Startup Life in Korea: Cizion Gets Global

Life is full of surprises. Ross Geesman, a global manager at Cizion, wasn’t always interested in startups and once had a different view of the business world. The 29 year old from Orange County in the US, originally studied art with a major in photography. Having always wanted to live overseas, he began his relationship with Korea when he came to teach English. This opened up new paths which lead to working for a Gwangju English radio station in 2009, appearing as a weekly guest and translating local news.

After spending some time at Invest Korea, he is now part of the team at Cizion, a startup which has found success in Korea with its social commenting solution platform LiveRe. I sat down with Ross to find out how he eventually found himself in a Korean startup.

What attracted you to Korea in the first place?
It’s kind of a long story but think that it’s one that is familiar to most people who have ended up in Korea. I wasn’t sure whether to work or goto graduate school. I wasn’t sure what field I wanted to go into but I knew I was moving away from what I studied. It was a confusing time and I had an opportunity to go to South America which fell through at the last minute. At that point I had already planned on leaving the country and I found out about teaching English. One of the reasons I wanted to live overseas was to learn another language and found out very quickly that learning Korean to the level that was going to be useful to me wasn’t going to happen in a year.

How did you get involved with Invest Korea?
I decided that I wanted to go back to school and study international relations, so I went back to the US and started a two year masters course. I did that for one year and usually for the program you have to do an internship over the summer, and so I was looking for one in Korea. I was interested in things like international investment, and I came across Invest Korea and found that they were hiring for a year long position. I thought I’d take a year off and work there, and while there I did work related to promoting venture capital and private equity investment. I was always interested in technology and read sites like TechCrunch casually. Working there we were working with startups, so I got to meet a lot of companies and people like the team at Seoul Space.

What impression did you get of Korea’s business and startup world while there?
The Korean economy has an interesting story going on right now. The chaebols are responsible for a huge chunk of GDP and people are successful and highly educated but still have trouble getting jobs. The government has an interest in diversifying the economy and people are seeing what it is happening overseas and entering Korea through platforms like the iPhone. People ask questions like “Is there going to be a Korean startup? Is there going to be an internationally popular Korean startup that’s going to become a big company?” and that seemed kind of impossible, but at the same time, services like Spotify come from Sweden and have had international success.


How did you come to join the team at Cizion?
Around that time I was going to different events and meeting people related to startups, and decided to go Startup Weekend in Daejeon with a friend of mine. I didn’t go as a participant but just wanted to check it out and see what kind of people were there. At the network event during the weekend I met Benjamin Kim, the CEO of Cizion. He told me about LiveRe and how they were interested in taking the service going overseas. I asked if he was interested in getting investment from overseas VCs and we actually had meetings together at Invest Korea. Later when I was looking for a job I decided to give them a call and they were actually moving along more on their path to reach overseas customers so it was good timing I guess.

We’re you always interested in business and startups?
No. People say that you become your parents and I think that’s true in my case. I studied art and photography and I was very anti-commercial and was totally against working for a business. But at the same time my dad is an entrepreneur and started a company when I was a kid. It’s not a huge company but done fairly well and I’ve worked there during summers doing odd jobs. I would see my dad being super stressed about things as he was very invested in the business emotionally and I didn’t understand. My dad was actually also in a creative field before he started a technology related business and was a professional musician. Now here I am working in a tech company after studying photography and I don’t take pictures anymore.

What challenges have you faced while working in a Korean startup environment?
There are a lot of challenges. I’m not a technical person, so I don’t have the skills to code apart from some basics. I felt that I could be a lot more useful if I knew more about it, so I’ve been trying to learn programming. I think it can make things faster because you can make changes yourself without always relying on developers in the company to do it.

As a startup, currently we’re trying to expand outside of Korea so we’ve had a lot of strategic conversations about how we’re going to do this. It’s very hard to measure your success in planning something and hard to say if you’re making the right moves because we haven’t entered the market yet.

Have you noticed any striking differences between business culture in the US and Korea?
I never worked for a startup in the US so it’s hard to compare and because I’m familiar with Korea there is nothing really shocking for me. In many ways I think that this being a startup probably makes it similar to US work culture because it’s more relaxed than what larger companies are like here. The longer I live in Korea, the more I find it harder to make generalizations about things. As time goes on you start seeing exceptions to what you thought were hard and fast rules.

Do you have any advice for others looking to get involved with startups here?
Don’t expect to find an ad somewhere that says “hiring”. If you’re going to look, you’re not going to find it in the normal places you find a job. It’s probably going to be on a Korean site somewhere and written in Korean. Networking with people is a better option, and if you do that, you get to know people and get a better idea of what company you want to work for. Go to events that startups go to and just talk to people. Also, in terms of compensation, don’t expect what the US is like because it’s different.


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