Gordon Dudley sheds light on the nuts and bolts of setting up a business in Korea.
As much as it has improved in the 11 years that he has been in Korea, setting up a business in Korea is not easy. Gordon successfully launched RDI Worldwide in 2016 and is now passing on what he learned.
If you are coming in directly, as a Foreign Direct Investment which would have required 100 (now 300) million won in incoming capital. Gordon was able to go a much less capital-intensive route, he set up a sales-office as a subsidiary of a foreign company, which avoided the capital requirement, but still allows him to operate.
Gordon then discusses the challenge of finding the right business partners, either inside the company as directors, or outside the company as client feeders. The client feeder model may sound enticing, but Gordon’s experience left him questioning the decision.
However, there are some partners, you must have in starting a business, Gordon goes through these must-haves and what to look for in them. He also recommends shopping around and driving hard for a price level that you can afford.
For new businesses, Gordon recommends looking at the shared office space, for simplicity and again avoiding the large upfront capital requirements. The shared office options in Korea are continuing to improve, no longer the domain of large companies such as WeWork, there are smaller options able to tailor to a young business’ needs.
Alex and Gordon wrap up their conversation by reflecting on the missteps that Gordon has taken in starting his own business and how he overcame them.
Today’s episode is brought to you by Eastpoint Partners Limited. Offering a unparalleled Asia-wide network of relationships with corporates, governments and investors.
Setting up a business in Korea, the nuts and bolts of it.
Alex Jensen: You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m Alex Jensen and it’s Thursday, November 25th. A lot of discussions we’ve had about starting a business in Korea has included some great advice about going out there and finding support and you can find some of those past interviews if you search through our podcast archive through your regular provider of podcasts. But how about some of the nuts and bolts of it all? On today’s show, we’ll hear from someone who’s been there, and he’s still doing it without being a Korean national himself. Perhaps there’s something from his wide experience that could open a path for you. This episode is brought to you by Eastpoint Partners.
Alex Jensen: So, in this time of continued fresh beginnings, it’s a nice opportunity to catch up with Gordon Dudley, CEO and founder of RDI Worldwide, specializing in talent acquisition for global companies in Korea and Korean companies abroad. Gordon, great to have you with us once again.
Gordon Dudley: Hello, Alex, great to be speaking with you again.
Alex Jensen: And the first time we chatted we talked a bit about your past experience as well as the environment for placing people in jobs. And that’s something that you’re obviously doing with talent acquisition, what’s the latest on that? How’s your industry looking at the moment?
Gordon Dudley: So, it’s interesting because if you are working in an organization that is only operating in a single sector, then you’re going to feel the rise and fall of that particular sector as it benefits from macro changes. However, as a service provider, like us exposed to so many sectors, we have the benefit of being able to work with those particular organizations in certain sectors that are very much growing and or in need of our services. And so, it means that essentially, there’s no there’s no downturn, basically.
Alex Jensen: As long as someone’s still enjoying an upturn?
Gordon Dudley: Indeed, but even at a, at an organizational level, if that company is going through a restructure or even a downscaling, they may still need to enlist our services in order to place some strategic hires through their organization. And so even and this is something that we’ve experienced in the last 18 months or so with the pandemic is that companies even who are at a much larger level, going through some trouble when it comes to performance. Actually, in those moments, they still need to make strategic hires in order to help them get out of those troubles. And so that’s where we benefit on both sides of the cycle.
Alex Jensen: Once a great defense mechanism for your business model and this is not our main topic for today. But I am curious to ask you, Gordon, how you’re feeling about this uptick in infections in Korea this week, hitting a new record high and it has got people a bit nervy, but I also know that I’m carrying out this interview with you after you’ve just attended an event at the Millennium Hilton. So obviously, it hasn’t brought everything to a standstill either.
Gordon Dudley: Indeed. And it was great to be at that event where I think one of the diplomats from the Australian Embassy really just summed up the current status, which is that, you know, we will do as much as we can in a cautious manner, I think that that caution needs to remain for events whether those are internal company events, public events or otherwise.
Alex Jensen: Because they’re talking about rather than bringing back social distancing, introducing more of a vaccine pass system that could get stricter. And even in your specific industry that could play a role. Say for example, you can only come to Korea to work if you’ve been vaccinated. Can you imagine that kind of scenario being ushered in? And if so, how would it affect your attitude towards the whole landscape?
Gordon Dudley: So, I think it’s very interesting to see the relative speed in which organizations and especially governments around the world have been reacting to COVID and how they are making plans to move forward and there are definitely some countries who are really leading, the leading the charge and others being hesitant or in fact, slow. You know, I was speaking with somebody today earlier who cannot get his EU vaccine certificate recognized in Korea, but he could get a Swiss vaccine certificate recognized in Korea, you know, these are the kind of small but relatively large impact type of decisions that we’re up against when it comes to global business and especially global mobility of people for new opportunities around the world.
