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6 career lessons we can all learn from ‘Start-Up’

By JUSTINE PUNZALAN Published Dec 07, 2020 10:07 pm Updated Dec 08, 2020 9:58 am

Days before Start-Up aired its finale last weekend, members of Team Do San and Team Ji Pyeong were already having sepanx feels over its ending. And we can’t blame you.

Aside from having an exciting love story starred by K-pop idol-turned-actress Bae Suzy and two swoon-worthy Oppas Nam Joo Hyuk and Kim Seon Ho, the phenomenal K-drama series brims with valuable and relatable lessons on life and career.

Start-Up tells the story of Seo Dal Mi (Suzy) and her relentless pursuit of becoming South Korea’s Steve Jobs to outdo her estranged overachieving older sister Won In Jae (Kang Han Na).  

While there was bad blood between them since they were young, the real competition began when both of them entered Sandbox, South Korea’s fictional Silicon Valley, where they built their own micro-enterprises, both focusing on technology development.

In Jae became the head of her self-named company, while Dal Mi was appointed CEO of Samsan Tech, a tech start-up founded by charming tech engineer Nam Do San (Joo Hyuk) and his witty friends Kim Yong San (Kim Do Wan) and Lee Chul San (Yoo Su Bin). 

With Do San's support and the mentorship of big-time capitalist Han Ji Pyeong (Seon Ho), Dal Mi’s tale becomes a journey that goes far beyond romance and family life. It also reflects what hard work and determination can do to anyone who wants to succeed.

PhilSTAR Life rounds up the most inspiring lessons you can learn from the show that would motivate you to “follow your dream” and appreciate your career's small wins. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

The Samsan Tech crew (L-R) Kim Yong San (Kim Do Wan), Seo Dal Mi (Bae Suzy), Nam Do San (Nam Joo Hyuk), Lee Chul San (Yoo Su Bin), and Jung Sa Ha (Stephanie Lee).

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

Since the beginning of the series, Ji Pyeong does not exempt anyone from his harsh comments. Take, for instance, the scene where Samsan Tech began welcoming people pretending to be investors in their office. Unaware of those evil-doers' hidden agenda, the boys of Samsan Tech gave away much of their data without caution.

“Are you naive or stupid? Were you going to give away the whole algorithm?” Ji Pyeong shouted at the trio.

“You should’ve found out who they are. Isn’t that common sense? And what, you want to get into Sandbox? Dream on," he added.

Chul San argued, “Why are you so critical? None of the venture capitalists we met today were harsh like you.”

"Because they’re going to turn you down!" Ji Pyeong snapped back. "This isn’t the car they’re going to ride. That’s why they just compliment it.”

But behind his disagreeable comments was the mentor's desire to help the three young engineers be mindful of their business decisions.

He continued, “On the other hand, I want to know about the tires, the lining, all of it because I might actually ride it. Because I actually am interested!”

Samsan Tech struggled to get investors until they got their break in 2017 when they won the CODA competition and entered Sandbox.

SH Venture and Sandbox Depyunim (CEO) Yoon Sun Hak (Seo Yi Sook) said the same thing to Yong San three years later.

At that time, the trio was thinking of relaunching Samsan Tech following their successful three-year stint in 2STO, a renowned tech conglomerate in San Francisco, California. Yong San decided to consult Depyunim about choosing the right investors for their company.

“Did you have an information session for investors recently?” Sun Hak asked Yong San.

“No, we aren’t even incorporated yet,” the tech engineer replied. “They showed up after reading our magazine interview. I’m guessing it’s because we’ve worked at 2STO.”

“They don’t know anything about your business plan?” Sun Hak clarified. “Then it seems they’re ready to pay for a product without even knowing what it is.”

The CEO elaborated, “Then it’s safe to say none of them are reliable investors. They’ll cheer you on even if you’re jumping into a fire by mistake.”

Ji Pyeong only gives constructive criticisms to start-ups he's set to invest in.

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

Before becoming Samsan Tech’s CEO, Dal Mi dropped out of college and took part-time jobs to help her grandmother Choi Won Deok (Kim Hae Sook) with their finances.

Clueless about tech and business, Dal Mi began searching for answers on becoming a good CEO in books. But her mentor Ji Pyeong advised otherwise.

He said, “There’s no such thing. That’s as absurd as asking what makes a good 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,” he stated. “You can’t make decisions if you’re afraid of criticisms. And if you can’t make decisions, you can’t be a CEO.”

Knowing how tenderhearted Dal Mi is, Ji Pyeong added, “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.”

Through Dal Mi's strategic leadership, Samsan Tech wins the Sandbox Demo Day against In Jae Company.

The key to succeeding in any goal is knowing your “why.”

