Start-ups

Why this investor took a $28 million gamble on a serial failed entrepreneur

Seunggun Lee, founder and CEO of South Korean peer-to-peer money transfer app Toss.
Toss

On paper, Seunggun Lee was a risky investment: A former dentist with eight failed businesses under his belt and a legal battle on his hands.

But that wasn't enough to put off investors.

In fact, for Altos Ventures, it was a winning combination. Within hours of meeting Lee, the managing director of Altos Ventures Han Kim, wanted in.

Altos Ventures was the first investor in Lee's now-$2 billion money transfer app, Toss. The South Korean venture capital firm initially invested 1 billion Korean won (around $1 million at that time) in the business five years ago, when Toss was barely off the ground. Altos has since topped up that funding with a further $27 million.

At that time, in 2014, such peer-to-peer (P2P) transfer services lacked regulatory approval in South Korea, which meant they were effectively illegal.

But, in Lee, Altos Ventures saw an entrepreneur who was determined to fight the fight to reinvent the system.

"We saw a large opportunity and a trend that was happening outside of Korea. Money transfer was becoming very big in the U.S. and China," Altos Ventures partner Moonsuk Oh told CNBC Make It, referring to similar apps like PayPal's Venmo and Alibaba's Alipay.

We saw in SG (Seunggun) someone that had the vision and the commitment to go about that.
Moonsuk Oh
partner at Altos Ventures

"There was mobile internet banking in Korea but it wasn't seamless, so the idea that SG (Seunggun) suggested caught our attention," he continued.

Crucially, Lee was committed to executing it, Oh noted.

"Entering into a regulatory space takes a lot of time and effort to speak to regulators and banks. We saw in SG (Seunggun) someone that had the vision and the commitment to go about that," said Oh.

He'd learned from his failures and having that background enabled him to be scrappier.
Moonsuk Oh
partner at Altos Ventures

As for his multiple other failed businesses, they were "actually a plus," Oh said.

"We were aware of his failures. He was a serial entrepreneur who'd failed in many ways," said Oh. "But he'd also learned from his failures, and having that background enabled him to be scrappier."

That calculated gamble paid off.

The firm has since attracted the interest of major investors including PayPal, Sequoia China and Singapore's foreign wealth fund GIC, which have collectively pumped $261.5 million into the young start-up.

It's an approach that fits in with Altos Ventures' wider investment style, which tends to favor serial entrepreneurs, or those with previous corporate experience, because they are often "better at building teams and executing," said Oh.

But Lee remains humbled: "I don't know how, but he had that belief," Lee said of Kim. "I guess he was invested in my integrity and spirit."

Don't miss: This dentist built a $2 billion Korean start-up — after 8 failed businesses along the way

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