How Kakao Talk founder became a billionaire

Self-made billionaires are unusual in South Korea, even more so when they exist outside of family business or chaebols.

The founder of popular chat app Kakao Talk has invented an app that is used by three quarters of South Korea’s 50 million population.

He chairs Kakao, the operator of KakaoTalk, and has become one of the country’s most popular super-rich businessmen – with a fortume of more than $2bn- thanks to his rags to riches tale, which contrasts sharply with the easier rise of most chaebols.

Growing up, his family were so poor that they had to share one bedroom in a poor neighbourhood of Seoul where many IT companies are clustered. “A great degree of autonomy was given to us, which also taught me a sense of responsibility.”

At Kakao, employees call him by his English nickname, Brian. In return, he calls them by their English nicknames. This is his way of dismantling the country’s hierarchical corporate culture, in which employees are expected to address senior colleagues only by title and never by name.

It was whilst he was working oin California for new ideas that he started uisng the iPhone, which immediately mesmerised him.

In 2o1o, he launced the app which is used by three quarters of the population. Last year, he launched Daum Communications, Naver’s competitor, providing a larger balance sheet with which to move into new business lines such as mobile banking and taxi hailing.

This year, he surprised the industry by appointing Jimmy Rim, one of the country’s youngest CEOs, to control Kakao’s daily operations.

Of late, Mr Kim has been devoting more time to his personal ambition of developing more than 100 start-ups. He has already invested in more than 70 start-ups through his two venture capital firms to cultivate the country’s tech scene.

Although South Korea can boast global manufacturers with vast international operations, expansion across the world has been a painful process for its IT service providers. Kakao has struggled to expand its user base beyond the home market, with limited overseas success.

As well as challenges overseas, Kakao has to cope with regulation at home. Last year Kakao came under the spotlight for a public stand-off with the government, whose heightened surveillance of digital communication has sparked fears for online freedom. The compant eventually ended up bowing to pressure, saying it would comply with prosecutors’ requests to monitor criminal suspects’ messages.

Along with government interference, the country’s rigid education system is also widely seen as as a barrier to the development of the so-called creative economy.

Mr Kim is one of the growing ranks of the South Korean elite that send their children abroad. His son is studying at a US university while his daughter had four years of home schooling.

“The current education is just focused on the university entrance exam, which does not require any creative thinking,” he mourns, “Many people confine themselves to existing frames. But, for the next generation… you need to think outside the box.”

Source: Financial Times, Monday 28 December 2015.


Kakao talk founder Kim Beom-su, pictured with a KakaoTalk character




My films of the year

Becuase of the mad rush that is the pre-awards season, most of the best films are now released between November and early January to maximise awards potential.

Still, by all accounts it’s been a great year for films. Here are some of the best:

Ex Machina


Alex Garland’s elegant sci-fi thriller was structured like a novel and made a massive star out of Alice Vikander. The robot who may have human feelings and thoughts is the most intriguing movie cyborg yet.

Inside Out


Pixar continued their excellent run of hits with this incredible insight into a child’s mind. Riley’s emotions play out as she struggles to cope with a move away from home and a new school. The film delighted more adults than children and made this reviewer feel wonderfully happy.



Todd Haynes subtle understated love story was delicate and restrained like the costumes of its stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Yes, the film may not have been as dramatic as one might have hoped. But could the performances have been improved on? No chance.



Many critics loved this one. Saorsie Ronan lit up the screen as a young Irish woman faced with the decision to move out of her home in Ireland to New York. The girl is Ellis  Lacey and thinking about this character brings up a lump in my throat. Credit must also go to Nick Hornby for adapting Colm Tobin’s novel so skilfully for the screen.

Steve Jobs


Amidst the massive franchise hits such as Star Wars and James Bond, this one was almost overlooked (perhaps this will be rectified come January). Michael Fassbender gave a startling performance as the head of Apple. Special mention to Kate Winslet as his put upon assistant and the very underused Kate Waterston as his mistreated wife.

And yet there are more to come, including The Hateful Eight (Tarantino); Joy (David O Russell) and Spotlight. Truly a great year at the movies.

A Christmas Story

There are some Christmases he can remember clearly and others which he has forgotten. The ones where nothing much happened, or nothing of note anyway. Those years where there were no big disappointments, but no great surprises or joys either.

