3 Valuable Lessons from the Korean Drama Start-Up

Who knew we’d learn about machine learning, investments, and start-ups in a Korean drama?

I’m currently watching the ongoing Korean drama Start-Up, starring Bae Suzy, Nam Joo-hyuk, Kim Seon-ho, and Kang Han-na, in Netflix.

When I first heard about it, I was so hyped up because finally there is a K-drama bringing up the topic of technology as its main theme. (Maybe there was one before, but I didn’t know.) Also, I had watched Suzy since her drama debut in Dream High (2010), and then most of her other dramas, such as Big (2012), Uncontrollably Fond (2016), and While You Were Sleeping (2017).

Poster for Start-Up. Source: Kpopmap

What about Start-Up?

The drama is as good as I expected. The first two episodes were rather a slow burn as I didn’t really care about the flashbacks — I just wanted to see Suzy and Nam Joo-hyuk right away — but since episode 3, it’s getting more and more interesting. I’ve been always interested in the world of start-ups, although I haven’t had a chance to work or found one yet, and episode 3 begins to show that world.


Left to right: Nam Joo-hyuk, Bae Suzy, Kang Han-na, Kim Seon-ho. Source: Kpopmap

In Start-Up, Suzy plays Seo Dal-mi, a college dropout living with her grandma and trying to make ends meet by working multiple jobs (typical K-drama heroines).

Nam Joo-hyuk plays Nam Do-san, a former math Olympiad winner currently building his start-up, Samsan Tech, with his two friends.

Kim Seon-ho plays Han Ji-pyeong, a successful investor who met Dal-mi’s grandma when he was in high school.

Kang Han-na plays Won In-jae, Dal-mi’s elder sister who got separated from Dal-mi after their parents’ divorce, since she chose to live with her mom and her mom’s rich, new husband, while Dal-mi chose to live with her struggling dad.

While I’m rather disappointed that Dal-mi isn’t a programmer (in fact, the drama only shows one female programmer working for In-jae), at least we see three women in the position of leadership: Dal-mi, In-jae, and the head of SH Venture Capital Ms. Yoon.

I won’t recap the whole story here, so let’s just discuss the lessons learned from episodes 3–6.

1. Great brains and amazing technology aren’t enough to build a start-up.

Do-san and his friends, Kim Yong-san and Lee Chul-san (thus their company name Samsan Tech, which means three san’s), are working on an image recognition algorithm for their company. They participate in a fictional machine learning competition called CODA, which is based in the Silicon Valley. While they didn’t expect much that they’d win, they actually won it.

Yong-san, Do-san, and Chul-san testing their image recognition algorithm (ep. 1). Source: Netflix

What happens next?

Do-san and his friends get famous overnight. Investors are buzzing around their garage-like office to learn about their company and potentially invest in it. However, one by one, they soon leave.


The lesson: You need a clear business plan.

Do-san and his friends don’t have a business plan at all. They only care about improving the accuracy of their image recognition algorithm, but they haven’t really discussed how to monetize it. (If I remember correctly, one of them once suggests face recognition for unlocking a car but never follows it through.)

Meanwhile, investors are business people. They don’t understand why changing the parameters or adding an extra layer to a neural network improves its accuracy. They only care that it works, that it’s applicable to the real world, and that it earns


“We need MONEY! MONEY! MONEY!” (ep. 3). Source: Netflix

A start-up doesn’t need the most advanced technology to succeed. While there are thousands of discussions on how to build a successful start-up, I observe two things in the very least:

  • A clear goal on what it’s doing.
  • How it will generate profit.

Because it’s a business, duh.

2. Not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. (Ouch!)

Since Samsan Tech has been unsuccessfully looking for investors for two or three years, Ji-pyeong gave Do-san one advice:

Recruit a CEO.

Do-san, Yong-san, and Chul-san talking with Ji-pyeong (ep. 4). Source: Netflix

As the CEO of Samsan Tech, Do-san is not suited to that position. He’s awkward with people. He lacks vision of how his company will go forward. He doesn’t have great pitching skills, as he’s too focused on the details of his algorithm rather than communicating in terms that regular people understand.

