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Eamonn Carey – Late Night Cocktail Lounge Cover Band Limbo – On Inspiration and Imitation

August 16, 2022

From Live Shopping to Super Apps – inspiration for new products and platforms is increasing moving from east to west. Where once, products from the Asian markets were derided as copycats, now they’re trend setters. In this talk, Tera Ventures GP, Eamonn Carey will talk about how a 2004 trip to Korea was the inspiration for his first company, and how we’re seeing more and more innovation from that part of the world making its mark closer to home.


Thank you all very much for coming along. 

My name is Eamonn Carey and I’m going to talk to you a little bit today about inspiration. 

To give you some context as to why I’m standing here. I am a three-time founder, two of which thankfully, were successful, one of which was a gigantic car crash. But we can talk about that in the learning experience, as I prefer to think of it now. 

I’ve been an angel and VC investor for the last couple of years. I ran TechStars in London and invested in a bunch of companies in New York and ran an angel syndicate with some friends. Now I’m a partner at a VC fund investing in Estonia, the Nordics, and beyond. 

I’ve invested in about 100 companies across the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia and watched a bunch of interesting things happen. So I’m going to talk to you today about the talk title.

It’s a quote from Kurt Cobain’s journal saying “Do your own thing. Others own their own thing. If you copy too much, you’ll find yourself in late-night cocktail lounge cover band limbo.” 

Ideas and inspiration can come from non-obvious places

What I want to talk to you about today are ideas and inspiration and where it comes from, and looking in places that are maybe a little bit more non-obvious than what’s in our backyard or to the west of us.

I’m going to take you back in time to 2005 when a bunch of really interesting things happened for me. Seventeen years ago, I studied journalism in college, because computer science was too hard. It had too many hours and journalism had like ten hours a week. 

So I could work selling guitars and do a bunch of stuff that I thought was more interesting. But I’d learned how to code when I was a kid so I’d always built websites for dad’s friends and tried to kind of make money doing various different things like that. 

I was the first person with broadband on our street, obsessed with IRC and Usenet and all of these kinds of different things. 

So in my day job, I was a producer and presenter on RTE radio, which is like the Irish equivalent of the BBC. I spent my entire time saying to my bosses, we should be taking this internet thing more seriously. We should be podcasting. We should be putting up blogs, we should be listing our playlists, and we should be doing all of this. And the dominant feedback that I got back then was, the internet was a fad.  

Everyone thought it was gonna be a big deal in 1999/2000 and then it blew it. But newspapers have been around for eighty years and there’s no reason to think that they won’t be around for another eighty. 

I was banging my head against the wall and it was pretty frustrating, but RTE was a job for life. I couldn’t be fired. So it was tempting to stay there, but the catalyst that really changed my life was taking a trip. 

My time in Seoul

A couple of friends of mine from college had gone out to Seoul to be English teachers and they said to come over. I had some time off so I went for two weeks and hung out. 

Seoul is an amazing place. Korean food is incredible, the music is incredible, the architecture, the people; everything was amazing. It was also in 2005 and the most foreign place I’d ever gone! 

I mean that in the context of nothing was in English, and no one spoke English. I had a really shitty phone, so I had a book with a map in it. That’s how you found your way around.  I get off at the station, where the last character looks like a man wearing a hat. 

The moment that really kind of changed things was on the subway. I was sitting on it one day and this guy came in and sat next to me. He took something out of his pocket that in my head is permanently imprinted as like this kind of onyx slab. 

He picked it up and looked at it. He started watching Spider-Man and I was sitting there going, is anyone else seeing this?

Of course, creepily I’m like, I need to kind of see where this goes. Thankfully, he got off at the same station as me and as he got off, he switched off Spider-Man. He did something that looked like he was sending a text message on the same device. 

It was one of the Korean devices that were out at the time with this DMV mobile TV trial that was running where you had a phone and on the side, it could receive terrestrial TV broadcasts, but you could also store videos and play it. 

I was slack-jawed like some bloke has come back from the future to tease me and no one else has noticed like some Truman Show. So it was incredible. Now you think I can send a message and watch Spider-Man on the train. 

