Five Years of Disruption – A letter from the CEO of VentureSquare

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Five years ago on a fine spring day, I went and talked to a certain organization with a business plan and website proposal in hand for VentureStory (the name at the time). The head of this organization simply stared at me and said, “I’m sorry? Ventures? I don’t know about that.. Maybe if it was about one person startups?”

People tell me I was being “disruptive”. Well, that’s what everyone has told me so I guess I was. And so began VentureSquare’s journey..

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The Start

Back in 2009 I was having a drink with a good friend who has a strong social media presence online. “Why doesn’t Korea have something like TechCrunch?” he suddenly asked. It was then I thought to myself, “Because this is Korea and not the US. Who would make a site like that here?” ….My thoughts continued, “Well if nobody’s doing it there’s no reason for us not to give it a go…”

“Let’s do it then,” we said to each other. It was this brainwave from VentureSquare co-founder Taehyun Kim, also known as “MushMan” which started it all.

But where to begin was the hard part. With a profit model that wouldn’t work in Korea combined with what was also a difficult time for ventures here, it looked like it would be impossible to hire people to create the service we wanted.


Ideas..

Nevertheless we asked ourselves the questions below and arrived at the conclusion of “Why not?”

  • Do we need to have reporters? What if actual people in startups and related fields contribute content?
  • Are ads the only way of earning revenue for a media company? Couldn’t events and workshops be another way of making money?
  • Is investing impossible for us just because we don’t have a ton of money? What if we begin to invest little by little in startups and becoming angel investors ourselves?
  • Are successful startups the only ones that can help younger startups? Can’t others who are experts in their field help as well?
  • Are journalism and media the same? No they’re not. Can’t we offer support and help the industry while doing journalism on our own?

Building foundations..

Our thoughts went from “Why not?” and soon lead to, “Well let’s try and do it like this…”.

  • Let’s find a group content contributors, ones who aren’t just after money but who actually care about startups and write things that actually help others.
  • We don’t have any developers or designers but that’s okay because we’ll be getting help from another startup TNM Media which will make daily operations like the website easier.
  • Let’s make sure we start with enough capital for events and workshops

Now that I look back at our original plan from 2010, it’s great to see that no we’re doing what we had intended to do from the start.


Making a start..

After putting our plan together we set out to make it become a reality. We started by simply launching our website – on April Fool’s day of all days. Following that we hit the road and got to work on creating “our team” with a few measly PowerPoint slides and a notebook. We met with various bloggers and other people we knew to tell them about what we were doing.

In the end we found six people with the ability and/or experience to help startups and invited them to become co-founders of VentureSquare. From these six co-founders we also rounded up 50,000,000 won in capital. We’d found a group who wanted to invest in Korea’s first startup focused media company that wasn’t limited to simply content but would also carry out events, workshops and acceleration programs. In September 2010, VentureSquare finally became a registered company despite not having much of a strategy. In any case, I’d also considered the possibility of using 15 million won a year and then exiting after that.

So just like that we had a registered company. Through TNM Media we recruited staff, ran the website like a team blog and began to hold a number of events. OpenUp Seminars, Open Recruiting Day, Startup Workshop and Mobile Entrepreneurship Korea were created to put startups in the spotlight. It enjoyable and we were excited. Whether people took notice or not, whether others helped or not, we were determined to continue with our plan.

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Failure..

Out of the blue things went awry. The company that had been fostering VentureSquare was in trouble. Financial pressure and failed projects followed, resulting in having to let staff go.

I resigned from my other position of co-CEO at TNM Media and took VentureSquare with me along with several hundred million won of debt. To relieve the pressure on TNM three employees also came with me. Funds started to dry up sooner than expected and there was only enough left for two months’ wages excluding myself.

I approached a portal site and offered to contribute interviews with startups as content. I asked whether they could be sponsors, if they could pay for the content, or just simply publish the content. They weren’t interested, saying that we weren’t an online newspaper and nobody would look for news on startups. (Actually I was quite gutted about this, isn’t it better than gossip articles about celebrities?)


Unsustainable..

I felt sorry for the rest of the team more than anything else. They had come originally come into TNM Media and were suddenly part of some new company which had no concrete way of making revenue. “Should we just become a PR company?” I asked them. My team shook their heads. “You know a lot of good people so shouldn’t we at least be able to get a long term sponsor? Shouldn’t we move more in the direction of becoming a foundation or social enterprise?” they suggested.

So the CEO of the company didn’t know how to make money…..and the staff felt like they were working at non-profit organisation. Could this company actually survive?


A lifeline..

Things were dark, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Korea’s Small and Medium Business Administration happened to be looking for a company to run their accelerator program, so for the first time in my life I applied for a government project. With this I was now able to pay the salary of 1.5 of my staff. What’s more, at the same time we became responsible for consulting on a mentoring program for a major company.

The founder of Rehoboth Business Incubator Gwanghee Park also came to me and offered to pay for advertising which covered a year’s salary for one more of our staff.


Survival..

While it wasn’t my proudest moment, I began doing everything I could including mentoring, lectures, MCing and making media appearances to make ends meet and to pay back my debts. Of course I also had put my own money into VentureSquare from time to time when funds were running low. I know — people say to focus on the task at hand but I had to do all I could to make sure we survived. In front of others I pretended everything was okay and felt that I couldn’t ask even those closest to me for help out of the fear I was doing something I shouldn’t.

We had a couple of boosts in capital and tried to get investment but all I heard back was, “It doesn’t look like you’ll be able to make money…” Venture Capitalists would spend tens of millions of won on startups, but to them we weren’t worth anything.

Always keep my mantra of “It’s criminal to not pay your employees” in the back of my mind, I consumed myself with as much work as I could, which of course meant having to recruit more staff. Nevertheless we still never strayed from what we had originally set out to do, and if there was something that would help startups or benefit them in some way we did so, even if at a loss.

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Growth..

After being in the red for 2 years, VentureSquare recorded revenue of 30 million won in 2012, 50 million won in 2013 and 200 million won in 2014. Profit made during this time plus extra was put into employing more staff and taking on more projects. That’s right, we made money in order to invest it back into ourselves. Over eight months in 2014 we carried out our Global Acceleration Program and Startup Nomad Program Summary Videos, plus we supported eight startups and invested in four of them.

Turning point..

Our VentureSquare brand is the same as it always was but now we plan to divide it into two teams. Our media team will be looking for a development model to further the roles it plays while the acceleration part of VentureSquare will be creating a fund to invest in startups, making it possible assist them. Now VentureSquare is making the move to TIPS (Tech Incubator Program for Startup) Campus to have even better interaction with startups and be closer with them overall.

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There’s a lot more to be done compared to what we’ve done already. Likewise, there is a lot more we want to do. While it’s no easy feat to achieve what we want, nothing’s impossible. We’ve worked hard get where we are and we’ll continue to do so, but we also welcome any help from those who believe in what we’re doing. This can be done in the form of becoming a business partner, advertising, contributing content, or simply even signing up for our newsletter.

We thank you for all of your support!

About Author

/ andy@venturesqaure.net

Andy has lived in Korea since 2007 and is the Global Editor for VentureSquare.

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