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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

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

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

Nadia Al Sheikh, Founder & CEO of Flenco & Deal’n

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Nadia Al Sheikh has created a business module which incorporates philanthropy and business to empower others, and herself, she’s called her business Deal’n.

What’s your story?
My story is mirrored in my work. Flenco and our Singaporean eco skin care brand, “Flen” combines Dead Sea minerals from the lowest point of earth with Chinese medicine, which represents the wisdom and mystics of the east and these things represent my journey. I’m a single mother rediscovering my identity at a low point in life. Throughout my journey, determination, flexibility and assertiveness are the pillars of innovation. Thus Deal’n was born after years of groundwork in volunteering with various NGO’s and pursuing my masters degree. Transforming a vision, into a module that incorporates philanthropy and business, with tools to empower others and empower myself!

What excites you most about your industry?
The endless opportunities for improvement, innovation, creativity, free thinking which is mastered through interaction with other players in the market and customers creating a virtual place for brainstorming and the exchange of ideas. An evolving industry that challenges each and every person to use their skills, talents, expertise and utilise all their abilities to claim a slice of the pie.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Asia and specifically Singapore are my second home. It’s my spiritual and business safe haven that provides fair opportunities for everyone to succeed. If I was back in the Middle East as a single mother, I’m pretty sure my struggle would have been much longer and more difficult, however, it wouldn’t have stopped me from achieving my dreams. Singapore specifically empowered me professionally and Asia spiritually in redefining who I am as a person and understanding myself better.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, although it’s a very tough and competitive market for entrepreneurs to start a business, it provides them with support and motivation through grants, competitions and subsidising the cost of exhibiting or promotional events to promote their business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Success is measured by achieving your own personal goals and dreams and not what others think you should achieve.

Who inspires you?
Those who go unnoticed. From senior citizens, cleaning tables at food courts regardless of their wealth of knowledge and experience to single mothers, who are fighting everyday to overcome the social stigma and manage taking care of their children while earning an income. The amazing people who give their lives to start an NGO to empower others asking for nothing in return except the success of their beneficiaries, the humble members of our community that work in silence changing lives not for the spotlight but for their belief in making the world a better place.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
To step onto the balcony! In order to evaluate situations and understand people’s motivations from different perspectives and even to understand ourselves better we all need to step onto the balcony and become observers rather than participants. It gives you the power to see life through a variety of lenses.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’d be wiser with my decisions, evaluate situations from different perspectives and believe in myself and my capabilities. That all came with experience and the ups and downs throughout my journey so I guess, to be who I am today I would have accepted the rough times and embraced them because they were my best teachers. So I wouldn’t undo the past but I am changing my future.

How do you unwind?
Meditation, exercising, listening to music, reading a book and a walk in the botanical gardens.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Maldives, I love the peace and harmony in the simplicity of what it offers; beautiful beaches and wonderful people.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Wisdom Of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Shameless plug for your business:
Deal’n provides opportunities for all members of the community to utilize their skills, talents, expertise, capabilities and abilities in various ways, aiming at empowering all users to become productive members of their community. Using the services of other users for all to grow and benefit, interact with each other through the Deal’n community, thus enhancing their self esteem, level of confidence and as a result, a more empathetic and happier community!

How can people connect with you?
Through my FB page Nadousheh, my email [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@nadiaalsheikh

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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