The Christmas I want to tell you about happened some years ago when things were simpler and less complicated.


December 2001.

The leaves have fallen from the trees and the nights come early, often at 4 in the afternoon. Its not a big town where he lives. Population 20,000 at the most. Its a nice town. The lights are switched on early December every year. He is 19 and still living at home. The shops are full of food that he enjoys and what a treat it is to enjoy all of it! He can spend his afternoons buying food and his evenings cooking it.

He fills himself up on mince pies and ginger bread. The countdown begins in December so that by the 24th he is in a frenzy of anticipation and excitement. That his day when the Christmas tree goes up. His mother is a traditionalist and won’t think of the tree being put in the house a day earlier. Some of the decorations are very old and are hung on the tree with great care. He will spend an hour positioning these Christmas ornaments so that the heavy ones hang on the lower branches and the lighter ones up higher. They are made of wood and cut glass. His mother bakes gingerbread cookies that are cut in star and heart shapes and decorated with hard sugar frosting. These are hung from lights and over the fireplace from red ribbons.

They never get the biggest tree but it looks magnificent in the corner of the room perched on top of an old wooden box. Sometimes he will sit watching it alone in the living room with the lights out, the Christmas tree lights twinkling and illuminating everything in the room. Even cosier is when the fire is burning and flickering and sending sparks flying in the living room.

For the ultimate Christmas feeling he will put on Christmas music by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. Then he will pour himself a glass of wine and settle back in a chair reading stories by Dickens or – for something more modern -perhaps Bret Easton Ellis. There is a description of a glorious Christmas party in American Psycho where glamorous women drape themselves over be-suited Wall Street Traders and dwarfs dressed up as Christmas elves serve trays of Champagne. He has never tasted Champagne and the closest he has got to glamorous women is in Playboy. The December edition of that magazine features the centerfold for December who is normally dressed in some Christmas attire, though not for very long. The red and white costume worn by Miss December makes him feel both sentimental and horny at the same time.

The magazine contains, amongst other things, topical parodies of Christmas carols, an interview with a well known personality, and, along with the playmate of the month, a semi-famous celebrity who has gone nude for the magazine.

On Christmas Eve he will get up early and eat breakfast cooked by his mother. The tv stations show old films from 11 onwards. One he has watched for many years is Home Alone. The main character Kevin was about the same age he was when he first watched it. The film is something of a Christmas ritual.  The main character is accidentally left at home at Christmas when his family go away on holiday and leave him behind. One scene in the film has always struck him as unusual and that is the scene where Kevin goes through his ablutions. No child he knows would spend so much time washing himself if his parents were out of the country. Most probably the producers of the film felt it would be cute to show a young boy applying aftershave and then touching his cheeks in pain at the burning feeling. The film is nevertheless highly enjoyable for all its improbabilities and his Christmas would not be the same without watching it.

His mother becomes stressed as the day wears on and the demands of Christmas began to get too much. He spends time in his bedroom listening to Christmas music. The radio stations play the same naff songs but he is aware that there are much better, more authentic Christmas songs out there. His favourite is the Christmas album by Phil Spector called a Christmas Gift For You. It goes at a fair old pace and contains some of his most cherished songs, among them Frosty the Snowman and the Dance of the Wooden Soldiers.

And although he sang the Christmas carols as a boy, they seem so solemn and gloomy now. How much more cheerful are these American songs of reindeer and snowmen!

It got dark around 4pm. This was when winters were really cold. He bundles up in coats and scarf and gloves to make short journeys outside. But if its cold he keeps moving, striding forwards.

How much warmer it feels when he’s back inside. There is a good fire going and it feels toasty sat in front of it.

It’s just him sat in front of the fire. He looks at the fire and the presents under the tree and suddenly he doesn’t feel so alone in the world.

Social media: The good and the bad

I’m sure that you have your own opinion on whether you use social media. I’ve been using it for 6 years now.

here’s what I’ve found:

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are often the first sites I go to in the morning after checking my emails. I then spend several times a day checking back to see what new things have been posted. I guess one of the features of these sites is that people are constantly faced with the need to update information about themselves which leads to the feeling that you must stay logged in in case you miss something.

