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[Market & Industry] What Seoul Can Learn From the "Real Startup Scene in Silicon Valley"

Without a doubt, the startup scene in Seoul is growing. Tim Chae of 500 Startups believes that “Seoul is poised to become the hub of concentrated tech startup activity in Asia” and Seedstars World recently created a great infographic of entrepreneurship in Korea that breaks down exactly why Korea’s startup ecosystem holds so much potential. As the Korean startup community grows, there are more opportunities for learning, sharing, and connecting, which is exactly what happened this past Wednesday at Kstartup’s Fireside Chat. On August 6th, Kstartup, a startup accelerator based in Seoul that is now going into their fourth batch, hosted their Fireside Chat titled “Real Startup Scene in Silicon Valley” at D.Camp. This session hosted Sandro Mur of Bellabeat and Willie Williams of Tsumobi to share their startup experiences in Silicon Valley, and was moderated by Kstartup’s KJ Byeon and Yoonjin Chang.

Takeaways From Kstartup’s Fireside Chat: “Real Startup Scene in Silicon Valley”

The purpose of this chat was to share some of the insights of Silicon Valley startups with Seoul entrepreneurs, who are inevitably curious about what goes on in the Valley and eager for tips on how to expand into the global market. Sandro and Willie both had interesting albeit quite different stories to tell, providing two unique perspectives of the startup scene in Silicon Valley. Bellabeat and Tsumobi are both Y Combinator grads. Bellabeat, a startup from Croatia that just recently graduated from Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 class, was voted “most likely to be successful” among its cohort and received $4.5 million in funding a few months ago. Tsumobi, on the other hand, is from one of Y Combinator’s earliest batches and graduated in 2007 back when the accelerator was still in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Willie and Sandro covered various topics such as pitching, fundraising, and going through an accelerator like Y Combinator. Based on their experiences and insights, I’ve highlighted four key takeaways that Seoul’s startup community can learn from Silicon Valley.

Know how to sell your vision

When asked how to get people to invest in your idea, Sandro simply says, “You need to sell.” He jokingly said, “I don’t know how to sell my product, but I know how to sell my vision.” Bellabeat had their share of struggles and failures at Y Combinator, just like any other startup, but Sandro said, “I was selling my vision so hard that everyone believes we were the best.” It’s important to know how to sell your vision to your investors, your partners, and your customers. Willie agreed with the importance of selling your vision, and this can be tied in to the importance of pitching. When pitching to investors, “it’s a chance to tell your story,” Willie says, and with it, your strategy. “If you can’t tell your story, they won’t be interested,” said Willie, and encourages taking the time to refine your pitch.

Ride the fundraising wave

Some startups have indefinite fundraising goals, and can end up wasting a lot of time and energy. Instead, Willie suggests, a better fundraising method is to build momentum. “The Valley rides on waves of momentum,” says Willie, and instead of having an undefined goal, it’s more efficient to set a specific time period for your fundraising efforts and invest all your energy. “Fundraising in Silicon Valley is a bit like a popularity contest,” Willie joked. “Investors can be a bit like teenagers, they have serious ‘Fear of Missing Out’ and can also be risk-averse.” If investors are interested in you, other investors will follow, so Willie recommends, “as soon as you have one investor, build momentum. But to do this, you need a pre-existing network.” It’s important to maintain regular contact so that when you really need funding, you’re not wasting time meeting new people, you’ve already built the relationship.

There is no “silver bullet” for going global

As a startup from Croatia, Sandro’s experience in Silicon Valley resonated with the audience and naturally raised the question of how startups can expand globally. Sandro says, “Work 247 to adopt.” Whether that means perfecting your English, understanding that culture, or building your global network, put in the time and effort. Sandro also says, “Share with people. Be more open. In Silicon Valley, they have a sharing ecosystem.” Willie echoed this last tip, and said that the vision of going global is just as much of a challenge in the U.S. “There’s no one silver bullet that is a straight shot,” Willie says. “It’s a lot of lead bullets.” It’s important to try, test, and work out the hard, minute details to succeed in other markets. “Some entrepreneurs say it’s too hard and they want to outsource so that someone else can deal with it,” Willie says, but he disagrees. “This is the wrong mindset. At the beginning of a startup, you need to understand everything and have your hands in everything.”

Get off your island

One of the biggest questions that were raised at the session was how the startup scene in Seoul compares to Silicon Valley’s, and what are potential factors that block Korean startups from being more global. Willie honestly shared that “a lot of people put Silicon Valley on a pedestal and think of it as this magical place where everything happens, but it’s not true.” Startups in the Valley face the same problems as startups in Seoul or anywhere else, such as how to market and how to hire. But the difference that Willie notes is that “in Korea, everyone seems to feel like they’re on an island.” In Silicon Valley, people reach out to their networks, where they share their problems and get advice and feedback because chances are, others have faced the same exact problem. Willie’s advice for Korean startups: “Realize that you’re not on an island. Reach out to others.” Sandro agreed with this advice, and said that one of the biggest benefits of his experience with Y Combinator was the contacts and friends that he made. Although Bellabeat already had a product, service, and revenue, Sandro says the relationships he built within the program are the most valuable. “Funding can run out,” Sandro says, “but friendships are forever.” Overall, the Fireside Chat was a great opportunity for entrepreneurs in Seoul to get a realistic look into “the real startup scene in Silicon Valley.” With Sandro’s and Willie’s insights from their stories of success and failure in Silicon Valley, and it is worth considering what can be applied to startups in Seoul as well. Many Korean startups dream of making their way to Silicon Valley and becoming one of its many glamorous success stories. Venture Square has even created a Silicon Valley Startup Guide to help answer some basic questions and provide resources for Korean entrepreneurs looking to make the leap. However, it’s valuable to see that as an emerging startup hub in Asia, Seoul also has the potential to create success stories of its own. Many thanks to Kstartup for hosting this Fireside Chat and creating this learning opportunity! Kstartup announced that the next Fireside Chat will be in approximately three weeks and will be featuring top designers from Uber and Instagram, so be sure to keep an eye out for those event details. For more great events in the Seoul startup community, I recommend subscribing to Seoul Startup Digest for a weekly email with a roundup of upcoming events in the Seoul area.

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