‘Marta Allina’, a global startup ecosystem connector in South Korea, talks about the ecosystem of South Korea startups
Studies show that people who have experienced completely different environments and contexts see the world from a different perspective. Marta Allina from Poland is also familiar with this kind of ‘Stranger Experience’.
Marta had wanted to live abroad since she was young, and the country she chose was South Korea. She first came to South Korea following her father, who’s a diplomat, attended a university in South Korea, and even had her first job at a local conglomerate. As she established a point of contact with the Korean startup ecosystem by chance, she has been working as an accelerator and networker connecting South Korea and overseas. She has stayed in South Korea for 18 years, and her Korean is nearly perfect as her mother tongue.
She wears several different hats. She is the founder of Seoul Startups, which is a startup community, the partner of South Ventures, and the country partner of German Entrepreneurship Asia (hereinafter “GEA”). What made Marta come to South Korea and stay in this startup scene? And what does she want to propose and suggest revitalizing the domestic startup ecosystem?
– I’ll ask you first about your personal history. You spent more than half of your life here in South Korea.
Ever since I was young, I always wanted to live abroad, especially in a country with dynamics. My mother was against it because she was worried that she would not be able to help me as quickly as possible if anything. However, I never gave up, so she always lamented that I was a troublesome daughter. So we came to an agreement as I decided to go to South Korea, which all of my family had experienced. My mother could also communicate in Korean, and because she had acquaintances, she could come up with alternatives if anything. So at first, I came as a short-term exchange student, but I am still here now.
– I worked for a large conglomerate after finishing college here in South Korea.
I worked for Samsung Electronics’ network division for 4 years. It was a meaningful time to learn Korean company’s work style and culture. However, I suffered from burnout, and by the time I decided to quit, I made up my mind that I would not return to an office job. And then I became a bartender right after.
-What an unpredictable career change.
I worked at a bar in Gangnam, Seoul, for a year, and it suited my personality better than working at a large firm. There were many startup CEOs among my customers, and they found it very interesting to see a foreign bartender who was fluent in Korean. It even led to a global marketing job opportunity for startups as a freelancer. And a startup accelerator offered me a position as a global program manager, so I stepped into the startup scene.
-I am wearing three hats. The South Ventures’ partner, GEA’s community partner, South Korea, and the founder for Seoul Startups.
It is crazy hectic and busy but brings me so much fun at the same time. I am also into wearing different hats as well. I would like to define myself as a community builder and an ecosystem builder amongst many positions to go by.
– You arranged the German startup demo day as the country partner of GEA Korea at ‘Come Up 2022’ last year. How did the participating companies react?
I have been receiving many positive responses. They say it was meaningful to be on stage for the Demo Day, and they liked how it made connections with domestic and foreign industrial officials at the networking event. Among them, the products of ‘Loblich’, an organic lemonade manufacturer, were popular on-site. I heard that specific business discussions are exchanged as a large Korean corporate showed interest.
– Please introduce the GEA acceleration program hosted by the German government.
Our initial purpose of the program was to support German startups’ overseas expansion, but now we are expanding to startups all around the world. This program consists of the Market Discovery Program and Market Access course. The Market Discovery program helps startups validate the suitability of their business model in new potential target markets before entering, and the Market Access program helps startups prepare to enter specific international markets and successfully enter the target markets. There is a program called “SCALER8” which helps international startups enter other countries by scaling up. The greatest value that GEA can provide is a network of 500 mentors around the world. If you are looking into the international market, I think you can knock on the door.
-You should have seen many overseas and local startups. What was the most challenging part for them?
Small startups of course do have a lot of difficulties when it comes to funds. You can’t pay them enough like big conglomerates or provide such tangible benefits right away.
-And you have seen and helped many startups in South Korea trying to go abroad. Any suggestions or advice you could provide?
One of the mistakes Korean startups make is that they don’t consider going overseas from the very beginning. They usually have vague plans to grow in South Korea and then go abroad. I hope they could run it with a global mindset from the beginning. It’s not about going local and global at the same time. But you will have a chance later only if you have that mindset.
