Meet Ha Jin Jhun, one of a new breed of dotcom pioneers, who has made his fortune by tapping into his country's love of small talk. Brendan O'Malley spoke to him
When Ha Jin Jhun joined Haansoft as chief executive officer, employees had worked up to 13 hours a day without pay for four months, but he looks remarkably relaxed and is quick to crack a smile. "I don't have any white hairs," he grins.
Jhun, 42, is a leader among a new breed of Koreans - the dotcom entrepreneurs who have shaken off the recession by riding the wave of Korean enthusiasm for everything new. Young people are swapping their parents' and grandparents' teashops for PC rooms and internet cafes, and Ha Jin Jhun is one of the first to capitalise on the trend. He has now made pound;7.5 million in shares in two years out of the Korean fever for computer games and cyber-chitchat.
His skill lies in spotting new markets and seizing on them: he is a dotcom pioneer who has taken huge risks and made his own luck.
A graduate in engineering with an MBA, he started out as a systems engineer for LG, an electronics firm, then spent a year training in Japan and four years in LG's marketing team. At 30, he left to break out on his own and set up a company with a colleague."We rented a small room, a couple of tables and one computer and started developing software," he says. It was 1988. Most people did not understand the software business. Jhun and his friend were young and had no track record, so selling their package proved difficult. To help sell their ideas, they developed a graphic slide-show-style program, similar to Powerpoint, to assist in their self promotion. It was the first software to combine Korean language and graphics, and he was able to sell the briefing system that supported the presentation.
"That was my slide-show solution. We got 2m won (pound;1,260) for each piece of software. Businesses and the military bought it because they like doing briefings. I could sell at very expensive prices because they had expensive equipment but no software, and without the software it couldn't be used."
Nevertheless, the business struggled. "For six years we had no salary," he says. "We were pioneers. It's only in the past two years that there has been an investment market. Before that you had to borrow from banks."
Eventually, they turned their skills to supporting software for Korea Telecom's video text system, an early graphics system. Korea Telecom used the video text to provide 16 Korean banks with home-banking services. But the Korean market was still small and Jhun started to look at ways to expand abroad. He was in the process of setting up a new company in San Jose when he was snapped up by Haansoft Inc.
He started on a mere pound;25,000. Even now he earns a modest salary for his position: 90,000 won (pound;56,000) a year. But he has made a killing by becoming one of the first people in Korea to take a staff option, with 1 million shares. He took the option at a share price of 500 won, but now they are about 12,000 won each - total worth a cool pound;7.5 million. "Nobody expected that it would become big money," he says.
But Jhun has no airs or graces and eschews the traditional vertical business relationships in Korea, which, drawing on Confucian tradition, put senior staff on a pedestal.
"We are more free," says Jhun. "Even young guys talk to me freely. We use our intranet infrastructure and everyone can put foward an opinion. That's the difference.
"I want to regard the role of CEO as just a job. Some people like conducting and some people like playing the violin. But they are just jobs. I insist we have to open up all management information to staff."
But the pace is demanding. "We work very fast and there are no time limits. Most people work from around 9 to 7. We work much longer hours. Our engineers and marketing people work until 9 or 10, so we provide them with supper and beer."
The past two years has seen dramatic growth in Korea's dotcom companies - Haansoft's value has risen from pound;2.5 million to pound;377 million. Jhun puts this down to the Korean nature. "We like something new and we like to talk," he says, citing the example of mobile phones - 25 million out of 47 million South Koreans use one. His own family - he has a wife and two teenage daughters aged 14 and 16 - has four mobiles, two phone lines and a dedicated internet line between them. In Seoul, mobile phones have become a fashion item, even among middle-school children.
The new fashion he has tapped into is the thirst for internet chat rooms and computer games, which have taken off. Two years ago there was just one PC room - a kind of internet cafe - now there are 20,000 across Korea.
Jhun says they were born out of the 1998 crash. Suddenly there were thousands of laid-off office workers with time on their hands. "Korean Telecom began marketing dedicated internet lines to the people who lost their jobs," he says. "They had small assets but not a lot to do, so they began investing in internet cafes."
It's the 21st-century equivalent of the downsizer who sells up shop to set up a Bamp;B. Most of the cafes have 20 to 50 PCs, although some have up to 500.
"It worked because the Korean people love computer games and chatting," says Jhun. He should know. He bought the biggest chatting site, skylove.com, which has 6 million subscribers. At any given time, more than 10,000 people are using the site - and they just keep talking, even at 2am.
Haansoft paid 10bn won for 50 per cent of the shares in the site. It was a very controversial deal that shocked outsiders but provided momentum for Haansoft.
"Most Koreans thought it had only ten computers, so everyone was surprised. But they understimated Skylove. It has now grown from 15 to 70 employees and 6 million subscribers. It's our most important subsidiary company."
Skylove communicates with 10,000 PC rooms and internet cafes. In a ground-breaking marriage of online and offline businesses, each cafe pays a monthly charge for the service. Haansoft had recognised it was difficult to attract customers in cyberspace, but this way the internet cafes do the selling for them and take a cut, much like a shop on a terrestrial high street. "We reorganised the cafes as digital convenience stores," explains Jhun. "We supply the fee-based content - like English educational content - and the PC room sells it to its customers, and we give a margin to them. That is unique in the world."
The internet cafes also give Haansoft a platform from which to hold seminars and game contests. They even have a professional computer game league for Starcraft and FIFA (a football game). It is now so popular that some cable television stations broadcast the games.
This is yet another new direction in which Jhun is heading. Haansoft opened 13 of its own PC rooms, known as YECA stations, nationwide this month. By the end of the year it hopes to have 30, some of them with 150 PCs each. Jhun is also branching out globally, with a station already opened in Beijing and others planned in Brazil, Los Angeles and New York, each one using English content.
Like many successful people Jhun makes what he does sound easy, but buying and selling companies is a risky business, as everyone who experienced the crash knows to their cost.
Risks notwithstanding, he remains unruffled by the responsibility. "It is quite a lonely position," he concedes, "because you have to make the final decision, but the person who can enjoy the loneliness can become a CEO."
Haansoft is a huge Korean success story in a world dominated by US firms. The creator of the most popular Korean word processor, it still has a 75 per cent market share.
"We are the only country where a company has more market share than Microsoft. So Bill Gates is very angry," laughs Jhun.