John Park, Managing Director of Sparklabs Korea speaks with Alex Jensen from KBLA about Korea’s growing startup scene and in particular what differentiates those teams that really kick on from those that don’t.
John describes the intense nature of the Sparklabs accelerator experience. The three-month program bootstraps a company’s growth and provides mentoring, support and skill development. For many startup founders running an office efficiently, paying people and handling government certification and regulation are skills they never thought they would need. Sparklabs helps them develop those skills.
However, the core focus is setting demanding weekly KPIs and working hand-in-hand with the teams. As John says, “Working with a startup team is both a science and an art. We deep dive into their data at a granular level and keep them on track with weekly KPIs. But we also look at the team chemistry. Are they resilient and hungry enough to push beyond what’ they did yesterday? You need a team that will push past the hurdles, the challenges and deliver for you consistently.”
With an increasingly large section of Korea’s young talent seriously considering the startup scene as a career alternative, Sparklabs provides the structured opportunity to test themselves and find out what they are really capable of.
Today’s episode is sponsored by Innovation Center Denmark. Creating innovation and business opportunities by building relationships between Korean and Danish R&D intensive companies, research institutes and universities
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Alex Jenson 0:08
You’re listening to koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m your host, Alex Jensen, and it’s Friday, April 29. First, let me just thank for making today’s episode possible Innovation Center Denmark Seoul, which seeks to create innovation and business opportunities, and build up relations between Korean and Danish r&d intensive companies, research institutes and universities. Now, congratulations on making it to the end of what I hope has been a fruitful and satisfying week for you. If not well, perhaps the weekends come at the right time to recharge. There may be some inspiration today in the form of a business leader who’s doing great work in Seoul’s startup scene, and has been for some time, John Park is the managing director at Sparklabs, which invests in early stage startups and occasionally helps build them. John, thank you very much for joining us today.
John Park 0:59
Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Tim, for, you know, inviting me over, super excited to be here with the audience. And you know, you know, hopefully, you know, this will benefit. Some of the business leaders, our students as well as prospective founders who are looking to build in Korea.
Alex Jenson 1:18
Well, thank you for sharing that hope as well. John, before we get into your Sparklabs story, you grew up as a third culture child, I understand in India and Germany, you’ve worked in Dubai, it sounds like a pretty diverse background, can you give us a brief summary of that?
John Park 1:37
Yeah, so I kind of like grew up all over the place, like you just described, I spent, like most of my formative years in India, went to international school there, did my, you know, both middle and high school, in a boarding school in Southern India, which was a great experience, I think. From then on, I sort of was, you know, fascinated by, you know, having, making friends, with people from different cultures and trying to understand their cultures. And that sort of gave me like, very deep tolerance of understanding, you know, other people’s ideas, philosophies, or, you know, very different way of looking at the world. And with that, I think, you know, I sort of chose my careers to, you know, that’s why I think I ended up working in you know, places like Hong Kong, Dubai, and I’m back in Korea.
Alex Jenson 2:37
And then this Sparklabs part of the journey, when did you first get involved? And how did that come about?
John Park 2:43
So Sparklabs was, one of the earliest investors in to the startup that I used to work at for Mailbox. Mailbox was one of the earliest sort of startups in the vertical ecommerce space. They specifically focused on the Kbeauty and, and, and that’s the slogan that we had back then was the data driven beauty. And I still believe that, you know, data driven beauty or data driven anything is valid. We were one of the first Y Combinator batches out of Korea, and that sort of motivation came from Sparklabs as well. So, you know, having established a relationship as an investor and a portfolio company, I saw how Sparklabs was working with their portfolios, and the founders to help them grow and accelerate and, you know, had a really good sort of image of their brand or team and everything. So, when I came back to Korea, 2020, you know, with COVID, and everything, I returned to Korea for good or after having spent like two years in Dubai you know, there were other opportunities around but you know, Sparklabs, one of the founders, as Sparklabs came to me, told me that, hey, you know, there’s an opportunity for you to join Sparklabs, would you be interested? And, you know, sort of the thought process that was going through my mind was that, hey, you know, either I want to start my own startup again, or be in a position to help these founders. And, you know, it seemed like a perfect match for that. And here I am, you know, being being having been with them for like, last two years now.