Also, keep in mind that eliminating language-related issues or barriers as much as possible is essential. In the acceleration process, mentoring often got difficult due to language, and even the process of going to IR pitching was harder for them. Of course, not all team members need to speak English, but if you see overseas markets, it’s good to have an English-proficient person in mind when organizing a team.
Numerous institutions are trying overseas expansion programs. But there are not many successful cases because most of them don’t fit the potential overseas market in my point of view. Most cases are of market access without a market discovery process. It’s so easy to fail, but what a waste of money, time and effort invested. I think studying and testing the overseas target market is necessary instead of going abroad directly. If you see a market opportunity in the process, you take an action. If you don’t have a chance, you have to find another, such as focusing on the domestic market.
Startup CEOs from large corporates often want to apply the large corporate culture to startups. But I think it doesn’t fit the startups which require more ‘lean’ and faster characteristics.
-Many foreign startups are coming to South Korea these days. The Korean government is actively encouraging it as well. What is so attractive about the Korean market?
Korea’s digital infrastructure is really top-notch. Working remotely is well supported as well. As there are many global conglomerates, there are a lot of opportunities for partnerships. It is also good that large companies are interested in collaboration and investment with startups these days. And it’s a good sign that the global community is growing little by little in South Korea. For example, Seoul Startups reached more than 3,600 members as of December and it’s also super dynamic.
– Then, is South Korea a good place for foreign startups to do business? Are there any regulatory issues?
I can’t say that the current status is great for business. First of all, the economy is very bad, and it’s hard to say that there’s a good infrastructure. If you can’t speak Korean, you need a Korean co-founder or employee because it’ll be hard to do business here. To be honest, I also ask for help from Korean acquaintances on various issues. Also, many Korean investors and accelerators are not highly interested in foreign startups because they think foreign startups are quite risky. Also, if you don’t have a corporation here in Korea, there will be twice as many things to take care of. Korea is active in supporting startups at the government level, but it also has difficulties when it comes to regulatory issues. The “Tada” incident also gave a bitter lesson that Korea can and do regulate from a political point of view.
Visa is another thing. If you hire a foreigner, you must give him or her a visa called ‘E7’. But to get that visa, you need to have a certain level of sales and at least employees. Early startups do have hurdles. The government’s OASIS (a comprehensive support system designed to invigorate the domestic economy and create jobs and business opportunities by issuing startup visas to foreigners based on their advanced technologies) is also not receiving positive feedback from overseas startups. Korean startups don’t have a wide path to finding foreign employees and vice versa. Even recruitment companies don’t have services for foreigners yet.
-What do foreign employees want from Korean startups?
They want to be involved and feel like they’re members of one team together with others. But I often hear that it doesn’t work that well due to language or cultural issues. As more and more companies operate at a global level, I think it will gradually get better.
– Korean startups should be ready, but I think foreign team members also need to make efforts to fit in. And I think you’ll be asked for advice from a perspective of a foreigner experiencing Korea for a long time.
I tell them that the adjustment will take less time only when they have an open mind that thinks like Koreans, not like foreigners. I even asked my Korean colleagues not to treat me like a foreigner. I talked in Korean and worked like a day-one Korean employee. If Korean team members are willing, they will soon find a solution to be on the same page.
– I think foreign startups and people related will ask you about the Korean startup ecosystem. What are they most curious about?
They are highly interested in business trends such as growing industries in South Korea and the government’s key support projects. Unfortunately, most of the information is very well provided in Korean, but not in foreign languages. So, I wish it’ll get better.
– What will it take for the domestic startup ecosystem to get better?
I hope there are many programs that can prepare to enter the global market closely in advance. The outcome and results will improve and get better if you go in order. And I want to emphasize once again that startups should have a global mindset from the beginning phase. It’s harder to succeed in this era if not. And for foreigners who want to start a business or work in South Korea, I would love to
suggest they pay attention to Seoul and other areas like Busan, etc.
-What’s your goal in Korea? Do you plan to start a business?
I’m only into taking part in terms of creating a startup ecosystem for now. It’s not a startup, but I’ve been moving like a startup. My goal is to create a proper global startup hub, a network. So please look forward to it.