[THE INVESTOR] “Winning customer trust is just wishful thinking,” says Lee Seung-gun, founder of Viva Republica, most famous these days for its peer-to-peer money transfer app Toss.
Sounds rather discouraging? Perhaps it does. But what the entrepreneur really wants to say is that the seemingly unattainable goal prods startups like his to rise to the occasion.
Viva Republica founder Lee Seung-gun.
And rise it did. Viva Republica is a four-year-old startup that hit the jackpot with Toss, which it launched in 2015. As of September, there were up to 11 million transfers made via the app, with the total transaction volume reaching over 7.5 trillion won (US$6.60 billion).
The success was no accident.
It took Lee eight failed attempts before he finally emerged with Toss, an app that can wire money in just three steps, without submitting certification numbers. His goal was to make life easier, and it worked. Money transfers became a cinch and so did splitting the bill, all without the worry of giving out bank account details. And unlike most other similar apps in Korea, foreigners too can access Toss.
Making such differences was why Lee founded Viva Republica, the 35-year-old former dentist told The Investor in a recent interview.
So far, his mission has led the firm to a good place. In March, Viva Republica announced that it raised US$48 million from PayPal and a bunch of Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
This was the first time PayPal has invested in a Korean startup. Luck was on Lee’s side too, since PayPal had been eager to duplicate the success of its own money transfer app Venmo.
Toss was also chosen as the best app of the year at the Google Play App Awards in Korea last year, when its user-base grew 14 times. It is now a dominant player in the money transfer market.
Recently, the app has started expanding its services that now include Bitcoin transactions, real estate investment and even one for charity donations.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
The Investor: What’s the vision of Viva Republica?
Lee: It's to create a service that people actively seek out in times of need.
TI: What is the reason you work at a startup, and how significant is it for you?
Lee: From the beginning to the end, it’s all about making a difference in society, and ushering in social improvement. That’s the most and only important thing to me, and that’s why I spend so much time for this company. Because I want it to work, and I want it to contribute to our lives.
TI: What about the other people working for Viva Republica? Please tell us about your staff.
Lee: The chief operating officer is Yang Joo-young, who was co-founder of messenger app Tic Toc. He was also with NHN and SK Planet.
Our Chief Technology Officer Lee Hyung-seok was another co-founder of Tic Toc and also worked at NHN and SK Planet. Our Chief Information Security Officer Shin Yong-seok served the same position at Nexon, the Blue House and the National Intelligence Service. Our Chief Financial Officer Cho Youn-je was with Bain & Company, S&P and PwC. Our Vice President of Strategy Song Ho-jin was with NHN and Monarc Gaming Labs.
Lee, by the way, graduated from Seoul National University and went on to work as a dentist for a few years before founding Viva Republica.
TI: How did you spend the first investment you received?
Lee: We used it for licensing, team building and overall business operations.
TI: How did you use your most recent investment?
Lee: It was nearly the same, except we are now focusing more on marketing. So this time, operations, marketing and team building.
TI: How many times have you received investments, and from where?
Lee: The investments we have received include --
Seed: Altos ventures (US$1 million)
Series A: KTB networks, Altos (US$5 million)
Series B: Goodwater Capital, Qualcomm Ventures (US$25 million)
Series C: Goodwater Capital, PayPal, Bessemer Venture Partners (US$48 million)
TI: Do you have plans for attracting more investment?
Lee: Right now, no, but we are thinking maybe some time early next year.
TI: What’s your competition strategy?
Lee: Our strategy lies in our state-of-the-art customer intelligence database that enables us to offer customized services.
TI: What are the risks you face, and how do you plan on overcoming them?
Lee: As an app involving financial transactions, our foremost concern is security. To better protect our clients’ financial information we will soon be attaining the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, which is used by most businesses dealing with major credit cards.
Competition is another issue, since we expect it to soon intensify. Our strategy there is “speed.” We plan on sustaining and expanding our market share by developing and delivering customized services even faster than now.
TI: What are your plans for overseas market penetration?
Lee: We’re interested in the Southeast Asian market, and just like with Toss, our strategy will be to zero in on the inconveniences of financial services and offer a much improved alternative.
TI: What is your bottom line like?
Lee: Thanks to business diversification that includes commission-based services in areas like real estate, fund investment, and credit extension, we expect to soon hit break-even-point.
TI: If you happen to have an exit plan, can you share it with us?
Lee: It’s still hard to say at this point. Right now, our investors and our board are mostly focused on how to grow our business further.
THE INVESTOR PROFILE
Description: Viva Republica is a startup that operates Toss, a P2P money transfer app
Founder: CEO Lee Seung-gun
Headquarters: Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Total equity funding: US$79 million
By Kim Ji-hyun, Editor-in-Chief of The Investor (firstname.lastname@example.org)