Neil Patel

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Charlie Lee is now on his second startup. With a mission of reaching one billion unserved people with fintech solutions, his venture has already raised $90M. Charlie has raised financing from top-tier investors like SoftBank Ventures Asia, Naver, Line Ventures Corporation, D3 Jubilee Partners, Bon Angels, Daesung Private Equity, and Shinhan Capital. His venture True Balance also goes by Balance Hero and Balancehero India.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • The differences in mindset and business culture between East Asia, America and India
  • How to manage company culture and international teams
  • Charlie Lee’s top advice for entrepreneurs, before starting a business

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    About Charlie Lee:

    Charlie Lee has won recognition for playing pivotal roles in the growing and leading of well-known businesses of mobile service segment from carrier billing and VAS(Value-added-service) to Smartphone apps in 5 different countries in Asia Pacific.

    Charlie Lee discovered the fast-evolving mobile ecosystem due to the emergence of smartphones especially in India and seized the opportunity to jump into business with university colleagues (Balance Hero co-founders Jay and Martin) in discussion with ‘New Business Strategy’ a market larger than Korea.

    Charlie Lee developed True balance business model and launched a commercial platform for smartphone users to check the balance and recharge by utilising this app. He also established Balance Hero in-house venture at Access Mobile.

    Charlie Lee has in depth exposure to deal structuring, business investment, telecom services. He is identified as a thought leader for the development and policy making on mobile ecosystem.

    Charlie Lee is a keen golfer and tech enthusiast with diversified interests in social upliftment.

    Connect with Charlie Lee:

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    FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a very exciting founder. We’re going to be learning quite a bit about building and scaling companies in Asia, India, Korea, and you name it. Without further ado, Charlie Lee, welcome to the show.

    Charlie Lee: Hi Alejandro. How are you today? I’m more than happy and excited to join your show today.

    Alejandro: Charlie, you are originally from South Korea, born and raised there. How was life growing up in South Korea?

    Charlie Lee: It’s quite good, but actually, I spent half of my time in India and half of my time in Korea. On my Indian side, my friends call me half-Indian; on my Korean side, they call me half Korean.

    Alejandro: So you got a little bit of both worlds. How did you develop the love for economics because you studied economics? What got you into numbers, economy, and business? What was that?

    Charlie Lee: After my graduation from college, I studied in the U.S. to get my Master’s. I found out that the global business—I studied international economics, actually, from the college. I found out that global business is the thing I really want to get in because Korea is a lovely and good country, but in terms of economy, it’s a small economic country. [02:54]-wise, I believe that the Koreans are going out of the country, and they love to challenge. After graduation, I found out for myself that “I’m going to be there.” Especially the Asian market. I really believe that the future of the economy is going to be there. That’s what I came into.

    Alejandro: You mentioned that you studied in the U.S., so you went to Chicago to do your MBA. Culture is, obviously, a very important topic and the different cultures also may create companies. When you were in the U.S., you were exposed, as well, to the U.S. culture. There are a lot of people that are going to be listening and watching from the U.S. What were some of the differences that you saw from the U.S. culture with the culture that you were brought up in Korea? What were some of the differences?

    Charlie Lee: The biggest thing, actually, was that I was kind of surprised. The very difference is that in the States, the guys are very logical. Here, in Korea, we’re very emotionally attached guys. For example, in the family, if the son or daughter did something wrong, then the parents, the first thing they think is to protect them. But in the States, of course, the parents and children relationships matter, but for them, they’re more rational, and the more regional-level reports of what they have done is the first thing. In the U.S., [04:39]. They are very into the most [04:43] approach, and the reasoning is the first thing they want to approach. Our culture is more like a personal relationship, and then attachment kinds of things are more priority. That’s the first thing.

    Alejandro: And, for you, graduating from Chicago got you into the telecom sector, so why the telecom sector?

    Charlie Lee: Actually, as I told you, I wanted to find my personal place in the international global business, so when I joined, they asked me why. That company actually looked at me as a fair and partial for the global business. It’s nothing to the telecom factor, but more into the global business. I joined, and I worked as the head of an Asian business in the company. That’s how my personal career started.

    Alejandro: That was a nice segue into you starting your own business because it really took no time. Basically, in 2006 is when you got started with the company right after giving your notice, and here you started Access Mobile. What was the process of coming up with the idea of Access Mobile, incubating it, and bringing it to life?

