Day One: Seoul (Gyeongbokgung, Insa-dong, Bukchon Hanok Village)

First few days after arriving in Korea were spent meeting different relatives. After the obligatory meet and greets with relatives, we were able to go off on our own and explore.

Gyeongbokgung, Insa-dong, Bukchon Hanok Village are all located closed to each other (inside the red square), so it can easily be done in a day. It’s on the north side of Seoul (north of Han River). You can see Gangnam at the lower right side of the map.

Makers Hotel

I booked this hotel because it looked really cute, had three beds (one twin and one bunk bed with two twins), close to places we wanted to visit. I booked all hotels with Chase Sapphire Reserve points on their points award site, which lacked good user experience. I had to go between the site and TripAdvisor site to make sure I wasn’t booking a roach motel. Nevertheless, it was a good choice. While the room was super tiny, we were only there to mostly sleep, it didn’t matter much. Location was perfect. Kids liked it too.

FourB Roastery (Bagel place)

The hotel had breakfast buffet for about $10 per person, but it really didn’t look that good. So, I used MangoPlate app to find bakeries/cafes around my location (the app didn’t have breakfast category) and looked for ones that are open early in the morning. Interestingly most bakeries/cafes do not open until lunch time. :( FourB had good rating and it was on our way to Gyeongbokgung, so we stopped by here for breakfast.

OMG. The bagels were phenomenal. As you can see in the photo, they bake their own bagels on the site. And those bagel makers (I don’t know what to call them really) wear chef hat and shirt!!!! Koreans always tend to take things to the extreme. Anyhow, it was very good and it was a good way to start the day. :)


We totally lucked out when we got there. It was around 11AM, and we were just in time to catch the change of the guard. You can actually see the whole video here. Even though it was Monday, it was packed.

You can see in the photo above that there are many people wearing traditional Korean dresses (한복, hanbok). You can rent them near the palace, and admission to the palace is free if you wear a traditional dress. Admission fee is around $6, so it’s not too bad if you have to pay the fee. We of course didn’t rent the traditional dress.

The palace covers a lot of ground, so I would recommend you wear a comfortable walking shoes.


This is a cool place to visit as a visitor to Korea because it’s filled with stores that sell souvenirs. I didn’t take any pictures, but I have a short video of our walk through the area here. We walked through here to get to Bukchon Hanok Village.

Bukchon Hanok Village

This is the first place I felt disappointed. It was supposed to be a small village of old style houses, but there weren’t whole lot of houses and it was full of tourists. The number of tourists shouldn’t have surprised me, but still, it totally ruined the whole experience. Not only that, because kids were really tired of walking and they were complaining a lot, we stopped by a nice looking tea cafe and ordered their desserts, but the owner told me that I also had to order a tea. I would have said that’s a bullshit and left, but since kids were complaining too much about walking too much, I said whatever and paid for a cup of tea. I guess it shows the over-commercialization of the area. Oh, well.

While kids stayed at the cafe, I took a walk through the village, which I wasn’t too impressed with. We ended the day soon after. I planned to visit more places, but I had to end the day earlier because of kids’ complaints. Oh, well. The life of a parent. :D

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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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Korea will be left behind

It’s okay to be patriotic. You should love your country, but it should not keep you from being objective.

In one way, Koreans are kind of Xenophobic. It’s not exactly it because they don’t hate foreigners, but because they think they are better than others. It was very clear when I lived in Korea for two years. It’s media’s fault, which is pretty much propaganda machine for everything to do with Korea. Come to think of it, this kind of blind loyalty is rampant in Korea.

When you are in the middle of it, it’s really hard to tell others about different things. But it becomes crystal clear when you are outside Korea. Whatever Koreans think they are best at, people in other parts of world simply don’t care.

Now, you may ask, “why do you care?” I shouldn’t. What Korea does or doesn’t do doesn’t affect me. So, why? I used to ask that myself, and I found an answer. Because I am a Korean, too (well, 1/2 of me is. Not that I am mixed, but I just happened to live 1/2 of my life in the US). I didn’t want to care, but I can’t help it.

Anyhow, I think Korea is in big trouble. They will be completely left behind in 10 years or so. Because they don’t invest in important technologies. But, you might say, “C’mon. Korea has the highest rate of Broadband penetration! Their mobile technology is way ahead of the Continue reading

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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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