Form a Public Identity:
An interview with Simon Bureau
By Ryan Burke
The amount of energy, time, and focus needed to start a business is enough to convince 90% of the population that being an entrepreneur is a crack dream. Throw in the responsibility of a handful of government positions and the prospect of operating from a foreign country, and you’ve lost nearly everyone…except for Simon Bureau.
Bureau is an expert in the Korean telecom, IT, and media sectors. As Managing Director and founder of Vectis Corporation (formerly Vectis International), he trains and consults with large Korean companies who are expanding outside of Korea. He also happens to be the Chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (CanCham Korea), and a member of various councils, including: the Seoul City Foreign Investments Advisory Council, the Presidential Council of National Branding, and the Invest Korea Advisory Council. It’s a lot for one man, but also may be the secret to his success.
What made you want to start your own business?
Well to do it, you have to be a bit fearless. Starting your business is one thing, but starting your business in a foreign language and country is another thing. It takes nerves. I first came to Korea in 1986, then went back to Canada and came back and forth for about 12 years. In 1993, I was in Korea for nearly a year and studied intensive Korean for 6 months. So I really liked the place and back in ‘98 I was working for a Canadian company that had a small office in Korea. The problem was, there was no real opportunity to come back, so I thought, “why not start my own company?” I had some expertise in the Korean market already, and I knew quite well the telecom and media industries, so I thought, “well, why not?” It was a little suicidal, but I did it.
Tell us a bit about Vectis Corporation
Well, Vectis International is a company that I started in Canada in 1998. Its focus was to help foreign companies come to Korea. My clients were big companies, mostly from Europe, and what we did was market research, benchmarking, or interest strategy and helping them get into the Korean market. I did that for almost 10 years until 2007-2008 and at that time some Korean companies that I was introducing to clients said to me, “you have a good network outside of Korea, you understand Korean business and our industry; would you like to help us do business outside of Korea?” I gave it a try and did some consulting, coaching and training, and realized it was a lot of fun and there was even more business within Korea. So I started slowly shifting things and flipping the business model around. In the meantime I’d set up Vectis Corporation as a D8 foreign investor and revenues now are mostly from training, coaching, and consulting with Korean companies wanting to expand outside of Korea.
So I do seminars that are usually 1-3 hours long; some are much more comprehensive and go from 1-3 days. The real business is in training and coaching; I go into a company for a couple months, we meet twice a week with the global business team and walk them through the steps. It’s not coaching in the psychology point of view, but actually walking them through the logic of my book, Global Business Mind-Set.
What is the Global Business Mind-Set?
Start with your mindset and the way you think about growing your global business. MIND-SET stands for:
the value of links
There’s a certain approach to thinking about your business and it starts with understanding your own product and success. Do some market research; good market research. Understand the customers, talk to them, know their needs and problems, and know your competitors. People talk about “Blue Ocean,” but I don’t believe in it. There’s always a substitute. There’s no such thing as a market with no competitors; even if another product is much more inferior to your product, it’s still a substitute. So, there’s always competition.
Next, have a business plan. Do this completely connected to market research. You can’t create a business plan in a vacuum. You have to think to yourself, “what does that information mean and how can we use it in the business plan?”
And something a lot of companies miss is back-end marketing. One of the things that is very important in the I-tech industry is that you don’t try to find out why your client will buy from you, you try to find out why they will not buy from you. What are the barriers to purchase? All the advertising and promotion is telling why they should buy your product, but what are the obstacles? Once you understand that, you can overcome them.
Aside from sales, why did you decide to write your book?
I wrote the book in English and it’s published in Korean. I didn’t want this to be just about globalization, but about my experience and Korea. Every anecdote is about what I’ve done to demonstrate my arguments and logic. The book is about what I do in the business realm. It actually came about for two reasons:
1. PR: It shows what I’m all about. It shows my clients what my ideas are and what I can do. It’s really a marketing tool. So people who follow my seminar can go out and buy the book or vice versa. So it’s really cross promotional.
2. If I want to do good consulting and training, my ideas have to be clear. I have to really think things through and force myself to sit down at my desk and do the research, reading, and writing. I worked on it for a year and it crystallized my thoughts and logic. A lot of people can say they are experts in global business, but why? You have to have meat behind the words.
What are some common problems you’ve seen in companies starting businesses outside of their culture?
The biggest mistake they do is they don’t think independently of their market. The best example for that in Korea is Cyworld. It’s a huge success in Korea, but failed in the US. Why? There are many reasons, but you can summarize them into one statement: they did not think independently of the Korean market. They were very proud of their success in Korea, and therefore thought, “we will necessarily be successful anywhere else.” The problem is, they failed to know why they were successful in Korea. They should have known the key success factors for Korea have nothing to do with another market. Don’t assume that whatever works here will work outside.
Cyworld was successful because of the social structure of relationships and networking. On Facebook, I may have met you one time and you invited me to be friends. We don’t care. Facebook is a place you meet anybody and invite anybody. In Korea, when you invite somebody it’s very precious. It’s somebody you’ve known for years offline and you eventually invite them to be friends online. Also, all kinds of things promoted Cyworld. Broadband internet was way ahead of the world when Cyworld took off. Camera phones were used (you can upload camera phone pictures on Cyworld) 6-7 years ago. On Facebook, only a year or two years ago people started to do that. It was light years ahead and in a different country. Plus, look at the interface of Facebook and Cyworld. It’s completely different; it just doesn’t jive.
What advice can you give to those who are just starting out?
You need to rely on a lot of networking. Korea is all about relationships. Most of my Korean friends who own businesses here have help from their families. Actually, I was hearing an interview on a podcast the other day of a German person who owns his own hagwon here. In the interview, he was saying that his wife is Korean and his wife’s family invested $800,000. And that’s the way it is in Korea.
So if you don’t have money from the family, what do you do? Well you still do it, but the road is a little bumpier. It doesn’t stop you. You just have to know the country and the people. I cannot say this enough, but it’s not important who you know; what’s really important is who knows you. I can say I know this guy and this guy; well that’s easy to say, but at the end of the day, does he know me? Does he trust me? I don’t care if you know people. So what? Does he know you well enough to help you or invest in your company or to give you a contract? That’s the real test.
And that only comes after a while. You have to earn you colors; be in the country and meet the people and let people get to know you. And that takes time. Get involved in chambers of commerce and in other committees. Really go out and show yourself and your identity. Don’t be afraid to show who you are. You have to have really meaningful things to sell and that will build your credibility. It’s all about credibility and reputation here. I’ve been here for 12 years and I have a lot of very good friends here, some of them have helped me, some of them haven’t.
If you have a great idea, that’s great, but Koreans are born to compete; it’s in their DNA to compete. For example, why do you think online games are so big here? Online games are playing against your friends, console games are playing against a machine. So, if you have a good business idea and you set up a restaurant, a week later, there will be a competitor right next to you. So, you have to have a really good idea that is unique and not replicable. It ain’t easy and you have to have a really good network of people who know you. It all goes back to what’s your reputation?
If you look at all those really successful companies in Korea, they show the owners face and personality. Yesterday, I had this interview on Focus. I checked the internet sales on Interpark and the ranking shot up to Number 5, instantly. It won’t last, but that article did it. They saw my face and my article. Why do you think 2/3 of advertising in Korea is celebrity endorsements? They associate their faces with quality. If you really want a big scale business, it’s really about whether people know you, trust you, and have an affection for you.
Be bold; do something that will get people to notice who you are, with substance and value.