Why there are not many startups in Korea

When I set out to translate Paul Graham’s Why to Not Not Start a Startup to Korean, my former colleague who is much better in written Korean helped me. I read the article before, but re-reading it and discussing it with the former colleague made me realize that there are two very fundamental cultural differences that prevent many people, especially the young, from starting a company.

The first is very bad stigma against failure. In Korean society, they have deep seeded notion that success is measured by the path you take in life – where you went to school, where you work, what title you have, where you live, who you marry, etc. Any deviation from that is frowned upon. It doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone like that, but it’s very rare. Those who don’t follow the “right” path is considered failure and treated as such. And they wouldn’t be able to get a good job or will not be promoted high enough even if s/he has a job, because they don’t have the right credentials. Considering that, failure from a startup company is even worse. When you do, getting a job becomes extremely hard. There is an additional element of lack of venture funding. That means most startups are infused with founders’ money or loan, and if they fail, they lose literally everything.

The second is age hierarchy. Because in Confucius society (which Korea society is based on), you have to respect the elders, it’s very hard to challenge any notion from the elders. It had also seeped into corporate culture, where people are promoted mostly based on ages. Thus, people with higher titles tend to be older. And thus, it’s hard to challenge them, culturally. That totally kills or severely limits innovations.

Those two reasons alone would be enough to inhibit anyone from attempting to start  a company.

A stereotype say Asians generally study harder and score higher in test exams. That in no way means higher intelligence or smartness. What matters in a startup is not book smart, but almost start smart and being resourceful. That’s why hackers are better fit for founders of startups.

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