Path, as most of us have been made aware, is a pretty sexy company. The niche social networking company is headed by former Apple and Facebook celebrigeek Dave Morin, and its $40 million Series B funding round valued it at a cool $250 million. According to the most recent reports, Path has 3 million users. Solid.
Except that it is being beaten on its own turf by a mobile messaging app that few people in the Valley have even heard of. What’s more, it comes from a country known more for fermented cabbage than for innovation.
(Update: I have upset a lot of people with that last comment. I am sorry. I didn’t mean to cause offense. Many commenters, very reasonably, have pointed out that, for instance, the iPhone is made up of a lot of Korean parts. I also seem to have given some readers the impression that I think Path is a more innovative product than anything that has come from Korea. I don’t. What I was trying to say, perhaps clumsily, is that despite the attention Path gets, this app from an outside country has managed to surpass Path on its own soil, which is a remarkable achievement. And for others who have suggested I am a jingoistic American, that’s not quite true. I’m from New Zealand, a country known more for its sheep than its innovation. One commenter had sound advice: “Just say ‘it was a stupid comment’ and call it a day.” It was a stupid comment. I apologize.)
South Korea’s KakaoTalk doesn’t really have an analogue in the US. It’s kind of like WhatsApp or Voxer, but it has a smarter business model and more expansive technology, and it is developing into a platform. In that respect, it is more like China’s Weixin. Messaging sits at its core, but it also offers video and photo sharing. And then it has voice calls on top. You can even add funny voice filters – think of it as Instagram for your mouth-pictures.
The functionalities don’t end there. KakaoTalk has a media channel, where you can follow the news and weather updates, and through a channel called “Plus Friend,” you can buddy up with brands that will occasionally send you discount coupons or free samples. You can send your friend digital vouchers for coffees, sandwiches, and, probably, given the country’s strange obsession for the confection, waffles. Soon, KakaoTalk will also host games on its platform.
If all that seems like a lot, check out its numbers. It has 50 million registered users, 24 million daily unique visitors, and 1.4 billion daily messages sent. In the US, it has 3.5 million users. The vast majority of them are Korean-Americans, or Koreans in America. As Kakao prepares to take on America, that audience could soon expand.
Kakao was founded by Brian Kim (that’s
him Kakao CEO Jaebum Lee in the picture up top), who is as close as you can get to a tech superstar in Korea. At the start of the millennium, Kim founded online games company Hangame, which grew to 40 million users and merged with search leader Naver in 2001 to create NHN. Kim was made co-chairman at the new company, and he stayed in the role until 2006. He went on to found IWILab, starting a Web-clips service and a recommendations engine before realizing that the iPhone would transform the way Koreans use the Internet. He then set to work on KakaoTalk and timed its launch within a week of the smartphone’s 2009 arrival in the country.
In two years, KakaoTalk grew to 10 million users and had attracted angel investments from Kim’s friends at gaming giants Nexon, NC Soft, and Neowiz, among others. In April this year, as it closed in on 50 million users, China’s Tencent threw $61 million its way for a 14 percent stake in the company.
America, are you paying attention yet?
If not, now would be a good time to start. When I met with Yujin Sohn, Kakao’s Vice-President for Global Business, on Wednesday, she told me the company would take its app to the American market “soon.” When I pushed for clarification, she said it was not a matter of months, but it would definitely happen within two years. “Globalizing the service is very important for long-run survival and competency,” she said. If it only focused on Korea, it would be very difficult to defend its dominant position from foreign competitors. CyWorld, the country’s homegrown social network, is currently learning that lesson the hard way, as Facebook devours its market share.
One such competitor is Line, which was built by the Japanese arm of NHN. (Everything in the Korean Internet, it seems, can somehow be traced back to Brian Kim). That platform proved its power when its first integrated app surpassed 2 million downloads on its first day. On a broader level, KakaoTalk also competes with Facebook. The latter must look at the likes of KakaoTalk, Line, and Weixin and wonder if these mobile-native social networks are the future.
Kakao is about to make a serious push into Southeast Asia, where juicy markets such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam await. Those countries all have huge populations that are especially accustomed to mobile communications, and they’re about to see a smartphone explosion.
You can probably make a fair bet, too, that KakaoTalk will do a fair bit better in those markets than Path could ever hope for. A bigger question, however, is whether Americans will one day take to a mobile platform that offers an all-in-one solution, or if they prefer to stick to a more fragmented ecosystem, where they use devices’ proprietary apps for messaging, Facebook for social, and Instagram for photo sharing.
Whichever way the cards fall, Kakao at least has a strong hand in the game.