    Charlie Lee: Actually, I believed that when I joined the company, I believed that someday I’m going to start my own business because I love a challenge. I love to start my own. As I had around four or five years experience in SK, I found out that the telecom sectors help evaluate the service and have a very promising future, and I had some good relationships with various telecom companies in Asia. Together with some members from their state, I asked them to join me, and then I started Access Mobile. It was a natural path for me to take.

    Alejandro: What were you guys doing with Access Mobile? What was the business model?

    Charlie Lee: It is a B2B service. We have provided Holo tunes like when you make a call you listen to music. I think the service is also in the States. It is one of the most successful services in the telecom sector. Then the Holo chat service, SMS, those are Balance services we were providing to around 15 telecom businesses in Asia, India, Thailand. That was the major service we provide.

    Alejandro: During the journey of building this, because it was about eight to nine years, the idea of the Balance, here, which is right now your baby, which was a spin-off of this, it was literally born under this umbrella. What was that process like of coming up with a concept under the umbrella of a different business, and what does that transition of grabbing that concept or that baby from one umbrella and taking it out of that umbrella so that you can spin it off and build it and scale it into something else?

    Charlie Lee: It’s a very good question. Actually, after I came in 2011, when it came out, the smartphone with a fee, we thought, “I don’t think it’s going to be a big wave. [8:20] and the telecommunication guys, they’re going to still be the economic king or something. That was wrong, actually. Around 2013, I felt that our business was slowly not growing, and telecommunication is not the king anymore. They are actually losing their power. I found out that’s really happening, and then the other thing is that to see it before, it was very hard to do it because it requires a lot of money for marketing to users. That’s with the smartphone—after the whole ecosystem changed, venture capital companies coming, but it’s not hard to apply for money. That’s Google and [9:05]. The platform is very simple. Once you make the Google application, especially in India, the Google application is around 99% market share. Once you make the Google applications, you can easily provide a B2B system, and you can easily get the money from various venture capital companies. I think, “Now it’s the time to get into B2C because I don’t need telecom. Before, I actually needed telecom to touch the users, but now, thanks to Google and [9:41]. I made a decision that getting into this application business and then the B2C business. That’s how we made a decision to start the new business in 2014.

    Alejandro: Basically, what was that process of you living your baby because Access Mobile was your baby. You were at it for nine years. You’re still attached to it, and you’re a major shareholder, but I’m sure that the decision of shifting gears and the direction and the attention to something else was not an easy transition for you because it was also your first company, you become attached emotionally to your first business. What was that process for you to really see that this had that potential, and what was that transition that you had to make from a business, an emotional and focused perspective so that you could go full-on with Balance Hero?

    Charlie Lee: I also have my colleagues and founder members in Access Mobile. It was a unilateral decision that this B2B for telecommunication service cannot grow any longer. We wanted to build a big business. All the foundering members of Access Mobile actually agreed because we got some money, and we made some good money at that time. We agreed to start several ventures to start the companies to provide an application business. At the time, we made a forecast of four teams in Access Mobile to start the startup. One is about a gaming company; one is the eCommerce company; one is this company, Balance Hero, and another one is kind of a gift card commerce company. We made five or six months of research and analysis. Then, by the end of the day in 2014/2015, we spin up the world of companies. Under that mobile umbrella, we spin up four companies, and Balance Hero is one of those companies. We were agreed to start the application B2C business because we saw the big change and the big ecosystem evolution is happening. That was a natural decision we made.

    Alejandro: In this case, what ended up being the business model of Balance Hero?

    Charlie Lee: This is one of the four services that I just explained. I strongly believe that when I see the new business, I have three simple criteria to make a fourth. 1) How big the market size is. 2) How fast the market is growing. 3) How mature the market is. From these three points of view, it is very clear that India is the market, one of the biggest markets, especially from the smartphone point of view; and one of the fastest-growing markets, especially from the smartphone point of view—one of the most—not a mature market, at the time, in India. From these three categories, India was the proper place. It takes five minutes to decide on the market because we initially compared in Indonesia, Vietnam, or India. But it takes just five minutes to make a point. From the business island, the category point of view, it took almost five or six months. It took a lot of research, and then we took a lot of the market analyses. Then we figured in India, we found out the finances, especially the requirements that are very serious. Most people translate in cash, so they cannot enjoy the [13:37]. We believe the finance market is big, and the issue and the problem of financing in India is very serious, so we made a decision to get into this fintech domain.

