Sunday, December 8, 2013

Too proud to fail? Not so simple.

Very distressing portrait of start-up Korea in Friday's Korea Joongang Daily (see "Entrepreneurial students learn all the wrong lessons"): not only Koreans are less adventurous than the Chinese or the Japanese when it comes to start a business, but the few who are considering it are dissuaded from taking the plunge* by the very teachers who should be encouraging entrepreneurship!

The article follows a survey by the Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (not on KOFAC's website yet - kofac.re.kr) comparing 3 nations among which China appears to be the daredevil (start-ups are almost perceived as a sure bet that brings wealth and can't fail, 61.6% see entrepreneurship as a dream job).

Why don't Koreans take the plunge, then?
  • Certainly not because they doubt in their own abilities: for only 9.8%, that's first because they think they're not capable, compared to one quarter of the Chinese and the Japanese (from the start, Koreans don't think that entrepreneurship is reserved to extraordinary people: 25.1% vs JPN 34.5%, CHN 53.6%). 
  • Furthermore, getting financial support is much less the key issue here (10% of the cases) than there (17.6% in JAP and 30.2% in CHN).
  • Simply put, the fear of failure is overwhelming: 40.1% pick "start-ups fail so easily" as the first reason why they don't take the risk (JPN 23.5%, CHN 13.8%), and an additional 10.7% tick "look at those people who already failed" (only 2.6% in JPN, 0.8% in CHN)

This contrast between personal confidence and public shame is telling, and I wonder - the survey wouldn't tell - what part of this mental block is linked to the sad reality of a Korean SME ecosystem choked by chaebol that seldom allow small fishes to grow in their ponds (not to mention franchisors that abuse individuals desperate to make a living - see "500 m, 80%, 100% urban crappuccino").

No, I won't replay my usual tunes today, but this point wasn't raised in an article more focused on the failures of the education system.

"Failure", again. The big FAIL that make you lose faith for fear of losing face.

Of course, we're all used to "failure the key to success" mantras, and we all know that the sweetest success stories and breakthroughs find their roots in bitter defeats. Heck, try convincing a serious Silicon Valley V.C. without a few scarred figures in your team...

I'm not an entrepreneur, but as a conceptor, I enjoy the early stages of businesses and ecosystems, and I survived three start-ups in the early nineties before joining a much bigger one (backed with billions), where my old "scars" came in handy. I'd love to believe that I would also have "taken the plunge" back then, had I been in Korea instead of Europe... but I'm not so sure.

Yes, startups do exist in Korea. Yes, the money and V.C.s are there. Yes, governments are trying to boost entrepreneurship, and they keep talking about forcing chaebol to reduce their overwhelming control of most ecosystems, but they never go all the way. 

All that would-be entrepreneurs need is to see more positive signs, to believe in the system that fails them. They don't expect guarantees of success (they know risks are necessarily involved), but a minimum guarantee of fairness, the hope that they will be given a chance to have their shot at opportunities that do exist, but are usually monopolized by pervasive players.

Again**, Korea cannot sustain leadership without reforming its education system and its SME ecosystem.

Seoul Village 2013
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* to echo the advice of YouTube founder Steve CHEN at "Asian Leadership Conference 2013" ("measure your risks, but if you want to go far, you have to take the plunge; opportunities never last long").
** see among others a wishful "The end of the Korean model?" (later published by Korea JoongAng Daily as "Is 2011 the first year of a real Korean model?").

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