This is the second part in our portrait of Korean companies. Following a general overview of the Korean management style and company culture, it’s now time to think outside the box as we meet KIM Hyung-seok, Bookpal’s astonishing chief executive.
Innovation of Korean managers
Since 2008, the seemingly endless crisis which has affected South Korea has seen the emergence of a new breed of managers using innovative new practices. Bookpal, a simple smartphone and tablet app, is in the process of revolutionising the publishing market in South Korea. Its chief executive, KIM Hyung-seok, a real visionary, is also turning the traditional Confucian approach to companies and management upside down.
The 2008 crisis left South Korea in a rut, with seemingly no way out. Growth was low, and the economy was stagnating. While households and companies sank further into debt, unemployment among young graduates was constantly rising, while the living standards of those aged over 60 was too low to enable them to retire.
Although the government invested significant sums in the green energy sector, its efforts, which boosted this industry with ambitious targets, did not produce the desired effects on the rest of the economy. Unemployed graduates readily turned to the Internet to set up their own businesses, and this was the case with KIM Hyung-seok, chief executive of Bookpal.
Bookpal: a new concept
Bookpal is a paid publishing service on tablets and smartphones. Specialising in pulp novels published in the form of a serial, meeting the definition of popular literature in every sense of the word, the company went from success to success with the application being downloaded more than 3 million times, with star authors, some of whom earn an income of up to US$100,000. The team, comprised of 60 people rising to 100 in late 2015, manages a catalogue of 3,000 authors making it possible to publish 500 new episodes per week. The novels, sold in the form of serials, are the perfect length for reading quickly in public transport and the public are ready to pay for early access to new episodes.
Despite this, when we look at his background, KIM Hyung-seok was certainly not pre-destined to become the manager of a start-up. He is a graduate in electronic engineering from one of the best universities in Korea, Sogang University, founded by the Jesuits in the 1960s, of which he is also the current President. He looked set to become a simple manager at Hyundai, the company he joined at the beginning of his career. But early on however, he felt held back by a post that wasn’t right for him. He resigned and joined an advertising agency. After a decade, he felt that he had gone as far as he wanted. He gave it all up and founded Bookpal in 2011 along with one of his friends. The company sought to define itself, trying out different business models, and in 2013 struck gold with paid serials published each week. This has proved immensely popular with the public. Originally rather hesitant, authors later joined the company in large numbers. Following this success, new projects are also emerging and investors are keen to finance the company’s future growth.
From traditional networks to social networks
In Korea, a businessman must always carefully maintain his personal network, but Hyung-seok did not originate from the publishing industry. “I could build up a network by drinking alcohol or playing golf, but I much prefer to write on Facebook. My posts on Facebook are a great way to gain visibility and create a buzz”. It was during the first year of his university studies that Hyung-seok developed a taste for writing. In addition to classical subjects, students must read two books every 10 days and write a summary of them. From there on, he’d caught the writing bug.
When he worked for the advertising agency, in the evening he changed hats, becoming an editorialist for a political website on the centre-left and since then has written extensively. Sometimes, much to the annoyance of his public relations department as financial stakes are now involved, he publishes numerous texts including his travels in China, the specific characteristics of the publishing market, the creation of Bookpal, his thoughts on the latest news, etc. Anything and everything in fact. He doesn’t like his departments to proofread his writings as he believes the sincerity is the key when communicating on Facebook. “If you’re not sincere, and adopt an overly “corporate” writing style, the public stop listening. Facebook has never let me down”, he adds. The company is a young one, the market not mature yet and he is targeting a new Internet-savvy generation far from the classical culture of a typical businessman. To give himself time to write, he takes public transport. With three hours’ travel time each day, this leaves him plenty of time to think calmly and write. However, the problem with this transport method is that now people recognise him; sometimes even in the most unexpected places such as the toilets. As Hyung-seok points out, “the price of fame is that you’re no longer allowed any margin of error to make a mistake”.
With a manager like this, there is naturally an impact on the way the company is managed. As he sees it, it’s a big mistake to see the company is something firm and established when it is always moving forward. You need to be innovating in your organisation while not copying what people are doing elsewhere. Consequently, he thinks carefully and tries things out.
The Confucian heritage?
Initially, he readily rejected Confucian heritage but his attachment to this principle quickly reached its limits. As he explains: “You should never deny your sociocultural heritage. At the beginning, I wanted to create a society with more independent employees. When I delegated, the staff didn’t manage to do what I wanted. They didn’t know how to manage because since childhood they have learned a single model based on compliance with authority. Sometimes you have to accept your heritage even if it’s not the most efficient way of doing things. It’s a question of balance. You need to decide on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind that I also needed to develop as a company manager.
A nickname to overcome the notion of hierarchy
To overcome the notion of hierarchy and the system of honorary titles, each employee has a nickname. The rule is simple: a consonant combined with a repeated vowel (please see the photo opposite). The idea came about one day when his staff were joking around and nicknamed him Toutou. In the name of equality, he decided that from now on each staff member would also be called by a nickname. Overnight, the offices were decked out with signs to show each person’s nickname, in defiance of the established system of honorary titles, and titles linked to age such as Big Brother or little sister, often found in the Korean language.
In a further attempt to move away from a pyramid structure in which the boss is all-knowing and omnipotent, a non-hierarchical organisational system operates on a project-specific basis. Five department managers including himself manage teams in which everyone works on projects, with no notion of hierarchy. To take this further, he has delegated the recruitment function, which is now managed by co-optation. When jobs are created, it is the employee with whom the new recruit will be working who has the task of finding his future work mate. Full responsibility is shouldered by the person recruiting him. If he makes a mistake, this will have an impact on his future career prospects.
Working hours in Korea
Working late is a constant feature of South Korean life and Bookpal is no exception to the rule. Hyung-seok hated seeing people eating snacks in a corner of the office for lunch. He therefore sent them all outside even if this took longer. However, the staff opposed this, as eating quickly is a way to save time and to get back home earlier in the evening. He sees this as a symptomatic example: “It’s important to find the right balance. If I am unable, because the company is too small, to create an in-house restaurant with resident chef, in other words if I am unable to propose a solution, then I should not judge or criticise their attitude”.
Bookpal is an example among many others. Many successful companies are carrying out managerial experiments. Often medium-sized businesses, present in a specific market, they don’t need to focus on massive expansion. These managers often have innovative ideas and invest in their workforce: including installing a swimming pool, a steam bath, or the possibility take as much holiday as you like, etc… Jennifer Soft is a textbook example, with all the profits generated by the company being reinvested for the good of its staff.
And although small businesses are often test beds for new approaches, major firms are starting to review their organisational structures and the way they manage their human resources. Managerial practices which run counter to the stereotypical image of a Korean company.