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Whether cheering for an unlikely hero in a movie or rooting for the success of a sports team that has been having a bad season, there is something inside of us that wants to cheer for the “little guy.” As humans, we want to reward those who work hard in order to overcome all obstacles placed in their way. The world of business and technology is no different. So much so that there is a special term for startups that beat the odds and become economic powerhouses. Unicorns are startup companies that have been valued at – or above – a billion dollars by market investors. Many of the most successful unicorn startups have been founded in America, but there are other regions where notable startups have made it. Korea, is one such place. So far, eleven South Korean startup companies have managed to surpass the one billion dollar mark. Collectively known as the Korean Unicorn Club, these companies have changed Korean society’s perception of startup companies and are inspiring a new generation of fledgling Korean entrepreneurs.
(Authors: Silicon Luxembourg, and G3 Partners)

Founded in 2010, Coupang began as a Korean answer to Groupon, but has developed over the years into a fully fledged e-commerce provider. Their vast online shop offers a curated selection of diverse merchandise including fashion, beauty products, home goods, decor, electronics and sporting goods. The platform is constantly innovating new services, adding a mobile shopping platform, same-day delivery and personalized recommendations. In 2015 the company raised USD 1 billion from Softbank and has since rolled out a comprehensive last mile delivery service, making it the clear leader in Korea’s vibrant e-commerce market. – See more at coupang.com


Gmarket has been the leading e-commerce marketplace in Korea since its founding in 2000. Initially Gmarket functioned as part of a consulting group, but soon became popular enough to operate as a stand-alone website. Gmarket was acquired by EBAY Inc. in 2009, but continues to operate as a separate service. Post acquisition, Gmarket has upped its efforts to reach international consumers. In 2013 the company launched its Global site in order to make their service easy to use for customers that don’t speak Korean. Most recently, they developed a mobile app that provides customers with a more convenient shopping experience. – See more at global.gmarket.co.kr


Com2uS is one of the largest mobile game developers in South Korea. Founded in 1998, the company got its start developing Java based games for mobile phones. Com2uS were among the first gaming companies to tap into the potential of smartphone gaming systems and their efforts have had a profound impact on Asia gaming industry. Currently the company has offices in China, Japan and the United States, and is focused on increasing its global presence. – See more at us.com2us.com


Founded in 1995, Daum is a Google-like web portal that offers a variety of free Internet services to web users. Their most popular services include: web-based email, Internet forums, news search and navigation (maps). In 2006 Daum launched the blogging service Tistory, which later became one of the top five most used sites in Korea. It has gone on to develop additional services like its video sharing service (tvPot) and cloud services (Daum Cloud). – See more at daum.net


Established in 1997, NCSOFT became an online gaming powerhouse after the successful release of its flagship title, Lineage. They have since released several other MMORPGs – like Aion and Guild Wars – that have garnered rave reviews and achieved massive sales. However, NCSOFT does more than produce best selling games; they also do philanthropic work. In 2012 the company founded the NCSOFT Cultural Foundation, an organization that develops software for handicapped individuals and donates funds to several charities. – See more at us.ncsoft.com


Nexon is a global developer and publisher of free-to-play PC and mobile online games. Founded in 1994, Nexon has proven to be a pioneer in the world of interactive entertainment software. They are most notable for developing the most played online game in South Korea (KartRider). Played by over 30% of the population, the game is largely considered Korea’s national game! – See more at m.nexon.com


Smilegate is the company behind the mega-hit First Person Shooter (FPS) CROSSFIRE. One of the world’s most played online FPS games, Crossfire has over 6 million concurrent users and 500 million subscribers worldwide. In China alone the company brought in over 1 trillion KRW (around 4.6 billion USD). Founded in 2002, Smilegate strives to develop timeless games that can be enjoyed by a multitude of generations. Recently the company has made several efforts to improve Korea’s startup ecosystem by creating a business incubator and mentorship program for startups operating in Korea. – See more at smilegate.com


Yello Mobile is a mobile business platform that operates in the areas of: e-commerce, digital entertainment, online marketing, and “O2O” (applications that facilitate offline-to-online transactions). Worth over four billion USD, Yello Mobile is the second highest grossing startup in Korea. This is a highly impressive feat considering the company’s young age. Founded in 2012, Yello Mobile is the youngest company to be included in the Korean Unicorn Club. At the time of writing, the company is comprised of more than 40 companies. The most notable of them include: Coocha (home shopping app), Alammon (a morning call service), 1km (a social dating application) and Emotion (a web agency). – See more at yellomobile.com


Naver Corp. is responsible for developing South Korea’s top search portal “Naver.” To date more than 25 million Koreans have Naver as their default browser’s home page. In other words, more than 80% of South Korean web users prefer Naver to other search engines, making Korea one of only three countries – China and Russia are the others – where Google is not the dominant search engine. Following the success of its main search engine Naver Corp., it has created several more, including a search portal for children (Jr. Naver) and one for donations (Happybean). – See more at naver.co.kr


Kakao is a global lifestyle platform with a diverse array of services that allow smartphone users to send messages, make phone calls, play games, shop and much more! Most users enjoy the app because it allows them to send and receive messages for free without giving out their phone numbers. The massive spread of Kakao in Korea makes it hard to believe that the app was launched in 2010. In fact, 93% of smartphone owners in South Korea have the app installed on their phones. After merging with Daum in 2014, the company has been focusing on expanding their product offerings. The largest venture thus far came with the launching of its taxi hailing service Kakao Taxi in 2015. – See more at kakao.com


LINE app is a communication app developed in 2011 that allows users to make free voice calls, group chats, and send messages twenty four hours a day. It integrates various social elements into its software that are meant to enhance the experience of app users. LINE app has over 600 million users worldwide. Most recently the company has released an app called Popcorn Buzz, which allows users to converse with up to 200 people at the same time. – See more at line.me

This article was first published in SILICON

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