Start one of the world’s first social networks. Popularize the concept of payment for digital goods. Jumpstart the Internet acquisitions market. Yep, anyone who participated in any one of the these three world changing movements you’d place a good bet on as being a startup legend and tremendously wealthy by now. Then there’s the strange case of Yong Joon Hyoung, a contributor in all three areas, whose South Korean heritage has helped to quiet his achievements.
First There Was Cyworld
Before Facebook, before Friendster, there was Hyoung’s social network Cyworld.com, which he started in 1999. Hyoung realized the Internet’s capabilities for replicating real world social interactions while completing a PhD thesis concerning trust-based information sharing at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (the country’s version of MIT). He began Cyworld thinking that it would become a matchmaking service (incredibly important in South Korean culture), similar to a Match.com.
Cyworld grew rapidly, eventually allowing users to pay money for virtual items they could send to one another. Part Ebay, part Facebook, companies began using online connections forged while bartering goods and services as a vehicle for job recruitment as well. Disagreements with investors led to Hyoung’s departure from the company in 2000. He kept only 5 percent of the company, misunderstanding the company’s contract from the first round of funding and not thinking about stock options or future sales. In 2003, SK acquired the company for $7 million.
By 2006, the site drew 19 million users, but Cyworld failed to translate into European and US markets. Because of cultural differences, network interactions were restricted to countries of origin. This proved a fatal contradiction to the interconnected world that drives online social interaction.
His first US venture was Storyblender, an animation platform that attracted over $1.5 million in venture capital backing out of the Silicon Valley. Like so many startups of the time, the financial crisis of 2008 shut the door on Storyblender. The sputtering economy also stamped Hyoung’s passport back to his homeland.
Paying back investors for the failed Storyblender project has slowed other projects for Hyoung. A clause common in Korean contracts guarantees investors that founders will repay as much as 10 percent of their outlay if a company fails.
Like other tireless entrepreneurs, Hyoung is a resilient innovator. Here are three more startups he’s managed to play a role in:
- SayCupid, a matchmaking service that targeted young professionals (one of the top five dating sites in South Korea)
- Kukubox.com, a social address book, which he sold to NHN for $1.2 million in just six months
- Nplugs, a service that linked email data and cell phone data, and allowed friends to pass information across platforms.
Hyoung’s newest project is picpler.com, a service related to time-based check-ins. Details are hard to come by. Beside all the normal startup logistics to take care of, Hyoung has South Korean politics on his mind.
His activism dates back to his time as an undergraduate student. A year before the 1988 Olympics, Hyoung participated in the June Democracy Movement that pressured the government to hold elections and advance democratic reforms. A man of family, Christian faith, and politically motivated, Hyoung continues to see the startup community as a driver of further change–working to alter the culture of corruption that has plagued his county’s institutions.
Today’s Korean youth have learned English as early as kindergarten and have a more global outlook. Hyoung hopes the new generation aided by friends in education, government, and business will establish a political base for creating a social democracy that resembles the Swedish model. Then he might be able to concentrate more on picpler.com and Founders Camp, an incubator for which Hyoung will serve as a mentor. There’s no telling what he might then accomplish.