He was also doing this underground. I still can’t do that. If I wanted to watch Spider-Man in London. I can’t. What was more incredible was this was state-of-the-art I had in my pocket (a Nokia phone). It had 72 colours and predictive texts. Oh, my God, we’re really at the edge of technological capability.

So this phone actually didn’t even work. They had a different wireless standard over there so it’s totally useless.

For the rest of the trip, I spent my time kind of creepily looking at people in the subway and noticing things that were happening. 

I went to a mall in Gangnam one day, and there were a bunch of people crowded around a TV screen watching something. In Dublin or London, normally that will be a football match. It was a bunch of people watching people play Starcraft. 

I came back from that trip going, the world is about to change in a very fundamental way. It’s not the internet that I need to think about anymore, now it’s mobile. 

The mobile venture

Now we should be putting everything on our phones. The challenge was going back and telling a market where everyone is on the Nokia phone rather than the one in Korea, let’s produce content for a phone. 

They were like, I can’t even take a picture. I’m not gonna watch a TV show on it. They didn’t even have WhatsApp back then. 

So it was kind of a tough sell. In the end, I was so obsessed with this idea of mobile being the future and so convinced that it was the case, that I quit my job. 

I went to my parents and I said, I’m going to be a startup founder. In Dublin in the early 2000s, we were either going to be a builder, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure. Like the kid that no one talks about.

Thankfully, my parents were kind of like, oh, Jesus. Here’s another hare-brained scheme, let’s hope it goes okay. 

Myself and a friend of mine started a company based mostly out of frustration that no one was taking this stuff seriously. But what we found was when we went and spoke to big companies, who knew a lot more than people in the media industry, they took it really seriously. 

We ended up signing contracts with 3, O2, Guinness, Captain Morgans, Emirates, and other people. In the space of three years, we went from being two blokes with a picnic table in my co-founder’s back garden to having offices here. 

We opened an office in Dubai, built our business out, and did quite well, just doing stuff on mobile; making content, doing podcasts and making videos. Obviously, we were in a really good position in 2007 and 2008. 

When all of the stuff we’ve been saying about everything – the future being mobile –  crystallised when the iPhone and Android came out and came to prominence. So we built our own apps and apps for other people, but that trip was the catalyst. 

If that guy hadn’t sat next to me on the subway, I’d probably still be presenting the sports news on RTE. Probably unlikely, but let’s just pretend in the multiverse that I’m still doing that somewhere.

We sold that business and I’ve ended up going back to Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and lots of places in that part of the world over the last couple of years. And have seen the kind of technology that starts there evolving and coming over to this neck of the woods increasingly frequently.

Attack of the Clones – Copycat culture?

The challenge is that the dominant narrative about apps coming out of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, or anywhere else, is that everyone always used to talk about them as clones. Like they’re copying Airbnb, they’re copying blah, blah. 

So you see all of these think pieces going, WeChat is China’s Facebook, Baidu is Google, Weibo is Twitter, etc. What they never took into account was that there were some similarities between these products and their Western counterparts. There are also lots of differences, they’ve evolved in very different ways. 

That’s not to say that there weren’t copycats.  If anyone remembers the game Flappy Bird. The second company I started was in the games industry. So I saw firsthand how copycatting really works. Flappy Bird was copycatted a bunch of different times. 

When IP becomes successful, it’s inevitable that people will be inspired by it, that’s how things work. 

The question I was always thinking is, Is it a copycat? Or is it a remix? Where does this idea come from? 

One of the things that I’ve seen time and time again, as a VC and as a founder, is that I think there is this really interesting thing that happens where a bunch of cool stuff happens, ideas accumulate around that and similar businesses are born. 

The third company that I started, which was a failure, was an ed-tech company, which was ironic because I wasn’t particularly good in school. I didn’t know anything about the U.S. SATs, and maybe you’re learning why it failed. I didn’t do any customer development or anything else. But we launched this super secret idea of putting education on a mobile phone. 