Alex Jenson 4:29
There has been, I think, quite accurate notion that it’s very difficult to ensure the success or even come close to ensuring the success of a startup most fails statistically. The ones that come through your supervision, though, is there a difference that you’re offering? I understand it’s quite an intensive boot camp, for example, that they have to go through.
John Park 4:53
Yes, I there’s a really good question. So I think accelerator is aware. You really have to have a specific framework, mindset and try to work at startups, in a sense that, you know, during our program, we really become part of the team. And, you know, think on par with the founders on, you know, how we can, you know, accelerate the growth of that specific startups. And, you know, there’s always a time limit to our program, because, you know, we really want to sort of bootstrap the company to growth. And if we have infinite time and resources, you know, that’s not going to work. So we purposely, you know, crunch time resources into a very sort of specific time period, which is three months set, or very, very specific and detailed goals or on weekly basis. So we’ll have a weekly key paycheck and sessions, everybody that comes in Sparklabs program. We need to meet those weekly KPIs. And these KPIs are aligned to, you know, what the investors in the latest stages want to see, you know, such as you know, you know, you know, increasing the your return on adspend, increasing the user conversion, and increasing the funnels, where users, you’re, where your users are coming from, and all that. So you’re just getting them ready for the second round of funding, because when they come into the accelerator, they do have an idea, they might as well have a product, but for them to go to market, and actually, you know, meet the larger audiences and customers are, you know, they will need to have a backing and investments from other investors to you know, so we, we would like to see ourselves as like a service providers, providing them with, you know, all kinds of services, including investments, to get them ready to roll out in the bigger world.
Alex Jenson 6:51
What do you need to see from a startup founder to get on board with them in the first place, though.
John Park 6:55
I think we tend to focus really, on team and there are sort of chemistry, I know, it is something that cannot be quantified, you know, to a very granular level, but I think that’s why there is a sort of science and art aspect that gets both involved in you know, running accelerator and early stage PC. The thing about team is that, you know, you know, we obviously will look at all the quantifiable data’s and data points such as, you know, a market role in the competitors, there, if they have a product up and running, we’ll look at, you know, their customer data, their sales data and all that as a basic, but what we really boils down to is that, you know, is this team really resilient enough and hungry enough to push up beyond what’s required, and, you know, to have the right kind of chemistry to continue this on when the half time comes? That’s very important, because, you know, there will be hardships in running startups, every day, it’s a battle, right? And, and to win in that battle, you need to have, you know, right kind of team and right kind of mentality and the chemistry, you know, that can help you push beyond do your yesterday and your today to feel better tomorrow kind of thing. Right?
Alex Jenson 8:25
It does also seem like you’re inspired by technology. But I understand you’re sector agnostic. So can we address a little bit the types of startups that you’re attracted to?
John Park 8:37
Yeah. So, you know, we’ve been our sector agnostic accelerator for quite a while. And I think, you know, the reason why we say sector agnostic is that we are focused on data actually. So I think, in a lot, there’s a cliche that data is the new oil, right. And we truly believe that to our hearts, and so. So we focus on companies that either collect data, analyze data, or use data well, in their specific vertical or cross vertical. And, you know, those kinds of startups tend to, you know, make impact, positive impact in the market and also capture a large portion of the market. You know, for example, you know, some of the best companies that you might know, in Korea or elsewhere, are all data driven, you know, look at Coupang, you know, they’re hugely data driven company, you know, look at Amazon, same thing. You look at any successful companies, there is just the focus on data and, you know, they’re always accumulating more data to beat the competition, right. So that’s the sort of the, you know, our investment thesis. But having said that, you know, what our focus or focus right now is that, you know, we are trying to look more into a blockchain and that was because of the same reason, you know, I think the blockchain is very important because a lot of data can get recorded on chain and the way it can be tracked is very transparent. And it basically can sort of be infrastructure that can revolutionize or many different sectors that just are a sector such as finance.
Alex Jenson 10:15
Would you say, as well that startups can punch above their weight in these areas? Or potentially offer something that more traditional companies? Can’t? Or won’t?
