide probably is not that issue. But this is a little little bit different angle toward the restaurant business or the the travel field. So that’s why it’s a little bit more, more highlighted than other books. If you want to publish a book, just look at the word a little bit differently. And also just write down your experience or just your story a little by little
Alex Jensen: Was it difficult to find a publisher?
Sara Park: Because, you was already exposed in the social media for many years. So they are already our followers. We didn’t know that. But they just tried to contact us and try. We had four or five publishers already contacted us. So, we try to just see who is better. Yeah. So thank God just said this publisher is kind of good and very proactive to us and really, really good , a really good editor. Luckily, so we decided to make a project that is.
Alex Jensen: Well it must be very nice to have the publishers queuing up Todd Sample and Sarah Park. Thank you so much, both of you for joining us.
Todd Sample & Sarah Park: Thank you very much. Well, thanks for being with us today on day two of our pilot week and I’m certainly inspired by our guests, Jonathan Moore, Todd sample and Sarah Park, to take this podcast as far as we can. And thank you to all three for being involved today. Remember, you can head to kbla.net for more info and episodes coming to you Monday to Friday from 7am. Korea time to see you tomorrow.