Start-up stardom has roots in risks

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Start-up stardom has roots in risks

Building a company from scratch and having it acquired by a major international corporation years later is a good reason to give yourself a pat on the back.

But Roh Jung-seok, 38, seemed quite calm on Aug. 8, even though just two days earlier, 5Rocks, an analytics and marketing automation company co-founded by Roh, was acquired by Tapjoy, the world’s largest mobile advertising company. The exact terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it is estimated that Tapjoy paid tens of trillions of won.

In the start-up industry, Roh didn’t just come of the blue. Blogging software developer Tatter and Company (TNC), which in 2008 became the first Asian company bought by Google, was also Roh’s.

Eighteen years ago, Roh was known as the hacker from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist) who paralyzed the computing system at Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech). But now, he has become a star for his successful ventures.

“Choosing the path with more risks got me this far,” said Roh, now the chief strategy officer at 5Rocks.

While living in a dorm room and attending Jeonbuk Science High School, Roh learned to make decisions for himself and take responsibility for those decisions. Even the hacking incident, which he was arrested and fined for, was a lesson for Roh.

“Having fingers pointed at you and getting rejected from a young age after I made a bad decision was like training, and that experience gave me a competitive edge,” he said.

But spending two years working for Google on his TNC software was still challenging for Roh. “For me, a Korean native who had never lived abroad, Google seemed like an MBA,” Roh said. “At Google, I learned I need to challenge a ‘bigger stage’ in order to reach the global standard.”

Roh put that lesson into practice when he co-founded 5Rocks after quitting Google. Roh said he started thinking he should “find something he can do better than Silicon Valley’s ventures and do it well enough to make them envious.”

5Rocks technology, which analyzes the patterns of mobile game users, was the first and the best of its kind in the world. Within a year after it was established, 5Rocks attracted more than 700 game companies as its clients.

“To put it bluntly, Korean companies cannot survive if they don’t provide services that are marketable in American or Chinese markets,” Roh said. “On the [global stage,] your education - whether you graduated from Seoul National University or Kaist - means nothing.”

He said he pitied the Korean government’s ignorance of the global reality. “The government should help [Korean] companies advance in global markets like the American or Chinese markets. It shouldn’t keep them behind under the pretense of keeping the Korean market intact.”

He gave America’s PayPal and China’s Alipay as examples of ventures that are now dominating the global payment market. “While they were heading forward, Korean companies were [kept back], holding onto ActiveX, which was implemented by the government.” ActiveX is an Internet Explorer-based program that was criticized for its bulky and burdensome authentication process when users tried to pay online.

Roh said he is even passing on the venture spirit to his 10-year-old son.

“I tell him, ‘If you need to choose one of the two, pick the riskier option,” he said.

He reasoned that many people opt for a stable path with a lower possibility of success due to oversaturation. “Ever since my son was young, I emphasized [to him] that the riskier a path is, the bigger the prize,” Roh said.

He said he advises his juniors at start-ups not to indulge in “office play,” referring to getting tied down with corporate labels. “Those who enjoy ‘office play’ with titles like ‘CEO’ or ‘board director’ cannot succeed,” Roh said.

His dream to create a “venture gold rush” in Korea has led to his role as an angel investor.

He constantly invests in start-ups that he thinks are promising but have little or no funding. “It’s lessons for me as well, to help companies grow that have leaders who can read the markets,” Roh said.

Roh has so far invested in 15 ventures, including Ticket Monster, a social commerce company; Dialoid, a voice-recognition service company that was acquired by Daum; Noom, a weight-loss coaching app; and Memebox, which has moved to Silicon Valley. Roh’s contributions have helped put the previously unnoticed start-ups on the map.

In 2012, Roh co-founded Fast Track Asia, a venture promotion and investment company, along with Shin Hyun-sung, CEO of Ticket Monster, and Park Ji-woong, a venture capitalist.

“I think those who sneer that I am a free rider on mergers and acquisitions are jealous,” Roh said. “It takes more people like me who ‘find and exit’ to have companies like Facebook.”

By Park su-ryun [eunjik@joongang.co.kr]

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