    Alejandro: Basically, when you make this decision, it’s a different market. We’re talking about India; you’re originally from South Korea, and there are probably some clashes there on the cultural side between Indian and Korean perspectives. Now, how many employees do you guys have? I’m sure there are a lot of people from India and a lot from South Korea, so how do you guys address that potential clashing that happens from a cultural perspective?

    Charlie Lee: We have around 200 people, around 120-130 in India, with 60-70 in Korea. In India, we have more people because our business is happening in India—development or data files and analysis kind of things are in India. Most of the development, most of the operation is happening in India. Of course, you realize that when I started this last year, I already had experience in Access Mobile. We had a branch in India. But when I started Access Mobile first, it was very different, even though we are the same Asian umbrella. I figured that India is more into the Western life from the Korean point of view. Koreans are more into the East Asian country: China, India, Japan. Those three countries are under this umbrella. It was very challenging, actually. One example is when we discuss something in Korea, we are not actually that active and very expressive to discuss in the official meeting. When I raise an agenda, I need to do something to get some ideas from them. It’s not coming easily. But in India, people are very active in expressing themselves, and they’ll raise their hands and then voice off. But the thing is that Korean people are trying to keep it up, and they’re trying to make it happen. But Indian people are more into making a promise, and then they want to prove that they can do it. But the performance in the region is very different. Actually, part of the country is there. We made [16:13] in each country. To the Indian side, we explained the Korean culture and history. To the Korean side, we explained India’s culture and history. So they can understand more. One more thing is that almost half of the Korean guys are in India, so we try to invite Korean guys into India because we are doing business in India. So there are many Koreans coming to India, and then they work together with Indian guys. That’s the way we try to grow the cultural difference and the working difference things.

    Alejandro: Got it. How much capital have you guys raised to date, Charlie?

    Charlie Lee: We have had around six rounds of funding—from 2014, we founded and to around $90 million U.S., equity funding we raised from the Salta Bank in Asia, and Nava in Korea, and the Icici Bank in India—so various Korean and Indian and Japanese investors we raised.
    Alejandro: What is it like, as well, from an investor perspective, like pitching investors from different cultures? Is it varying a little bit more in the way that you pitch, the way that you receive questions or the way that they’re interpreting your business? What was your experience pitching investors from different countries?

    Charlie Lee: You are a founder, so you understand that one of the biggest challenges is to raise funds.

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Charlie Lee: We have had around six rounds of funding. But basically, as you very well know, it’s to sell our dream, to sell our potential, dream, and the story. Our mission is to finance for all. We have a very bold mission. We are trying to provide financing to one billion Indian people while out of the financial business and the financial ecosystem. The most challenging thing is to share this dream, to sell this mission to the investors. Luckily and fortunately, they bought the idea in the mission of our service. That’s the most challenging thing. Of course, on the Indian side, they know India more. Maybe Korea and Japan don’t know where. So that’s a difference there, but what we are trying to show is the last billion Indian people. That is very bold, but that is also very big. To persuade and to deliver that dream of ours was the most challenging thing.

    Alejandro: I can imagine. Also, for you guys, now, COVID is hitting big time in India. There are over 400,000 people infected on a daily basis. It’s unreal. How has the COVID situation been for you guys, and how are you able to do damage control to avoid the impact on the growth and the operations?

    Charlie Lee: Actually, we were hit by COVID last year, and this is a second pandemic, as we call it. This time is actually from this COVID point of view. It’s most serious. Last year, it was around 100,000 a day. But now, it’s 40,000, but I think it’s going to be more. Officially, it’s 400,000. From COVID situation-wise, my employees—a lot of people were confirmed. From the COVID point of view, it’s most serious. But from the economic point of view, we learned a lot from last year, so many people, not just in our organization, but also from the economy and from the government point of view don’t see that this is a very big impact on the economy. The peak time is actually passing. Gradually, the COVID numbers are decreasing, and from the economic point of view, people’s mentality is very important and the government’s approach. Many things are different. I believe last year it was very painful for more than nine months. COVID hit, and then it was very seriously impacted for the economy, but I think for two or three months we’ll have a hard time, but after then, from the growing point of view, it’s going to be better.

    Alejandro: Hopefully. At the end of the day, like everything, all we have is the future, so we’ve got to be optimistic. I think that as entrepreneurs, we are always optimistic, which is a good thing. One of the questions, Charlie, that I want to ask you is, imagine when you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world five years later, and the vision of Balance Hero is fully realized, what does that world look like?

