At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic in Korea when people suddenly had to embrace remote working and social distancing, they turned to well-known tools provided by international tech companies, such as Google’s Hangouts and Microsoft’s Skype. The biggest beneficiary of the increased demand was probably Zoom, a Nasdaq-listed startup that develops videoconferencing tools. Downloads of Zoom and other similar tools soared and the sudden popularity more than doubled Zoom’s share price. That was before “Zoom-bombing” and hacking concerns quickly arose.
Although South Korea has been reporting fewer and fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 this month, the country decided to extend its intense social distancing campaign for another two weeks through April 19, while kicking off the new school year entirely online in phases from April 9.
This sudden change where people are becoming comfortable with spending more time online is creating new opportunities for domestic Zoom-like services. But the problem is that just a few of them are ready.
Korea’s market for videoconferencing was considered small, and so was its marketability until the outbreak of COVID-19 forced so many people to stay at home, according to Lee Rang-hyuck, founder and CEO of Gooroome, which provides education-focused videoconferencing services.
Gooroome was picked as the platform when the Ministry of SMEs and Startups had an event online with investors and startups as well as when D.Camp, a nonprofit startup accelerator backed by the country’s financial institutions, decided to do its signature monthly demo day online for the first time.
SMEs and Startups Minister Park Young-sun joins startup founders and investors for an online investor relations session on April 3. (Ministry of SMEs and Startups)
“If that (the videoconferencing market) was the market I was iming for, I would have not been able to continue until now. I just wanted to make a better online education environment,” Lee said.
Gooroome offers online classrooms and online study room services in which users gather in front of their own cameras to sit down and study without much interaction.
As schools and organizations seek online platforms for their virtual classes, Gooroome has been mentioned often for organizations seeking videoconferencing solutions or for companies that want to buy one.
Gooroomee, launched in 2015, has been devoted to developing educational video tools. Gooroomee, with only 10 staff, has recently been receiving 50 phone calls a day from schools and various organizations seeking to prepare for online classes and meetings. The company previously received 50 inquiries in a usual month.
However, translating the newfound demand into profit may not prove easy.
Lee of Gooroomee said the sudden interest in the company is welcomed, but as a startup the company finds it difficult to compete with big companies like Zoom that offer many services for free.
“Big companies like Zoom are armed with money and they can provide services for free, but for a startup like us, it is hard to keep up with them,” Lee said.
“While people are embracing remote work and virtual classes, not many are ready to pay for such services,” Lee added.
Tech giants like Kakao, which operates hugely popular messenger KakaoTalk, had little interest in videoconferencing services. This compares to China’s Tencent, which operates the country’s must-have messenger app WeChat. Tencent was quick to open up its videoconferencing tool Tencent Meeting for domestic users, and soon introduced its international version in more than 100 markets.
“As a messenger app, we want to focus on that. I believe there are other players who devote themselves to developing videoconferencing services,” a Kakao official told The Investor on the condition of anonymity.
Kakao has no immediate plan to launch videoconferencing under its massively successful messenger, a company official told The Investor. But Kakao’s affiliate Kakao Enterprise is developing a tool to introduce to the public later this year and is considering a videoconferencing function in their app.
Line, a messaging app backed by Naver, has kicked off a marketing push for its videoconferencing function and LineWorks, a business collaboration tool, in earnest as it sees a surge in demand for its group call function, which also offers a videoconferencing function for free for up to 200 callers.
By Park Ga-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)