Business Scene

How I Started A Business In South Korea

Small Business Interview Highlight

This guest post is written by Richard, a small business owner who moved to South Korea to teach English to adults.  Eventually, he shifted to opening a successful translation company.  Having traveled to over sixty countries, his love for travel and living the digital nomadic lifestyle was nonstop until the pandemic.  

Discover how he adjusted his small business during the pandemic and his advice for future entrepreneurs who want to open a business in South Korea.

First Job

I worked many jobs before graduating from University at a car dealership, restaurant, hotel, and fitness center. I always enjoyed the work part, but not the side quests and the lack of pay in proportion to my results. As a result, I found that I was usually the one leaving.

After graduating from University, I landed a job at one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country. I thought I had made it. The only catch was they didn’t have a commission structure in place. I was young and naïve, so I believed them when they said they’d have one eventually. I would close million-dollar deals and get a small bonus at the end of the month for a few hundred dollars. Eventually, my department was dissolved, and I had to start over with new accounts. I became disillusioned by the corporate rat race and quit soon after. 

South Korea

I wanted to try something new, so I went on and found my first overseas job. It just so happened that it was teaching English to adults in South Korea.

At the time, I had no intention of staying in the country for more than a year or two. But as time went on, I found myself enjoying the country, especially how healthy and delicious the food was. 

The one thing I still didn’t like was working for someone else. With coerced office gatherings and unpaid overtime, Korean company jobs can make ones in the US seem like part-time gigs. I realized that no matter where I lived, I’d always encounter the same problem. It was at that point that I decided to start my own business.

Small Business

Fortunately, I found a Korean partner who was going through the same thing. She worked a few jobs after graduating from University, even one in Singapore, and encountered the same problems. 

We brainstormed three different business ideas:

  • café
  • study room 
  • translation company

We decided which one fit our primary aim of making decent money while not dropping from exhaustion.

Cafes took a lot of capital and would take years to recoup, not to mention the long hours and interactions with the general public.

The study room would tie us to Korea indefinitely, and we wanted to be location-independent.  Or at least be able to take a vacation longer than a few days (Korean tiger moms are no joke my friend who ran a study room was harassed for taking a few days off for his honeymoon).

Translation services seemed like the best idea since the work can be done anywhere and doesn’t require a physical location.

Richard in Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar
Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

Business Growth

We started cold calling and going to networking events to find customers. The first hundred dollars we made seemed like a dream come true. We were able to recoup our initial investment of 2,000 USD after a month and grew the business until we had savings every month. 

It was hard work, but it paid well, enough for us to pack up everything and slowly travel the world for five years until the pandemic hit. Many of our clients were cosmetic companies. Unfortunately, wearing masks while lowering disease transmission does not make people want to wear makeup.

Business slowed gradually during the whole ordeal. To combat this, we started getting work from NGOs and pharmaceutical companies who were making said masks, among other things like no-contact thermometers.

In our free time, we work on our blog, Lingua Asia, where we share info on Korean business, culture, and shopping that can’t be found elsewhere. The website used to be our international-facing translation website, but we decided to convert it into a second income stream. That has kept us occupied while not being able to travel. We’ve grown our blog from a few hundred visitors a month to 40,000 in the course of a few years. 

Here are a few things I’d recommend to anyone starting a business in Korea:

Buddy System

Having a Korean partner you trust is generally a good idea. Even after living in Korea for a decade, I still don’t fully understand the culture and decision-making process. I’d simply recommend splitting the profits into personal accounts every month and having equal access to business bank accounts. At the very least, it helps to have a Korean friend whom you trust to run things by. Also, find like-minded individuals to collaborate with who reciprocate.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Don’t ever criticize your customers, partners, or anyone else for that matter when running a business in Korea. You will not come out ahead. You might also isolate potential customers and advocates. A few people I didn’t get on with turned out to be loyal customers. Find new customers or partners instead and vent to close friends.

Cast A Wide Net

Korea is a dense country with plenty of people to provide value. Throw a rock in Gwanghwamun, and you’ll hit two potential customers (Please don’t actually do this). Instead, go out with a decent suit and a pocket full of business cards (put these in a nice business card holder) to events and meet people. Follow the previous rule and be engaging by asking questions about others and charismatic by caring about the answers.

Don’t Overextend

Never set a pace you can’t keep. My initial goal was to grow the largest translation company in Korea until I realized I don’t like managing people. I learned that there’s a lot of room between failure and a fortune 500 business. If you’re happy running a one-person show, then embrace it.

You can find many reasons to start your own business. Once you find one that makes sense, the rest will fall into place.

Thanks for reading.

Written by: Richard Walker 

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