Best way to learn is to imitate (and how it should apply to startups in emerging markets)

Recently there were interesting articles beng circulated and discussed in the valley. One is Black Swan Farming by Paul Graham and the other one is Screw the Black Swans by Dave McClure. Interestingly enough, the fireside chat with Vinod Khosla at the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 was a timely interview and speaks to the different viewpoints.

I suspected, but was surprised to learn that out of all YC companies, Airbnb and Dropbox account for three quarters (3/4) in terms of about $10 Billion valuation. Paul was saying how difficult it is to pick a game changer winner. What makes it more difficult is how great ideas seem like bad ideas in the beginning. If an idea looks good, then everyone including large companies will work on it, and startups will have even less chance of succeeding. It’s when an idea seems bad and thus hard time getting funded, but at the end succeeds, it’s a game changer (homerun).

Vinod Khosla said pretty much the same. His fund looks for companies that will make tremendous impact when successful. It doesn’t matter when they fail. Founders will move on to a new project. But they don’t want to invest in companies that will make a little to no impact when successful. Again, Vinod is looking for a game changer (homerun) company.

Dave on the other hand is saying that 500 startups focus on Ichiro’s of the world (consistent hitting) rather than Barry Bond’s of the world (homerun king). He goes further into discussing the differences between YC and 500 startups (like hackers vs. hustlers), but my main takeaway was what kind of companies they were looking to fund.

These discussions made me think about how startups in emerging markets (including Korea) could do better. When babies are born, they learn mostly by imitating people around them. There is also an old saying, “Imitation is the best form of flattery”. Many amateur athletes also learn by imitating professional players (watching and learning). Korea is the only country I know best outside the US, and I always noticed the lack of virtuous seed funding cycle in Korea – successful founders seed investing in other startups. Once startup is up and running, and shows notable tractions, they can raise money from VCs and the process and valuation will be much better. However, startups often fail even before they could show traction because either they make multiple mistakes or run out of money before they can pivot. Without proper seed funding (and mentoring), they will have really hard time reaching the traction point.

At any rate, I think the best way for startups in Korea (or in emerging markets) to produce good enough winners to start the virtuous cycle is to imitate successful US startups in Korea (or in emerging markets), and after having a few successful exits, the founders can help other founders by investing and mentoring them. Furthermore, after successful exits, those founders would be in much better position to take bigger risk and attempt to make big impacts. In baseball analogy, it would be something along the line of having a few good seasons of hitting consistently, then you can swing for homeruns. No doubt those good seasons would be a confidence builder as well.

I keep hearing how there are many incubators and accelerators popping up in Korea. Someone recently expressed a concern that it’s like a startup bubble and a few failures will have devastating effect on the whole startup movements. I think this type of imitation strategy will be good at least in the beginning. After there are good number of successful and experienced founders, they would be better equipped to make sounding decisions and also to help other up-and-coming founders. It would truly strengthen startup community in Korea (or in emerging markets).

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