Alex Jensen: Well, it’s an excellent point you make, by the way, because even those who have been vaccinated if they’ve not been vaccinated in Korea, it could still cause major problems in the coming months for people already placed in jobs here. And I guess we’re gonna have to watch a wait and revisit that particular topic. But Gordon, speaking of topics, when I spoke to you before this interview about things you’d like to talk about. You addressed immediately this idea of setting up a business in Korea. And first of all, I’m curious why this is a topic you’re interested in where normally you’d be placing people into existing businesses.
Gordon Dudley: Indeed and I think that it is highly related to my own personal experience in setting up a business here in Korea and looking around me over the last 11 years that I’ve been living in Korea, and seeing that despite a lot of what you might consider to be positive and or supportive conditions and environments to be able to set up a business, one great example would be that Korea regularly features in the top 5, I believe, if I’m correct, of the global ease of doing business index. So, by some measures, it is one of the easiest places, places in the world to do business. And yet, when I look around, I see actually incredibly few foreign businesses set up in Korea with, so there is, of course, a great presence of 1000s of international companies. But when it comes to a diversity of businesses set up in Korea, then there really are very few.
Alex Jensen: So, let’s go through it, partly based on your experience, and partly based on what you’ve learned since getting your own business successfully up on the ground. At the beginning, paperwork presumably, you’ve got to have an idea. And perhaps the advice you give here would vary from industry to industry. But no matter how general you want to be, can you take us through the steps?
Gordon Dudley: So, the process is actually, relatively straightforward depending on the actual type of structure that you choose. And this is where the first decision that anybody considering to settle a business in Korea needs to actually decide whether they are going to set up a Korean owned business or a foreign owned business. And because quite simply, if you set up with a majority Korean owned business then you have even fewer steps to go through to set up and entity you can do it quicker and with less paperwork. I don’t have direct experience of that, because I didn’t go down that path, I set up a sales branch office, so a Yeong-eobso (영업소) of a British Limited company. And I chose that particular structure in my case because if I had not used an existing foreign entity to set up a branch office then I would have had to have gone down the FDI foreign direct investment route with a minimum investment of 100,000 US dollars at the time. This this was the case. And so rather than finding that kind of capital lump sum to invest when I was already in Korea essentially, I decided to go the more simple route and set up as I mentioned this sales subsidiary of an existing foreign entity.
Alex Jensen: For people asking themselves that question though about Korean owned or not, does it mean having to have Korean business partners?
Gordon Dudley: So, it basically means when you’re talking about the directors of the company to the legal representatives, there is a certain percentage minimum ownership that has to be Korean for it to qualify as a Korean owned business.
Alex Jensen: Yeah. So, I was just curious about the whole process of finding an appropriate Korean business partner for you. But for some people maybe it’s just natural has happened that the founding of the company is with a good contact who happens to be Korean. But if you’re not in that situation, what advice would you have?
Gordon Dudley: So, definitely finding partners can be very challenging and I think even finding somebody who you are confident to establish a business is no guarantee that it will be a successful partnership thereafter. In fact, skipping forward just a little bit into the first year that we were operating, we actually decided that the quickest way that we could ramp up our business would be to actually form strategic partnerships with other local companies who already had access to a client base and local network. And, in fact, not one of these partnerships turned into a successful relationship for us and we learned that the hard way that actually, in fact, that there, it’s, we saw it as a shortcut to be able to scale up our business, whereas actually, it was definitely not a shortcut in the long, in the end, we actually ended up taking us longer because after all the time of relying on these partners and finding out that actually, it’s not going to be a successful relationship, we were back at square one to do it ourselves from the start again.
Alex Jensen: Was there anything in particular about those partnerships that was flawed? Or was it a Korean cultural barrier that you were facing or any other reason that you might identify?
Gordon Dudley: In our case, the partnerships were predicated on something that the local companies did not have, they would, they wanted to through the partnership be able to access via us and quite simply after having a few collaborations with clients and projects and such, they realized that they could do their own imitation of our products or their services. But products in that sense, and then just replicated us the, what we brought to the partnership using their own, their own IP or not their own IP, our IP, but using other suppliers less qualified and cheaper.
Alex Jensen: If you’re not going down the Korean partner route, are there still essential Korean personnel that a foreign business owner here who need to take advantage of things like a Korean accountant, for example, or legal representative?