Secondly, pretty much everyone I know or have had dealings with is a ‘friend’ on facebook. In other words, people who I barely know in the real world now know an awful lot of personal information about me, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, I’m in the same position as a lot of people where I don’t feel I have a choice: because, if I’m not on social media, I will some how miss out on something. Yet, whenever I do log on to facebook, all I tend to see are long status updates and annoying memes that are only funny to the people who posted them.

I have heard lots of people say they don’t enjoy facebook but they prefer instagram. This is mainly due to the fact that people tend to post pictures which have something interesting to offer people. I would say that of all the social media sites, Instagram is the one with the least cluttered interface.

So for now, I’ll be spending my online social interaction on Instagram.

Working it all out

Does it ever feel like everyone else has the perfect job except you?

Many times I’ve wondered what the key to having a good job must be.

Although I’ve been told that I’m a people person, I find that most jobs involving lots of interactions with people tend to cause problems with me.

On the other hand, some of my most satisfying work experiences have been when I have been working by myself, but as part of a team. I’m thinking of when I worked as a chef. you have your own station so you are responsible for your own work. Yet if you make a mistake everyone is affected by it. I have found that in most working environments people don’t own up to their mistakes or even worse they blame others.

But in a kitchen you can’t do this. Working as a chef is very stressful and the hours are long but you have the chance to make something which people are prepared to pay a lot of money for. (It’s true that most chefs will never get to see the responses of patrons enjoying their creations).

Now, contrast this with working in an office. You read emails and answer calls. Occasionally you will have a meeting. But you never actually produce anything that will have a direct influence on people.

I have tried and mostly failed to work in offices. I’m not prepared to have my intellect challenged by some of the banal conversations I would be forced to hear.

Part of why I have found it hard to find good work is because I don’t think I was ever prepared properly for a life of work at school.

Yes, there was the occasional career talk but little that was going to be really helpful to me. In any case, when you’re in education up to the age of 18, you feel as though the world of work is a long way off.

When I was 11 I was desperate to become an actor, but that wasn’t going to happen. Perhaps if I’d been to auditions instead of school?

Then I had the idea of being a journalist, but you need top grades and the willingness to work for free for a long time until you start earning any money.

At university I studied film but there was never a clear idea of how I might make a career out of it. I tried and gave up very shortly after finishing my degree (perhaps I gave up too soon).

Now I’m a teacher. It’s not a vocation for me and sometimes I wonder why I do it. People say that you should do what you’re good at but unfortunately for some people that won’t always be what you will enjoy doing.

I also studied law and although I found it interesting but I know I’ll never be able to be a lawyer.

So for now I will continue to teach for as long as I can and continue the blogging until I find something I really want to do.

On Growing Older

There’s no doubt about it, I’m getting older.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of getting older for quite a few years.

In my mind I feel quite young but I feel that there’s a big difference between my chronological age and the age I feel myself to be.

We have a strange attitude towards aging. As children, we are expected to celebrate each passing year. The 18th birthday is supposed to represent coming into adulthood.

Yet, most 18 year holds are hardly ready for the adult world. We make children wait for so long before we allow them to experience freedom.

Much of our childhood years and early adulthood are spent in education (perhaps too much).

I remember being depressed when I reached 30. I didn’t feel I had achieved all of the things that society expected of me.

Unfortunately, we are very future focused. As children, we think about what we will be when we are older, rather than what we will do right now in the present. And how many children who decide what they want to do as kids go on to do it as adults?

nautical-ship-sand-timer-250x250I am definitely at the age I was when as I child I thought of as an adult. I am effectively living my future in the present. This means I no longer have the luxury of saying to myself that things will be different in the future (which is just a way of putting off making decisions).

Now I live in the present, rather than thinking of life as something that happens when you are older.

I guess time has always been running out from birth onwards. There’s less sand in the hour glass, but there’s still sand left to come out.

10 Great Korean films

  1. Oldboy

The one that really got the ball rolling for korean cinema was this Palme D’or winner by Chan Park Wook.

After being imprisoned for 15 years, a man has 10 days to learn why and to take revenge on the perpetrators.

