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Jonghwa Kim, Founder of Vonvon

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If you’ve ever wondered where those insanely viral quizzes that fill your Facebook feed come from, today you’re in luck. I recently interviewed Jonghwa Kim, the founder of Vonvon. The company’s quizzes attract between 300 million and 400 million people from around the world each month, and the company continues to grow from it’s base in Seoul.

You worked at some of Korea’s most successful online content companies, before they were multi-billion dollar brands. How did that all start?

 I was still a freshman in college when I started as an intern an Nexon in 1996. At the time it was an upstart gaming company creating “The Kingdom of the Winds,” a breakout title still played to this day. Nexon needed money to fund the game and I could build websites. So, I started developing sites for other companies to bring in cash. Now Nexon is a behemoth that employs 5,500 people and has a $1 billion market cap.

Nexon’s founder, Jung-Ju Kim, recommended me to Naver. I joined Naver as an intern back when it was a six-person operation. Naver is now one of the biggest companies in Korea with more than 70% search market share and an entire ecosystem of products

Thanks to all the programming skills I had acquired, I was able to replace my military service (mandatory for Korean men) with three years of work experience at Neowiz, another gaming giant in Korea. I was the 16th member of the team when I joined in 2001. By the time I left, 200 people worked there.

Witnessing all this phenomenal growth firsthand, I couldn’t help but start my own company. I thought “if these guys can do it, surely I can too.” I was just 28 and full of confidence.

Tell us about your first company

My first startup was a Korean equivalent of TripAdvisor. ‘Wingbus’ launched in 2005. I quickly learned the hard way that a good product doesn’t automatically attract users.

It took me some time to figure out that Koreans actually prefered package tours where everything was already planned. So I made and shared free travel guides until 40 per cent of Korean tourists had my guides.

The visitor count shot way up, but that wasn’t enough. I decided to pivot fast and created a sister service, WingSpoon, that provided information on good restaurants in major tourist spots. This brought in a huge influx of visitors, and Naver eventually acquired both companies for USD $2 million in 2009. I re-joined their team with the sale.

What were the toughest times as you built your startups?

After paying off my taxes and debts, I only had 10 per cent of the proceeds from the WingSpoon sale left to my name. Considering that I had been working with almost no pay for four years, it was nothing to write home about.

What I learned from this experience, however, was priceless. Going through the scary periods of running out of money to pay my employees, I spent a lot of time talking long walks with my then co-founder, Chang-Wook Kim. I learned then that running a startup isn’t a straight path, and you need a person you can count on.

 So you were back into a big company. Did that dampen your entrepreneurial spirit at all?

 Not even a bit. I spotted another opportunity while working at Naver. I was studying Groupon very closely, and social commerce seemed like a good business model with relatively low setup cost and a huge upside potential.

I founded Daily Pick with two co-founders in 2010 and ran it in my free time. I tweeted our first deal for a trendy restaurant to my 30 followers. Word got out quickly, and we sold out in a few hours.  That was a good sign of a product-market fit. From then on, we didn’t spend any money on ads; it was all word of mouth. We still had deals selling out in 5 minutes. I was up until 3:00 a.m. every day, but the sheer thrill of selling out the deals kept me going.

Of course, high demand attracts competitors like sharks. I hate competition, and I actively try to avoid it. One way to do that was to focus on our niche market: trendy restaurants for people in their early twenties. We knew exactly who our target market was, and that set us apart.

As much as I tried to avoid competition, I actually saw a potential for synergy with one of my competitors, Ticket Monster. Their team was mostly young and passionate, while our team had more experience. We decided to join forces in late 2010; Ticket Monster bought Daily Pick for USD $9 million. I was still working at Naver at that time.

I could have kept running the company, but again, I stayed true to my nature. I just knew that this market would become a bloodbath, and I wasn’t built for this kind of competition. I was much better off starting something else.

 What is the most surprising thing about your current industry?

In 2014, I was working at Kakao, Korea’s biggest social network. What struck me was that 80 per cent of total shares on our platform were coming from less than 10 per cent of our content: quizzes. The same thing was happening outside of Korea; Buzzfeed had a quiz that had more shares than 1,000 articles combined.

To me that was the sound of a market screaming to be explored. People have basically told us what they wanted; all I had to do was to give them more of that. I believe this is one of the most critical factors when starting a company. You have to establish a very clear product-market fit. Wingbus didn’t have a product-market fit. Vonvon did. And that made all the difference.

And the beauty was, it didn’t take much to produce these online quizzes on Facebook.

What was Vonvon’s launch like?

We launched a website with eight quizzes in Korea on the last day of 2014. On New Year’s Day nothing happened. The next day, however, 5,000 people took the quizzes. Day three: 100,000 people. By day four, more than 300,000. The following day, my co-founders and I handed in our two-week notices at our day jobs. That’s when the company was actually born.

We are now a team of more than 90 content creators, editors and designers. We produce quizzes in 15 languages that attract more than 300 million monthly unique visits from around the world. We broke even in our first year and are growing fast.

That’s impressive. Any tips for our readers?

Part of the reason we were able to achieve these milestones is that we had a global market in mind when starting out. We fully knew that Vonvon’s display ads model wouldn’t work in Korea; it was simply too small a market for the business model. Right now, only three per cent of traffic comes from Korea.

I’d also say that you need to be true to your own nature. I’ve always been very conservative and risk-averse. And that actually guided me to pursue only the opportunities with the best risk-reward ratios.

Who inspires you?

 When I was working at Naver, I learned a lot from the company’s founder, Hae-Jin Lee. He had made it his life’s mission to create Korea’s own search engine. For him, money was an afterthought. And look where he is now. Any business undertaking takes complete dedication; you just have to love what you do.

Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renne Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renne Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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