Business lessons we all can learn from Netflix K-Drama, Start-Up

Start-Up K-Drama poster

I know I know until now most of you would have watched this K-Drama series. Well, last weekend I got my hands on a friend’s Netflix account and binge-watched this one and here I am with another gyan, another blog.  

If you haven’t seen Start-up yet, here’s a brief: set in Sandbox (a fictional Silicon Valley in Korea), the drama follows the lives of four main characters as they navigate the challenges of the start-up realm. Let’s get straight to the relevant points of the series which are totally relatable entrepreneurial journey.

You need a clear purpose and a business plan.

Know your WHY.

Episode 8 sees a conference room exchange between Dal-Mi and Ji-Pyeong why she believes their AI app Noon-Gil focused on helping the blind will succeed even if the financials don’t make sense.

“I’m not trying to achieve something new and great here. It’s just that for some people, what’s ordinary to us isn’t ordinary at all. I want our technology to help them. Even just a little bit. Even just a tiny little bit, if we can protect their everyday lives, I think that’s enough reason to do this,” explains Dal-Mi.

Sandbox founder, Ms. Yoon supports this saying, “They’re at least clear about their why.”

Ji Pyeong counters, “But that’s about it, they don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Ms. Yoon then states, “As long as they know why they do it, the rest will follow.”

Takeaway, knowing your purpose keeps you focused and passionate about what you’re doing. The road to success isn’t straight nor is it always paved. Oftentimes, it’s winding, steep, and full of pitfalls. Your purpose is a compass that will keep you headed in the right direction.

Starting a business is like sailing in the vast ocean. It’s either you die of thirst or you’ll survive. Pursuing profits in the early stages of a business is like drinking sea water. No matter how thirsty you are, you should not drink sea water, instead wait until it rains.

The concept of low risk and high return is a common mistake for beginners. In the early years of a business, never expect big profits. Instead, build your market first. It is perfectly normal. Don’t be tempted to look for big sales in your first year. First try to recover, strategize and build. The big wins come later.

To become an effective leader, you must have the audacity to make firm decisions.

Should I keep a majority stake in the company or should I give them up? Do I let go of a valuable asset or do they bog us down? Should we invest resources in R&D or do we expand? These are tough calls a leader has to make day in and day out. Whether a right or wrong decision is made, the leader’s job is to steer the ship towards a direction.

“‘What makes a great CEO?’ There’s no such thing. That’s as absurd as asking what makes a great politician. There are no right answers to politics or management. Why look for answers that don’t exist? So, instead of looking for answers, make choices. Whatever you choose, you’ll be criticized. You can’t make any decisions if you’re afraid of criticism. And if you can’t make decisions, you can’t be a CEO. What do you want to be? A good person or a CEO? Don’t be greedy. You can’t be both. Choose one. Just one.” — Han Ji-Pyeong, Episode 6

Team chemistry is really quite important.

Skills alone won’t bring success. We’ve all heard the saying, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” And that only happens when we find people with the right fit. San Ha may have been the most competent person in the room, but without the willingness to work alongside her teammates, the team might have been busier tiptoeing around each other than focusing on the goal.

Starting a business begins with the passion to lead a team.

Dal MI pitching as CEO

As Dal Mi was still gathering her courage to talk to Do San, Yong San, and Chul San, the trio, on the other hand, was thinking of relaunching Samsan Tech. Yong San met with Ji Pyeong to ask for insights about their plan.

“Why did the three of you launch a start-up? To run a business or write programs?” Ji Pyeong asked Yong San. “Either way, the conclusion is simple. If what excites you is writing programs and seeing them run, work as developers at a company that pays you well. If you’re excited about establishing and leading a company, run your own company.”

He underlined, “As you already know, you’ll face many hardships while running a start-up. The only thing that keeps you going is the confidence that you’re doing what you love.”

Pay attention to fine print in contracts

Dal Mi and Do San signing contract with 2STO 300cr Acquihire deal

Remember when the Samsan Tech founding members had to split up because of an acqui-hiring (acquiring a company with the intention of hiring its best employees) scheme by tech company 2STO? Contracts can be confusing. When in doubt, leave the legal aspects to the professionals and don’t hesitate to seek advice from a lawyer.

No matter how well connected and friends you are, always keep the cap table sorted.

While mentoring Samsan Tech Ji Pyeong asked about company structure, it was all divided equally. Then he suggested keeping the majority stake consolidated with one of the founder. Ji Pyeong also said the majority stake should not be less than 60 at least and he prefers 90.