John Park 10:27
Yeah, of course, because I think the reason why startups across startups is that, I think, because of their speed, I think they might not be big, but they they’re fast, you know, and in terms of defining this speed, there are a lot of, I think, basically like three things. One is that they are very, very fast in decision making very fast. And second is they’re very fast and execution. And also, they are really, really fast in reiterating from the mistakes, right. But this three year, when you think about it, if you’re a large Congo rate is very, very difficult to do, you know, if you’re trying to test the idea, you know, you have to go through the whole chain of command, and you know, like, there will be a lot of, you know, like, sort of internal blockages that you have to go through. And even if you fail, you know, there’s no, not really a second chance for you to, you know, come back on that same sort of, you know, thesis or tested on a different angle and everything. But startups is different, you know, we fail fast, we fail at a calculated risk. And, you know, we iterate and we come back and test our thesis again, and, you know, that’s how so resource improve as a startup and, you know, that’s why, you know, startups are able to make, you know, I would say, a bigger impact in our more tech driven sectors, or speed more, you know, is, is a, you know, more depression factor than the size?
Alex Jenson 11:55
And in what situation would you step in, and, as I said, at the very beginning, occasionally helped to build the startups.
John Park 12:03
Yeah, so, those, there are two parts of our business model. One is, you know, so we obviously, the traditional sort of flagship accelerator model, you know, where companies bring in, you know, a product or the idea that they want to build out, you know, then then we’ll help them to, you know, sort of grow faster, you know, with, with through the program that we have. But we also have a company building or venture building arm, which is very different. So what it is, is that, we get directly involved in building the company from the get go. So, you know, we’ll analyze the market, and we’ll study the competitions and see if there is an opportunity for us to actually build a company that could beat the competition, current competition and capture a larger market share. So, for example, smart POS, which is one of the leading co working spaces in Korea, was started off like that. So we had this idea that, you know, this co working spaces are going to be very, very valuable business for startups and small and medium sized companies. Because it, you know, directly impacts their bottom line in saving them overhead costs of rent. And we saw that, you know, there will be lot more remote work that’s going to happen across the board. But we looked at the market and we saw we work right and pacify and WeWork was like Ritz Carlton, you know, like it’s decked out with a nice interiors, and also expensive and fast fight was there are no you know, fast fight was like, you know, Marriott kind of thing, right? And we’re like, hey, you know, if a tiger thinks top tips and startups, you know, basically very scrappy in, in terms of running their organizations and everything and they do not need either, you know, Marriott or Ritz Carlton I think, you know, what they need really need is like, you know, a place you know, that’s more affordable, and something something like you know, outsell low and business hotels or even like, you know, you know, module six or something like that, right? Just to make a comparison. So, that’s how we came up with this pack. Plus, we wanted to give the market more affordable or co working space or that focus on the space itself, and the people itself or not just, you know, decking out a whole space with a nice interior, but giving them you know, enough, you know, meeting rooms form goods and ask space for them to actually focus on their work.
Alex Jenson 15:00
That makes a lot of sense, by the way, but also I’ve seen in your profile spark pet, which promises to make life beautiful for pets and pet owners. Now as someone who has a couple of dogs, I find Korea to be a rather diverse landscape for pet owners, for example, it can be quite difficult to find a home that will allow dogs to live there, if you’re renting, you either kind of have people who absolutely dote on them, or they don’t really want to see them at all.