After learning that Dal Mi’s grandmother is slowly losing her eyesight, Do San developed NoonGil, a mobile app powered by an AI technology that identifies objects, texts, colors, and even people for its visually impaired users.

Although he and the rest of the Samsan Tech crew are aware that it would entail tremendous work and money, they all set their eyes on one goal: to help blind people live normal lives.

Dal Mi then discussed the concept of NoonGil with Ji Pyeong. Thinking that its investors would not profit from it, the experienced venture capitalist rejected the idea until—with her heart-tugging speech—Dal Mi made him say "yes." Sandbox CEO Sun Hak heard Dal Mi and Ji Pyeong’s conversation and couldn’t be any prouder of Dal Mi’s determination.

She told Ji Pyeong, “The more success they have, the harder the CEO will have to work since they have to rely on investments. I ran a business like this myself when I was young. I had to beg for money day in, day out. It was nerve-racking.”

“But the thing is, they’re at least clear about their ‘why.’” she added.

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

Sun Hak clarified, “As long as they know why they do it, the rest will follow.”

Soon after its launch, NoonGil became a popular app worldwide with the help of Do San's connections and, of course, Samsan Tech's substantial efforts.

Samsan Tech celebrates after the successful launch of NoonGil.

Good leaders believe in their team’s hard work.

Three years since they worked in Sandbox, both Dal Mi and Do San made huge advancements in their careers and personal lives. Dal Mi and her sister In Jae rekindled their relationship, as Dal Mi began working as the chief operating officer and the business development head of In Jae Company. She soon became the CEO of Cheongmyeong Company, with In Jae as the major shareholder. On the other hand, Do San became the head of the development team in the 2STO AI Center in San Francisco.

After Do San and his friends stopped a ransomware attack on Dal Mi’s company, In Jae ordered Dal Mi to recruit the trio in their team. Dal Mi hesitated, thinking that Cheongmyeong might "bog down" Do San's flourishing career. But In Jae stood her ground. She even told Dal Mi that if she fails to recruit them, she’ll lose her job. 

Later that day, Dal Mi shared her sentiments with her mom Cha A-Hyun (Song Seon Mi) and her grandmother. 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 Halmoni. “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 said with sarcasm.

She added, “Personal matters mean everything. If you can’t handle that, you shouldn’t be CEO.”

Samsan Tech has been reaping the rewards of collaborative teamwork since the start of the series.

Starting a business begins with the passion to lead a team.

As Dal Mi was still gathering her courage to talk to Do San, Yong San, and Chul San, the trio, on the other hand, was thinking of relaunching Samsan Tech. Yong San met with Ji Pyeong to ask for insights about their plan.

“Why did the three of you launch a start-up? To run a business or write programs?” Ji Pyeong asked Yong San. “Either way, the conclusion is simple. If what excites you is writing programs and seeing them run, work as developers at a company that pays you well. If you’re excited about establishing and leading a company, run your own company.”

He underlined, “As you already know, you’ll face many hardships while running a start-up. The only thing that keeps you going is the confidence that you’re doing what you love.”

Three years after Samsan Tech was disbanded, the entire crew reunited and fulfilled their dream of producing a self-driving car, which upscaled Cheongmyeong Company to a big conglomerate.

Don't be afraid to aim high.

After Cheongmyeong Company attained its license to manufacture and sell its self-driving car named "Tarzan," In Jae urged Dal Mi to bid their technology in Smart City’s nationwide search for self-driving cars. Dal Mi, on the other hand, was wary of the idea. 

“I don’t think it’s nonsense. I believe a business can only grow as large as the CEO’s dreams," In Jae told her sister. "Don’t limit yourself. I hope you can keep challenging yourself as CEO. Sometimes, foolhardy dreams can become reality.”

Do San was likewise keen on the idea. He told Dal Mi, “Dal Mi, you know, we should put in a bid for the self-driving platform."

"I don't expect us to get it [bid]... That’s why we should do it. That way, it’ll be easier next time… It’ll be a learning experience. You pass failure on your way to success. We’ll build experience," he added.

Ji Pyeong argued, “If you sail without a map, you’ll die. Be it a typhoon or a shark. You will die either way. Did you forget?” 

“Of course, I remember sailing without a map," Do San answered. "But to me, sailing off without a map was marvelous. I might’ve failed, but I have no regrets. Never did and never will.”

“I know, like you said, sailing off without a map could cost me my life. But I could also survive. And people like that become trailblazers,” he concluded.

True enough, Do San and Dal Mi ended up becoming trailblazers. They won the bid for Smart City and later scaled up their start-up into a big conglomerate. All that, as a happily married couple.

Photos from TVN Start-Up on Instagram.