The widely attended Startup Grind events are becoming an increasingly popular meeting ground and networking space for current and aspiring entrepreneurs in the Seoul startup scene. By a show of hands, about 40% of the audience indicated that they are repeat attendees, and Joon Oh, the director of Startup Grind’s Seoul chapter and Chief Strategy Officer at MangoPlate, wants this percentage to increase as more people become a part of this community. With the usual excellent catered food and desserts by Oliversweet, abundance of beer provided by Itaewon Craftworks, and no-longer-unusual welcoming cheer for the guest speaker, Jake, this highly anticipated Fireside Chat kicked off to a great start.
As VCNC’s CEO, Jake is the first Startup Grind Seoul guest speaker to provide more of a startup-focused perspective, whereas the previous two events featured John Hanjoo Lee of SparkLabs and Junghee Ryu of FuturePlay Inc., both of whom gave more voice to the aspect of being an accelerator, incubator, or investor. To provide a bit of background, VCNC’s flagship app, Between, is a private social platform exclusively for couples. Now with over 9 million downloads globally, Between is available on both the Google Play and App Store, and they’ve also recently launched a PC version. Between is also a fellow SoftBank portfolio company, and Jake even presented as one of the “Best Portfolios of the Year” at the 2014 SoftBank Ventures Forum a couple of weeks ago.
Not surprisingly, we were all keen to learn how Between has been able to grow so quickly in such a relatively short time, and Jake shared many of his valuable insights and personal experiences with us. There were quite a few things I was surprised to hear, and I’ve highlighted some of my key learnings from the fireside chat below.
Based on Between’s tremendous growth, you would think Jake and his team had no hiccups along the way, but when asked about the one thing he’d choose to do differently, Jake admitted that the worst thing he did was not setting a company vision and mission.
“I started the company with four co-founders,” Jake said, “and because we started the company without any vision, we were very confused where to go.” He disclosed that Between is actually the third product of their company, and after having failed with their first two products, Jake honestly shared that their team felt very lost and unsure of where to go.
It is still quite rare for Korean entrepreneurs to openly share their experiences of failure, especially with the fear and social stigma of failure that is still prevalent in Korean culture, so his honesty was surprising and refreshing to hear.
So many startups are just a series of trial and error, and fortunately, Jake and his team kept trying: “One of my mentors brought us to Jeju Island for three days, and the only thing we did was drinking and talking about the company vision – who are we, what do we want to do, and why did we build our company?” It was thanks to this dedicated period of reflection and questioning that they were able to regain their focus and build their new vision. As a result, Jake and his team discovered the market fit and need they wanted to meet and started their new product, Between.
Jake shared that the idea for Between originated from the concern of privacy issues on open social media. The team found there was a need for a more private and intimate space online and found couples to be the biggest target segment, so they tested their alpha version with 50 couples gathered among their own friends. After analyzing the data, they found good retention and usage, determined they had a good market fit, and then tested their beta version for four months with 300 couples by collecting email addresses and sending users their APK file.
Jake and his team analyzed all their user data and usage patterns with Google Analytics and Flurry, received organic feedback directly through the app, and continuously perfected their product until it was ready to launch. Then, they strategically defined their users and realized that it was often the women in the relationship that initiated using Between.
So, to get the word out about their app, they specifically targeted women in their mid-20s and looked for online communities with a lot of female users. After a while, Jake shared that they started seeing comments like, “My boyfriend started using Between, so that must mean he’s committed to me.” As Joon pointed out, they essentially took the key value point they found out from their users and used it to create a marketing message.
Once they found the core group of fans who really loved Between, they became the true “viral seeds” who spread the word about this service both online and offline. Jake said that after reaching approximately 300,000 users, their team started using more social media for user acquisition and engagement by having giveaways and sharing content, such as tips for couples, restaurant recommendations for dates, and love-related cartoons, providing more ways for Between’s loyal users to spread the word about the app they love.
When asked how much money he spent on marketing to get to their first million users, Jake answered, “I didn’t spend any money actually.”
So then, where does VCNC spend their money? According to Jake, their biggest investment is their team:
“We only spend money on hiring the right people. I think that was the key. We didn’t have any experience for marketing, so we couldn’t pour all the money for marketing. Because we are a service company, not a game, we should understand how much we can earn from our users. Before we can understand what we can earn from our users, spending money on marketing is very dangerous.”
— Jake Park, VCNC
Jake said that he invests a lot of time and energy in looking for the right people, especially when looking to enter a new market. He visits the country frequently, attends all the startup events (like Startup Grind!), and meets tons of people in the local community. “I keep trying to meet as many people as possible in that country so that I could find the right one person,” Jake said. Finding the right person and building a very strong team can make all the difference for their success in that country.
What else did the Between team consider when going global? Jake explained that just as data was a big part of building the product, it was also the center of their global strategy and the biggest influence in determining which country to enter:
“We can upload [our service] to users all over the world. We found that Japanese users were the most loyal in the world and the organic source was quite good, so that’s where we went first. The first thing we were concerned with was organic growth and retention rate. We found that Japanese people really loved our product, that’s why we decided to go there first.”
— Jake Park, VCNC
Of course, there is no guarantee that what worked for Between will work for everyone, but these four main tips that Jake shared have also been emphasized repeatedly by many other experienced entrepreneurs, and they’re valuable insights to consider. To hear the entire session with Jake, check out the full video: