For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been rather obsessed lately with this one K-drama called Start-Up. I have never bought K-drama merch before, but now I have a Team Ji-Pyeong sticker on my laptop. The drama is about young millennials trying to succeed in the fast-paced business world through a start-up incubator called Sandbox – competing to become the next Apple or Amazon or Google.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
I wouldn’t say it’s the best K-drama ever, especially as I wasn’t too happy with the direction of the plot during the second half, especially as they focused too much on a messy love triangle (petition for a spin-off about Ji-Pyeong!!!). However, I have never been more emotionally invested in a K-drama and enjoyed theorizing with the rest of the fandom.
From the business side of things, there is definitely so much to learn. Watching this drama motivates me WAY more to succeed in the business world than reading academic journals, haha.
Here are some lessons to take in from the show:
1. Being a CEO takes immense determination and skill
Seo Dal-mi is definitely one of my top 3 K-drama heroines. She may lack a university education due to helping her grandmother (her only family) with her corn dog business, but she has the willpower and street smarts to become a CEO. Sandbox picked CEOs for their hackathon based not on their academic qualifications, but rather their general knowledge of current trends. Do-san recruited her as Samsan Tech’s CEO due to her humility and how she fit in with their culture, rather than the well-qualified In-jae who has a ton of industrial experience.
Realizing she lacks a formal education in business, she took the initiative to learn by herself. For instance, taking online classes on how to build a business plan, seeking out books on leadership and management, and bombarding her mentor Ji-pyeong with questions about business jargon. After learning from Ji-pyeong that you can’t please everyone as a CEO who must make firm decisions, she asserts herself in a more “garang” way to make sure Samsan Tech was running efficiently. For example, threatening to fire Sa-ha if she continued playing hooky – but in a totally classy manner.
Dal-mi is also a natural entrepreneur and creator who thinks outside of the box – for example, spontaneously coming up with the idea of a self-driving car while chilling with Samsan Tech team members. She’s also brilliant at communicating ideas to others and connecting the dots of how business ideas can be used for practical application in the real world. That scene where she was pitching Samsan Tech’s handwriting recognition technology? GOLD.
2. Running a business is hard, so it’s totally okay if you’re happy with being a regular old employee!
With that being said, it’s completely fine if you don’t want to be the founder of a business and just want a stable and guaranteed income as an employee. Do-san for example, accepts that he is not as qualified to be the CEO of Samsan Tech, giving up the position to Dal-mi and assuming the role of CTO instead. That’s not to say that some people shouldn’t be CEOs… Do-san could’ve trained to become a CEO, but he didn’t have the time and energy to do so because they were in a race to win investors and thus it was better for him to accept a role that was more suited to him where he could thrive happily. So please don’t be one of those people who shames others for being satisfied with their 9-5 jobs. Business founders are nothing without their employees.
The CEO of AirBnB said “It took us 12 years to build AirBnB, and we lost almost everything in four to six weeks,” due to coronavirus. Honestly, entrepreneurship is very over-glorified, and all these hustle culture gurus and motivational video channels often leave out the hardships of building a business from scratch.
3. It takes more than just an innovative idea to build a successful business
Do-san was born with great intellectual genius and started his own tech company, but unfortunately lacked the ability and strategic direction to run a business. Samsan Tech was a failure for years due to having no proper business model. They were so focused on improving the accuracy of their AI algorithm and building this perfect product, that they didn’t bother to think about how they would profit from it or how to explain their service in laymen terms to investors. Ji-pyeong, the well-known investor, was not impressed at all with Samsan Tech despite them having the fastest facial recognition technology in the world. Luckily their fate turned around when they entered Sandbox and got Dal-mi and Sa-ha on board.
Start-up culture is a careful balance of amazing innovation yet knowing what to expect from reality. Ji-pyeong had a lot of criticism about Samsan Tech and insisted that they make every decision with careful consideration to detail. While on the surface it might’ve looked like Ji-pyeong was limiting Samsan Tech’s abilities and putting them down, Dal-mi was super appreciative of his expertise and was always willing to listen to his advice. Dal-mi refers to him as “the brakes” using the analogy of a car, because a car without brakes is just a recipe for disaster. As Ji-pyeong himself said, he won’t bother to tediously check a car that he isn’t going to drive.
In reality, building a business from scratch means a lot of trial and error, the hardship of securing investments, dedicating your life 24/7 to the company, lacking in ability and resources, and having the will to persevere and grow through it all. I truly admire entrepreneurs and business owners who are willing to work hard!