We launched it and there were four companies we never heard of doing exactly the same thing and exactly the same time. There is this kind of biological idea of convergent evolution that you see in ideas as well. So there’s this concept of multiple discoveries or simultaneous invention

You see in science very frequently when they announce a Nobel Prize, it’s not just one person who wins any more, it’s two or three people who’ve come up with the same theory at roughly the same time, usually independent of one another.

Calculus, Leibniz, and Newton discovered it at roughly the same time. Darwin wasn’t the only person who theorised evolution. So there’s a bunch of ideas that come out at the same time. In biology, that’s why insects and birds have wings, they both evolved at the same time, even though they’re obviously very different branches of the tree. 

So my thesis is actually a lot of these ideas, whether it be Weibo or anything else would have evolved independently of YouTube starting or anything else. It’s an easy finger to point to say people are copycats. 

That’s not to say that copycats don’t exist. If anyone here works for Xerox PARC or knows anyone who does this, ask them how they feel about Microsoft and Apple and graphical user interfaces. I don’t think they will be big fans. 

The cultural zeitgeist 

I think one of the really interesting things is thinking about the cultural zeitgeist and how that’s been changing over the years. If you look at 1980s movies, the way that they depicted Japanese culture back then was very automaton and robot-like, but culture started to evolve. 

Sony gave us what I think were the best Walkmans. They really started to influence culture and shift the perception of Japanese products. Japanese manufacturing became very cool.  In the gaming world, Sega, and Nintendo; these products and brands started to come into the home and become part of the cultural zeitgeist. 

It’s really in the last 10 years that like Xbox and Oculus and a couple of others have kind of caught up with Japanese console makers and game makers and the movie industry like Spirited Away. 

You can see the kind of influence that Japan was starting to have on the world, and how much now if you talk to directors, or if you read interviews with directors, the extent to which they were influenced by these movies. 

It’s a generational thing. Where I had the Sony Walkman and Akira, and my brother had a Super Nintendo and Pikachu. 

A culture driven by government

What’s interesting is, in most cases, this was actually government policy. In Korea in 1997, after the financial crash, they created this concept called Hallyu, which is the Chinese word for the Korean Wave. But it was a government initiative to go – we want to be the number one exporter of culture in the world within the next 30 years. 

So they poured money into all sorts of initiatives. South Korea was the first country to have a national broadband plan. So everyone got connected to broadband. Now, everyone is getting connected to ultra-high-speed fibre over there. They’ve funded movie studios and theatrical academies where bands like BTS and others came together. You started to see the results in a substantial way. 

Gangnam Style was the first video to hit a billion views. On YouTube, it became this total cultural phenomenon.

More recently, Squid Game has spawned an actual version of it, presumably with fewer machine guns for Netflix. Although who knows in the kind of hellscape that society has today. 

The really interesting thing is back in the day, people never talked about Samsung products. They talked about some Sam-suck products because they were so faulty and shitty.

The view that the Korean government had was that if they can start to influence culture, then people will start to see more Korean probably like LG and Samsung products and various different things in movies and TV shows and everything else.

Korean soap operas are some of the biggest in the world even in Turkey, Middle East Africa, and various different places. Their view is actually the entire economy will be boosted. So it’s not just the kind of cultural side of the economy, but Samsung would do better than LG, all of these companies. They made this kind of dream Korean. 

It’s all in the design

Most of you here are founders or product people so it’s not just culture where we see that influence is increasingly now in the products that we’re building. 

In the products that I’m seeing when people are coming to me saying, “I’ve got an idea or an MVP”, I want to talk about some of the differences between this neck of the woods and that neck of the woods. Some of the biggest ones are in the kind of design.  

In Europe and the US, people tend to favour very sleek, kind of elegant, minimal design. Think of Google’s homepage, the pale blue coming from Facebook’s homepage, etc.

Then you look at Baidu. Its search engine just has way more information on there. If you look at the difference between TripAdvisor and Sea Trip, they’re the same products. It’s a travel app, it allows you to make bookings and do things. In this part of the world, we adhere to a view, like a YouTube guitar line, right, less is more.

In Asia, what we see is actually more is better. Having launched products over there, some of the feedback that we got from folks in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea is that here, we tend to search. There they prefer that lean-back browsing experience, which is why you have this real density of information on the page. 