Gordon Dudley: Good question. So, you’re right, you don’t have to have a Korean partner to establish the business. I would say initially that in terms of, kind of ‘Must Have’ cannot do without partners, there are three, the first is a lawyer who will be able to register the entity at the various places the tax authority, the National Court, kind of company registry office. And then the bank in which the company will be doing, dealings with, so of course, there are there are English speaking lawyers, as well as plenty of Korean speaking lawyers depending on your language capabilities with varying fees accordingly, but they, that is necessary to do that establishment paperwork. And as I mentioned, one of those, one of the parts of the establishment is to get a corporate bank account. So, you also then need to have chosen a bank which you want to use for your corporate banking. So that is then another essential service that you must have. And then it’s very difficult to do without an accountant and this would be an accountant who would be taking care of your taxes. So, it It’s not that from day one, you have such complicated accounts that you need someone to do your books, but you do need somebody to do your tax filings. And so having a service provider to be able to do your quarterly, half annual tax filings to make sure that you’re compliant, in that way, it is also essential.
Alex Jensen: Well, I found in Korea, even just with individual taxes personal that there’s a tremendous difference in what people are charging and what people are prepared or able to offer as well. What is required for shopping around for these personnel?
Gordon Dudley: I would say, get a personal recommendation, I think that’s the safest way to make sure that you don’t get matched up with any cowboys. We did, unfortunately, the one of the service providers that we that we were with for a while, basically, the more that we asked questions about why is this like this? And why is this like that? we discovered that actually their capability to handle a foreign entity where a lot of things are exceptional cases in terms of additional filings or other kinds of fines not required or other types of allocations were just not being done properly. And, you know, it took us a long time to actually find that out and then we very promptly switched our service provider.
Alex Jensen: Would you say there any other aspects particulars doing business in Korea, starting a business in Korea that we’ve not touched on that you think gotta mention that?
Gordon Dudley: So, for my own personal experience, I would say that just be careful with any partner that you that you’re going to use, whether it is a business partnership, or even a service provider, don’t rush in to signing contracts and other types of service contracts that lock you into something that all of a sudden you then realize, that’s not what you need, it’s not what you want. I mean, I think that for most every business these days, you also have to have an online presence. So, if that’s beyond your in-house capabilities, then you’ll also need some kind of tech support for doing that side of the business. But, again, that’s not an essential if it’s not business critical if you’re not an online business, and it’s not something that has to necessarily be done in Korea, you can get that support from outside of Korea.
Alex Jensen: You also at least many people would need physical working space that could be an office, and then you’re going down the whole commercial real estate route or it might be a shared working space. And I know that you’ve got a lot of experience with the latter, what are your thoughts on that in this particular environment, where more and more people have been showing the willingness and capability to work flexibly?
Gordon Dudley: Indeed, so, you are required to, of course, have a registered address and that can be your home address if that is the best option for you, you do or you almost will certainly have to be able to prove that it is fit for use as an office and so that is something that it can also be looked at that was an option that we considered but as you rightly say, we went down the shared office route because, you know, from starting out to go into our own office with a with, you know, at least a one year contract usually a two year contract. Also, you’re going to be looking at a large deposit some required up front as well, not to mention the added complexity of all the bills and rates and other types of fees that you would have to pay. We, without hesitation went down the shared office route. And for us this was in the era before we work even came to Korea and our very first office was, we had a two-person private office and so that is, it was at that location that we had or had our registered office. And that was around, and this is now, you know, five and a half years ago or so was when shared office was really booming in Korea, co-working spaces and the like. And so, we at that time, jumped into FASTFIVE. And so, at that time, it was FASTFIVE, because it had five branches, they now have well over 20 branches located all around the city. And we’ve been in there ever since And we have been actually now located in four different branches. So, we’ve actually, as we have grown and adapted so we have changed our location within the FASTFIVE network going from a kind of hot desk set up to right up to a private office of six people just before the start of the pandemic. And now we’re back down to just a private office which we’re essentially using as our registered address location but operating our business in a fully virtual remote structure. And that’s what’s working for us. And we don’t think that anytime soon, we’ll be reverting to fully co-located office. And I’m a real fan of the of the co-working space. I think for small businesses, it’s a great way for convenience and for, you know, peace of mind to be able to just pay one fee per month and to have it flexible down to one person if that’s how you’re starting where you’re, where you can reach to your office, and then grow and simply just increase the size of the office as your team grows. And so, I’m definitely a big advocate of the co-working space, you know, you get now these services have improved dramatically. You can find branches that have dedicated photo studios, recording studios, there are branches with all different kinds of additional amenities depending on what’s right for you.
Alex Jensen: Would you say there’s any perception issue there though, like, in other words, you’re sending out a message that you are a small enterprise for people who might want to create the impression, even from the very beginning, that they’re bigger than they are?