The lesson: Put people in positions where their skills are the most valuable.

Of course, you can argue that a CEO is made, not born. Given enough time and patience, we can train anyone to be a CEO. However, in Start-Up, Do-san doesn’t have the time to train himself to be a CEO. He needs to find investors quickly, or else his company will die. Thus, it is easier and quicker to find another person to be the CEO than to train himself.

Do-san is passionate about coding and technology. He is more suited to the position of CTO (chief technology officer).

Dal-mi and In-jae pass Sandbox’s CEO test (ep. 4). Source: Netflix

Meanwhile, Dal-mi, whom he picks as his replacement, is good in communication, presentation, and keeping up with the trends.

  • In Sandbox (a start-up incubator which Dal-mi, Do-san, and In-jae join), there is a test that determines whether one is fit to be a CEO by giving them several keywords. The participants should enter as many related words as they can. Dal-mi passes the test, showing that she keeps up with the most recent situation in South Korea. On the other hand, Do-san and his friends don’t pass.
  • Although Dal-mi doesn’t know coding, she understands the big picture of their work and has a clear idea on how to apply the technology in the real world.
  • In episode 5, Dal-mi presents their company’s work to the investors in a language they understand very well.
Dal-mi pitches Samsan Tech’s business plan to the investors (ep. 5). Source: Netflix

3. Chemistry vs. credential: which one will you choose?

In the ending of episode 4, Do-san has to choose between Team Dal-mi or Team In-jae. Dal-mi is inexperienced and lacking in credentials — she doesn’t even have a college degree. On the other hand, In-jae has the experience of being the CEO of her stepfather’s company. Since they need programmers, they want to recruit Do-san.

The key difference between Dal-mi and In-jae’s approaches is that Dal-mi asks Do-san to recruit her, while In-jae wants to recruit Do-san.

Do-san tells his friends that if they choose Dal-mi, they will be equal teammates, but if they choose In-jae, they will work for her as her subordinates.

Do-san chooses Dal-mi (ep. 4). Source: Netflix

So they choose Dal-mi as the new CEO of Samsan Tech.

I noticed another thing that the drama didn’t explicitly mention.

The lesson: Team chemistry is super important.

In a previous scene, we’ve seen Dal-mi, Do-san and his friends, and Ji-pyeong playing a game together. They laugh and have fun together.

The team playing Go-Stop (ep. 4). Source: Netflix

Of course, team chemistry doesn’t always outweigh fantastic credentials (say, if you have great chemistry with someone that is super incompetent, and you choose them just for the sake of chemistry, you’re doomed).

However, the way the drama plays it, I can imagine if Do-san and his friends join Team In-jae, there will be a lot of friction. Do-san and his friends are quirky and at times embarrassing. On the other hand, In-jae and her team are super professional, so I expect she will be angry at them a lot. And then Do-san’s friends are not docile either, so they will find ways to retaliate or just talk behind her back. (As Episode 6 show us, they even get into an argument on Team Dal-mi.)

Dal-mi confronting Sa-ha for her behavior (ep. 6). Source: Netflix

We also see another friction in the team caused by Jung Sa-ha, the fifth member of the new Samsan Tech, who joins in the last minute as the designer. She looks down on the team, contradicts everything Dal-mi says, and ignores her calls. Finally, Dal-mi gives her two choices: follow the team’s agreement or you’re out.

I agree with Dal-mi’s response toward Sa-ha’s disagreeable behavior. Since the team is still very small, every member’s contribution weighs a lot. Losing Sa-ha means they don’t have a designer any longer, but keeping her in the team can also drag down their performance. They need to be united to grow their company.

The founders of Samsan Tech: Yong-san, Dal-mi, Do-san, Chul-san, Sa-ha (ep. 6). Source: Netflix

Since I’m enjoying this series so much, I might write more articles about the insights I learn from it.

Software engineer at Google. Writes about books, feminism, and self-love.

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