I’ll touch on the kind of concept of super apps, but you have these products that have everything in them. It’s like a combination of Skyscanner and UberEATS, WhatsApp and Revolut, and everything else all in one place. We tend to have discreet apps, although we’ll talk about why people want that to change. 

It’s also this difference in what they think of as a kind of high context and low context culture and language.

So Japanese, Chinese, Korean, they’re very formal languages, in many cases, actually extremely complicated languages. So there’s a lot of context that needs to be added in, which is why you have way more text on the pages. 

The stupidest theory I’ve heard is that the reason this is the case is that streets in Europe are wider and less densely packed. And streets in Asia look like this. I was like, mate, that is crazy. 

But this is a product called Lingvist, which is a language learning app powered by AI. It’s similar to Duolingo and Babbel and others. We raised some money from a Japanese investor a couple of years ago and launched the product in Taiwan and Japan. 

John spent so much time getting the design perfect. It was beautiful, we’re kind of like this is Apple Awards, Apple design awards category like we could win this.

We brought it over to Japan when we were doing user testing. A bunch of people tested the app and gave us some feedback. 

We had one product manager sit us down and give us feedback and he was so embarrassed. These people think that your app is a product for idiots, something designed for children.  There’s no context. Why is there nothing on the screen like this product is not fully built yet? That was kind of the impression they got. 

We’ve subsequently launched products in that part of the world, but it is interesting when you’re localising products to think not just about the need to translate everything. You also need to think about the dominant kind of user experience. How do people like to use products over there? How, how much are you going to have to adapt? 

The answer is a lot to build something that people are used to. Baidu maps, WeChat has a mapping function where you can see your friends, Chinese and Japanese products like Lion, KaKao, and others have had these kinds of heat maps for a long time showing you where your friends are, where the activity is in cities, etc. 

If you look at the new version of Instagram, they’re starting to introduce more mapping and more location functionality. So you can start to see user experience and user interface starting to creep into this part of the world.

I remember using TikTok a couple of years ago when it came out. It’s so busy, my eyes are gonna bleed if I look at this for too long. Now, it’s the biggest thing on earth and probably the biggest cultural influence. 

If you talk to people in the music industry, they’re obsessed, not with getting their music into the charts but with making sure that influencers use their music in TikTok videos. Because that’s the fastest way to go viral. That’s the fastest way to get lots and lots of views. 

It’s less about a billion views on YouTube, and much more about how you influence this. You can see the kind of influence of TikTok starting to kind of bleed into other products. 

This is a company called Heygo, which we invested in which is a virtual tour company. So you can have a guide live streaming this walk in the mountains or a walk along the canals in Venice, etc.

If this product had been built five or ten years ago, it would have been a sleeker design that would have been less on the screen. When I first looked at this first it felt busy. You can expand the map, and see where you’re walking. There’s kind of photography buttons and gallery buttons that you can go into a lot of menu options on the top. None of this is hidden by default, it’s on-screen all the time. 

The vendors of this business are Canadian, but they spent a lot of time in Hong Kong. You can really see how that influenced the user experience and user interface of that product. 

Interface influences – voice search & live shopping

We’ve been waiting for a long time for the promise of Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, or anything else to start to pay off. 

When I was in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, I would say probably 30% or 40% of the people were using WeChat. They weren’t typing, they were talking and sending voice messages, particularly older people. 

There are questions about literacy and the complexity of the Chinese language, but it’s also ease of use. Baidu says about 20% of their total searches are now coming on voice, which is a lot. 

So voice interfaces are hugely popular, and you can start to see it bleeding in over here.

The moment that it occurred to me it was becoming something that I do all the time is when we had a kid. You have a kid and you still have to time a lot of things. Like food to be cooked, soothers need to be sterilised, so I started using voice and I increasingly now use it in other products. 

The companies that I’m seeing come in and pitch to me will hopefully be the big companies that we’re all talking about in five or 10 years’ time. Loads of them are thinking about voice as an interface. So I think we’ll definitely see an awful lot more than that. 

Live shopping on mobile is the biggest thing since sliced bread. It’s about 15% of all ecommerce in China.

