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Innovative Minds Part VI: Mark Tetto, Investor and Venture Capitalist

Mark Tetto
by Yvonne Kim
23 August 2015

Mark Tetto is one of the brightest young investors and venture capitalists here in Korea. Having joined Samsung Electronics in 2010 in order to help build Samsung’s new corporate development and M&A practice, Mark went on to develop a strong interest in the Korean startup industry. Working with Changseong Ho and Jiwon Moon (founders of Viki.com), Mark went on to be a founding member of TheVentures Co, a micro-VC and business accelerator based in Korea, and CFO of Vingle. Mark continues to be active in investing and mentoring in the Korean startup sector and met up with Asia Society Korea Center to share his experiences with innovation and to give an insight in the industry in Korea.

You came to Korea to work for Samsung in 2010. What was it about the country that attracted you?
I had traveled to Korea a few times before, and there was always something about the culture that resonated with me. There is a certain passion for life here, and the full range of human experience, relationships and emotion. Many Koreans feel they share this aspect of culture with Italians - and perhaps it's no coincidence that I felt at home here, since my parents are from Italy and I grew up with Italian culture. When I eventually came to live and work in Korea, I was also amazed by the incredible work ethic and commitment to winning in the global economic arena. People here are generating new ideas, effecting rapid change, and looking to do big, impactful things in the world.

After leaving Samsung, you worked in Korea's venture capital industry and specialized in helping startup companies enter the market. How did you make the move from Samsung into the venture capital sector?
While living in Korea, I felt a strong need and hunger on the part of young Korean entrepreneurs. They had some great ideas and were looking to innovate, but they largely needed two things: risk-taking, early-stage seed capital, and mentorship on how to grow their companies to succeed on the global stage. I also felt that growing this new generation of companies would be a critical component of sustaining and growing Korea's economy in the future. Starting an accelerator seemed to be the ideal way to provide these entrepreneurs with both the capital and mentorship they need to succeed, and contribute the future of Korea's economy.

Korea has long had a stigma of failure attached to startup companies. Do you see this attitude starting to change?
A stigma around failure is often cited as one cultural headwind in Korea which has been an impediment to entrepreneurs, pushing them towards safer career paths and discouraging them from taking the risk of starting new companies. I think some of that stigma still remains, however I feel things have already changed drastically for the better. It was over ten years ago that I first began traveling to Korea, and over five years now that I've lived here; in that time I've seen a dramatic increase in people here who are willing to risk failure and start their own businesses. And this is not just tech startups - I think of friends who have left big companies to start a cafe, a design boutique, or any number of small businesses. I believe this is because we are seeing more reference cases and role models among the earlier wave of entrepreneurs in Korea who tried, failed, but eventually went on to succeed and build impressive companies.

How much does the Korean tech start up industry model itself on Silicon Valley?
Korea has been intentional about observing other startup hubs - not just Silicon Valley, but Israel as well - and trying implement the best practices from each while also fostering its own distinctly Korean startup ecosystem and culture. I believe the most notable shift in the past 5-10 years which traces back to Silicon Valley is the notable increase in early stage, risk-taking seed capital. The earlier ecosystem here naturally started with later-stage growth capital, taking less risky bets to help somewhat proven small businesses to grow. But risk-taking, seed stage capital - which is prevalent in Silicon Valley and is critical to high speed innovation and "failing fast" - is really a story of the past 5-10 years in Korea. I think it has largely taken two forms: individual and institutional seed stage funds which have entered the market; and government funding programs for new startups, which are modeled on Israel and other global hubs as much as Silicon Valley. With these elements in place, the ecosystem here is now much better positioned to create innovative new companies, in the way we are accustomed to seeing from Silicon Valley.

Do you think that Korea is going to be the next global hub for tech startups?
Korea has strong potential to be a prominent startup hub of Asia. This is a conversation I often have with my friend Tim Chae at 500 Startups Korea. There are a lot of structural elements which have been put in place in the past 5-10 years which truly make this possible - the early stage risk-taking capital, the new startup accelerators, the government support and funding. But combine that with other historical structural elements - Korea's long history of highly skilled semiconductor and tech manufacturing, its highly educated workforce - and cultural elements such as Korea's unmatched drive and work ethic, and I think there is a strong case for Korea to become a critical startup hub in the region.

How easy is it for foreign start-ups to enter and be competitive here in Korea?
On the whole I think there are relatively low barriers to entry for foreign startups looking to come to Korea. I think this is a good thing because it brings new outside ideas and technology to the Korean market, which eventually create new local competitors, business opportunities, and derivative businesses and industries.

What advice would you give to potential start-up companies and individuals?
The past 5-10 years in Korea have seen the rise of a lot of new resources for startups in Korea. This means you don't have to go it alone. Beyond actual investment, there are many free resources, startup cowering spaces and mentoring organizations. I would encourage people to take advantage of these. Use them to test your idea early and often with mentors who are willing to listen, help you refine your idea and connect you to funding sources. Don't spend excessive time perfecting your idea or product by yourself without getting feedback along the way. The startup community here is active and well connected - so I think getting actively involved in this community is the best place to start!

* Interview by Matthew Fennell, Asia Society Korea Center’s Contributing Writer