Sunday, September 22, 2013

Alfidi Capital at Korea's beGLOBAL 2013 Conference in Silicon Valley

I haven't been to South Korea since early 2000 but recently South Korea came to my neighborhood.  This month's beGLOBAL 2013 conference brought Korean hi-tech startups to meet Silicon Valley's leading lights in new venture investment.  I attended because I wanted to get a flavor for the innovations that beSUCCESS and several Korean government agencies are supporting in Korea.  Anyone who wants to go all the way to Korea should attend their beLAUNCH event.  Check out my summary paraphrasing of the key participants' public comments below; as always, my own original observations are in italics.

I got to mingle beforehand with some of the entrepreneurs who would pitch their startups later that day.  They were all social media and e-commerce applications.  Those don't fit my portfolio but I was impressed that their technologies were mature enough for deployment.

The first panel made history with three generations of VCs in the Draper family - Bill, Tim, and Adam - on stage together for the first time ever.  I got to shake Tim's hand while he worked the crowd and we chatted briefly on Korean geopolitics.  The Draper family is quite media-savvy.  I'd sure like to appear on Jesse Draper's Valley Girl Show about Silicon Valley.  I'm sure my wit and charm would just bowl her over.  I was disappointed that actress Polly Draper wasn't on hand.  I fondly recall seeing her bare derriere in a racy swimming pool scene on thritysomething way back in my teenage years and I'll bet her caboose still looks nice.  Anyway, my photo below shows the VC Drapers on stage together just after their panel concluded.  I respect these folks way too much to ruin the shot with a LOLcat-type caption.

John Nahm from Strong Ventures moderated the Draper panel.  John thanked Bill for his service in the Korean War, and Bill remarked that it was normal back then for young Americans in the Greatest Generation to expect a call to service that would interrupt their lives.  I wish I could say the same thing today.  My own calls to US military service have severely degraded my civilian career.  Private sector employers viewed my background with disdain until I started Alfidi Capital.  I should have told prospective employers that military veterans William H. Draper and Georges Doriot pretty much invented venture capital based on their wartime experiences in developing technology.  Bill recalled his friendship with another Army lieutenant who was KIA during combat in Korea and said that his death was worthwhile now that South Korea is prosperous and free.  He cited the book Nothing to Envy on the deplorable living conditions inside North Korea.  I fully endorse Bill's assessment.  I received nothing but thanks during my two active-duty tours in South Korea from Koreans who were old enough to remember the war.  My only glimpse of North Korea was a visit to the UN Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom in December 1995.  South Korea in the 1990s was one of the world's leading makers of automobiles, computer chips, and ocean cargo ships.  Former President Kim Young-Sam's "segyehwa" policies saw South Korea embrace global culture and trade.  Seoul's urban sprawl reminded me of Los Angeles and Pusan's hills reminded me of San Francisco.  Only after moving to San Francisco did I realize that Seoul is its official sister city.

Tim Draper remarked that he had invested in a Korean venture fund that returned 1x in spite of the dot-com crash.  He credits the exposure of virtual goods' value in a Korean video game as the factor that opened his mind to Zynga.  Adam Draper said that Bitcoin is the closest thing now to a global currency, and his involvement in several Bitcoin startups made him proud to be the first Draper to receive a subpoena.  His grandfather Bill then joked that he'd be the first Draper to go to jail.  The Drapers concluded by saying that crowdfunding will change the LP/GP relationship in VC and that it allows entrepreneurs to accelerate their ventures.  Hardware is now a hot idea again with VCs because crowdfunding makes it cheaper than ever to raise capital.

The Drapers judged the first round of startup pitches.  Their comments were terrific fire-hose introductions to VC thinking.  They wanted to see user traction, size of market, path to monetization, and differentiation from competitors.  Tim Draper is skeptical of serial entrepreneurs because he thinks they tend to jump to competitors rather than stick with a funded startup.  It's rare for me to hear such skepticism.  I had previously thought that serial entrepreneurs were a success factor because they knew how to get to an exit event.  Some VCs also dislike paying for the key-person insurance policies for serial entrepreneurs.  One of the funniest moments was when Bill Draper asked one entrepreneur, "So we've heard about the company . . . who are you?"  The pitch-person didn't tell the panel what their role was with the startup.  I thought it was cute that one of the female Korean entrepreneurs demurely covered her mouth while giggling; that's a Korean cultural habit that still hasn't disappeared.

