Foreign start-ups discuss obstacles

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Foreign start-ups discuss obstacles

“I am a man who graduated from a women’s university!”

This is how a young French entrepreneur introduced himself. Originally, Younes Mazzache came to Korea as an exchange student at Ewha Woman’s University three years ago. But even though Mazzache studied management, he put more effort into his Korean-language classes.

“Everything about Korea was so fascinating to me, from a talking elevator to a completely new language,” he said, “and I had to stay here longer to find out more what the country has to offer.”

Curiosity to explore more about Korea led him to have a number of different career experiences. From an internship at Louis Vuitton Korea to a kindergarten teacher at the French Cultural Center, he eventually became an owner, along with two other like-minded friends, of Seoul Wines and Spirits, which imports wine from France and owns a vineyard, wine-making facilities and cellars.

The French entrepreneur stresses that wine is more than an object and that it should be identified with culture and combined with pleasure, parties and enjoyment. As a successful entrepreneur serving major clients such as Chrysler, BMW, Incheon Airport lounges and the Hilton and Hyatt Hotels in Korea, Mazzache’s next goal is to change Koreans’ perception of wine. He hopes that his company can help Koreans discover the alcohol’s real charms.

According to Mazzache, wine is not a luxurious liquor but a drink of enjoyment that tells cultural stories and creates intimacy.

In terms of the expat business community in Seoul, he is not alone. The Seoul Global Center alone has helped about 150 foreigners start their businesses in Seoul over the last three years.

Fifteen foreign CEOs joined a business fair for start-ups from overseas, held last Wednesday at Seoul City Hall in central Seoul.

Just like their different cultures, ethnicities and nationalities, those foreign entrepreneurs have disparate yet interesting stories to tell about launching their companies in Korea.

One Japanese CEO at the fair discussed how her company launched with a touching family anecdote. Chiaki Konishi has a grandmother who suffered from a stroke and currently stays at an elderly care facility.

Watching her grandmother struggling with pain and paralysis could have been too much to bear, but Konishi noticed there was something that made her sick grandmother smile.

“Even though she has to frown out of pain when moving her own body, she smiles like a child whenever she smells aroma oils,” said Konishi.

This inspired the Japanese entrepreneur. Konishi began her aromatic essential oil business with the hope of helping patients and caregivers at nursing facilities produce the body’s natural feel-good chemicals to help fight depression.

Now, her aroma company is about to broaden its services as a fragrance-marketing consultancy for companies and brands.

Regardless of nationality, the majority of start-ups face a number of challenges in the initial stages such as funding and marketing. The foreign entrepreneurs who took part in the fair said in unison that one of the biggest obstacles is cultural differences in the business setting.

Last March, Remi Delitte from Belgium opened an Asian branch of a Belgian company specializing in wireless sensor transmitters that conduct remote monitoring, analysis and troubleshooting for heavy machinery in dangerous areas.

When searching for a local partnership, Delitte confessed he feels like he continuously hits a snag when he tries to get hold of the “right person” at a Korean company.

In order to adapt to the Korean market, foreign start-ups are required to equip strategic sales personnel to effectively approach potential partners and clients in Korea.

“[As a foreigner], you can’t do it by yourself,” said Delitte.

“It is not even easy to get connected to a person you wish to discuss matters with until both parties fully assimilate differences in business practices and culture of two countries.”

Mads Roos, who runs a start-up in the IT industry, agrees that Korean business culture and business ethics are a huge challenge that are perhaps bigger than the language barrier. The Danish entrepreneur explains that the way they do business in Denmark is very different from the way Koreans do business here.

The two European businessmen voiced how difficult it is to find entrepreneurs who share the same mind-sets as they do.

“Even though you encounter someone who shares the same language and same cultural background with you, it is a different story if you can trust them as a business partner,” Roos said.

In that sense, foreign entrepreneurs find it more challenging to build net works in Korea.

Despite the obstacles and ever-changing regulations, foreign entrepreneurs are joining the start-up boom in Korea, and they are making great strides in finding opportunities here.

Seoul is attractive to those who wish to pursue entrepreneurial dreams as the huge metropolis can offer easy access to a variety of resources and opportunities as it sometimes functions as a test market for Asia.

Roos shared his insights by giving a figurative example to those who wish to become CEOs.

“Imagine you draw a line,” he said. “You think you can draw a line like a breeze even with your eyes closed. No matter how hard you imagine yourself drawing a line, nothing exists until you actually pick up a pen and move it on paper. Just draw a line without thinking for too long.”

For many entrepreneurs here, the key to success is to stop just thinking about your goals and get out there and start making them happen. Take a leaf from their book in whatever you do - begin with a line on a blank piece of paper and you’ll soon be on your way.


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