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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

Denise Mossis Kipnis, Founder & Principal of ChangeFlow Consulting

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Denise Mossis Kipnis’ curiosity in people and the world, lead her to set up ChangeFlow Consulting.

What’s your story?
I’m driven by curiosity. Having been the only one in a room who looks like me for most of my life, I developed a curiosity about who stays, who leaves and who thrives in minority/majority situations including when and how connection and collaboration happen. I was a systems thinker long before I knew what that was, always asking why and so what; and seeing the pieces, the whole, and the places in between. So helping people and organisations move through the complexity of transformation feels natural to me.

What excites you most about your industry?
I see change and inclusion as two sides of the same thing; I don’t practice one without the other. Some people see change as death, as loss, as exhausting. And it can be. But I see in the work I do as an opportunity for something new or hidden to emerge. When an organisation understands that it is first a group of people, who themselves represent and belong to groups of people, and it begins to tackle what it would mean to understand and learn from all that talent, all that diversity, to have them all working for and not against the organisation, to truly unleash all that their people have to offer; that’s magic.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Change and inclusion are personal values as well as professional strengths. For me, living and working outside of the States was a bold experiment to see whether any of the stuff I’d learned about change and inclusion would work outside of the US. My husband and I targeted Asia specifically: it would be the greatest contrast, culturally speaking, for me; and a unique career springboard for him.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Although I’ve practiced in other cities, I am biased towards Singapore. In some ways it’s what Los Angeles is to the rest of the United States, a microcosm of sorts. The regional/global nature of it means that so many different nationalities and cultures are represented. As a result of this mix, you never know what you might get. In some situations, cultural dynamics are obvious, sometimes subdued. The variability is compelling.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.” Michael Rouan.

Who inspires you?
Often it’s a “what” not a “who.” I can get inspiration from a passage in a book or a situation in a movie, as well as a turn of a phrase or watching people interact. I often make the biggest connections between the various threads I’m working on when I’m sitting in someone else’s event.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’m honestly not blown away by much. Instead, I’m struck how circular things can be: ideas often come back around with a slightly different twist and I watch the way it shakes things loose for people. I recently sat through a workshop on Self as Instrument, and despite being thoroughly versed already, I learned something. In preparing for a panel on design thinking, I unearthed a new language to describe things.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
You’ve caught me at a good time. I’m sitting in appreciation and gratitude for all my experiences, because I wouldn’t be who I was today if all that has happened, didn’t. And yet one thing comes to mind: It wasn’t until I redesigned my website two years ago (shout out to Brew Creative!) that I realised I hadn’t made explicit agreements with my past clients as to what I could share publicly about our engagement, or whether I could use their logos in my promotional materials. In my business, confidentiality is so important, and yet I need to be able to talk about the work as reputation and experience leads to the next success, and so on. It turned out a lot of the contacts I had known had left the organisations where the work was done, so they couldn’t help at that point. So the practice I’m carrying forward is to get those agreements up front, and to make sure my relationships in client systems are broad as well as deep.

How do you unwind?
Science fiction, puzzles, wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Home. I don’t travel to relax, I travel to learn and explore.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Built to Change, by Ed Lawler and Chris Worley. To my knowledge, it’s the first pivot from advising organisations away from stability and toward dynamism, from strategic planning to strategizing as an action verb; to blow up the traditions and rigidity that impede organisations from developing change capability.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re taught that there are two kinds of people: those who see forests, and those who see trees. There is a third type, my type, and we see the ecosystem. Worms, climate, birds, the spaces in between. This is the perspective organisations need to be successful in solving complex problems and thriving in change.
ChangeFlow uniquely blends four disciplines (two of which are multi-disciplinary in themselves): organisation development, culture and inclusion, change management and project management.

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChangeFlowConsulting/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dmorriskipnis/
LinkedIn Company page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/4862954/
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.changeflowconsulting.com

Twitter handle?
@ChangeFlow

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

Agnes Yee, Legal & Compliance Recruiter of Space Executive

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Agnes Yee started Space Executive in Singapore, which is a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

What’s your story?
After graduation, I joined a design media company as a Business Development Executive, during the era when ‘reading a magazine online’ was unheard of. I believe that laid the foundation for being unfazed by rejections.

I fell into recruitment pre-GFC and rode the highs and lows in the early years. A decade later, I decided to set up my own recruitment company, partly because I could. I’m acutely aware of the face that being an Asian female in Singapore is sometimes a privilege, and that many women in the world are living a very different existence.
Thereafter, we joined Space Executive as part of a merger. I am currently the Partner of Space Executive, a recruitment company focused specialist disciplines, including Legal, Finance, Digital, Sales and Marketing and Change. We also run Space Ventures, a venture capital business, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
On a daily basis, we’re influencing how one spends a third of their day. It is interesting how the Internet has transformed the industry, and I’m excited to see how we can harness technology to bring us to the next phase of this business.

The VC is an extension of applying our skills and experience in reading people. We very much invest in the people as much as the idea. Being a native Singaporean, it’s been exhilarating watching Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of ideas; and young entrepreneurs simply daring to dream.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I love that I speak both English and Mandarin, grew up playing with Indian friends and eating Malay food.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the low barriers of entry to set up a business, but has to be China (and Hong Kong) for their hunger and constant innovation.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
青春不要留白 which translates to ‘Don’t waste your youth.’

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has gone against the grain.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It wasn’t recent but reading the article on https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html never fails to blow my mind how little time we have left. Charting our lives in weeks, and realising I only have enough time left to enjoy 60 Christmas turkeys, read 300 books (all if I’m lucky); and mostly, I’m left with the last 5% of the time that I spend in-person with my parents.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’m cognisant that every decision I made in life has brought me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change one thing. But I’d really like to have had more time to travel.

How do you unwind?
Exercise and wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Trekking any mountain in Asia. It brings us back to the most basic. To overcome elements of nature and our own mind.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Start with Why, Simon Sinek

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive started in Singapore, a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. We assist organisations in accessing a targeted and specialised, and often times transient talent pool.

Out of Singapore, we have recruited across 14 countries; and have embarked on our global expansion plans with offices in Hong Kong and London this year, and US, Japan and Europe in the following years.

Space Ventures provides funding, management and financial guidance to young businesses with original ideas. We have invested in peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring, social media education, and other start-ups spanning diverse industries. We are always interested in hearing more about new ideas.

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/agnesyee/

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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