Billions of dollars are being spent on it and it’s very simple. It’s just a real person. It was like QVC but with tonnes of people just sitting in a warehouse with lights on them doing this live shopping. It’s indicative of a wider trend that we’re starting to see.

McKinsey said it was 10% of the ecommerce market in 2020. It was worth $171 billion just in China in 2021 and $420 billion is what the projection is for this year. So it’s going up at a rapid pace. 

We’ve invested in the last six months in three companies that are doing live shopping in the US and Sweden.  

There’s Supergreat that does live streaming of beauty products. We have a company called Stackend that’s powering live shopping for anyone with a Shopify marketplace and Skindays that are in the beauty space as well. 

Already Supergreat their average in-app time per day is 20 minutes, which is really high. If you’re an ecommerce site and someone spends 20 minutes there every day, that’s pretty significant. 

Who wants to be a superapp?

WeChat is a very busy product we don’t see. If you download it and use it here, you’ll think it’s kind of a messaging app.  

If you’re in China, WhatsApp is very different because it’s not just a messaging app. It’s also like a supermarket, a travel agent, the place where you can pay your taxes, the place where you can register your kid’s birth. Basically, you can run your entire life from one product.

And it’s huge. Basically, everyone in China uses it and it’s probably still one of the most dominant kinds of payment methods in that part of the world as well. There are a bunch of super apps over there. 

It’s interesting to see these growth-stage companies and public companies coming out and going, we’re positioning ourselves as a super app. 

Revolut has decided that it’s going to be a fintech super app. It’s somewhat unclear exactly what that means but it’s the ambition they have that I love. 

So PayPal decided that they don’t want to just be an online checkout button. They want to be a super app as well. The irony is “The idea came to the party or during a dinner three years ago with the president of WeChat as the to dine, the picture began forming in his head”.

Copycat, that’s not inspiration.

But Facebook and Snapchat are obsessed with this. There are so many companies trying to do it for a long time. 

The hot teacher

Some of the industries that are interesting that I’m now looking at what’s happening in that part of the world coming over here.

What is the average salary for a teacher in this country? £25,000 to £30,000 when you’re starting out and £30,000 to £40,000 is as you get bigger. 

This is a guy called Kim Ki-hoon. He is an English teacher in Korea. How much money do you think he made last year? He made $4 million.

How many people would quit their job to become a teacher if I said I’ll pay you $4 million? Online education is enormous in all of these markets – Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, China, Korea, etc.

1.5 million people have taken his courses online, which is a staggering number. He now has his own publishing company. So, not only did he make $4 million his publishing company made another $10 million on top of it. 

There’s a company called Megastudy in Korea, where the majority of the teachers are making six figures. The best ones are making millions of dollars doing this kind of online tutoring, online test prep, etc. There’s money starting to go into this sector here as well. 

So the guys from Preply who went through TechStars in Berlin when I was mentoring just raised money recently to build out their tutoring marketplace and the growth that they’re seeing is astronomical. I think part of that is COVID fueled where online education became a useful and viable thing. So we’re starting to see an awful lot more happening in that space. 

Robots and intelligent toilets

I will finish by talking a little bit about robots – intelligent toilets. Just because Quantified Self wasn’t enough to track your sleep, heart rate and everything else. 

An Intelligent Health toilet will monitor all of your outputs and give you stats, stats and ratings. This has been going on for years. I saw a company presenting exactly this kind of thesis back in 2007. 

If you check into a hotel in Japan, a lot of the time there will be a Pepper robot that will kind of greet you and show you some information about the hotel. 

In old folks homes, right obviously Japan, Korea, a lot of these markets have rapidly ageing populations, which is not a problem that’s unique to them. Increasingly in care homes, these robots are being used to interact with people on a day-to-day basis. 

This problem of ageing populations is one of the biggest that’s still relatively unsolved from a tech and startup perspective. So I think there’s going to be massive opportunities in that part of the world over the next couple years. 

When you are thinking about ideas, inspiration or anything else, do not be tempted to just go west. Instead, in the words of Gandalf the white or grey as he was at the time, “look to the east”. 

Thank you very much.

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