SEOUL, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) - Startups based on the idea of a "sharing economy," including Zipcar and Airbnb, have flourished around the world since the recession as cash-strapped consumers adopted cost-saving lifestyles. Korea's local entrepreneurs are also tapping into the industry, and some have succeeded in reaching the young, tech-savvy consumers.
"Zipbob," which means "homemade meal" in Korean, first took off in May, attracting the interest of people wishing to eat home-cooked food together. Thanks to enthusiastic responses online, twice-a-month meetings have expanded to more than 80 gatherings a month that now take place two or three times every day.
The thirst for networking outside of one's close circle of friends, combined with an appreciation for dining, is the "secret sauce" behind the success of Zipbob, said its founder, Lynn Park.
The idea is simple -- anyone can organize a meeting on the web site and if at least seven people sign up for the event, they meet for a meal. The participants have created a variety of themed hangouts from Indian food to watching the Olympics with late night snacks.
Participants of Zipbob, a social dining service, enjoy "healing food" together. (Courtesy of Zipbob)
Although Zipbob is similar to the American social dining service, Grubwithus, Park noticed that her groups have been formed around mostly working men and women in their 30s longing for a social life.
"I was one of those people who work in Yeouido (Korea's Wall Street) from 7 to 11 and got tired from 'hoesik' (which has become about) just filling the stomach and drinking," said Park, a 26-year-old who used to work for Deloitte for a year and a half before starting her own company. During a Korean "hoeshik" that is an ingrained aspect of the work culture in Korea, people socialize, sometimes against their will, with colleagues after work.
Park has built a business model similar to Grubwithus, in which participants pay for their meals at the restaurant and the company takes 20 percent of the commission fee from the meal providers.
"It's more about healing and dining," Park said of Zipbob. "In that sense, social dining is catching attention here, different from Europe and the U.S."
A propensity to share originated from the software developers, as they have found open sources beneficial, said Jeong Ji-hoon, a professor and director of IT convergence center at Kwandong University College of Medicine.
"The idea of sharing has existed for a long time, but people today, especially the younger generation, have become less resistant to it, whether voluntarily or involuntarily," Jeong said.
The unique aspect of Korea's sharing economy has to do with its own market situation. For instance, car sharing services like ZipCar have been slow in picking up demand compared to other countries because most cities in the country have an advanced public transportation system. The peer-to-peer industry for real estate such as cottages or sky resorts is already dominated by big companies such as Hanwha Hotels & Resorts Co. and Daemyung Leisure Industry Co.
Rather, experience sharing or meetups have been the hook for people to access services such as social dining and local travel sites.
Founded by Seo Sun-mi, a 27-year-old wanderluster, a lifestyle sharing site called PlayPlanet connects tourists and visitors with locals who can offer a more authentic experience. Based on her network of friends she made during her travels in 15 different Asian countries, she aspires to incubate it into a global platform and employs the "PlayPlanet ambassadors" in each country.
Lauren Anderson, who participated in one of PlayPlanet's events during her stay in Seoul, said she enjoyed the experience that she would never have had without the help of her host. Anderson is a community director of Collaborative Lab, a Sydney-based advocacy group of collaborative consumption.
The plan that Anderson chose was having an organic meal of roasted duck in a neighborhood where the host grows vegetables in her garden, followed by an evening walk to a hill overlooking Seoul where the poet Yun Dong-ju used to write his prose.
"I was beyond satisfied with food, fun and lovely conversation by the time the evening came to an end," said Anderson in an e-mail.
What was unique about this social event was that beyond food, people's shared interests and ideas in collaborative consumption helped her connect with them more easily, she said.
But the local sharing market isn't without legal issues.
Since January, a Korean version of Airbnb called "kozaza" has been up and running and attracted media coverage with its catchy name, roughly translating as "nighty night." Mainly targeting foreign tourists who want to stay at hanok, or traditional Korean houses, the site offers lodging services for locations across the nation.
Founder Jo San-ku, a 48-year-old former senior executive at a large corporation, is confident about the potential in the peer-to-peer sharing marketplace of space and experience, but he said it is taking slower in Korea where bureaucracy often gets in the way.
So far, he has secured about 60 hanok rooms in Seoul and more than 300 nationwide. The cost of a one-night stay at hanok ranges from 100,000 won to 700,000 won on average, and 50,000 won for an apartment. According to Jo, people who rent out the rooms do it for variety of reasons -- people having a hard time paying back bank loans for their home, people who need money to educate their children, or seniors who are looking for a daily occupation to spend time.
Jo San-ku (2nd from right), founder and CEO of "kozaza," poses with his crew. Kozaza is a Korean version of Airbnb with a tweak on offering "hanok," Korean traditional houses.(Courtesy of kozaza)
Participants of PlayPlanet, a social travel site for sharing authentic experience, draw caricatures of themselves at one of their meetups.(Courtesy of PlayPlanet)
However, it is technically illegal to share a room in Korea for business purposes even though the government encourages foreign tourists to do homestays, Jo said.
In 2005, the Korea Tourism Organization certified just 340 houses for the homestay program and added 600 more this July. Considering that there are about 5,000 empty rooms in Seoul apartments alone, the sharing model like kozaza can fix the mismatch of supply and demand, he said.
For Jo, social trust is another challenge. "Our motto is 'for profit, for good,' the model that we believe can make everybody happy."