These 14 South Korean startups changed 2017 for the better

Working with judges from six leading South Korean accelerators and incubators, we selected 14 startups that we believe are helping improve society. We’ll explain why we chose them using criteria based on innovativeness, popularity, profitability, and more.

Judges: Hee Yoon Lee (Partner at Sparklabs), Nari Shin (Manager at Startup Alliance), Yoojin Choi (Manager at Maru180), Daewoo Lee (Manager of Accelerator team at Lotte Accelerator), Woong Choi (Investment Manager at D.Camp), Jinny Kim (Head of Communications at Blue Point Partners)

SG Lee, CEO of Viva Republica

Toss : “People Toss money to each other”

■ Maru180: Toss is disrupting the local mobile banking and finance industries with a simple money transfer service. People who use the app are more likely to say they will “toss” their money than they are to say they’ll transfer it into an account. It is one of the top 100 fintech startups, and it raised a huge amount of funding last year.

■ Startup Alliance: This startup changed young people’s money transfer habits. At one point, Toss’s servers went down, and the resultant internet searches catapulted the app to the top of the Naver real time search rankings. It totally shows the importance of Toss. But last year some banks were not linked with Toss, and this made the service less popular. After every Korean bank linked up with Toss, the number of daily wire transfers rapidly increased. People now take money out of Toss accounts from ATMs and manage their credit rating through the app. Plus, they can easily view their account details. It is safe to say that people’s financial habits e are gradually changing through the use of Toss. It will be interesting to see how Toss positions itself after internet banks are regularised, as these banks could threaten the startup’s business. However, brushing the worries aside, Toss has performed well in its role as a leading money transfer service.

■ SparkLabs: Toss has positioned itself very well even if KakaoBank launches. The total monthly remittances through Toss reached USD 930 million, and it became a wildly popular fintech startup. When Toss is on during its service hours, it ranks first on the Naver hit list and has caused reactions as enthusiastic as those for Lineage, a popular online game. It’s so popular that, instead of asking for bank account information to make transfers, many people say: “I’ll Toss it to you.” On top of money transfers, Toss can be used for P2P real estate investments and even for bitcoin acquisitions. The expansion of its services most likely contributed to the increased amount of time people are spending on the app.

■ D.Camp: Just as people now say “Let’s Netflix” instead of “let’s watch movies,” it’s incredible to see that people are now saying “let’s Toss.” Many media outlets covered Kakao Bank’s rise as an innovative fintech service, but that service would likely not exist without the demand created by Toss, which has generated accumulated money transfers of USD 9.4 billion. Toss also created innovative user experiences, such as sending money to people using only their cell phone numbers.

MyRealTrip : “A game-changing startup in the self-guided travel industry”

■ Maru180: While going on a trip abroad is not that special anymore, MyRealTrip changed the self-guided travel industry with cutting-edge customized travel services. MyRealTrip has demonstrated various encouraging signs, including sales growth, overseas expansion, and an increasing user base. It has also accumulated more and more positive reviews, which shows that it currently enjoys high standing in the travel industry.  

■ Startup Alliance: MyRealTrip is one of the the only travel-relevant startups that expands its business through the curation of its own content. The startup did not develop a platform with existing travel activities or packages. Instead, it began with its own guides and travel packages which they used to acquire users. MyRealTrip’s strategy was to expand its services to include travel insurance, money exchanges, and pocket Wifi.

Logo of ZIGZAG, a female shopping mall service developed by Croquis

ZIGZAG : “A startup that proves the importance of focusing on customers and products”

■ D.Camp: After asking our college-aged intern the reason why young people love this app, she responded that they love its simplicity. ZIGZAG understood that 20-30-year-old women tend to compare different items from many shopping sites when they want to buy something, and the startup figured out how to help these women make the best possible choices. It totally shows that the answer to the startup’s success is its concentrate on customers and products.

Taeho Kim, CEO of Poolus

Poolus : “The first step in shifting the entire sharing-vehicle industry”

■ Lotte Accelerator: Poolus is definitely the leading startup in the sharing-vehicle economy. The business model, which began as a carpooling concept, became the first big step in changing the entire market. It quickly helped resolve customers’ existing complaints regarding public transportation. It is also impressive to see how Poolus keeps up with its growth even as other taxi operators keep strict watch.

