Sirgoo Lee (pictured right) is a very nice guy. He’s the co-CEO of Korea-based chat app KakaoTalk. When he went onstage at our Startup Asia Singapore event last week, he spontaneously said that he was really excited to be there, even before being introduced by interviewer Willis Wee. He went on to reveal important figures about the company’s yearly revenue and profit – something that few startups opt to divulge. So I was pleased I got the chance to meet Sirgoo in person after the conference to talk about the company’s expansion plans to Indonesia and Vietnam.
Sirgoo explains that KakaoTalk’s strategy is to let the general public know and at least try using the app. Whatever happens after that – either people will choose to use KakaoTalk more, or test rival apps – lies with the users themselves. He said that the biggest challenge so far is to convince people to take that first step to try KakaoTalk. Today, thanks to the high-profile, star-studded TV ad campaign the company is running in Indonesia, the app is now sitting at the top spot in the overall app category in the country’s iTunes and Google Play stores.
Sirgoo explained that since the TV ads aired in Indonesia on March 29th, KakaoTalk has received around 100,000 downloads every day. Which means that there are now at least one million Indonesians who have tried the app. The app’s progress in Vietnam is speeding up too, ranking fourth on iTunes and 13th on Google Play right now.
Searching for local partners
While the company is being very serious about expanding to Indonesia and Vietnam, there aren’t any KakaoTalk offices yet in either country. We understand that there are only two KakaoTalk representatives who have been sent to the latter country. Why? Sirgoo explained that those staffers will focus on initial marketing plans and will look for local partners.
Not only are they looking for local deals for KakaoTalk’s localized content, but the teams are looking for a big local partner to help them get going in each country. Sirgoo gives an example of how they signed a joint venture agreement with Yahoo Japan to help promote the app in the territory of homegrown rival Line.
Sirgoo says that they haven’t found this kind of partner yet in Indonesia and Vietnam. Such a partner, he explained, must have very good understanding of online services, and have strong influence in each local market. KakaoTalk’s rival WeChat has signed a partnership with Indonesian media giant MNC Media earlier this year, forming a joint-venture called MNC-Tencent.
I was curious why the startup company chose Korean boy band BigBang to be KakaoTalk’s TV ad stars. Sirgoo says that it’s not only the group’s youth appeal and influence that made the company chose them, but also BigBang’s depth of artistry and wider pop appeal. In this way, he sees the band as being like the Kakao app.
Another strength that KakaoTalk wants to keep up is the way it tailors its apps based on the audience. The company will not use the same strategy it uses in South Korea in other countries, and instead aims to attract a substantial user-base first while analyzing what users in new nations like or dislike. One of the reasons KakaoTalk isn’t pushing too many games to Indonesian users is because the company is unsure whether its new users like to play mobile social games or if they hate getting game requests from their chat buddies. A further localization effort is seen in how the company compresses its stickers and animations to cope with slower Internet speeds in Indonesia – this can also be implemented in Vietnam of course.
Sirgoo believes that while the killer product on desktop internet is search engines, the killer product on mobile devices is messaging apps. And with more people using mobile devices, they will also demand that mobile devices can do everything that they can do on desktop machines. This includes games, shopping, and many other things.
The co-CEO believes that gaming and shopping success stories – two avenues that KakaoTalk has ventured into, he said – is just the beginning. Though Sirgoo declined to reveal what the team has in store next.
He believes that KakaoTalk is a platform for people from various industries and many countries to collaborate. This extends to not only games and stickers, but also to other bigger possibilities in the future. But his first priority is definitely to build up a big enough user-base in new nations first.