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




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