Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
DongYol Lee (S. Korea)
Social entrepreneur/Chief organizer & Global facilitator of Startup Weekend Tokyo
(He’s been in Japan since 2005)
This is the interview for those who are interested in bootstrapping.
DongYol Lee organizes the event called “Startup Weekend Tokyo”, It’s a Tokyo version of Startup Weekend, which originated in Seattle and is now held in about 300 cities in the world. Things participants do are forming a team, making a product or service and pitching in 54 hours during the weekend. You pay only $75 per event and join it as many times as you want. Lee has held the event in Tokyo, Kyoto, Ishinomaki and Seoul (S.Korea) so far.
We met him for the first time in the summer of 2012 on referral from Michael Reinsch, another organizer of SW Tokyo. He was very, very friendly as you can imagine from his photo on the top of this page. But dispute his looks, he used to be in the South Korean military for 2 years and carried a machine gun. His background is quite remarkable.
Also what he wants to realize through his activities is remarkable for me, too. His remarkable background, vision and dreams… so many remarkable things appear on this interview!
Photos by Startup Weekend Tokyo
Hacker is not a bad guy.
For me, hacker is a guy who does good things. Originally the term “hacker” refers to a person who pursues technologies and create something from scratch. The commonly called “hacker””hacking” must be called “cracker””cracking”, I think.
Japan has made products that have never been seen as a manufacturing country. But they’ve not done that in the field of software development. There are excellent “assemblers”, but there’s no “hacker”. Or they confuse assembling and hacking in my impression.
The place where hackers exist is the US. New products have been created from scratch in the software field, but not yet in South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asian countries etc. We only make something under favor of the new products or services that are from the US.
Age of “creating totally new thing from scratch” ended
I organize the event called “Startup Weekend“, which is different from “Hackathon” (an event in which computer programmers and others in the field of software development get together). SW is more business-oriented and participants try to generate ideas of their business models or revenue models. In other words, Startup Weekend is the event for those who can build businesses or are interested in building businesses.
Up to a decade ago, there was a possibility of selling it if you produce something new. For example, cars were salable when people didn’t have those. When the e-mail system for companies was developed, companies bought it. But now is an abundant era and there are things that are harder to notice. Now it’s very difficult to create something which has never been seen before.
In order to drive sales of your products in such times, you need to secure purchasers or users beforehand and then think how to convince them to spend their money. Then you create products or services after you come up with answers or draw conclusions – That’s a valid and feasible way I think.
Where you can mimic the whole process of bootstrapping in mere 54 hours is “Startup Weekend”, which originated in Seattle. SW is not the event for software developers, it’s for those who want to be entrepreneurs with a “hacker spirit” to gather. I want it to be a place where we (Not geniuses, not cats with nine lives, those who overcome our failures and keep trying) seek the best way of bootstrapping for us and the necessary skills that we must gain.
Participant became organizer
The 1st session of Startup Weekend Tokyo, the Tokyo version of SW, was held by a British guy named Jonny Li in December 2009. He held it with the worldwide investor group called “Geeks On A Plane” and KDDI Web Communications Inc. on the weekend for 48 hours.
As for me, I quit a company in September 2009 and became a freelance engineer. I’ll tell you more later, but I was working on my own project. I gave a presentation of it at the big IT startup event and got a lot of feedback there. In order to launch my business, I attended many events and tried to learn how to start business and make contacts. But not much progress has been made even though I got tons of business cards. However I came across the ad of SW Tokyo when I was attending an event and got interested in it.
At SW, participants who have unique ideas make presentations in front of others, vote for ideas, form teams and cast their ideas into shape. Unfortunately my ideas didn’t collect enough votes to be chosen, so I joined someone else’s team. The SW Tokyo which I participated in was the 1st one which was organized by Jonny and it was held for only Saturday and Sunday (Now it’s held from Friday night until Sunday night) but I experienced the process from the beginning to the end, such as brainstorming, development of business model and commercializing our idea only in 48 hours.
