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How this millennial entrepreneur runs a multi-million dollar startup in Japan

by SuperiorInvest

Sae Hyung-jung recalls a time when he was worried he wouldn’t have enough money for another meal.

He was 20 years old and had just started an artificial intelligence (AI) company that helped students improve test scores for university entrance exams – but it failed.

“I had so much debt and even had to use my credit card to pay my employees,” Sae said CNBC Make It.

Ten years later, the serial entrepreneur’s life paints a somewhat different picture.

I was so obsessed with making it work because it was my own product.

Sae Hyung-jung

Founder and CEO, oVice

He is now the founder and CEO of the company oVicea virtual office platform built to bring collective energy in physical office spaces to remote teams.

For example, the platform allows for casual check-ins with colleagues without the “formalities of online meetings,” according to oVice.

The company is based in Japan, where Sae, a South Korean, now lives.

At the end of last month, oVice raised $32 million in a Series B funding round led by a group of investors from Japan and overseas. The latest funding brought the total capital raised to $45 million.

The company earns $6 million in annual recurring revenue, according to Sae.

CNBC Make It finds out what a young entrepreneur learned from his failures and how a new start-up was eventually born.

Flexibility is key

The failed AI venture’s biggest problem was that it “didn’t find a market,” Sae acknowledged.

“My AI platform specialized in one exam that foreign students had to pass in order to come to Japan,” he said, referring to Japan’s university entrance exam for international students (EJU).

Sae, who studied in Japan in 2017, took the same exam and struggled to prepare for it.

“There weren’t many books to study at EJU… I collected questions from local university exams and created an AI that generates questions to improve students’ scores,” he said.

“But [at that time]only 1000 people took this exam every year so that was it [a] a really narrow and small market.”

The investors told him that in order to invest in the start-up, he would need to expand the market.

But Sae said he is stubborn. “I said no. I want to solve this problem.”

Despite his determination, the platform struggled to stay afloat and, as Sae simply put it, “failed.”

Sae Hyung Jung is now the founder and CEO of oVice, a virtual office platform created to bring collective energy to physical office spaces – to remote teams.

oVice

If you are flexible, you will have a better chance of success.

Sae Hyung-jung

Founder and CEO, oVice

Seeing how unsustainable the business was, Sae decided to quit the business and instead attend university in Japan.

Looking back on his experience, he realized that being adaptable is essential in business.

“If it doesn’t work, that’s okay. I’ll start with something else. If you’re flexible, you’ll have a better chance of success.”

An idea is born

Throughout university and graduate school, Sae worked as an AI and blockchain consultant. In February 2020, his role took him to Tunisia – which is about 925 kilometers or 575 miles from Italy.

At the time, Virus covid19 spread rapidly throughout Italy, which became and the epicenter of the first coronavirus epidemic in Europe.

“The Tunisian government said you have to leave tomorrow because we are going into lockdown. But the flights to Japan were once a day, so that was not possible,” Sae said.

Sae was stuck in Tunisia and had to work remotelyalong with his colleagues in Japan who also worked from home.

But working remotely quickly frustrated him, as there was little collaboration between employees.

Working remotely… It felt like a blackout, you don’t know anything that’s going on in the company anymore.

Sae Hyung-jung

Founder and CEO, oVice

“In the office, I could go ask for project updates and quickly identify bottlenecks, or I could discover problems from conversations I’d somehow overheard,” he explained.

“But doing remote work, communicating via Enlargement, Slack… it won’t give you the same kind of experience. It felt like a blackout, you don’t know anything about the company anymore.”

Sae decided to take matters into his own hands and reinvented the concept of office space sharing – bringing it online.

For example, its virtual office platform allows users or their avatars to reach out to a colleague and start a conversation or casual chat – just like in a physical office.

Don’t want to be eavesdropped? You can “lock” the conversation or take it to a private virtual meeting room, Sae said.

oVice allows employees to reach out to their colleagues and start a conversation or informal chat-chat – just like in a physical office.

oVice

After two weeks of building his first prototype and sharing it with his colleagues, Sae realized that his creation brought him immense satisfaction.

“Because I enjoyed it so much, I believe that people who feel the need to be in the office will also be satisfied.”

OVice launched in Japan in August 2020, and Sae said there has been a huge increase in companies paying for the service as they realize the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Companies are starting to think about communication and remote work engagement, and oVice has helped with that.”

Refocus on hybrid work

“A lot of people right now are like, I’m happy in the office, but if my company decides to go 100% in the office, I’m out.” companies know thisSae added.

“Yes, we’re going back to the office, but that doesn’t mean [online collaboration] will disappear.”

Sae remains confident that his platform will continue to thrive as workplaces move toward hybrid work and a pre-pandemic normal.

It was good to experience some failure, they taught me important lessons.

Sae Hyung-jung

Founder and CEO, oVice

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