“I couldn’t fit back into German society” – the German entrepreneur who found his niche in Korea

Startup Life Korea
Startup Life Korea

Johann Barbie is an enthusiastic 27-year-old developer who recently arrived in Korea from Germany to work at the social venture Tree Planet. We caught up with him via our partner in Korea, VentureSquare, to find out what his experience in the Korean startup industry has been and what differences he’s noticed compared to home.

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From IBM to startups…

Johann originally studied applied computer science at the University of Cooperative Education Stuttgart, a tertiary institution combining classroom based education and practical work experience with partner companies like IBM or HP.

“We would go through cycles of solid studies for three months followed by internships of the same length, applying everything we learned to the real world. The best thing was that they would pay us even while in classroom.

I felt at an advantage to my fellow students in a traditional education model where mom and dad would foot the bills, while I could stand on my own feet since I was 20.

The three-year cooperative education program allowed him to gather working experience in IBM’s marketing, sales and engineering departments in Germany and the US. Johann also spent a semester abroad at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia which seems to have rubbed off on his English accent, a slight Aussie twang sneaking into some words. I asked Johann a few questions about his life and how he came to end up in a Korean startup.

“I’m working in a startup to collect experience with the challenges a young company faces. In the long run, I want to create my own successful venture.” – Johann Barbie

What were you doing before you came to Korea?

“After graduating from university I worked for IBM as a lab-based service consultant from 2008 to 2012. I would stay in different parts of Europe for a couple of weeks each time. We would be called “the firefighters”, always being sent to customers facing a critical situation. Either the project would be heavily delayed or sales and tech sales would face some technical escapade. Then you go in, take all the shout and bring the project back on track.

While working at IBM, I applied for time off to travel around the world for 14 months. Traveling is really the way to find yourself. When you get out of your 9 till 5 job, see how people around the world live their life and how they are happy or unhappy with what they do. That’s when you realize your life objective is not a corporate job but making something by yourself and changing the world for the better.”

What previous experience have you had with startups?

Returning from travel, forcing myself to fit back into German society, I couldn’t stand it for more than six months and quit my job.

It was during my travel time in Australia that I met a fellow student from my university and got offered to participate in starting a company.

We were all from Germany and had a similar educational background. There were three developers and one person taking care of the business end. Our service was called BillBeat and it was meant to help users keep track of personal expenses by integrating with users’ e-mail inbox. We worked on it for about a year, first while traveling and later alongside our jobs. In the beginning of 2012 we moved in together and quit our jobs to found our own company. Unfortunately our venture didn’t survive even the first few months of its life due to personal issues between the founders.

I don’t regret the experience at all. I learned a lot about startup psychology and how different type of people deal with situations they are afraid of. I will take the self assurance and experience into my next startup, avoiding similar mistakes. This is what failure is really all about.”

How did you end up in Korea?

“I met my Korean girlfriend during my travel time in South East Asia. It was my first visit to Korea in spring 2012 that got me inspired. I saw a nation equipped with the fastest network, adopting the latest gadgets and young dedicated people everywhere. Also I learned quite a lot about social ventures from my girlfriend who is working for a large international NGO and manages marketing campaigns with a lot of Korean startups.

The Korean government is investing heavily into startups and many young talented peope look beyond a lifetime job at conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai and try to make things happen themselves. Back in Europe we watch booming Asian economies with a mix of excitement and fear. I just wanted to experience first hand what it really is like.”

How did you go about finding a job in Korea?

“In Korea I rented a desk in a co-working space called CO-UP run by Ejang (Seokwon Yang) to do some remote work for my parent’s company. It took only days before Ejang — all knowing, all seeing human hub of the Seoul Startup world, connected me with half a dozen startups which invited me for interviews.”

Tree Planet fit perfectly for me. In my young days I was an environmental defender, I liked gaming, I liked coding. Also the company is still young, perfect to gather first hand startup experience and carry real responsibility. You don’t need to be the founder to learn how to make a startup successful.”

What has your experience working at Tree Planet been like?

“I was brought on to build a global hosting environment for the company’s games. But soon it turned out that the product team needed restructuring and I took the job of development lead. The current product was half built, but already heavily delayed. So I started introducing open source frameworks to build new, easier functionality and we started hiring more developers and having interviews.

The concept of having a safe and stable job at a well known company, which is popular in Korea, is the same in Germany. It was really tough getting talented people into interviews at an unknown startup.

Have you faced any other challenges working in a Korean company?

Of course, Language is a challenge. Everyone makes an effort to communicate with me in English. But written communication and some meetings are of course in Korean. I’m actively learning Korean after work, but still can’t use it in daily situations, let alone in a professional context.

Also, I learned that South Korea’s work culture, especially in the big conglomerates, has an emphasis on hierarchy, group thinking, and long hours at the office. I’m very happy my company does not run mainly by those concepts, but also emphasizes creativity, a passion for a good working environment, and autonomy. This way everyone buys in to what we are doing, instead of merely renting out their lifetime to their employer.

Another challenge is team work. Graphic, Design and Development departments were completely separated before. As a part leader, I try to integrate those teams to work closely together and through this, reduce project risk.

I have since introduced some elements of agile development methodology to the company. The SCRUM process gives the team a daily and weekly overview of the work progress. The Continuous Integration process consistently produces the latest product for everyone to interact with. I have tried to create a system where teamwork happens and they have been really great about it. They are creative, motivated and respond well. I don’t need to follow up on their work.”

What advice would you offer to others interested in working for a startup in Korea?

“Don’t hesitate, and engage in job-interviews whenever there is a chance. During my interviews, none of the companies had any concern about language. Also, you could apply for one of the many loans given by different institutions to foreigners who are willing to start a business in Korea. It’s a vibrant startup environment.”

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

“I’m working in a startup to collect experience with the challenges a young company faces. In the long run, I want to create my own successful venture.”Follow Johann on Twitter or get in touch with him on Facebook or Linkedin.

This article first appeared in VentureSquare, VentureVillage’s partner in South Korea

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