    Charlie Lee: Those are things that are moving our hearts. Our mission and vision, as I told you, we want to provide finance for all. Imagine that in India, almost 500 million people stop working. Most of them can’t get the loan. They cannot use the banking service over the smartphone. They just use the smartphone for Facebook, etc. Imagine that those people who have the smartphone, even though they don’t have a bank account, even though they don’t have any credit, they can fully enjoy payment, and they can even get a loan. Then they can change their economic life dramatically. That is the vision we have, and we are trying hard to achieve that. That’s our service. If many people are changing their financial life to get better, I think that’s going to be the thing that we are dreaming. Internally, we are talking about “Let’s make the Indian economy GDP 0.5% and more for our service. [23:01] I think if that world is coming, I believe that as for our service, India’s GDP is going every year like 0.5%. That’s the dream we are making.

    Alejandro: Obviously, the Indian market is massive. There are probably a lot of entrepreneurs that are listening to us right now and living in the U.S. and thinking about doing an expansion to India. What piece of advice would you have for them? What are your three biggest lessons that they could use themselves for their own strategic roadmap?

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    Charlie Lee: Maybe I will try to think of three, but definitely I can come up with one. I want to call myself an Indian ambassador. Even Indian friends ask me, “Why are you doing business in India?” Or “What’s the future of India?” I want to put it this way: many people will have experience in China. It’s like a trip from China and back. Chinese growth has started. Now, it’s slow. Many people talk about “What’s the next world economy engine?” They talk about India, but there are so many challenges and hurdles, and India is far behind China, so we don’t know. But think about China 20 years back. I think India is in that time, especially after Prime Minister Modi got the power seven or eight years ago. I think he has made a lot of changes in India, especially from the economic point of view. He had made a lot of reforms, so from the market economic point of view, many things have improved. I think it’s time that India’s economy is coming up, and they’re going to be the next engine for the world economy. That’s for sure. Still, we have many challenges, but as the Chinese economy has done the last 20 years, I strongly believe that India has the market size; India finally has the foundation of the economy, industry, and they have the mindset and all the legal regulations set up, and then engage the [25:35] country. That’s one of the very big advantages. I strongly believe that India is now ready to move. Many Indian people describe India as being like an elephant. It takes time for an elephant to run, but once he starts to run, there’s nothing to stop him. It took a long time for this elephant to run, but finally, I think it’s time that this big elephant is walking very fast. Sooner or later, it will run. Once we start to run, I think nobody will stop it. That time is now. Anyone who is interested in this overseas global business, definitely, India is the first market you need to think of. India is open to the global economy. From this regulation and all the market competition point of view, it’s quite fair. I think India is the best market for the outsiders, foreigners. I can put India as the first market you need to think of when you think of this global business. That’s the first thing I can definitely claim.

    Alejandro: Got it. Imagine, now, that I put you into a time machine, and I’m able to transport you back to the time where you were still in the corporate world. You were still an employee, and you were thinking about launching your first business. If you had the opportunity of going back in time and having a chat with that younger Charlie and give that younger Charlie one piece of business advice before launching a company, what would that be and why given what you know now?

    Charlie Lee: It’s like around almost 16-17 years ago. At that time, that’s why I started my own company at that age. I was very fearless. I was overconfident, and I was like, “I believe I can do anything. It’s just a matter of my decision.” It was that kind of time. I believe that there’s nothing I cannot do. Maybe, of course, that was the power that pushed me and made me some success in the business. If I have a chance to go back to me, 15-16 years ago, I can advise myself that it’s okay not to make it so fast. It’s okay not to be that confident. Just go through it, and then you learn from it. One good side is that I was very confident, and I was feeling that I could push something forward. But the bad side is that I couldn’t learn more than I could. I think I ideally wanted to have a chance to learn more quickly, more fully than now. Maybe one piece of advice I would give myself 15 years ago would be that you can fail, and you don’t have to be that confident. Then you are ready to learn from your failure or whatever you’re not capable of. That’s the advice I can give myself.

    Alejandro: I love that. As they say, there’s no success without failures.

    Charlie Lee: Yes.

    Alejandro: Charlie, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

    Charlie Lee: You can find me easily on LinkedIn and Facebook. You can chat me over there. I manage my LinkedIn through my company PR team, but I’m going to try to reach out to almost every message I’m getting. Facebook and LinkedIn are the best way.

    Alejandro: Amazing. Charlie, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

    Charlie Lee: Thank you. I do appreciate you for having me today, Alejandro.

    * * *
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    Neil Patel

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