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How a Harvard Dropout Created ‘Amazon of South Korea’

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by Christopher Hamman · 4 min read
How a Harvard Dropout Created ‘Amazon of South Korea’
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Reading this article you will find out how Bom Kim dropped out of Harvard’s MBA program and built Coupang which is the largest electronic commerce company in South Korea.

While it may sound like a story out of the movies or motivational books that many people read today, the story of Bom Kim who is the founder of Coupang, a $9 billion electronic commerce company has been inspiring through an through. Coupang has been described by many to be South Korea’s “Amazon”, an appellation that hasn’t been accorded to any other company; at least not yet. Coupang has been one of those companies that have had a history of disruption and reinvention which has helped make it become the force that it is in the electronic commerce space today. 

While Harvard’s MBA program would have been seen as the ultimate deal for almost every conventional person, Bom Kim dropped out of the program and decided to strike it out independently. Less than a decade later, he is the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company. In a recent interview with CNBC make it, Kim revealed part of the internal attitude that makes him tick when he said:

“I had a belief when I was in grad school that I had a very short window to make something that had an impact.” 

This, of course, is indicative of the kind of drive that Kim has had which has kept him on his toes on the road to success. Kim founded Coupang as a response to a chance to do something big in the technology space as he didn’t quite plan to build an electronic commerce platform that currently boasts of several users equivalent to half of South Korea’s population which in itself is no small feat.

Started initially as a daily deals and savings business in the way and manner of U.S. deals giant Groupon, Kim realized that there was more to be had in the electronic commerce space and then went into the disruptive mode. He then went on to create a business model that involved third parties which was very much like the e-Bay business model. 

The transformation was a hit and Coupang seemed to be destined for beyond the skies when Kim made another change which seemed like a crazy but gusty move at the time. He decided to change the business model even when Coupang could have had a $ 1 billion initial public offering. Something unheard of at the time in South Korean business circles. He told:

“We had to ask ourselves: ‘Was the business we had built, were the services and experiences that we were providing … creating that kind of world where the customers we love, their jaws would drop?”

Kim then decided to build a complete and total shopping experience that attended to the customer in its entirety. There were no local models that could do this one the ground so Kim adapted Amazon’s model for the South Korean business environment.

Today, Coupang is the number one choice for South Koreans who love the excellent logistics services that Coupang offers its clients. With over 5,000 drivers or “Coupangmen” as they are fondly called in South Korea, Coupang has achieved enviable delivery service results which re second to none in the peninsula (99.3 % of deliveries in less than 24 hours and many before 7.00 am for its Dawn delivery service).

While Amazon doesn’t have an active business presence in the country, Coupang has beaten every other big name in the electronic commerce industry in South Korea to be named as the preferred e-commerce retailer. Other names such as Gmarket and 11street haven’t quite made the impact that Coupang has in such a short space of time. 

Coupang also has investors excited as well. Last year, the Company was named as the most valuable South Korean startup as it received about $3.6 billion in funding from major names such as Softbank, BlackRock and Sequoia Capital.

Coupang was also given a $9 billion valuation making Kim become one of the few individuals on the planet with that appellation.

Kim who is 40, however, has indicated that he and other investors are in for the long-term. He also indicated plans to expand the business given that South Korea’s advantages are something that many other Asian Countries enjoy. If his past is anything to go by, we may just be seeing the Jeff Bezos of Asia coming into his own (pun intended).

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