Startups in translation: South Korea meets Silicon Valley
It's hard for any startup to catch some media attention or get a meeting with a VC in Silicon Valley. Think about how much harder it is if you're from South Korea.
Last night, I spoke at an event for Korean entrepreneurs who are visiting the Bay Area as part of a government-sponsored accelerator program called KoFounder Labs, put on in conjunction with YouNoodle. The six-week program started on October 6 and involves a drawn-out pitch competition that will ultimately produce a handful of finalists from an initial 15 teams. A panel of five Korean investment firms, which is judging the competition, has promised to commit funds to the winners. This is the program's second year.
I spent a couple of hours with the entrepreneurs, who asked how to pitch to reporters, what sorts of stories Pando looks for, and other broad media-related questions. Some asked how to talk to American VCs and how to attract funding. At the end of the session, most of them came up to show me their products, which ranged from note-taking apps to social games to media synching tools. Mobile was a very strong theme, which isn't surprising, given Korea's advanced mobile connectivity – 14 percent of the country is already on LTE – and high smartphone penetration. Most of the apps, too, were built first for Android, which is the dominant operating system in Korea.
Some of the technology was very impressive, and some of the startups are already counting their users in the millions. I'll write about the most interesting ones in the weeks ahead. But when I asked if anyone had been covered by the tech press, no-one raised their hands. I was taken aback. Why would that be?
The answer, I figured, was that the two parties – foreign entrepreneurs and American media – don't know how to talk to each other. There's so much going on within the US's own borders that it's easy to pretend that startups don't happen in other countries. Instead, we tech reporters tend to stick with the familiar and the local. Indeed, most don't cover much beyond New York and San Francisco.
That's why Y Combinator-backed startups get a whole lot more attention than equivalent startups from other countries. Case in point is the YC-backed Pair, which has attracted investment from SV Angels, Path's Dave Morin, and Crunchfund, and grabbed headlines back in March for getting 50,000 downloads in the space of four days. Over in Seoul, meanwhile, a comparable app called Between, made by VCNC, has received far less attention (proof: compare the Google search results of the major blogs for each Pair and Between) from the blogs, despite launching around the same time and attracting more than 1 million downloads to date.
It seems like this situation has to change, eventually, whether it's Valley-based publications leading the charge or homegrown ones. It wasn't too long ago that Silicon Valley VCs wouldn't invest in a company that was farther than a day's drive or an hour flight, and now most of them have an office or at least deals in another country. Just as startup communities are sprouting throughout Middle America, they're also emerging in Seoul, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Helsinki, and wherever else there is a concentration of software engineering talent and ambitious entrepreneurs. That's a large part of the reason I reported from China and South Korea in the summer, and why I'm heading next to Sweden and Finland (by the way, please hit me up if you have any intel on tech communities those locales).
At the same time, thanks to programs like KoFounders Labs, foreign entrepreneurs are learning how the Silicon Valley system works. In short, they're getting more globally savvy. Today, few people in the room seemed to have any idea of how to approach a reporter, what to say, or how much to say – and that has been reflected in the total lack of US coverage their companies have got. Now, however, I'm expecting a bunch of emails with smart, tailored pitches, and I'm certain to write about a few.
Most of the startups at the event today are focused on global markets, with the US as a very high priority. The cultural difference between the two countries is very big and real, and many of these companies will ultimately struggle to adapt their products for the unfamiliar Western markets. But that doesn't mean it's not worth a shot. I saw enough evidence in a short time today to know that at least some of the startups coming out of Korea have enough talent to challenge Y Combinator graduates. Getting commensurate media attention and meetings with VCs is going to be the hard part.
PandoDaily, at least, will be watching closely.