Foreigners should not expect ‘freebies’

Korea Business Central community fills in gaps on doing business locally, creator says

Published Dec. 11, 2012, in The Korea Herald

 

With the eighth-most business-friendly environment in the world ― so said the World Bank in October ― along with free government-provided services in English, Japanese and Chinese at the Seoul Global Business Center, free economic zones scattered across the country and various foreign direct investment incentives, there’s something to be said about Korea’s initiatives to help foreign businesses.

It’s that foreign business owners should not expect any of it, according to Steven Bammel, creator of Korea Business Central, a popular online business information and social networking forum primarily for job seekers and businesspeople in Korea.

“There’s no question that the Korean government ― especially at the city level in Seoul and provincial level in Gyeonggi ― is trying to encourage entrepreneurship by foreigners,” he said in an email interview with The Korea Herald. But, he added, “I think there’s an overestimation among the foreign community of just how much Koreans need them.

“From an economic standpoint, Koreans really aren’t under any moral obligation to make things easier for foreigners just so foreign businesspeople can make easier money here. … I think it’s great, of course, but not something that should be expected.”

That’s where KBC stepped in: Bammel created the site in 2009, when such foreigner-friendly business resources were harder to come by, as a community for people to share and learn from each other’s business experiences, so they can do business independently and effectively.

“One of the ways I think KBC can fill in the gaps is by helping foreigners educate and equip themselves to do business effectively here without waiting for Korea to change or give them freebies,” he said. They can even do their homework before they come to Korea, he added, by digging through the website’s resources which have aggregated quickly ― some 1,500 discussions have so far been posted ― over three years.

Bammel learned the ropes of doing business in Korea himself when he worked for five years at LG International Corp., started his own consulting and translation service in 2000, and worked for two years as an FDI adviser for the Gyeonggi provincial government. A resident of Korea for about 13 of the past 19 years, he came to learn first-hand about the Korean business hierarchy, out-of-office networking and the significance of drinking in business culture ― things a Korean government agency couldn’t have taught.

It’s these kinds of nuances that he hoped the local foreign business community could share with each other.

“I remember how hard it was to find answers and connections about business here when I first came to Korea,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve been in many different roles: job seeker, business student, entrepreneur, Korean learner and foreign businessperson. Today, I’m trying to build KBC to help others trying to get started quickly in their business-related dreams in Korea.”

The site’s various features include special interest forums ― such as on public speaking, the Korean game industry and business Korean language learning, to name a few ― plus open-topic message boards, archived podcast interviews (and transcriptions) with local seasoned business professionals, “relay interviews” in which one user interviews another business professional via open-forum Q&A over the course of several days, and a Business Accelerator section with quick links to information and discussions on how to start and run a business in Korea.

“One issue with the government-provided support is that it’s sometimes provided from a Korean perspective, and from a government perspective,” he said. “On KBC, we have a lot more freedom from an agenda set by a government official, and we’re in a slightly better position to see things from a foreigner’s perspective rather than Korean perspective of what they think foreigners are interested in.”

And plenty of users have chipped in to help, such as Park Eun-shil, who edits the New Korea Economic Slice, a column on business issues regarding local current events, as well webmasters and an intern.

Despite the help he’s gotten from people who share his motivation, the nearly 3,000-member site has gotten too big to maintain with its initial offerings, he admits. Once focusing on interview series, user-produced features and networking events, Bammel found the free community services to be too time consuming.

“My initial idea was to build a community to organically support member networking efforts both online and offline. However, it became clear that the effort was too high and the returns too low to run things as just a gathering place for members to connect,” he said. “And so we’ve been working hard to provide tools and content that will help members solve their immediate needs for services and knowledge. I would say that the ‘community’ aspect of KBC has been de-emphasized this year while we’ve focused on the ‘solutions and tools’ aspect.”

He has ditched his role as networking-event organizer and is now working on building up money-generating “premium resources,” such as his self-designed KBC Professional Certification Course launched in April, which, for now, is a $67 seven-lesson primer on Korean business culture, complete with overviews, supplementary readings, Q&A “classroom” opportunities with Bammel, lecture emails and even a final exam. So far about 25-30 students have taken the course, he said. Additional courses in the works will cover the Korean business landscape, plus negotiations and strategy. He also uses KBC as a platform to advertise his translation services globally.

Several users said that their first experiences on KBC were a bit overwhelming. Because of the forum design, discussions get “a bit long in the tooth,” Bammel admits, as they may last for dozens of pages over several months or even years, forcing users to scan through volumes of comments to find ones they would find helpful.

Additionally, on some pages it’s difficult to tell what is regularly updated and what has been collecting dust. Certain features such as the original Korea Economic Slice, once a weekly financial outlook report, and KBC 9.9 with Daniel, once a weekly podcast, have long been discontinued but remain on the site for reference. In contrast, The Last Two Weeks in Korea, a top-five news round-up of weighty issues on the peninsula, is a regularly updated newsletter.

Bammel considers all these resources invaluable no matter their publication date, and is working on a website revamp to keep the content relevant while making navigation more user-friendly.

“I’ve made a deliberate effort to keep useful discussions around by linking to them in the Business Accelerator pages. That’s because the discussions often have remarkably valuable information and I want that to be available indefinitely,” he said. “Just letting a discussion die and disappear doesn’t seem like a good way to treat the insights which members have taken the time and effort to share.”

While building on others’ experiences, business owners here must take the necessary time and effort on their own to deserve success, he says.

“If someone comes to Korea to do business, they need to be ready to make the sacrifices to achieve success. Korea’s not the land of the easy money; it’s a great place to do business if one loves the country, makes the effort, holds realistic goals and/or has something unique to offer Korea that can’t be found elsewhere.”

Visit Korea Business Central at koreabusinesscentral.com.

 

By Elaine Ramirez (elaine@heraldcorp.com)

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