Raised in the US with a strong Asian bond, Korean-American entrepreneur Allen Lee started listening to K-pop even before it was called K-pop. “Living in the overlap between the US and Asia” has been a dream, he told Oasis.
Lee lived a well-established life as an investment banker early in his career, first in New York City and later in Los Angeles. While being an investment banker is a comfortable job, Lee wanted to make a more meaningful impact by founding his own company.
After quitting the banking system during the global financial crisis in 2008, and failing on his first startup, Lee, together with co-founder Eugene Choi, launched Collab Asia as a spin-off from US-based Collab Inc. Over the years, the startup has grown into an international content distribution and marketing firm covering South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and other markets in the region.
“Each of the [Asian] markets are exploding in terms of content, creativity, and storytelling. I’m not surprised because I grew up reading and listening to Asian content,” said Lee, now chief operating officer of Collab Asia.
In his conversation with Oasis, Lee shares the lessons learned and some of his failures as an entrepreneur. He also gives some advice to young startup founders eager to enter the vibrant Asian market.
Oasis (OS): Why did you choose to launch your company in Asia?
Allen Lee (AL): Both my co-founder and I came to Asia for a pretty similar reason—our bond with the Asian region. Both of us are Korean-Americans. I knew that sometime in the future, no matter what industry I would become a part of, I wanted to leave in the overlap between the states and Asia.
My mom used to send me to Korea every couple of summers, starting from when I was three, to meet my extended family. I met Korea for the first time in the late 70s. Back then, it was very much emerging from an agricultural society to an industrial one. I was able to see Korea’s growth, and I got really attached to the people and the culture there. That was one reason I came to Asia, not necessarily because it was a great economic opportunity, but because of this personal attachment.
OS: You were an investment banker before becoming an entrepreneur. Why did you go from banking to founding a content distribution company?
AL: I started my career in finance as an investment banker, but I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.
One time, I was advising on a financing deal for this telecom manufacturing company. One day, after staying up all night preparing for all the materials with the team, I was at this long conference table with some 20 fellow bankers. We were all in suits, waiting for the company board to show up. Finally, maybe ten minutes or 20 minutes later, the guy who started the company, the founder, showed up wearing casual clothes, looking very tan and well-rested. I was like, oh my god, why am I on this side of the table?
Being an investment banker can be pretty safe; it can give you a very comfortable existence. If you work hard enough, you’re going to make really good money. But it’s pretty low on risk-return. So, that was when I decided that I wanted to start a company to create a more meaningful impact.
Later on, I found out that entrepreneurs actually work much harder than bankers. They’re also a lot less healthy.
OS: Now that you’ve been a startup founder for many years, what are the things that are different from your previous perception? What are the things people get wrong, or misconceive about entrepreneurs?
AL: I think the biggest and most dangerous thing that I currently see is how social media and general content highlight the one-in-a-million founder stories. There are many books, news articles, and posts about being an entrepreneur like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, you have to realize that many of these tips do not apply to most founders, including me.
Those guys are one in a million or generational entrepreneurs. Most likely, if you’re older than 13 or 14-year-old, you’re not going to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, because the traits of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates all started to happen around 12 or 14 years old. That was when their parents began to see there’s was something special.
The media tends to say, ‘Mark Zuckerberg did this with his company, and you should do too,’ but it is almost diametrically opposite of what you should be doing. There are so many other entrepreneurs that have taken a completely different path, and they are very successful.
OS: What was your biggest failure in your entrepreneurial journey?
AL: After the global financial crash in 2008, half of my industry got laid off, including me. That’s when I decided that it was now or never for me to finally go off on my own and do my own thing.
At the time, I was a finance person servicing the media entertainment industry, particularly the film industry. I created this web product that allowed production companies and producers to project how well their film would do before they would actually make it. I had a couple of teammates, and we tried to build that thing for two or three years. But it was just really bad, and the addressable market was also too small.
OS: How did you manage to overcome failure?
AL: What really saved me was partnering with my co-founder. This might lead to other questions you have for me, which is basically, what would you say to a young entrepreneur? That would be—don’t do it alone, unless your name is Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, even Mark Zuckerberg had partners in the beginning. Two brains are better than one. What I learned from my failure was that the addressable market was too small.
If I had founded the business with a partner, maybe that partner would have pointed that out. Instead of doing it alone in your bedroom, you need someone there to give you the hard news, to ask the hard questions. Maybe many solo entrepreneurs subconsciously seek to avoid that because they don’t want someone to ruin their dream, but it’s better to get the bad news earlier before you waste years of your life.
OS: That reminds me of how my husband, who always points out the wrong side of my plans. I used to ask him, why can’t you just be supportive? He says that I have to learn about the bad news either way, and he wishes I could learn them from him, instead of from some other people.
You underlined the importance of finding a co-founder, but how do you select the right business partner?
AL: It’s funny you mentioned your marriage because finding a co-founder is just like a marriage. Who knows what makes a good marriage partner. Some people say that opposites attract. Some people say you should find someone similar to yourself. But there’s no formula for finding the right marriage partner. You just have to love each other. That’s kind of corny, but my point is, there has to be an underlying trust.
If you have a choice, the prototypical duo of co-founders is basically one sales guy and one tech guy. You want your skillsets to be complimentary. In my case, I was a finance guy. I’m really good with numbers. My co-founder comes from a sales and production background. So we’re very complimentary; there are many things that he can do that I can’t do, and vice versa.
But in the early days, when you have an idea, just find someone, a friend you respect and trust, and ask: are you willing to go on this journey with me?
OS: Asia has a variety of cultures and languages. Sometimes one culture doesn’t translate well in another, especially with entertainment content, where each country has its preferences. Do you have any advice for people looking to start a business in Asia?
AL: First, you need a suitable business model and a clear competitive advantage over your peers. The cultural differences in Asia are significant, as you mentioned. Yet, the key to succeeding in any market where you are not a local or native is to find the right head person. I would say the reason we entered specific markets was not necessarily based on the market’s attractiveness, but based on whether we’ve found the right head for that market.
I’ve heard many times about people who have bad experiences in foreign countries. Probably, the reason why they had terrible experiences was because they didn’t partner with the right local people. Having the right partner will open doors to the right workforce. From then on, it’s just a process of execution.
OS: How do you select the right head person? What kind of quality are you looking for when recruiting or interviewing people?
AL: I think the essential quality we look for in any employee, whether a country manager or an intern, is the same: the ability to understand both their local market and the global environment at the same time. It’s not a quality that you’re going to see on a resume or LinkedIn. It’s intangible.
They don’t necessarily have to be native, but so long as they are part of the local society. At the same time, they need to understand the global community. Your ability to navigate these two worlds successfully defines whether you’re going to do well at a multinational company or not.