South Korea's growing influence on popular culture, from beauty products to viral musical hits like "Gangnam Style," has put the country on the world map.
Now Althea, a Seoul-based start-up, is trying to cash in on the trend by making inroads into southeast Asia's growing e-commerce market.
Demand for South Korea-made cosmetics has seen a substantial growth in recent years due to the global appeal of its pop stars and actors, attractive pricing as well as the frequent launching of new products to keep up with consumer demands.
The country's beauty exports globally in 2015 stood at $2.5 billion based on data from Korea Customs service, having seen an average of 37 percent annual growth since 2011, Sunny Um, an analyst at Euromonitor, told CNBC by phone.
One of Althea's co-founders and CFO, Jae Kim, told CNBC the decision to move into the region was a "no-brainer" because of a pent-up demand for Korean beauty products that was being unmet by other companies.
The startup sells more than 100 local brands on their site, from internationally recognizable names like Laneige to quirky ones such as Witch's Pouch and W.Lab.
"To give you a perspective, there are about 8,000 Korean cosmetic brands in (South) Korea alone," according to Kim.
Southeast Asia represents an important market for e-commerce players given a large base of young consumers and growing internet penetration. A study from Google and the Singapore government's investment arm, Temasek Holdings, predicted in May that Southeast Asia's digital economy was set to grow to $200 billion by 2025, driven by a rise in e-commerce.
"The passion and popularity of all things Korean - culture, pop culture, K-drama and Kpop - is really strong here," said Kim, a former finance professional who co-founded the company with Frank Kang and Christopher Cynn, who was behind the South Korean e-commerce site Ticketmonster.
Kim explained Althea targeted southeast Asia, instead of bigger markets such as China and the U.S., because of the relative lack of competition. Memebox, for example, is another Seoul-based startup that focuses more on the two larger markets.
But data suggested ignoring China and the U.S. could mean losing out on a large chunk of potential market share. China, according to Euromonitor's Um, accounted for 41 percent of the South Korean beauty export market, followed by Hong Kong, U.S., Japan and Taiwan. By contrast, exports to southeast Asia were relatively smaller, with few bright spots in Singapore and Thailand.
The company has a centralized warehouse and inventory location in South Korea that ships parcels directly to customers. Kim said that approach allowed Althea to sell in any country without breaking the bank and build good relationships with the South Korean cosmetics brands in order to get better supply terms.
A potential hurdle for any e-commerce operator in this region is sorting out the various means of payments - cash-based and online - that are popular in individual countries. Credit card penetration is not as widespread as other regions.
To get around this, Althea last week said it teamed up with Dutch payments company Adyen to offer a wide variety of payments options to its customers. "A lot of people prefer cash-based local payment options," said Kim.
The Amsterdam-based startup Adyen is valued at $2.3 billion and has clients such as Uber, Netflix and Spotify. It began by helping web companies such as Facebook collect payments and then moved into mobile; it released software that ran on point-of-sale terminals to help bricks-and-mortar stores.
"We process payments for merchants only, we do not have a relationship with consumers...(that) relationship should be with the merchant," Warren Hayashi, Asia Pacific president of Adyen, told CNBC in an interview.
Hayashi remarked low credit card penetration - Singapore being the exception - in the region meant there was an opportunity for retailers to reach out to local customers in big markets such as Indonesia through local payments methods - such as Mandiri Clickpay in Indonesia and GCash in the Philippines. Adyen has more than 250 different types of payments options that merchants can offer to customers.
Kim added various payment preferences added to the uniqueness of southeast Asia. When asked if Althea had plans to introduce its own line of South Korean beauty products, he said, "We are thinking about (it) but no concrete plans yet."
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