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FinTech innovation in a nuclear hotzone

Written by: Steve Lemon, Co-Founder of Currencycloud, Vice President of Business Development
Published on: May 08, 2017

What to do when the neighbours insist on playing with nuclear weapons? Keep calm and Innovate…

As we start to consider our formal APAC expansion, I’m proud to share some exciting news from Korea. Recent changes in the Korean regulatory environment are empowering FinTech companies to build new payments businesses in partnership with local banks.

After nearly fourteen months of consultations and negotiations taking place on three different continents, we have formalised an exclusive partnership with one of the ‘big four’ conglomerates (or ‘chaebol’ as they are known locally) and one of the biggest banks in the region. It’s quite humbling to have played a key role in imagining and then formalising this collaboration and we’re looking forward to sharing more details in the coming weeks.

It’s energising to know Currencycloud have been instrumental in all this by having built a product to transform what is a virgin market. As part of our work over the past year, we’ve been on hand to consult for the client, local banks and even the regulators to shape their approach to creating a new business model. All were keen to understand industry best practices elsewhere, and to draw on our experience in the Western Hemisphere.

Dave (our Head of Implementation) and I arrived in Seoul amidst North Korea’s ever more frequent sabre rattling with nuclear missile tests and The Donald threatening to intervene ‘with or without China’s help’. And of course, the aircraft carrier that was always, headed to Australia and not the Korean peninsular (no back tracking here..). On the ground things were pretty animated too - the current Presidential election campaign has the background of scandal, corruption and impeachment for the outgoing President Park. Campaigning was noisier, more colourful and far more energetic than ours will be (we deplaned to the news that it transpires that ‘this Lady is for turning…’ yet again).

Despite the political climate, our new friends were unfazed and focused solely on their new product launch.

So, what does one learn when helping to shape the direction of a new market, right on the edge of FinTech Innovation in a nuclear hot zone?

Now, this may come as a surprise but my Korean isn’t great; so meetings took twice as long - everything had to be played out twice. But when you’re the only Westerner in a room full of animated project managers and techies (who speak a different language to me in any language…), you don’t get real-time translation so there were extended periods of observation. It’s amazing how much more alive you become to body language and visual cues, and how you can get by. It’s also incredibly rewarding to see ‘the penny drop’ after a long and heated exchange (actually, make that two long and heated exchanges…) and your point is understood and built upon.

Some things are universal though. APIs speak any language. Payments and workflows logic translates absolutely. Project Management methodologies are constant - although it is amusing to see whiteboards full of Korean characters interspersed with the occasional English text.

The pace of business and decision making is incredible. It never felt as though we were dealing with the second biggest conglomerate in the country - dealings with the business leads was always very nimble and agile. This might be because Koreans are without question, the hardest working people I have ever met; 14-16 hour days are the norm and emails from Seoul at midnight or even 3am are not uncommon - and not just because of an imminent product launch.

Despite all this, when we were in town, our hosts still found time to go out of their way to look after us. Korean hospitality is legendary, especially if you are the guest to one of ‘big four’. We were treated like VIPs throughout our stay. Everything is planned with military-like precision and where you are seated at dinner is important. I also discovered the joys of mixing Beer with Soju and of course, indoor BBQ.

Getting to know a new culture is always fun but it’s been a real pleasure getting to know our new friends. Anyone more concerned about launching their own new payments product, than the madman next door looking to launch a new nuclear weapon, deserves a huge amount of respect in my eyes.