PUBLY : “Unrivaled startup in digital content publication”

■ Maru180 : PUBLY succeeded in changing the idea that online content is always free by charging for high-quality content on the web. The startup has succeeded in linking its digital content with offline gatherings, as exemplified by the much-discussed event “Venture Capitalism in Korea-VCs speak,” which was held in March.  PUBLY covers many social issues and uses easily-accessible language to tell its stories. It cultivates new writers, and it therefore keeps acquiring new readers. It would not be surprising to see PUBLY become the leading startup in digital content publication.

Korbit : “A startup that has popularized cryptocurrency”

■ Bluepoint Partners: Korbit launched the first market in Korea for blockchain-based cryptocurrency, which was one of the hottest sectors in IT industry last year. Korbit was acquired by Nexon for USD 86 million, a much-discussed move. Many experts expect the global cryptocurrency market to grow, so it would follow that Korbit should grow rapidly and show good results.

Fast Five : “Successfully expanded its business despite Wework’s expansion in Korea”

■ Bluepoint Partners : Co-working spaces have brought huge changes to Korean startups’ work environments over the past year. Unexpectedly, the supply of these spaces can meet the demand, and the co-working space business is growing every day.  Fast Five has expanded its business consistently, even though it is competing with Wework, a global unicorn startup, which recently started operating in Korea.

Sellev : “Is there anyone who has not watched a Sellev video?”

■ SparkLabs : It is doubtful that there is a single Korean Facebook user who has not watched a Sellev video. Other startups even watch Sellev videos to get ideas when creating their own videos because of their well-organized structures, great storytelling, and the many different subjects and types of people they showcase. Individuals and company representatives who have been interviewed by Sellev say that the extensive pre-interview process and research the startup does lead to excellent interviews. I think that Sellev videos are similar to E Channel videos, as they are insightful video clips that are short but impactful.

Watcha Play : “It is no exaggeration to say that Watcha Play is a textbook for the data business”

■ D.Camp : At first, I thought Watcha Play was a “Korean Netflix,” and that is a business model for which it is difficult to raise funding. It’s also still difficult to challenge Netflix’s market reach. However, as Watcha Play developed its content catalog quickly and ran data-driven marketing campaigns, I found myself re-subscribing every month. Now all kinds of content is available to stream on Watcha Play. Everything started from users’ movie reviews. It is easy to say that Watcha Play changed the content-streaming business.

Amanda : “A dating app that is both popular and controversial”

■ SparkLabs : Amanda was once known as an app that could evaluate others’ faces, but now it is the most popular dating app in Korea. Adding to its popularity, people uploaded screenshots of themselves using the app on their social media channels. Amanda definitely causes controversy, as it scans and evaluates people’s faces. Many up-and-coming dating apps point out the shortcomings of Amanda when they pitch to potential investors, and this shows that the entire industry pays attention to Amanda’s presence.

Bungaejangter: “The hottest subject of last year in the startup space was Bungaejangter’s acquisition of Sell it”

■ Lotte Accelerator: The news that Bungaejangter acquired Sell It was one of the most popular topics of conversation in last year’s startup space. Those two services already provided users such phenomenal experiences and values. Many expect Bungaejangter to expand its services into exclusive online distribution.

Jaeho Choi, CEO of Drama & Company

Remember: “It will hopefully compete against global services like LinkedIn in the near future”

■ Lotte Accelerator: Remember was clearly different from other name card management services. Even with only its core features, Remember stood out against other competitors and became even more competitive after it added new features like messenger and network management. I sincerely hope that Remember competes with global services like Linkedin in the near future.

Jayoung Yoon, CEO of Styleshare

Styleshare : “A popular fashion startup that has become profitable”

■ Startup Alliance: Styleshare succeeded in both expanding its business to e-commerce and generating revenue from its new business model. Plus more than half of 10-20-year-old Korean females use the app. However, it was unclear how Styleshare would make profits through its social media concept, but its revenue rapidly increased after it launched its e-commerce format. When I went to the Styleshare Market Fest, an offline event organized by the startup, it was easy to see the huge influence the startup has on young people. We expect to see its business expand into Japan in the near future, as Styleshare is in the process of launching its service there already.

Minseok Kim, CEO of SmartStudy

SmartStudy : “A Growing global content company with continuing popularity”

■ Bluepoint Partners: SmartStudy is different from startups that draw interest from professions only, as it is increasing in popularity and becoming a global content company. Having already established its presence on Youtube and smartphones, SmartStudy plans to expand its service to TV animations, concerts, and games through IPs (information providers, so we expect to see it grow rapidly.

(Top photo from Baidu Images)

This article, entitled “These 14 South Korean startups changed 2017 for the better”, was written in Korean by Platum, edited by AllTechAsia.

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