There are so many awesome moments in this film, from the scene where he asks the sushi waitress to bring him something live, and then eats an octopus raw, to the bit where he takes on 15 security guards single handedly in a stairwell.

The  plot is borrowed form the Count of Monte Cristo and the music is stunning. Oh Dae-Su’s quest for vengeance becomes complicated when he falls in love with the waitress (Kang Hye-jung).

2.Chi-hwa-seon/Painted Fire

An absolutely visually beautiful film which also stars Min Sik. A painter grows up in poverty to become a court painter but spends most of his time drinking and sleeping with women. If your knowledge of period set films is  based on Merchant and Ivory, you really need to see this.

Spring Summer Autumn Winter and Spring

The film that started it all for me. Although most of the director’s works take place in depressed urban environments, this one is a quietly meditative study of Buddhism.

It is one of the quietest films ever made, with minimal sound and dialogue.

It follows the seasons over many years, tracing the life of an apprentice monk. The monk lives on a floating temple so the film showcases the beauty of the locations.

Memories of Murder

Some say that this is the best Korean film ever made.

Set in the eighties, a police officer tries to solve a series of murders with limited resources and corrupt methods, it’s funny at first but becomes increasingly tragic, as the chances of solving the murders becomes steadily more unlikely.Boon Jong Ho went on to direct the Host and Snowpiercer.

A Tale of Two Sisters

South Korea has made some great horrors and this is one of the most famous. It blurs the line between reality and fantasy as the characters become more unsteady and react to family tragedy.




Girls Generation Dear Santa album review

Wow, I didn’t have any expectations on this album as Christmas release can be a bit of a novelty but I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The first track Dear Santa starts off with slow, ballad singing before launching into a bouncy Christmas jingle at the one-minute mark. Vocals are mainly in Korean with some words (‘Christmas’) in English. It reminds me strongly of some of the great old Christmas songs like the ones on the Phil Spector Christmas album. 

They sing an English language version as well, which I’m not alone in thinking is actually better than the Korean language one.

There are more traditional ballads (‘Winter Story’ and ‘First Snow’) before another funky-poppy number ‘First Snow’, but its the title song I enjoyed the most. It may be a bit sugary for some but seriously what is Christmas if not for sugar and sweetness?


Ten great Korean dishes

Here are some of my favourite Korean dishes that I have tried so far…


This is a hot-stone bowl with julienned carrots, courgette, seasoned beef and other namul. Its served in a hot stone bowl so the rice is still cooking, and comes with a fried egg on top. Stirring it all together prevents the rice from sticking to the sides of the bowl.

Bibimbap is a perfectly harmonious dish which contains several vegetables and meat.


This is a dish made from rice sticks with a sweeet spicy sauce. The texture of these rice sticks is a little like pasta – they tend to be very chewy. It’s commonly served as a snack or as a side dish to go with main meals. They taste great with grated cheeese and slices of boiled egg.

It took a long time to find a decent picture of this dish, it definitely tastes better than it looks.


This is one of the most famous korean foods. The beef is sliced very thin and marinaded in a soy sauce and ginger mix. It’s served with rice. Less common but also very tasty is pork bulgogoi, usually slices of pork belly cooked in sesame oil.

Hotteok cakes

Hotteok Pancakes, picture from Korean chef Judy Joo

These require more effort than typical pancakes because they are made with yeast. You let the dough rise, then cut in to discs, placing a mixture of brown sugar, peanuts and cinammon inside and then pressing them together. Frying them melts the sugar mixture so that you have a deliciously nutty caramel filling. They taste completely amazing.


This is an excellent choice for people who don’t want anything too spicy. Short ribs are simmered with daikon for 5 hours until the meat falls off the bone.

Kimchi Chige

This is another one-pot meal. You put kimchi (spiced pickled cabbage) into a pot with either water or beef stock. Add pieces of tofu and tuna and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal that’s ready in minutes. You can vary the heat by choosing how much chili to add. It’s great to eat the following morning for breakfast if you have leftovers.

Jap chae

This is a famous mainly vegetable dish that is served with sweet potato noodles (or glass noodles). Mushrooms, courgettes and carrots are julienned and stir fried with slithers of beef and then added to the noodles. The only difficulty is in slicing the vegetables the correct thickness.