Sae Hyung-jung recalls a time when he worried that he wouldn’t have enough money for his next meal.
He was 20 and had just founded an artificial intelligence (AI) company that helped students improve their college entrance test scores — but it wasn’t doing well.
“I was in so much debt and even had to use my credit card to pay my employees,” Sae told CNBC Make It.
Ten years later, the life of the serial entrepreneur paints a rather different picture.
He is now the founder and CEO of oVicea virtual office platform created to bring the collective energy in physical office spaces to remote teams.
For example, the platform allows for informal check-ins with colleagues without the “formalities of online meetings”, according to oVice.
The company is headquartered 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 made $6 million in annual recurring revenue, according to Sae.
CNBC Make It finds out what the young entrepreneur learned from his failures and how a new startup was finally born.
Flexibility is key
The biggest problem with the failed AI venture was that it didn’t “find the market”, Sae acknowledged.
“My AI platform specialized in this exam that international students had to pass to come to Japan,” he shared, referring to the Japanese university entrance exam for Japanese students. international students (EJU).
Sae, who was studying in Japan in 2017, took the same exam and struggled to prepare for it.
“There weren’t many books to study for EJU… I collected questions from local university exams and created an AI that generates questions to improve student scores,” said- he declared.
“But [at that time]only 1,000 people took this exam each year, so it was [a] really a niche and a small market.”
Investors told him that to invest in the start-up, he would have to expand the market.
But Sae said he was stubborn. “I said no. I want to solve this problem.”
Despite her determination, the rig struggled to stay afloat and, as Sae puts it simply, “she failed.”
“I was so obsessed with making it work because it was my own product.”
He eventually sold the business, which helped him pay off his debts and gave him the “reset” he desperately needed.
Even so, Sae hasn’t given up, as entrepreneurship is a “continuous journey”, he said. Besides, it wasn’t his first taste of failure.
At the age of 18, he started a business brokerage business connecting businesses with suppliers and distributors in Japan and South Korea. But after a year, Sae had to close up shop.
“At the time, in 2011, there was a great earthquake in Japan. It was crazy… my clients [in South Korea] imported products from Japan, their purchase prices doubled.”
Seeing how unsustainable the business was, Sae decided to shut down his business and pursue a college education in Japan instead.
Looking back on his experiences, he realized that adaptability is crucial in entrepreneurship.
“If it doesn’t work, it’s fine. I’ll start something else. If you have flexibility, you’ll be more likely to succeed.”
An idea was born
Throughout college and graduate school, Sae worked as an artificial intelligence and blockchain consultant. In February 2020, his role took him to Tunisia, about 925 kilometers, or 575 miles, from Italy.
“The Tunisian government said you had to go out tomorrow because we were going to be blocked. But the flights to Japan were once a day, so it was impossible,” Sae said.
Stuck in Tunisia, Sae had to work remotely, with his colleagues in Japan also working from home.
But he quickly became frustrated with remote work because there was little collaboration between employees.
“In the office, I could go and ask for updates on the project and quickly identify bottlenecks, or I could uncover issues from conversations I had overheard one way or another,” he explained.
“But working remotely, communicating through Zoom, Slack… it doesn’t give you the same kind of experience. It was like a blackout, you don’t know anything about what’s going on in the business anymore.”
Sae decided to take matters into his own hands and recreated the space-sharing concept of an office by bringing it online.
For example, its virtual office platform allows users, or their avatars, to approach a colleague to start a conversation or have a casual conversation – much like in a physical office.
Don’t want to be heard? You can “lock” the conversation or take it to a private virtual meeting room, Sae said.
After taking two weeks to build his first prototype and sharing it with his colleagues, Sae found that his creation gave him immense satisfaction.
“Because I enjoyed it so much, I believe people who feel the need to be in an office will also be satisfied.”
oVice launched in Japan in August 2020, and Sae said there was a huge increase in companies paying for the service as they realized the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon.
“Companies have started thinking about communication and engagement with remote work and oVice has helped.”
Switch to hybrid working
Sae’s new company has seen huge success over the past two years due to the pandemic.
But as countries around the world ease restrictions and workers began to return to offices, oVice began to focus on companies adapting to what some have called “the new normal” – hybrid working.
“A lot of people are now like, I love being in the office, but if my company decides to go to the office 100%, I will quit. And companies know that,” Sae added.
“Yes, we’re going back to the office, but that doesn’t mean that [online collaboration] will disappear.”
Sae remains confident that his platform will continue to thrive as workplaces move towards hybrid working and pre-pandemic normality.