“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Yet, here I am. Watching the sun rise over the Hangang River from the executive lounge at the Conrad Seoul Hotel. It is transformational, humbling… and yes, a bit humiliating if you happen to be a technology evangelist like me. Even the toilet in my hotel room has more technology than the entire state of Mississippi. Why is it so much easier to sell truly disruptive technologies in Korea than the United States?
I knew this would be a different kind of business trip from the moment I got on the airplane. Korean Airlines is a reflection of its homeland: Universally clean, polite and functional. Every employee is young, fit and remarkably educated. This is the diametric opposite to eponymous US carriers like United and American Airlines.
I’m here for less than three days and two meetings. It’s been more than a decade since I traveled to Asia. This is the first time I have ever done business with a South Korean mega-electronics conglomerate. Moreover, this is the first time I have ever traveled to an area threatened with nuclear annihilation.
This is one of the more exciting sets of meetings of my career. The senior management team evaluated more than 80 leading-edge technology companies. They selected only five to visit their headquarters in Seoul. We were chosen to show how to embed artificial intelligence as a way of personalizing consumer electronics. Imagine: Every electronic device doing exactly what you want simply by knowing who you are and how you behave – without any programming or explicit commands. Our technology enables these devices to “just know.” Even better, they will talk and interact with you in an almost human way. And best of all, our design gives the end-user total control over the artificial brain embedded in each device – eliminating any risks posed by “Big Brother.”
The engineering for this is remarkably straightforward – our team has been working on developing the core technology for more than a decade. I’ve spent the past two years bringing it to market.
Most people can’t understand why it is hard to sell a technology that enables machines to learn like humans. At best, our claim raises eyebrows. More often, people just roll their eyes.
So, yes, getting this meeting was difficult. We approached three major consumer electronics manufacturers in the past year. Unlike the other two, our Korean friends moved at lightning speed with open minds. It took less than a week for them to schedule meetings with their senior management in Seoul. And once here, we find ourselves meeting with executives, scientists and engineers who enthusiastically embrace new ideas. They take copious notes, ask the right questions and help each other prepare for the next meeting. We walk into one meeting without any need to review what we said in the last meeting – a process of unimaginable efficiency, especially considering we are talking about a completely new form of artificial intelligence.
This is in stark contrast to the “normal” experience of presenting enabling technologies to large US firms — especially those in the US defense industry. The cult of “not invented here” kills most ideas younger than the matriculation date of the oldest manager. Innovation is rare. It is more common for engineers, scientists and managers to doubt the potential of any new, unfamiliar technology. It’s less scary for them to invest in “what works” rather than risk failure by experimenting to find “what’s next.” As a technology evangelist, I spend a lot of time thinking about this phenomena known as the “innovator’s dilemma.” And I’m flummoxed by what I’m seeing in Seoul – a culture painted by the American media as hierarchical, conformist and homogeneous. Traits abhorrent to innovation. Yet why is everything in Korea so incredibly advanced?
Business is the best way to learn about a culture.
I tried hard to get out of this trip. It seemed like a really bad idea to travel to an area under threat of nuclear war. CNN and other US news outlets spent two weeks warning of impending doom – only to be interrupted by the Boston Marathon bombing. Why go to Korea when we could save a massive amount of time, effort and expense with a simple webinar?
The absurdity of North Korea’s war-mongering bloviating was obvious when I called our customer to get out of the meeting. They were offended. “No one takes the North seriously,” I was told. “Just come. All decisions get made in Seoul.”
I arrived on Saturday night with the COO of our company. We worked most of the day on Sunday. Around 4pm, I decided to take a walk outside to see how South Korea would respond to the latest threat from Kim Jong-un: Millions fled to the Cherry Blossom Festivals to celebrate Spring. Not a single gas mask, solider or worried face in sight. Only an abundance of more young, fit and highly educated people.
Our meetings went remarkably well – or so we think. The proof will be learned in the next few months. It’s not appropriate for me to go into details… but it is interesting for me to document the nine lessons I learned in 72 hours in Korea:
- Show physical commitment. Be there, don’t phone it in. I bought a cell phone from our customer to use as a prop in the meetings. They loved it when I demo’d the artificial brain working on their own product.
- Learn from locals and ignore the news. Everything that CNN reported about Korea turned out to be false, irrelevant or distorted. As always, the best information comes firsthand.
- Focus your pitch on the managers and engineers who ask the best (hardest) questions. They tend to fall into two camps: Your best advocates and your worst skeptics. Gaining a trusting, open relationship with both is essential to moving forward.
- Keep it short. When people ask for a “technical meeting” they are really asking for a “factual meeting” – not a “long meeting.”
- Use a white board, not PowerPoint. Nothing is more boring than “Death by PowerPoint in a Foreign Language.” Using a white board keeps the audience engaged even if they don’t understand every word.
- Make it easy on the audience by never using acronyms. They waste valuable cognitive capacity as people try to disambiguate the acronym in English to the terms in Korean.
- Assume everyone is a genius. In Korea, they probably are. Google and Apple are the only places where I have seen as many smart people under one roof.
- Exercise. It keeps your brain alert while helping your body adjust to time zone changes.
Posted by: Olin Hyde