|Participants take part in a Business Network Korea speed business-networking event in Geumcheon, Seoul. (BNK)|
The following is the fourth article in a series featuring support and networking systems for foreigner-owned businesses in Korea. ― Ed.
Under the bright fluorescent lights of a seminar room in a quiet dental laboratory in Geumcheon, southwestern Seoul, on a Saturday afternoon, people stand in pairs with handwritten name tags hanging from their necks.
The basic questions float in the air: Where are you from? What do you do? What brought you to Korea? They lead some pairs to boisterous banter, business talk and exchange of name cards, and others to sneak glances at the slowly ticking clock.
Then an alarm beeps, and they shake hands and move on.
It’s networking in its speediest form, but the participants aren’t (generally) looking for dates ― they’re seeking out business partnerships.
Business Network Korea, a 10-month-old networking site, hosts speed business-networking meetups every eight weeks, the most recent having been in early December. Entrepreneurs register and pay 20,000 won to look for business-minded peers who can help them expand their businesses.
BNK’s founder, Canadian Tony Choi, says he started the site and the event as a way to help bring his family’s native country to the world.
“My vision is to connect Korea to the world,” he said at the meetup. “I went on mission trips to other countries to volunteer and help out, and then I realized, why do I need to go to another country when there are people right in my backyard that I can help?”
He came to the idea for BNK after meeting a man named Daniel Cho, founder and CEO of The Dental Solution, while at the immigration office in Seoul. As if by fate, they got along famously and Cho offered him a job. Now the dental laboratory hosts BNK’s bimonthly meetups.
But it’s not usually that easy for foreigners to meet Korean businesspeople and vice versa, Choi realized, and organized the first meetup in August 2012.
“I have a lot of friends who are Korean and not Korean, and each side always wants to meet (the) other. And if you imagine for business it’s a lot more ambiguous; it’s more difficult to meet.”
In total, 41 people ― both Koreans and foreigners ― have so far warmed up to the idea of taking part in the meetups, with several coming back for a second or third. Those who attend automatically become “Silver Club” members on BNKclub.com, the members-only section of BNK’s site, which allows them to create profiles, scan in their business cards, participate in forums and offer discounts or other specials to fellow members for their own business services.
The ambience during the meetups is light and friendly, with conversations drifting between business and small talk, brainstorming on how to help each other’s businesses while talking about family life.
“Okay, everyone, let’s switch,” Choi yells every three minutes, and participants exchange business cards before introducing themselves to someone new.
“The main reason (for the meetup) is for people to meet other people for the purpose of business,” Choi said. “It’s very clear to everyone why people are there, which makes it that much easier to discuss business-related matters. There is also a handful of people who just want to learn more about business.”
“What I loved about the group was that it was laid back, informal and actually a lot of fun,” said December meetup attendee Nathan Finch of The Arrival Store, a local online retailer catering to newly arrived expats. “These are people I’d like to hang out with, conduct business with, and people that I think add value to Korea and the expat experience.”
Though the project is young, it is already highly organized, each event starting with a PowerPoint presentation giving directions on how to meet each other. There are name tags with different-colored stickers for what participants are looking for ― products, services, internships and partnerships ― and even a service available to create one’s own BNK business card if they so desire one.
“I definitely think there’s room for growth and improvement in the BNK meetings, both with people and the way networking is done,” Finch added. “I love that it’s basically in start-up mode, figuring things out, trying to establish an identity, and really seems to be taking the form of the people in the group.“
But while he appreciates BNK’s energy, Finch says BNK is not quite at the point just yet to help his company grow.
“For me, and our company as a small and growing business, the price-point and grassroots nature of BNK is super appealing,” he said. “However, as a ‘builder’ and developer wanting to see The Arrival Store grow to maximum potential, we need some more established and powerful connections.”
That happening is only a matter of time, according to Justin McLeod, country manager for marketing platform World Markets, which has partnered with BNK to help promote it.
“It does look small now but I think in the future it’ll get bigger,” McLeod said.
“Tony Choi is a super nice guy with a vision of utopian business that might be slightly unrealistic but is very refreshing in today’s cutthroat world. That is one of the main reasons why I made a supporting partnership with him. He is one of those innocent guys with a vision that he will strive to achieve and probably will.”
While McLeod’s vision for BNK’s future is to increase its size to the point that they need to rent a meeting room at COEX for events, Choi’s is simply to see how things progress by the 10th meetup before deciding on the next step.
“BNK is much bigger than just any individual person. BNK would have been scrapped if I were doing this just to make some extra cash,” Choi said after the meetup.
“Instead, BNK is alive to provide all of us start-ups, small businesses, and people looking to get into business with the one thing we all need: hope. Hope that we all can do something besides teach English in Korea. Hope that we all can do something that we love and enjoy. Hope that we all can create a lifestyle that we will enjoy living. And this hope is in the form of the 41 members found at BNKClub.com.”
The next BNK speed business-networking meetup is at the seminar room of The Dental Solution in Geumcheon, Seoul, on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m.
Visit Business Network Korea at www.businessnetworkkorea.com.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org)