Investors are human and their conviction could be wrong, have belief in your idea.

When Do San ask Ji Pyeong to fund their startup (Samsan Tech), he denied it. Ji Pyeong believes Samsan Tech’s business idea is not good enough and would not make money for Investors.

Later we saw Samsan Tech got acquired by 2STO and even they launched self-driving car.

The key to succeeding in any goal is knowing your “why.”

After learning that Dal Mi’s grandmother is slowly losing her eyesight, Do San developed NoonGil, a mobile app powered by an AI technology that identifies objects, texts, colors, and even people for its visually impaired users.

Although he and the rest of the Samsan Tech crew are aware that it would entail tremendous work and money, they all set their eyes on one goal: to help blind people live normal lives.

Dal Mi then discussed the concept of NoonGil with Ji Pyeong. Thinking that its investors would not profit from it, the experienced venture capitalist rejected the idea until — with her heart-tugging speech — Dal Mi made him say “yes.” Sandbox CEO Sun Hak heard Dal Mi and Ji Pyeong’s conversation and couldn’t be any prouder of Dal Mi’s determination.

Sun Hak discussing with Ji Pyeong about NoonGil

She told Ji Pyeong, “The more success they have, the harder the CEO will have to work since they have to rely on investments. I ran a business like this myself when I was young. I had to beg for money day in, day out. It was nerve-racking.”

“But the thing is, they’re at least clear about their ‘why.’” she added.

Ji Pyeong replied, “But that’s about it. They don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Sun Hak clarified, “As long as they know why they do it, the rest will follow.”

Soon after its launch, NoonGil became a popular app worldwide with the help of Do San’s connections and, of course, Samsan Tech’s substantial efforts.

Risk can be good or bad. Risk is a possibility of loss, but it doesn’t mean danger.

When we build a business, we always take risks. A business is a gamble. A start-up has a 50% chance of succeeding but at the same time a 50% chance of failing. That’s OK. When you fail at the first attempt, try again. Taking risks doesn’t always mean it is threatening. Sometimes, we have to take big risks for us to learn and be able to know what we should do next. Don’t be afraid to start over. The next time you do it, you’re not starting from scratch anymore. You’re starting from lessons and experience.

Don’t be afraid to aim high.

After Cheongmyeong Company attained its license to manufacture and sell its self-driving car named “Tarzan”, In Jae urged Dal Mi to bid their technology in Smart City’s nationwide search for self-driving cars. Dal Mi, on the other hand, was wary of the idea.

“I don’t think it’s nonsense. I believe a business can only grow as large as the CEO’s dreams,” In Jae told her sister. “Don’t limit yourself. I hope you can keep challenging yourself as CEO. Sometimes, wild dreams can become reality.”

Do San was likewise keen on the idea. He told Dal Mi, “Dal Mi, you know, we should put in a bid for the self-driving platform.”

Cheongmyeong celebrating as they get license to manufacture and sell its self-driving car named Tarzan

“I don’t expect us to get it [bid]… That’s why we should do it. That way, it’ll be easier next time… It’ll be a learning experience. You pass failure on your way to success. We’ll build experience,” he added.

Ji Pyeong argued, “If you sail without a map, you’ll die. Be it a typhoon or a shark. You will die either way. Did you forget?”

“Of course, I remember sailing without a map,” Do San answered. “But to me, sailing off without a map was marvellous. I might’ve failed, but I have no regrets. Never did and never will.”

“I know, like you said, sailing off without a map could cost me my life. But I could also survive. And people like that become trailblazers,” he concluded.

True enough, Do San and Dal Mi ended up becoming trailblazers. They won the bid for Smart City and later scaled up their start-up into a big conglomerate. All that, as a happily married couple.

Following your dream is a very difficult road to take, but it’s always worth it!

Do what you love, love what you do. If you have a passion project, pursue it. Don’t be afraid to go after your dreams and turn them into a reality. When you are ultimately passionate about what you do, you will never call it “work”. You will be more productive than you have imagined. In the end, reaching your dreams and achieving your goals is the best thing that can ever happen in the world even if it takes blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. Just do it!

raise capital for your startup

I hope above lessons will help you, building your next generation startup. If you come across any startup jargon, you may check this glossary. Also, as I end this blog I would recommend you watching this K-Drama on fast forward. Until next time keep building, keep thriving! Wish you all good luck…

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