John Park 15:29
So Sparkpet is, is a very sort of a unique piece to, to our company building business because I actually was a co CEO of, of Sparkpet for a while. And it came with the idea that, you know, the, in a pet, pet market or pet industry, you know, especially when it comes to services, whether it’s, you know, medical services or healthcare services, or you know, or just, you know, retails, it’s so fragmented, you know, you don’t really see a place where you can go and, you know, shop, eat, and, you know, like, you know, get there in a health check up and everything, you know, it all in one place. So we, you know, and there was a real pain point of, from our pet owners were saying, oh, you know, you know, for them to go to a pet hospital and go to, you know, like a pet shop and then go to like, a pet Academy’s you know, you know, they’ll have to, you know, trouble hours, they’re just doing that, you know, like, you know, taking your dog from one place to another, and that, that, that seemed like a real problem, especially in a city like Seoul, where it’s, it’s, you know, the traffic is no fun here, and for them to take their dogs out to, you know, this, you know, so called pet academia or pet kindergartens, outside the city takes them, you know, menial 30 to 40 minutes, right, which is pretty crazy for them to do that every morning. So we told them, you know, you know, we need an urban sort of pet service platform, that stacks all this. Right, and has, provides that service to a pet owners in, in one single place this, so that’s how Sparkpet came up to me. But more than that, it’s, again, a data place. So since all the services are fragmented, and you you only get a part of the story about pets life cycle, lifestyle lifecycle, you know, like, you know, pet loss pills will have, you know, medical later, pet retail stores, or stores, they’ll have, you know, pet, you know, consumption data, and, you know, pet other other like, you know, like pet funerals will have, or you know, things about your pet loss data and everything. So it was fully fragmented, and you don’t really see that, you know, data coming through to make this experience and service better through data. So, you know, by stacking up all the services in one place, we are able to gather data that no other players have been able to gather together and see. So you know, we have a full better picture of what the pets, pet industry is, or pet market is. But more but more than that, you know, we have a better picture of, you know, what the needs are and what the actual pet needs are.
Alex Jenson 18:23
It’s interesting, though, thank you for sharing those those examples. As I said, as a pet owner, myself, I was particularly curious in the latter, but the opportunities for startups, even in the area of data seemed to be pretty endless. And I’d like to finish with your kind of assessment of where the startup scene here in Korea is currently at and where you think it’s going to be heading in the foreseeable future?
John Park 18:50
That’s a really good question. I mean, I, I honestly, I think, you know, Korea, startup ecosystem is just getting started. So, you know, when you, when you take five years, back from now, you know, a lot of the, you know, parents or even the students themselves, you know, very, very smart students, in fact, would say, you know, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or, you know, our, I want to get a job at these nice, you know, MNCs with a Samsung, or LG is of the world. But that sort of mindset has shifted completely startups looked up as an option for a real career. It’s not something that you know, like your kids do on the site, but it’s, it’s a career path. You know, that, you know, really smart people are really willful people that can take and create new value to the world. And I think that sort of a behavioral change or mindset change of young students or people in 20s are just happening. And if we see this more and more are, you know, it’s smart young people flowing into the startup space, I think this startup space is going to just grow and grow. So right now, it’s just starting to happen. So, for example, you go to, you know, as a new Seoul National, right, like, you know, the kids in like, you know, sophomore year or junior year old having didn’t know, or either they’re starting their own startups or they’re working at a startup, right. And, you know, and since the, you know, the exit period, or I would say, for them to accumulate massive amounts of capital is much shorter than if they take a traditional route of, you know, working for a specific, like, you know, large conglomerates, or, you know, taking more or I would say, you know, professional jobs, I think there will be a positive reinforcement that, you know, these people who exit and, or through whether it’s through m&a or IPOs will be, will, will eventually pay, pay it forward in, you know, helping, you know, young, young intrapreneurs like them to come up. And, and also, you will create a sort of healthier ecosystem where this founders, and prospect founders will help each other to build a stronger sort of a startup ecosystem, attracting better talents, with the right kind of capital allocations are coming in from the founders who have already exited. And I think so, you know, and this, I’m really, really testing to some extent, you know, and, you know, you know, assuming, I think, you know, we’ll see, you know, this sort of virtuous cycle and you’re expanding and growing. If, you know, I, you know, I I’m a betting man you out, so, you know, you know, solo specifically might have a, you know, great chance of becoming a Silicon Valley of the next century or so.
Alex Jenson 22:11
Great to share that kind of optimism. John Park, Managing Director at SparkLabs. Thank you so much for sharing with us your own experience and thoughts on the future.
John Park 22:21
Yeah. And it was it was a great pleasure. Thank you for having me. And, you know, I’d love to come back on the show as well and hopefully, you know, after there you know, there’s any questions from the audience, you know, I’ll be happy to answer.
Alex Jenson 22:37
Well, if anyone would like to start putting questions forward, we can curate them and fire them in the direction of various different people including John Park, you can find us through LinkedIn if you search KBLA, great way to get in touch with us or email us email@example.com. Before I sign off for the weekend, let me also thank for making today’s episode possible Innovation Center Denmark Seoul.