Entrepreneurs in Korea have a larger fear of failure than those in the western world. That might be mainly because of the strict standards set by their Korean parents who are similar to most Asian parents. They have high expectations for their children which is why there are so many academic private teaching institutes in Korea. These institutes range in all subjects from English to Math. Parents in Korea are very consistent with supporting their children by giving them the best education possible. It is rare for Korean parents to let the children do what they want to do. Therefore the young generation in Korea understands the importance of going to a great university and finding a job at an established company in Korea. Not only for them but for the approval of their parents. 

In Silicon Valley, it is expected that you fail when starting a startup. Through failure, you can learn from your mistakes. In fact, many of the top entrepreneurs have failed at least once when starting a startup. However for entrepreneurs in Korea, if they fail their first startup company, most give up and go back to corporate jobs. It does not make them stronger but rather gives them the excuse to give up. Many Koreans don’t even try to become entrepreneurs in the first place out of fear they will be looked at like a failure by their friends and family if their startup does not take off. 

Why Failure is Good for Korean Entrepreneurs

From my experience covering the Korean startup ecosystem, failure is actually better for you in the long run. For Koreans, they are able to face their fears head-on and realize that it is NOT the end of the world. If you read many of the great startup success stories in Korea, many have had failures but were able to rise above them. It is said that you learn more through your failures than your successes. It takes time to become a great entrepreneur and it is rare to get everything right the very first time.  

Korean society looks down on failure. This is similar in Japan and many other Asian countries. Therefore, within Asian culture as a whole, it is implanted in us that failure is associated with some kind of flaw. Try to break away from this. Failure, in reality, propels you further and at a far greater level than you ever imagined. Failure is important because it gives you the strength and the fortitude to dig deep within yourself and find out what you are truly made of. In addition, it teaches you moving forward what NOT to do, these lessons are valuable and can’t be “learned” until you experience them for yourself. 

It has been said that failure is the greatest teacher of all time. It allows you to see the problem in a whole new way. Failure forces you to step away from what you know or you think you know and look for another answer to the problem.

One Problem has Many Answers

Successful People

Koreans usually take problems in a mathematical way of thinking. One problem with one answer. However, in the startup world, one problem can have hundreds of different ways of solving it. So if you fail, just know that there are answers still out there. Use these failures as a way to learn from your mistakes and what not to do in the future. It took Thomas Edison over one thousand tries to get the lightbulb right. However, Edison didn’t think of it was failing one thousand times but rather having one thousand steps in getting to the final product. Mistakes are going to happen, it is important to use them as guides pointing you in an alternate direction. 

Always Keep in Mind the Worst Possible Outcome

Most Korean Entrepreneurs do not have a problem with this but what I mean is to just keep it in mind. So if it does happen you will be ready for it. What I noticed with many Korean startups is that they have unrealistic expectations and don’t go over the possible failures. Sometimes it is almost like a cult and everyone has to live this delusional lie. Unrealistic expectations are one thing but to not think about the possible problem and failures leave a company unprepared and unequipped to deal with them. For example, taxes in Korea for foreigners can be tough and I have seen many startups in Korea started by foreigners that have failed due to simple tax-related issues. But I’ve also seen the same for Korean entrepreneurs who are fluent in Korean. No one knows what issues might arise so always know that SOMETHING will arise. 

So Why are Entrepreneurs in Korea Afraid of Failure? 

Students in Korea have fear failure mainly due to how the Korean educational system is set up. In Korea, there is a national high school exam called Suneung and it is the most important test for Korean high school students. It will determine which University they will enter. It is such an important test, that cars are not allowed to honk their horns, airplanes take alternate routes to reduce noise, and buses and subways run more often to decrease traffic. All this is aimed to lower the stress for over 600,000 high school students in Korea. The test itself takes around 9 hours to complete. Many begin studying for the Suneung as early as 12 years old. 

The goal, in the end, is to enter one of the three top Universities in Korea referred to as SKY. These three are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Only 2% of those that take the exam will enter one of the SKY Universities.  

Therefore at an early age, Korean students have massive pressures to enter a top University in Korea. Going to SKY will increase the chance to get a job for one of the top Korean companies like Samsung, Hyundai, LG, etc. Failure is not an option. Those that don’t make it will continue to self-study in order to get a job with the Korean government. Studying for these public-service exams is a full-time job in and of itself. Many of these exams can be life-changing tests. Koreans are programmed to take tests and study hard to pass them. So when they become Entrepreneurs they look at it as a test, which they must pass.  

Entrepreneurship offers a way out for Korean Students

One crucial lesson Entrepreneurship offers is that there is more to life than studying. Failing is not the end of the world. That is what entrepreneurship is all about. It is not all about working for a traditional Korean company. It is about taking risks and exploring new possibilities. The lessons learned from starting a startup in Korea prepare young Koreans for real life. Instead of spending 20-30 years of their life studying for exams, Koreans need to gain experience in the real world.

The real world is not a multiple-choice test and not all questions will have exact answers. More and more companies are starting to respect applicants that have started a company on their own. Being a former co-founder or CEO of a startup looks a whole lot better on a resume than working as a manager for a standard company in Korea. Therefore don’t let the fear of failure stop you from pursuing your dreams.