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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Park Soo Woong
Today's lesson: how to start a successful business
By JOHN LARKIN Taejon


Park Soo Wong left his job designing airplanes to start his own company. His wife finally understands
Seokyong Lee - Black Star for Asiaweek
Traditionally, age elicits respect in South Korea. Not that you would know it from watching Chon Ki Son admonish a group of businessmen - many of whom are his elders - as he teaches the ins and outs of successful entrepreneurship. "There are three things you should never do," Chon warns. "Never go bankrupt. Don't buy unnecessary real estate. And remember not to expand too fast." Rather than grumble at the finger-wagging upstart in front of them, Chon's audience scribbles down his every utterance. This is no time for tradition. In a country which for decades favored huge conglomerates over small, innovative firms - and has recently suffered from the choice - Chon is lecturing on the very essence of economic survival in a new era.

The course is run by the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the country's elite colleges. Dubbed the High Tech Venture Center, it has actually been running at the KAIST campus in the city of Taejon, 150 km south of Seoul, since 1996. But since the Crisis hit South Korea with full force at the end of 1997, demand for the class has exploded. Three years ago 30 students were enrolled. Now there are 116 and KAIST has added an eight-week advanced course that includes a trip to the spiritual home of entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley. All the students have big ideas. All of them know how to build a product. What they don't know is how to market or run a company or turn a profit.

    HALL OF FAME
Asiaweek Business Hall of Fame
Asiaweek salutes three business pioneers who helped make the Asia of today and stand as an example to those building the region's tomorrow
• Inaba Seiuemon: Through his computer-controlled devices, Inaba changed manufacturing
• Y.K. Pao: Hong Kong's first businessman of truly international stature
• Washington SyCip: From one-man auditor to management services multinational

Asiaweek Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame
The entrepreneurial ethic had never really caught on in Asia, where bigger was usually considered better. But those days may well be gone
• Adi Adiwoso: A maverick businessman looks to change Indonesia
• Liu Jing: China's get-rich ethic is changing private enterprise
• Daniel Ng: Are there riches in teaching companies about the internet?
• Park Soo Woong: Today's lesson: how to start a successful business

Past Laureates
Every year since 1994, Asiaweek has honored a selection of business people who have made a truly great impact on the region's commerce and industry

  RELATED STORIES
Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1998

Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1996

Teaching them the elemental tenets of being an entrepreneur is no easy task. Big business in South Korea has a hallowed tradition of sucking up the nation's best young talent and, at the same time, discouraging the kind of individual initiative and ambition that gives rise to entrepreneurship. Now things are changing. The government has belatedly recognized that entrepreneurs can be the new engines of growth for an economy which has relied too heavily on the giants. Meanwhile legions of salarymen who have lost jobs-for-life are looking to peddle their talents. "Younger, more progressive types think differently," says Kim Jong Dok, a professor and the director of the High Tech Venture Center.

The center is one of 142 business incubators around the country, most established in the last year, that are busily hatching embryonic entrepreneurs. Armed with only a low-tech overhead projector, Chon drills into his charges the basics of running a small business. Some examples: when making your pitch to potential investors, be more-than-fully prepared. Keep your credit record immaculate. Emphasize that your product is breakthrough technology which has worldwide export potential. And above all: "Don't give up," says Chon. "I know one guy who was discouraged after getting only a few minutes to pitch some investors. After the meeting he saw one of them get into an elevator, so he begged for more time and was so impressive that he got a second chance."

Park Soo Woong is typical of the new breed. The 36-year-old engineer enrolled at the High Tech Venture Center after quitting the government's Agency for Defense Development, where he designed jet aircraft and combat helicopters. Park has developed a software program that figures out in minutes the most efficient way for automated cutting machines to carve shapes from metal, textiles or leather. He is convinced he has a winner. It's faster and cheaper than current methods, claims Park: "Ten percent of sheet metal can be saved using my program." And it's so easy to use that "my seven-year-old son can do it."

Resisting pressure to take a job with the nation's giant chaebol - and rejecting the security and prestige that comes with such employment - Park spent two years trying to convince his wife and family that he had real entrepreneurial talent. Finally he entered his business plan in a competition and won. "Until then my wife thought I was a typical tech guy with thick glasses and bad hair," says Park. "Now she understands." Park hopes to take his product to market next month. Brimming with confidence, he believes the lessons he learned at school will be key to his success. "I read 100 books, but it was all dead information," he says. "At Taejon it was living information."

Park dreams of one day listing on New York's Nasdaq stock exchange. But even to get to that stage he'll need more money. That might be a problem. In South Korea it is hard to find venture capitalists. "Most are looking for a sure bet," he says. Traditionally, banks lent on government orders almost exclusively to the giant chaebol. This choked the first breath of potential start-ups. Most successes relied on money from "angel" investors like close friends. "In South Korea you need collateral to get a loan. Entrepreneurs who can't prove they'll repay cannot get money from banks," says Kim, director of the venture center.

The hope is that the liquidity crunch will ease as a new culture of entrepreneurship takes hold. Having woken up to the talent at its doorstep, the government is promoting start-ups in hopes of encouraging job creation. Seoul is making a pool of money potentially available to anyone with a marketable idea. Slowly, South Korea is becoming more hospitable to well-grounded dreamers. "Korea is full of opportunity right now. You have to grab your chance," says Chon as he winds up his lecture at the High Tech Venture Center in respectful, pin-drop silence.

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