To me, that was a really fresh experience so I wanted to hold a SW in my country. Then I organized the 1st session of Startup Weekend Seoul with other Koreans who were living in Seoul, Silicon Valley and Boston at the end of March 2010. I invited Jonny, organizer of SW Tokyo, to SW Seoul and said to him; “I want to be engaged in SW Tokyo with you”. He saw what was going on at SW Seoul which I led and he said OK.
Jonny and I held the 2nd session of SW Tokyo, which followed SW’s concept “Experiencing the whole process from forming teams to bootstrapping in 54 hours” in September 2010 in a roundabout sort of way.
Startup Weekend Tokyo (@Pasona Inc, Aug 31 – Sept 2 2012) *Click to enlarge
Providing a place for people who have no place to stay
I came up with an idea of the SNS for the visually disabled. I gave a presentation of the SNS at the event held by TechCrunch Japan, the Japanese edition of the American IT news media. My awareness of social issues made me create it.
I’ve hitchhiked from London to Rome in 1996, which was my first overseas trip. During the hitchhiking, I saw many interracial couples like whites and blacks or Asians and blacks. I was really surprised because I even saw foreigners for the first time then.
I have some friends who are Koreans residing in Japan. They are called Japanese in Korea and called Koreans in Japan. There is a community for those who waver between two identities in Japan. They didn’t seem to fit in any country and actually didn’t expand their circles of friends in their places.
As for me, I’m married to a Japanese woman and have 2 kids, They are half Korean and half Japanese. They might actually run into the identity problems when they grow up. So I wanted to solve that problem 10 – 15 years before they reach high school age. I wanted to make a world where you don’t need to recognize any boundaries and any people can blend in with others. Moreover I was in charge of programming and a leader of development team of the play-by-play announcement system which is used at racetracks of horses and motorboats. So I wanted to create a community where the visually impaired can join in by using their hearing abilities.
That SNS still remains incomplete because of being short-handed. But I still really want to make a social contribution even though I’m a genuine engineer and contract for application development. That also may be the reason why I was attracted to SW and became an organizer of its Tokyo version.
To eliminate any “segregation”
I’ve taken to English through playing games since I was a child and had contact with Japanese language or Japanese culture through comic books. Then I traveled in Europe and saw foreigners in person for the first time. It was my first overseas trip so I was frightened by them and I wanted to go home. But I forgot that I’m Korean and felt like all human beings are the same while I worked at a restaurant in London to save money to go traveling and hitched rides.
I developed the “SNS for the visually impaired”. It made me think about being a social entrepreneur. I didn’t want to chase money, I wanted to change our society, I wanted to do something to make the world a better place. The SNS is not the community only for the visually impaired. My goal is to create a community which world’s sighted people and the visually impaired can interact with each other.
Now our world is divided into communities and those are formed by the stablemates (same race/school/working place/origin/hobby etc) and are segregated.
I believe something wonderful will happen if those are blended. To eliminate cultural and economical segregation – that’s my dream.
World you can enjoy success wherever you are
It’s not too much to say that the reason why I joined SW is to create a world which has no segregation – diverse individualities are blended in their true colors and naturally.
There are places which have produced many successes and ones which haven’t produced successes very much in the world. A typical example of the former is Silicon Valley and the latter is Seoul or Tokyo. Those places are segregated, I mean the environments which you can become successful easily and you cannot make it easily are separated. I want to eliminate that kind of segregation. I want to create an environment which you can enjoy success wherever you start your own business.
When I was in my late 20s, after the hitchhiking in Europe, I thought that I would be able to live anywhere in the world. I wanted to read the Japanese cartoon called “ONE PIECE” as soon as possible, that’s the only reason I came to Japan. I didn’t expect that I would get married with a Japanese woman. Then I came to believe that where I’m living in is my home.
I do NOT aim at producing “Japanese great startups”. My goal is “producing great entrepreneurs IN Japan”. I want Japan to be a place where you can succeed easily as you can in Silicon Valley.
Trailer of Startup Weekend Tokyo Nov 2012
@Cyber Agent (Nov 16 – 18, 2012)
Rakuten & GREE, that’s good enough for you?
But in order to accomplish this goal, Japanese have to alter their state of consciousness a little bit. I’ve been reading Japanese comics since I was a kid and many of them conclude with getting the pennant at the Japanese high school tournament and winning the championship. It means their dream is to be the best in Japan.
