The following is the bulk of the email interview on which much of today's article published in the Korea Herald is based.
1. Based on your years of experience doing business here, how would you assess the level of support that the government (local or federal, your choice) provides for entrepreneurs, particularly for foreigners who set up their own businesses (ie non-MNCs) in Korea? Did you witness a noticeably more aggressive push by the government for aiding entrepreneurs, and when?
I'm not in a great position to comment too much on this because I just set up my Korean business through a local accounting firm here in Ansan. But my main market isn't Koreans and/or people living in Korea, so it would be tough to call myself a local entrepreneur. The Korean company for me is mainly a vehicle for processing funds that come from my US-based translation and consulting services. I'd probably have found the various government services more helpful though if I was actually setting up something new in Korea and for that, as far as I know, before the Seoul Global Business Support Center was established in 2010, there weren't any specific government efforts being made to help foreign entrepreneurs do business in Korea. So, before we started getting the discussion going and collecting resources on KBC in late 2009, I'm not sure there was anything organized and available at all. Today, there's no question that the Korean government (especially at the city level in Seoul and provincial level in Gyeonggi) is trying to encourage entrepreneurship by foreigners.
2. Before you started KBC (and of course, before the Seoul Global Business Centers were launched) what was the foreign entrepreneur community/environment like?
The chambers of commerce from various nations have been around for a long time and they've been important resources for the foreign community. Before say, 2009, I'm not aware of other organizations that existed other than those.
3. Did Korea have a foreigner-business-friendly environment when you first launched your own business (the translation service)?
I should clarify that I don't serve many Korean clients at all; my clients are mainly in North America, with a few more in Europe and elsewhere in Asia. I guess the reason is that my rates are somewhat higher than the standard Korean market rates. I think this is reflected in the level of English translation many Korean companies put on their marketing and other materials, but there doesn't seem to be a focus on high quality in translation. I think this partially reflects a Korean view that translation is a relatively low-level occupation, best suited for people who have lost their "real" job.
Here are a couple links that illustrate this phenomenon:
As for whether Korea has a foreigner-business-friendly environment, I would say that Korea is generally a particularly difficult place for foreigners to do business. There are cultural reasons for this, but I think language issues also make it very difficult for outsiders to understand and network. Even if they can, the importance of long-term relationships amongs Koreans makes it tough for foreign businesspeople to penetrate business networks in Korea. Further, government regulations have often obstructed the efforts of foreign companies, as well.
It's not just foreign companies that have trouble doing business in Korea though; Korean SME who don't have strong business networks struggle too, and I would say there are a lot of similarities between the difficulties of foreigners and of Korean small business people. Korea's just not a great place for the small business-person of any country.
4. Is KBC itself now profitable (through premium services, etc.)?
Our flagship product is the KBC Professional Certification Program, which we've developed to help foreign business people overcome the challenges of business in Korea mentioned above, has gotten a great reception. We've had over a dozen graduates so far and the graduate class continues to grow. KBC has also been a way for me to serve the community with free services, at the same time that I present my professional language and consulting services to members and visitors from around the world. We are still working on developing additional services that will be valuable for non-Koreans wishing to do business in Korea.
5. You said once that you didn’t expect KBC to grow into what it is now. What were your initial intentions for it then? Why do you think it has picked up so successfully?
My initial idea was to build a community to organically support member networking efforts both online and offline. However, it became clear that the effort was too high and the ROI too low to run things as just a gather place for member to connect and so we've been working hard to provide tools and content that will help members solve their immediate needs for services and knowledge. I would say that the "community" aspect of KBC has been de-emphasized this year while we've focused on the "solutions and tools" aspect.
6. What services do KBC provide that government-provided support, ie the SGBC, do not?
The SGBSC is focused on small-scale foreign entrpreneurs in Seoul. On KBC, we're able to serve a much wider group, including those both in and outside Korea, as well as those looking for jobs and/or working in Korean companies. From the beginning, I have supported the work of the SGBSC and they offer services and have a funded budget that we don't have on KBC, or plan to add. So, there's a lot of opportunity to help fill in the gaps on KBC which aren't easily filled by others.
