Radish founder Lee Seung-yoon plays first and earns later
Kakao Entertainment announced on Tuesday that it struck a $440 million deal to acquire U.S. web novel platform Radish. Its founder, 31-year-old Lee Seung-yoon, a graduate of Oxford University, hoped to become a guest reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, back in 2013 when he was first interviewed by the paper. Lee was the first Korean president of the Oxford Union, the school’s debating society that counts politicians Tony Blair and David Cameron among its alumni.
Lee cites his time as head of the Oxford Union, which has an annual budget of over 1 million pounds, as the reason he became interested in economics. “Playing with a lot of money helped me grow my interest,” he said in the 2013 interview.
Just eight years later, and Lee is at the center of a multi-million-dollar merger. But he says it didn’t just fall in his lap.
“Doing my best was easy,” he told the JoongAng Ilbo in a recent interview on May 7, adding, “the problem was continuing to do it and doing it well."
Lee put on a smile — not that of a naïve young man but that of a veteran who has jumped through the toughest hoops and hurdles that life put in his way. Back in Oxford, he dreamed of becoming a politician. But Oxford Union steered his life in the direction of economics and set him on the path to become a successful entrepreneur.
He founded his journalism start-up Byline in 2014 and worked on crowd-funding to report on certain subjects, rather than covering a broad range of subjects and making ends meet with funding for advertisers.
During his days at Byline, Lee landed an exclusive interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and even sat down with esteemed U.S. scholar Noam Chomsky. He may have benefited from the network he formed as the president of Oxford Union, but in the end, it was his hard work that earned him his success.
However, although Lee found working at Byline meaningful, it didn’t earn him much money. As a businessman, Byline taught him some harsh lessons, especially in comparison to his friends from Oxford who were working at investment banks or law firms. He could have given up, but instead, he took another leap of faith.
“I had strong faith in content and media, after being exposed to novels, films and news reports since when I was young,” he said. “I constantly questioned myself, ‘What if I failed?’ But I kept on going, vowing that I will not take any more steps backward.”
With his faith in content and media, he founded Radish in 2016. As an English web novel sharing platform, Radish is considered the equivalent of Netflix in the web novel world. Radish focused on web novels, not videos, and a collective of writers takes turns to write one work, not just one author. This allows more works to be created faster.
Rather than immediate profit, Radish eyed more long-term goals. It split any profits fifty-fifty with the creators, which eventually led to more writers working with the platform and creating quality works, leading to an overall positive spiral. Radish spent the other half of its revenue investing in content to steadily grow. It is the fifth-largest web novel platform in the United States and recorded 2.3 billion won ($2 million) in sales last year. Radish eventually managed to create a value chain of production and distribution with the intellectual property (IP) it owned that went beyond the borders of one particular genre of content.
The beginning, however, was humble.
“I pushed through for the first five years, but there came a point where the qualitative investment paid off quantitatively,” said Lee. “There was a time when I had to ask for help from a friend because I couldn’t take out any more loans and I became terrified that I was becoming an unemployable person.”
Whenever that sense of fear struck him, however, he turned to his mentors like Lee Jae-woong, founder of portal site Daum and investor Nicolas Berggruen. But in the end, what mattered was his trust in himself. Lee proved with his own business that perseverance was the key to success.
When the JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Berggruen in 2013 with Lee, after they had visited both South Korea and North Korea, he whispered in the reporter’s ear to “Look out for Seung-yoon” because he will one day become big. After the news of the Kakao merger was first revealed last week, Berggruen called Lee to congratulate him, telling him that he had always had faith in him and asking what his next step would be.
To that question, Lee answered, “I want to devote myself to what I do now, but I want to expand into the fields of media or entertainment in the future.”
Kakao Entertainment has now acquired two U.S.-based content platforms — Tapas Media and Radish — acting as stepping stones into the global market. Radish will maintain its existing structure and will be run by Lee, who will also be given a position in Kakao Entertainment as a global strategy officer. The same goes for Tapas Media and its CEO Chang Kim. Lee and Kim will lead Kakao Entertainment’s launch in the U.S. and European content market — the reason behind Kakao’s massive investment.
Kakao Entertainment will also service its Korean content in English through Radish to benefit both parties in the deal. This can be read as a move against rival Naver’s recent merger of web novel platform Wattpad.
In the 2013 interview, Lee was asked whether he had always been good at English. He said that he was actually bad at it, reminiscing how he didn’t even make it into the basic-level class at a hagwon (extracurricular cram school) in Gangnam, notorious for its obsession with scores and tests, when his mother took him for a test in fifth grade. It was when he visited the United States when he was younger that he realized he wanted to learn English and see the world.
“When I felt that learning English was fun, good scores just followed,” he said, just as he took an interest in economics and ended up with a multi-million dollar deal. Only time will tell where his next interest will take him.
BY CHUN SU-JIN [email@example.com]