The next panel was Samsung's fireside chat about open innovation.  Samsung invests in seed-stage ventures and uses its Open Innovation Center (OIC) as an accelerator.  The Samsung rep thinks its accelerator gives startups access to Samsung's huge platform as a distribution channel.  The OIC removes the administrative overhead burden so startups can focus on product development.  Individual entrepreneurs can enter the OIC with employment agreements.  Samsung Ventures invests larger amounts in Series B and later startups, while the OIC invests in seed to Series A and considers M&A to be an critical part of its business process.  Samsung owns the startups they bring into their accelerator and pays entrepreneurs a full salary.  If a mature product doesn't fit Samsung's ultimate strategy, they consider spinouts.  Samsung sounds like an extremely generous benefactor.  Selling out to a big global company provides entrepreneurs with a clear choice.  They can sell out early and become wholly-owned employees or take their chances with later stage investors if they stay independent.

Other local VCs addressed the ROI of investing in Korea and Asia in the next panel.  VCs think Korean entrepreneurs are passionate and driven.  Korea has great Internet infrastructure, it serves as a gateway to other Asian markets, and the country's top education system generates talent.  There also a few things VCs don't like about Korea.  The notion of entrepreneurship is still alien to most Koreans; I believe it's because Asians generally fear that failure results in a loss of face.  Exit events in Korea often have lower multiples than in the US mostly due to the smaller size of the Korean market for many products.  US VCs still need to be convinced to invest in Korea; it's not always a given.  Koreans also think the founder embodies the entire startup and that her/his departure ends the company.  Contrast this with the US view that a startup CEO is a manager whom the VCs can replace.

The ROI panel thought many Korean executives lack marketing skills.  Korean demographics are not diverse and are very concentrated.  That's why word-of-mouth marketing is easier.  The downside to this strength is that Koreans don't get to develop other marketing methods.  US VC liquidation preferences are usually 1x for Korean investments.  Some liquidation preferences may run afoul of Korean trade restrictions, and Koreans are unfamiliar with US liquidation preferences.  The Korean government can make entrepreneurship socially acceptable and not just by providing funding.  Korean-Americans have an untapped opportunity to find investments in sectors where both the US and Korea are strong.  Customer acquisition cost is very low in Korea and that's why it's a great platform for early growth.  This leads me to believe that future beGLOBAL events should focus on Los Angeles, home to one of the largest concentration of ethnic Koreans outside of Korea.

Dr. Jeanie Han presented her experience with the LINE mobile app as a case study of a successful Asian startup.  I've never heard of LINE before because I don't do much mobile messaging and I don't have a smartphone.  I think the originality of this app is its ability to brand individual text messages with known icons.  Postmodern communication is now post-literate.  These icons are all purely emotional, devoid of any intellectual content.  I might use an IM app if the only character icon is a raised middle finger.  Their success in Europe laid to rest internal concerns that their style was too Asian.  Cute character stickers are a universal language with crossover appeal.  Their avatar rooms are gateways to e-commerce with a focus on celebrity-endorsed virtual rooms.  I avoid social media investments because they all share the same vulnerabilities.  They have no barriers to entry from capital costs or switching costs, and thus they have no defensible economic advantage.

More angels and VCs ran the after-lunch panel on seed funds going global.  BTW, the Four Seasons Silicon Valley provided an excellent lunch.  There's no one-size-fits-all approach to seed funding.  Investing styles must match an investor's strengths.  Bingo!  That's why crowdfunding platforms are so diverse.  Many early-stage venture funds don't invest outside the US because they aren't sure how to add value.  Speaking the local language and knowing the culture are the barriers IMHO.  That's how you avoid getting ripped off.  Successful startups need seed-stage mentoring to meet the gateways that will get them to Series A.  That's the disadvantage of crowdfunding.  Joe Six Pack may not have the high-quality operational knowledge to add value with his $500 investment.  Working with great startups regardless of geography enables investors to share the best lessons with other startups closer to home. Investors sometimes overrate the quality of the advantage they think they can provide to a startup in another country.  That's a long way to go for a learning experience.  It's why venture investing works best when it's close to home.  I learned right here in the SF Bay Area that no one wants to take a risk with me because of my military background.  I didn't have to fly off anywhere else to learn that I "failed fast" by trying to convince people my military experience mattered.  

The next fireside chat was about global entrepreneurship and paying it forward.  The Meltwater Group creates a startup in a new national market it wants to enter.  Check out their MEST project for training African software entrepreneurs.  Pragmatic value propositions sell in the US for better/faster/cheaper products.  Other countries have non-rational cultural barriers to overcome, where trust matters.  Meltwater runs potential hires through workshops and exercises to assess their entrepreneurial attitude.  The Meltwater guy talks about empowering African entrepreneurs because the region is growing, but IMHO he ignores the governance ecosystem and rule of law that make entrepreneurship viable in the US.  Africa is growing because of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects and the West's interest in natural resources.  Those have little to do with our understanding of hi-tech entrepreneurship.  Meltwater recommends bootstrapping your startup as long as possible to strengthen its DNA (culture, resilience, etc.) before going to VCs.  Good hiring is crucial initially to get the right people in a startup.  They will be senior execs when the company is much larger years later.  Seeing the world through a positive mindset determines one's entire life trajectory and is crucial to a startup's success.