One issue with the government-provided support is that it's sometimes provided from a Korean-perspective, and from a government perspective. On KBC, we have a lot more freedom from an agenda set by a government official, and we're in a slightly better position to see things from a foreigner perspective rather than Korean perspective of what they think foreigners are interested in.
7. What are your plans for KBC’s expansion?
I would like to add more content, tools and services which solve the interests of our members, which are mainly broken up into three groups: foreigners looking for jobs in Korea, foreigners working in Korean companies both in Korea and overseas, and foreigners wanting to do business with Koreans. One vehicle for that is the Business Accelerator pages, which are are both working to improve now, and add to later.
8. It seems that KBC’s forum threads often turn into discussions that span several months or even years. Do you think this is a pro or a con in terms of content relevance?
I've made a deliberate effort to keep useful discussions around by linking to them in the business accelerator pages. That's because the discussions often have remarkably valuable information and I want that to be available indefinitely. Just letting a discussion die and disappear doesn't seem like a good way to treat the insights which members have taken the time and effort to share.
9. The idea has been discussed on KBC forums that despite its business-pushing initiatives, Korea still lacks an entrepreneur-friendly environment. Do you agree? Do you think this can be remedied somehow, and what are your suggestions?
Korean business culture and the Korean business environment are what they are. Korea's never going to be an easy place for non-Koreans to do business, and the Korean economy is structured around the large business groups. As I mentioned before, it's not just foreigners who are struggling to compete in the local market; Koreans without capital, connections or advanced technology struggle too. These are issues the Korean government is working to solve, but they won't be easy to get past.
10. In a nutshell, what can you suggest for Korea to become more business-friendly for foreigner/expat entrepreneurs living here?
I'm not sure why Korea needs to be friendlier for foreigners that want to open up a small service business. If they can make a go of it, great.. But Korea's not short of restaurants or English institutes. On the other hand, the government is already going to great efforts to attract MNCs having large amounts of capital and advanced technology. It's a competitive environment out there for that and Korea's not achieving the levels of success they'd like. Organizations like GAFIC are helping with this, particularly in helping foreign-invested companies get over red tape issues, and it would seem that further Korean efforts to reduce regulations and free up the market would be beneficial for foreign businesses in Korea.
Do you have any thoughts about favors/benefits/services that foreigners/expats shouldn’t expect from the government? (If the question is confusing, I’m thinking about availability of content in English—whether that is something foreigners should expect or if they should be expected to learn the local language—and want to know if you have any other ideas.)
I don't think foreign expats should expect the Korean government to provide services that aren't going to provide Korea with an ROI on the investment. Translating laws and regulations might be great, but if there aren't enough businesspeople out there to read and take advantage of them, then what benefit is it to Korea? Those companies with the resources to truly make an impact in Korea (versus those who wish they could set up a sole proprietorship without capital and get a free visa out of it) are already paying companies like me to translate the stuff they really need to know.
11. Do you think foreigner-friendly initiatives here are mostly geared toward Western businesspeople, versus those from Asia, Africa, etc.? If so, is that problematic?
I supposed foreigner-friendly initiatives are more geared toward Westerners. It's not just Korea though that does this; since the money's in the West, you'd expect Korean efforts to follow that cash. I'm not sure though that capable Asians and Africans are really at a disadvantage if they can meet the requirements set by the government for business.
I think there's an overestimation among the foreign community of just how much Koreans need them. If someone comes to Korea to do business, they need to be ready to make the sacrifices to achieve success. Korea's not the land of the easy money; it's a great place to do business if one loves the country, makes the effort, holds realistic goals and/or has something unique to offer Korea that can't be found elsewhere.