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Why Korea Will Become The Next Silicon Valley



South Korea will become the next Silicon Valley. In four chronological layers that span several decades of development, Korea has fostered six key variables that feed off each other to create this viable startup atmosphere. These layers are:

  • Layer One: Educational Attainment (Historic)
  • Layer Two: Internet Connectivity + Hyper-Consumerism (90’s and 2000’s)
  • Layer Three: Government Involvement + Changing Korean Mindset (2o1o’s)
  • Layer Four: Migration of Younger Koreans (2010’s)

Internet Connectivity as a Foundation for Growth

Chances are if you have talked to anyone from Korea, one of the first things you will hear about is the unparalleled WiFi speed.

Just how quick is this Wifi?

Well, as you can see by this and this, it is the fastest in the world. Not only this but the connection is so spread out that on the metro most people stream TV shows or baseball games while commuting to and from work.

In many American metros, you’ll be luckily to get cell service — being able to live stream a baseball game is something out of the Twilight Zone

Internet, and the dispersion of connectivity, is the cornerstone of building a technologically advanced city. Unlike in other parts of Asia, Korea is not forced to develop technology around any Internet impediment. Rather, this connectedness pushes technological developments to the next level. The citizens of Korea have been spoiled by these Internet speeds and expect their technology to take full advantage of them. This means that, not only do developers have the technological means to create the next great application, but they have a people ready to adopt it immediately.

When is comes to Internet in Asia, Korea is King. (Source:

Why a Lifetime of Studying is Good for Startups

You’re born. You live. You die.

That’s how most people lives go — expect in Korea it is slightly different.

You’re born. You study. You live. You study some more. You die. Then you probably study some more in the afterlife.

The Korean educational system is one of the most intense in the world. Outside of class, Korean students study an average of eight hours a day. From an early age, children are expected to be learning from the early hours of the morning to the dead of night at cram schools (“hagwon”).

There are around 100,000 cram schools in Korea and over 3/4th of students attend at least one of them

Education is drilled into you in preparation for the Suneung — the test that decides where you go to college (think SAT but more deterministic of your future). Students study for thousands of hours for this 9-hour exam which is only offered once a year.

Suneung is a huge deal for the entire family. Families cheer as students march towards the test. No pressure, right?

So, what does this mean? It means Koreans understand the meaning of perseverance. Having the ability to study monotonous material for years and years teaches you how to push through your current struggles for a greater goal.

Ask anyone who has started their own startup and one of the most important things they will tell you is that you must be dedicated to your work and be willing to roll with the punches and face any hardship that may arise. What better people to take up this mantle that those who have been studying at 110% for years with societal pressure placed squarely on their shoulders to succeed.

If you have been waking up at dawn your entire life to study all day, persevering through the ups and downs of startup life is virtually second nature to you by now

Let’s Bring It All Together Now

Looping back to the introductory blog post, I set out trying to prove that South Korea is a ticking time bomb of startup growth that will put it on par with Silicon Valley in five to ten years. The variables at play are:

  1. Government Backing
  2. Migration of Younger Koreans
  3. Evolution of the Korean Mindset
  4. Hyper-Consumerism
  5. Technological Dispersion
  6. Nationwide Educational Attainment

I’ve shown how each of these power the startup scene separately but now I want to show how they work together. To do this, I’ve broken it down into four layers based on their chronological development in Korea.

First Layer: Educational Attainment (Historic)

Hagwon Life

Striving for high levels of educational attainment and the unrelenting effort this requires has been in Korea for decades in its current form, and centuries in the historic ‘gwa-goh’ system. This long cultural history begets a people that understand persevering and pushing through the hard times for a long-term goal. In order to be successful at a startup, you must be able to withstand the lowest of the lows. If the people of a startup ecosystem give up after they hit a few hard spots then the startup ecosystem itself will surely falter and cease to exist.

This perseverance, when looked at in isolation, does not guarantee anything. If you lack the proper technical infrastructure for development or have no demand for what you are creating then this is a non-starter.

Second Layer: Internet Connectivity + Hyper-Consumerism (90’s and 2000’s)

Korea’s fast Internet pre-dated the age of the startup and what it does for the budding startup scene is provide entrepreneurs a large canvas on which to create their technological works of art.

That being said, there would be no incentive to become an entrepreneur and leverage this technical backend without a pool of ready consumers.

This is where Korea’s hyper-consumerism comes into play.

The extreme sense of consumerism and accompanying peer pressure provide a demand function with a massive “X” variable upon which entrepreneurs can test out and distribute their product.

A metro with strong Wifi and long commutes adds another way for Koreans to consistently consume new technology.

Despite these first two layers, we are still lacking all the necessary pieces to create an environment in which creativity and startup growth can explode. At this point in Korea’s history, people still did not want to start their own company. Little funding was available for their ideas and the societal structure rewarded and reinforced the Samsung Mindset (i.e. get a stable job at Samsung and stay there your entire professional career).

What alleviated this was an influx of government involvement which informed and was informed by an evolution of the Korean mindset.

Third Layer: Government Involvement + Changing Korean Mindset (2010’s)

Government involvement came about a few years ago in the form of the Creative Economy. This gave additional means of support to then-current entrepreneurs while providing incentive for future ones to start their own companies. It helped take away some risk of becoming an entrepreneur by providing financial capital, co-working spaces, mentorship opportunities, etc.

President Park and the Creative Economy

Occurring alongside this was a steady dispersion of the idea that maybe the Samsung Mindset was not the best career path. Maybe there were other options — such as starting your own company — that would prove more fruitful. While this idea had been around for decades (not everyone bought into working for Samsung), it had not really picked up any steam until recently. This movement provided much needed human capital into the startup scene to go alongside the financial capital of the government.

That being said, there’s still a major issue with all of this. The corporate culture at Samsung and other international conglomerates encourages a specific way of thinking and tackling problems. In order for a startup to take off, it needs a bevy of new and innovative ways of looking at problems and planning for the future. This is where the migration of younger Koreans comes into play.

Fourth Layer: Migration of Younger Koreans (2010’s)

The return of native Koreans as well as movement of Korean-Americans into the startup ecosystem is a new phenomena that is helping provide a new outlook on management and strategy.

Coming to Korea, they are bringing with them different ways of tackling business problems as well as different views on company culture. Having people who have experienced different cultures migrate into a specific location is what helped drive Silicon Valley to greatness and can do the same for Korea.

MangoPlate, the Korean Yelp, is one of the many companies to benefit from this migration.

Why the Five to Ten Year Window?

So why did I give the five to ten year window? Well, all of these six variables are just now starting to work in unison and it takes some time before they can start to produce at their full potential.

When you combine all six of these points together you get an environment in which the necessary pieces for exponential startup growth — of which the world has not seen since Silicon Valley — are readily apparent. All that is needed is a spark to catapult Korea from an afterthought to the first thought when it comes to startups and innovation.


About the Author

This article was written by Alex Gershon. Alex works as the global liaison for Send Anywhere, a venture-backed file sharing startup. Alex is responsible locating and nurturing global business partnerships for the startup’s API as well as optimizing all outbound material to guarantee the highest ROI and customer acquisition rates. Additionally, Alex has experience in Marketing for various Silicon Valley startups including one that was acquired (OpenDNS, 2015) in which his role varied from email marketing, to third party vendor management, to the project head on various efforts aimed at jumpstarting sales Reach Alex

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings



Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?

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:
Download free copies of his books here:

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Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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