But I think you have to teach them that you can take an alternate route taken to be the best in the world.
Overseas, people’s skills or techniques are more important than who they are. I feel that people get interested in or evaluate his/her skills themselves. “His/her skills are great. I’m going to learn them, use them and improve them”. On the other hand, it seems that people tend to think, “He/she learned wonderful skills. So I’ll try hard to be like him/her”. It means Japanese tend to be interested in or evaluate their “efforts” to learn skills and I guess it’s because Japanese culture requires people to rank technique to a level of art.
But recently, once a Japanese company has the largest market share in Japan, people think they’ve worked harder than other Japanese companies and developed its market share. That company has the respect of people, feel fulfilled and become relaxed about aiming at having the largest market share in the world.
Companies like Google or Apple are not created in Japan because Japanese don’t need to create them. They are satisfied with having Rakuten or GREE. But I want to show them that a 2nd Google or Apple has to be created in Japan. It’s more to eliminate “segregation” which is arisen by a difference in attitude between Japan and other countries than contributing to Japanese society.
They have the word “Best in Japan”, but its meaning is totally different from “Having the largest share in Japan”. If they realize that, the number of startups who go further would increase. Eventually the segregation which lies between Japan and overseas would be eliminated and both can be good rivals – I believe so.
Get to the essence of things
My goal is to produce great entrepreneurs “IN Japan” through SW Tokyo, NOT producing “Japanese great entrepreneurs”. In order to understand what “number one in the world” means, you should not care about people’s nationalities such as Japanese or South Korean. If I say, “I’ll produce Japanese great entrepreneurs”, they have to compete with startups overseas with Japanese values; Japanese and people overseas won’t be able to talk about the same thing and Japanese won’t understand why American entrepreneurs can succeed in the world market and Japanese ones cannot.
For example, I think there are slight differences in the ways America and Japan define the word “success”. In the US, the “entrepreneur’s success” means “to find the business model which creates something that anybody can use, creates values and change the world”. On the other hand in Japan, it means “to be a key person who is needed to create value through business and change the world” in my impression. I mean Japanese people tend to think what a fruit of entrepreneur’s success is to be like “it’s accomplished because he/she’s worked on it”. Which is correct? That’s a barren discussion because both are correct. Both of them need to understand that before competing with each other.
That’s why I care about the “place” where he/she is, not where he/she is from or his/her background, in order to eliminate differences in awareness that come from the differences of where he/she is from or his/her background and eliminate the distance between communities arising from that.
Birds fly and human beings walk. They do different things, but both of them “move”. You see something or you hear something, both are done in order to “know” about something. So I don’t want to say either is handicapped.
The same is true of both Japanese and American startups. Even if their definitions or appreciations of success are different, they must have the same goals of creating new values and creating a better world. They may do different things or they may be able to do different things, but once segregation of the ways of thinking or their fixed concepts is eliminated and they understand each other, they will be able to compete with each other in a real sense and start interaction with each other. I think you need to realize something which you’ve not realized before in order to make the world a better place.
What does your ideal world look like?
I have my own three principles;
1. Believe “I have infinite possibilities”
2. Believe “Everybody else is the same as myself”
3. Believe “I always do my best”.
That means I have no regret of what I did before because I always do my best, I have a bright future because I have an infinite future and everybody can respect each other because everybody else is the same as myself.
If every single person observes those principles, we will be able to realize a world full of happiness, I believe.
What is Tokyo to you?
It’s home because I have my family and friends of mine here. But I won’t get satisfaction in being here and staying here for a long time.
However I don’t mean I’ll move to New York five years from now. I’ll still be based in Tokyo, but I want to expand my sphere of activities. I’ll support startups in Tokyo, in Japan, in US and in the world and create opportunities for merging startup communities both in overseas and in Japan. Then I want to work in various places like visiting welfare facilities in North Europe as a social entrepreneur.
Then my ultimate goal after those experiences – to be an author of children’s books. I want to write “children’s philosophy books” that are a little bit difficult for kids. You can get tips on how to change the world for the better if you read them. I would like to write that kind of book in the future.