The Korean VC funds on the next panel discussed how they invest in Silicon Valley.  Big Korean firms invest in Silicon Valley VC funds mainly to make money.  Finding VC firms they like means they can find local partners.  Investing in US VCs allows Korean firms to learn the US market.  That's a lot more expensive than talking to local chambers of commerce or the South Korean embassy and consulates in the US.

Ben Huh and Emily Huh of the Cheezburger Network had an awesome title for their panel:  "Entrepreneurial LOL, Fail, and Meme."  Ben bought the "cheezburger" site at the beginning of the Web meme phenomenon.  They had no grand plan but wanted to experiment with different ideas.  They were willing to fail; they quickly learned from mistakes and moved on.  Ben's most awesome quote went something like this:  "Entrepreneurship is the difference between opportunity and the cost of risk."  That belongs in every MBA course syllabus that discusses strategy and the cost of capital.  Ben advised us to survive to fight another day by mastering one market first.  Learn your lessons there, then apply them in a new market.  Proving you can accomplish something attracts investor capital.  LOL memes are popular in English-speaking countries but not in Asia.  Humor is cultural.  Use data analytics to motivate your people.  It's very difficult for people to argue with metrics.  Start every meeting with KPIs.  That drives the point that everyone is in it together to drive progress in those metrics.  Ben's observations were awesome.  I'd work for this guy if I weren't so averse to working for human beings.

More "entrepreneurs from the east (coast)" populated the next panel, specifically Koreans who had launched successful startups.  I haven't heard this many insights into Korean mindsets since I left that country years ago.  Here they come for your benefit.  Korean culture has a strong aversion to failure.  Korean entrepreneurs who have experienced failure manage to overcome that aversion.  Founders must get rid of that fear.  Stop worrying about how you look in others' eyes.  The US's strong bankruptcy protection laws enable recovery from failure.  Koreans like to drink!  "Liver equity" instead of sweat equity goes into deals because there's always a green bottle of soju handy.  That's one Korean cultural trait that really helps.  I remember back in 1999 when I was making the rounds of the GI bars in Songtan outside Osan Air Base.  The Korean bar girls would charge different prices for the services they offered, and this one gal would . . . oh, well, you get the idea.  The rest of my Korea drinking stories are reserved for an in-person audience that pays for my drinks.  The panel closed with the admonishment to learn how other cultures use tech, and not to give up.

The final panel featured accelerators with "global" in mind.  The panel said cross-border M&A is widely accepted and that smart, creative people are better off launching startups than doing internships.  Startups join accelerators because they want access to networks.  "Tech tourism" happens when founders and executives visit regions like Silicon Valley to learn local entrepreneurial culture.  Korean startups venturing into Silicon Valley will be hard-pressed to keep some engineering capability in Korea, but they should do so if they're serious about building a global corporate culture that retains local market knowledge.  An accelerator's key success metrics must include how much capital its mature startups can raise after graduating.  Good mentors keep startups focused on their core functions:  gaining traction, building products, getting sales.  I must say that the best panelist by far was Jonathan Nelson of the Hackers / Founders Meetup group.  Check out the official H/F site.  His comments and Ben Huh's observations made this entire conference worthwhile for me.  Jonathan said accelerator platforms will increasingly separate their advice function from their funding platforms.  He believes that entrepreneurship is a craft we can learn from doing projects.  Accelerator volunteers excel by referring participants to experts.  His own goal is to move GDP.  Jonathan thinks entrepreneurship is an illness and addiction.  YES!!  I totally agree.  Founders just think differently from normal wage-earners IMHO because their brains are wired to process signals in a unique way.

This beGLOBAL conference rocked and so did the afterparty.  I got to mingle with some folks who run professional mixers and roundtable groups for the Silicon Valley area.  I can hardly believe my good fortune to be accepted as a peer among this crowd.  It's more of a welcome than I got from most people in San Francisco. The Silicon Valley mentality is all about Horatio Alger self-made types bootstrapping themselves from rags to riches.  The San Francisco mindset is about keeping the riff-raff like me out of the private clubhouse.  I don't want to leave San Francisco because my resentment for small-minded preppies is a big part of my motivation.  I'm spending a lot more time in the Valley these days because people there are still willing to stand behind a brand new thing from out of the blue, regardless of pedigree.  That helps me stay positive whenever The City tries to turn me negative.  Thanks, beGLOBAL.