10 Business Lessons to Learn from Netflix K-Drama, Start-Up

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Start-Up tells the story of Seo Dal Mi (Bae Suzy) and her resolve to outperform her overachieving sister, Won In Jae (Kang Han Na). The two are separated from each other when their parents divorced. Dal-Mi chooses to stay with their father who dies right after a pitch meeting with investors. Meanwhile, In-Jae follows her mother who remarries a rich businessman.

Later in the series, Dal-Mi and In-Jae reunite as two CEOs who are competing for investors in Sandbox—a start-up incubator in South Korea’s fictional Silicon Valley. Dal-Mi joins the Samsan Tech group of founder, Nam Do-San (Nam Joo-Hyuk), along with developers Kim Yong-San (Kim Do-Wan) and Lee Chul-San (Yoo Su-Bin). Together, they struggle to make a start-up that focuses on Artificial Intelligence (AI) work. 

While a love triangle with Do San and big-time capitalist and mentor Han Ji Pyeong (Seon Ho) ensues, Dal Mi’s tale becomes a journey that goes beyond romance. Hers is a story of hard work, determination, and priceless interpersonal relationships.

Below, the lessons we’ve learned from the series, which we can all apply to starting a business, big or small:

1. You need a clear purpose and a business plan.

Know your WHY.

Episode 8 sees a conference room exchange between Dal-Mi and Ji-Pyeong why she  believes their AI app Noon-Gil focused on helping the blind will succeed even if the financials don’t make sense.

“I’m not trying to achieve something new and great here. It’s just that for some people, what’s ordinary to us isn’t ordinary at all. I want our technology to help them. Even just a little bit. Even just a tiny little bit, if we can protect their everyday lives, I think that’s enough reason to do this,” explains Dal-Mi.

Sandbox founder, Ms. Yoon supports this saying, “They’re at least clear about their why.”

Ji Pyeong counters, “But that’s about it, they don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Ms. Yoon then states, “As long as they know why they do it, the rest will follow.”

Takeaway, knowing your purpose keeps you focused and passionate about what you’re doing. The road to success isn’t straight nor is it always paved. Oftentimes, it’s winding, steep, and full of pitfalls. Your purpose is a compass that will keep you headed in the right direction.

2. To become an effective leader, you must have the audacity to make firm decisions.

Should I keep a majority stake in the company or should I give them up? Do I let go of a valuable asset or do they bog us down? Should we invest resources in R&D or do we expand? These are tough calls a leader has to make day in and day out. Whether a right or wrong decision is made, the leader’s job is to steer the ship towards a direction.

“‘What makes a great CEO?’ There’s no such thing. That’s as absurd as asking what makes a great politician. There are no right answers to politics or management. Why look for answers that don’t exist? So, instead of looking for answers, make choices. Whatever you choose, you’ll be criticized. You can’t make any decisions if you’re afraid of criticism. And if you can’t make decisions, you can’t be a CEO. What do you want to be? A good person or a CEO? Don’t be greedy. You can’t be both. Choose one. Just one.”—Han Ji-Pyeong, Episode 6

3. Good leaders believe in their team’s hard work.

Remember when In Jae almost fires Dal-Mi for thinking her company bogs her employees down?

Later that night, she shares her sentiments to her mother, Cha A-Hyun (Song Seon Mi), and her grandmother Choi Won Deok (Kim Hae Sook). She noted that their “tiny obscure company” is no match to Do San’s first-rate skills. 

“I’m not taking anyone’s side. It’s just that if I were In Jae, I’d fire a CEO like you, too,” said Dal Mi’s grandmother. “A ‘tiny, obscure company?’ Does your company bog its employees down? Does it?”

“It’s selling corn dogs and asking your customers, ‘Why would you eat this garbage?’ If that’s what the CEO is thinking, I’m sure it’ll go great for the company,’ she adds with sarcasm.

A great leader is able to add value to their customer and to their team. Working towards the team’s success should always bring out the best in each team member. You have to believe that the hard work you and your employees are putting in results in making a difference.

4. If you didn’t work for it, you didn’t earn it.

“Dad, I learned an expensive lesson, thanks to you. If the start is easy, then it’ll be taken away easily as well, and a CEO without shares is no better than a chewed-up gum. Thank you for the invaluable lesson.” —Won In Jae, Episode 3

Success is more gratifying when you know you’ve earned it. Conversely, success handed on a silver platter is hollow and can easily be taken away.

5. Everyone has important roles to play. There are no small tasks.

Not everyone can be the CEO. But just because you’re not the CEO doesn’t mean you’re not vital to success. Although Do-San doesn’t become a successful CEO of Samson Tech, he realizes he contributes best by solving problems and not by steering the ship.

6. Team chemistry is really quite important.

Skills alone won’t bring success. We’ve all heard the saying, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” And that only happens when we find people with the right fit. San Ha may have been the most competent person in the room, but without the willingness to work alongside her teammates, the team might have been busier tiptoeing around each other than focusing on the goal. 

7. Find a mentor.

No one was born a CEO. While potential may be inherent, a mentor can hone your talent and help you realize it. While experience may be the best teacher, a mentor will help you use what you’ve learned to be more reliant, independent, and grow your business or career. The Ms. Yoons and Ji-Pyeongs aren’t just found within the confines of your organization nor must they be your immediate superior. Find someone experienced who genuinely cares for your growth and development.

8. People who criticize you could be the ones interested in your potential. 

We have friends flatter us and that makes us happy, but we all need a friend who can tell us the harsh truth.

Navigating criticisms and compliments is a skill to be mastered. As Ji-Pyeong bluntly put it in Episode 14, “You know I only say good things to companies I’m not interested in. Why bother to check and criticize the condition of a car if I’m not going to ride it.” Flowery words don’t mean someone truly cares, learning to appreciate criticisms will help you add value. Remember, that person took the time to analyze things that you could have done better.

9. Don’t be afraid to aim high.

Every team needs a moonshot, whether it’s winning a multibillion won contract bid or setting record sales. If you miss the mark, you would have at least gained more than not aiming at all. Or as Do-San put it, the lessons learned from failure will help you navigate your way the second time around. Even in today’s progressive companies, failure isn’t considered a failure if you’ve learned lessons. Sayings such as “Fail fast, learn fast” are common phrases tossed around in agile work environments.

10. Have faith in yourself. Venturing out of your comfort zone takes courage.

Throughout the series, Dal-Mi’s story is all about taking risks, leaving your comfort zone, and just taking the leap. From quitting her job to start her company, to submitting a proposal to a bid where they were most likely out-gunned. Success would never have come if she didn’t take a chance.

But the contrasting tales of Ji-Pyeong and Do-San also show fortunes and misfortunes of staying in your comfort zone. The AI Yeong-Sil truly knows everything, “You are a faint-hearted batter, afraid of being called out, you are unable to even swing the bat. But if you continue to hesitate you will lose.” By not even stepping up to the plate, Ji-Pyeong strikes out and never gets to give the present he bought for Dal-Mi. Whereas, with nothing to show for, Do-San scores the home run by wearing his heart on his sleeve and pours his everything to Dal-Mi.

100% of shots not taken are missed shots.


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