Originally from the small town of Hermosillo in Mexico, Manuel had been studying business before deciding to attend an entrepreneurs camp in Silicon Valley run by YouNoodle. It was there that he met some of the team from Zoyi (formerly AdbyMe) and began his adventure which has led him to Gangnam in Seoul, where he works on global development for the company. I sat down for a chat with Eme (as he is known by his Korean friends) and Adbyme’s CEO Josh Kim, and asked them about their story.
What brought you to the US originally?
Eme: “It’s serendipity, I was going to travel in Asia and then the tsunami happened in Japan, which was the main place I wanted to go. I changed my plans and my girlfriend at the time said that she was going to this Summer Entrepreneurship camp in San Francisco. She said I could skip ahead on some classes by doing so, so I thought ‘Why not?’. I didn’t expect much to be honest and I just thought it would be an interesting experience, but being there I fell in love with the whole startup entrepreneurship lifestyle and the way that they are trying to change the world through technology. I saw very clearly that this was my path and did everything possible to get in there and stay there.”
Eme: “It’s a good story, when we got there in the summer of 2011, there were people from all over the world. Our tutors told us that we should team up with people who were very different and diverse from ourselves such as other nationalities, other cultures, because that’s when interesting things can happen. I looked around the room and thought that Koreans – being from the other side of the world, would be different and that I should probably team up with them. “
Josh: “At the end of the course there were three evangelists including Eme, and we told him that if he would like to join a startup some day I think we could be a great fit. I said that we may be coming back to San Francisco soon and we could meet together again.”
Eme: “The chemistry that happened was great and we achieved some interesting results working on the project for the summer. They knew I was trying to get into the startup world. The company wanted to expand globally and I had the skills in English and understanding of the culture — it was just a perfect fit.”
What was it about Eme which made you hire him?
Josh: “Eme coming to the US is what convinced us to hire him full time in the end. I just told him that we were going to San Francisco and he said that he would go there too. I told him not to, because we weren’t serious and were just going to observe, so that even if he did come he would have nothing to do. I said he should come when we’re settled and had an office but he didn’t listen. The last e-mail I got from him before he arrived said that he had booked his flight and that he was coming. I replied to him telling him to cancel it.”
Eme: “I felt like crap to be honest. I got on that plane and thought that I was doing something completely inappropriate, going to some place where they didn’t even want me. I had a bad feeling in my stomach but I already had the tickets.”
Josh: “He came to my door with his luggage and I was kind of angry at that moment. But then I saw his face and thought to myself, “Who are we to scold him? This guy really wanted to be with us and has come all this way on his own money.” We said we would make an extra bed for him and arranged three cushions on the floor. When you are in the early stages of a startup, you always want people who take risks and aren’t scared of anything. It’s hard just to find a Korean like that, and we got a Mexican. In the end we told him that we hired him because he was ‘crazy’, and startups need some crazy DNA. “
Why did you make the move to Seoul?
Eme: “I was in San Francisco and some changes started being made within the company. The company was getting serious about Cooki, and it got to the point where it was all about starting it and the team was needed in Korea. Josh called me and said that they wanted to make Cooki global from the start, so they could use me if I moved to Korea. I said yes, and I actually had always wanted to go to Asia so I was happy.”
Josh: “I kind of felt bad, because I knew he was enjoying his time in San Francisco but business is business and we had to change things. I asked him to come to Korea and join us to help start Cooki from the beginning and make it happen together. To be honest we weren’t really expecting him to say yes.”
Did you have any other experience with startups prior to AdbyMe?
Eme: “I started a company in college. It wasn’t tech-based, it was a marketing agency. It did have a website and digital tools but it was based around innovative ways of advertising. I started the project for school with other friends that were studying with me. That went on for about two years and I learned a lot from being in this company as CEO, such as the experience of making decisions and taking risks. That was my practical background and it really helped in working with these guys. My whole life my father told me start to start my own company and so I always have that buzzing in my head.”
What challenges have you faced while working in Korea?
Eme: “At first I felt very disoriented. I didn’t really know what to do. The language is always tough because I started from zero and I have been learning through the Internet. But as time went by I started finding my place and I realized it was important to create my own job. The company isn’t always going to tell me what to do and that’s the true value that I think I bring to the company because I sometimes think of things that I would want to do, even crazy things – but I’m always checking with the company to make sure they aren’t too crazy!.”
What advice would you offer to non-Koreans interested in working for a startup here?
Eme: “Be very open as there will be some hardships culturally speaking. Before joining make sure it’s something that they will enjoy. If they’re not open to Korean culture it will be very hard to make it work. There has to be the parallel of wanting work in a Korean startup but also wanting to discover Korean culture, and I think it’s very hard for one to exist without the other.”
Check out other interviews from the ‘Startup Life in Korea’ series here.