Korean-American Robin Kim first went to South Korea in 2007, right after graduating from business school in Atlanta, Georgia.
A decade on, Robin, 31, is still in Korea – and now he’s an experienced entrepreneur working on his second tech #startup.
When I talk to him, he’s actually back in the States. That’s because his newest venture, Soomgo, is part of the current batch at famed Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator. Upon graduating at the end of the month, he’ll return to Seoul to apply what he’s learned to Soomgo, which connects local service providers with customers.
“We started initially servicing people who gave lessons – whether that be music or academics, a foreign language, sports, so on and so forth,” says the CEO. “Now we also cover home services, event planning services, wedding design services, business services. And we do plan to continually expand the offerings.” The site now has 25,000 registered service providers from all across South Korea.
Basically, it’s Korea’s answer to Thumbtack.
Robin’s startup is benefitting from Thumbtack’s growth in the US in the past eight years by emulating its way of making money – charging professionals to send quotes to customers via a virtual credits system that costs real money. It’s a bit like the system – so I’m told – on Ashley Madison.
Thumbtack arrived at its business model after years of fumbling with other methods, such as charging service providers a monthly fee.
So the virtual credits system has been well road-tested and seems to be the way to go.
“For the requesters, the people looking for a service, we really just want to be the search and discovery tool for them out there. For the providers, we just want to be the best lead generation tool,” explains Robin.
Unlike all the “Uber for cleaners” or “Uber for laundry” startups out there, Soomgo is not marshaling a troop of workers under one banner – and it’s not taking a slice of their wages, either. It’s simply a matchmaker. So Robin can expand the site in a flexible way, driven by what people are seeking, adding new categories when the need arises.
It’s traditionally a conglomerate-driven culture.
The site’s seeing strong demand, often exceeding the supply of local professionals, Robin states, which will drive a push this year to get more freelancers and small businesses to use it. “I guess some people can view that as a good problem to have. Because the demand’s really already there, waiting to find these providers.”
He wants the people offering services on the site – singing lessons, wedding cakes, fitness training, whatever it is – to be able “to lead sustainable, upper-middle class lifestyles” by nabbing a consistent flow of new customers through the site.
Robin sees Korea as a great place to do this, as it has three times as many self-employed people as a percentage of its population as the US – about 30 percent.
“In South Korea, there is a dire need for tools and for platforms that really help freelancers and small businesses to fill the gap in what is traditionally a conglomerate-driven culture,” he says, nodding towards the chaebol, which seem to dominate so much of everyday life in Korea. It’s where Samsung owns an amusement park, LG makes toothpaste, and Hyundai builds apartment complexes.
Alongside Robin is a similarly experienced duo of fellow co-founders. CTO Hwan Kim is fresh from leading the engineering team at Silicon Valley-based education startup Brightstorm, while CPO Jiho Kang is a serial entrepreneur with experience at Korean ecommerce unicorn Coupang.
Robin’s first rodeo was as the founder of Yogiyo, a popular food ordering app. But he admits to being “very inexperienced” at the time – in his mid-20s – after being parachuted into the role by Yogiyo’s parent company in a manner not dissimilar to the way Rocket Internet installs people at the head of its new startup ventures.
Still, he quickly learnt the importance of “executing through data decisions,” he says. And he’ll mix that with the Y Combinator mentoring as he builds up Soomgo.