After conducting interviews with entrepreneurs based in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia, I was excited to talk to entrepreneurs with companies based in Asia to see their leadership style, people management methods, and company cultures. My first stop after Australia was Korea, where I met with Kwangsug Lee of Incruit.
Kwangsug possesses a friendly, boyish charm that is very disarming and engaging. He first shared with me that in Korea, failure for an entrepreneur is extremely frowned upon and can very negatively affect their credit and future employment prospects. However, there are new government policies that are trying to address this and spur more innovation and startups.
As we transitioned into the interview portion, Kwangsug shared that his father was an entrepreneur. But from an early age Kwangsug's aspiration was to become an astronomer and not to work at the family business despite being the oldest son. Lee's boyhood idol was none other than Stephen Hawking.
So after enrolling into one of Seoul's prestigious university's astronomy program, Kwangsug began dabbling into the online space while studying. In 1997, he started his first online venture, Zip.org, which was a Korean directory much like Yahoo. He was very passionate about this project and felt like he was giving back to society. In fact, Lee harnessed a team of 20 to 30 part-time volunteers from his university to help him maintain and update the thousands of links on Zip.org.
Then in 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit and created widespread economic turmoil in Asia, including Korea. Samsung resorted to firing employees for the first time in the company's history. His friend (now wife) began discussing with Kwangsug how they could help people who were affected by the crisis and unemployed.
Since Lee gets fired up and passionated about giving back to society, he immediately began brainstorming ideas in 1998. Then three months later, they launched HumanLink on June 1, 1998. HumanLink was the first internet recruitment system that matched candidates with companies.
They ended up changing the name to Incruit, which is short for "internet recruiting." Lee wanted the brand to be able to be used as a verb too, like "Google it or FEDEX it." Job seekers would answer a battery of about 100 questions and would then receive a text message if their profile matched what a company was hiring for. This service became a godsend for the unemployed who were franticly searching for jobs during and after the crisis.
After the successful launch of the service, Kwangsug Lee was at a crossroad between Incruit and school. He knew that he needed to decide which path to focus on. Kwangsug sought advice from his father, and his father recommended that Kwangsug follow his passion and added that he could always return to school. So in 1998, Kwangsug dropped out of his prestigious university and astrology program to focus on Incruit exclusively.
Today, Incruit employs 150 people and is one of the leading online recruiting sites in Korea. During the last 14 years building Incruit, Lee learned a lot about being a CEO and leader. He shared the following advice:
*Be Resourceful - When Zip.org grew to 20+ volunteers, Kwangsug knew that he needed a more formal place for his volunteers to work. But as a poor student, he realized that he didn't have many options. So he approached an internet cafe that was opening near his campus and basically cold called the owner. They struck a deal where Kwangsug would help the cafe owner with IT related tasks in exchange for space.
Then what impressed me even more was when he needed another, bigger office, he approached the Korea Association for ICT Promotion. He pleaded his case as a student who was working on a project that would benefit the public therefore the association should assist his endeavors. They agreed and lent him an office, 10 desks, and a conference table along with fast internet connection. He camped in that office for two years.
When I asked Kwangsug what gave him the courage to approach the internet cafe owner or Korean Communications and Internet Association, he shared that he was emboldened because he was working on projects that benefited the public. I find Kwangsug's resourceful and ability to convince others to support his cause related to the vital skill of sales that every entrepreneur needs. Because at the end of the day, we're always selling to potential customers, employees, investors, etc.
*Hire HR Position Earlier - Lee hired his first HR person when Incruit ballooned to 100 employees. If he had to do it again, he would have set up his HR team around 40 to 50 employees instead. He believes that HR is vital in creating a company's culture, vision, mission, and processes. It's much easier and effective to start doing this sooner rather than later in a company's lifecycle.
*Baking in Cultural Fit in Interview Process - Incruit's three core values are honesty, innovation, and customer-centricity. They actually evaluate all potential new hires along these three parameters to see how they would fit into the company culture. It's very important to the company and they balance cultural fit with skills fit. Incruit doesn't just pay lip service to the company's culture. Instead they expose the culture and cultural expectations for employees starting in the interview process.
*Recommends Yammer - Even though Incruit leverages Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Messenger, Kwangsug implemented Yammer. He believes this tool further encourage communication, sharing and innovation.
*Monthly Company Speech - Once a month, Kwangsug makes a speech to the company. He provides a state of the union type of address. At 150 employees, Kwangsug no longer gets the opportunity to interact with each employee, so this is opportunity to humanize himself along with provide company updates. It's also a venue to reinforce company culture, vision, and mission.
*Building Cafe - When I visited Incruit in April, they were in the process of constructing their own cafe on their floor. This is something that Jeremy Irish of Geocaching has done successfully in Seattle. I'm looking forward to getting an update from Lee on how this has impacted company culture and communication. It's a great example of using physical space to foster and enhance company collaboration and culture.
*Find Your Passion - Kwangsug Lee made up his mind at an early age that he was going to study astronomy and forgo working at his father's manufacturing company even though he was the oldest son. But then at school, Lee realized that he loved working on public good projects. This drove him when he worked on Zip.org and then Incruit. Like Kwangsug, every entrepreneur needs to find something they're passionate about since to be successful, they'll be working on it 110% of the time and dreaming about it when they're not "working." Anything less leads to burnout and a loss of desire it through to success. Life is too short to work on projects one is not passionate about.
*Conclusion- Kwangsug Lee comes across as very soft-spoken and thoughtful. So I was impressed with how he dropped out of school and also cold called the internet cafe owner and Korean Communications and Internet Association to negotiate free space. But I was most impressed by how genuine and passionate he is about his projects. He emanates sincerity which makes Incruit's first core value of honesty feel genuine.
It's rare that a student finds success right away on their first entrepreneurial venture. But passion guided Lee to help others and to build a great, sustainable organization that continues to help people find employment. Throughout that journey, Kwangsug Lee's tips reinforce the need to find what one is passionate about before and during embarking on their entrepreneurial journey.
*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.
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