Gordon Dudley: So, I think I think that might apply in certain industries. I think that might also be a perception that was stronger in the past. But it’s probably lessening, I think that also that, in my experience, you are starting to do business with organizations long before they even have a sent saw any idea of where your office is actually located. If that, it’s only when you get to the point of actually doing commercial business and exchanging the business registration document that they would see the actual registered address. And that registered address even does not mention that it is a co-working space, it is just the building address and the numbers. So, I think that, you know, in terms of or would you like to come and meet at our office, and that is then a co-working space. I think that on the whole people are actually very impressed because the facilities are so nice and modern, and you can have all kinds of different meeting rooms in different styles. And so perhaps for a lot of people, it even creates even better perception, perhaps. And definitely if you are operating any kind of multi country operation if you go with one of the global co-working space companies, then you of course have access to their entire global network which can be a real plus. Outside of the times when travel is restricted right now due to COVID.
Alex Jensen: What’s your view on the whole incubation thing which sometimes comes with shared space as well?
Gordon Dudley: So again, I think that really will depend on the type of business you’re in. I think that if you, of course, are dealing with any kind of sensitive information or proprietary information that you don’t want to be leaked out and then go you know, going to a kind of an open plan office spaces is not going to be right for you. You’re going to have to immediately go for a private office where you can get their privacy. That’s what we have currently, you know, we have a lot of HR related conversations with people and companies and that does often relate to sensitive information. So, for us, it is also important. But I think overall that the sheer flexibility factors for small companies that are starting up, you’re not locked into a long contract really is such a bonus to just be able to kind of get started and not have to worry about the office space and just focus on doing the business.
Alex Jensen: Good, sound reasonable advice throughout, thank you very much for that, Gordon, we’ve talked, I think a lot about the nuts and bolts, but there are also qualities that you’ve, I know, taken note of over the years that you think are needed to be able to successfully run a business here. And hearing you speak you’ve not been afraid to admit to some of the mistakes or things that have gone wrong over that time as well, and you’re still succeeding?
Gordon Dudley: Yeah, I mean, you have to acknowledge your mistakes and you have to try and take as much as you can as a learning point out of that you’ve got to move forward, you know, all the time. And I think that, you know, I do get a lot of people asking me about their jobs, their careers, and such and a lot to have aspirations to set up a company or to launch something into Korea, and what not. And I do think that there can be a maybe a little bit of a romanticization of what it means to be an entrepreneur and run your own business. And the reality is that, is not for everybody and I think, if you are going to go out on your own and set something up, I think you have to have an absolute enormous amount of resilience to be able to have faith in yourself that you’re that you’re doing something right to be patient enough to not necessarily get instant results because not all businesses, you know, achieve, you know, a viral social media campaign in the first month and then just start signing contracts, you know, for most businesses, it just doesn’t work like that, let alone for businesses in b2b side. And so, you have to have that kind of, as I said resilience, to be able to take a long-term view on that you, you’re going the right direction and you’re doing the right thing. And at the same time, it also involves adaptability because you might and probably will uncover things which you for all the planning in the world, and for all the research in the world, when you actually start operating and you start running your business, you just discover things don’t work like that, or that particular sector or niche or customer or opportunities is just so different to what you perceived it to be from the outside that you have to change. And I think that is also something that I, if I look back on the last five and a half years of running RDI is that we have evolved, and we’ve definitely changed a lot. And, and that is where I you know, I can look back favorably on the on the pandemic of the last 18 months because it induced a massive pivot change for us. And that is now become what was a, you know, a huge, momentarily disaster where we really close to, really having to consider all alternative options, and it turned into a massive opportunity and we’ve, you know, we’ve been able to blossom and now grow to a team size and, and revenue far in excess of where we were before the pandemic. And so definitely adaptability is very essential combined with that kind of resilience.
Alex Jensen: So good to catch up with you again, Gordon, and good luck for the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.
Gordon Dudley: Thank you so much and happy to have contact with anybody who has these kinds of specific questions, happy to share more and share anything I can to help others go out and set up their own businesses.
Alex Jensen: Is the best way to reach you through LinkedIn just searching Gordon Dudley or is there a recommend?
Gordon Dudley: I think LinkedIn is going to be the easiest way to get to get straight to me and the start the connection there. And yeah, also thanks, Alex, for the opportunity to be able to come and have a chat.
Alex Jensen: Well, I look forward to next time and I daresay we’ll still be in the pandemic when we do next week even if it’s several weeks or even months from now. Again, wonderful to catch up Gordon Dudley, their CEO of RDI Worldwide, great to hear that advice and the experience. We wish everybody else luck as well during these times of uncertainty. And let me say thank you once more as well to today’s sponsor Eastpoint Partners.