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Startups

Capstone Partners: Korea's 'guardian angel' for early-stage startups

Execution, collaboration and risk management are key traits for entrepreneurs

By Sep 28, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Capstone Partners CEO Song Eun-kang
Capstone Partners CEO Song Eun-kang


In 2018, a South Korean food startup GoPizza Co. was on the brink of shutting down. Lim Jae-won, GoPizza's founder, had launched the business with a single food truck but was unable to attract any investors to his foodservice business. Defeated, Lim was prepared to close down the business when venture capital firm Capstone Partners reached out to him.

The following year, GoPizza went on to raise 4 billion won ($3.4 million) in a Series A funding round followed by an 11 billion won Series B round in May 2020. Now, GoPizza is a flourishing brand with over 110 branches at home and abroad.

Behind Go Pizza’s remarkable comeback is Song Eun-kang, the chief executive of Capstone Partners, who has earned a "guardian angel" reputation in the startup industry.

Song considers Capstone Partners a "micro VC," which specializes in investing in early-stage companies.

“We want to play the role of a ‘guide’ so that talented and passionate entrepreneurs don’t go astray,” said Song, in an interview with The Korea Economic Daily on Sept. 28.

Capstone Partners’ assets under management hover in the 200 billion won ($168.5 million) range. While it may not seem like a large figure, it's more than enough for startups hungry for funding.

So far, Capstone Partners has been an early investor of companies that logged steep growth such as Kurly Inc., the operator of the country's online grocery delivery service Market Kurly, as well as real estate app Zigbang.

The company’s key portfolio company is Danggeun Market Inc., Korea's leading online flea market operator. Capstone Partners first invested in Danggeun when its valuation was below 10 billion won. Since then, Capstone Partners has invested a total of 15.3 billion won into the company on four occasions.

Now, Danggeun Market’s valuation stands at around 3 trillion won, increasing Capstone Partners’ returns by about twentyfold.

“We invest in ‘new-collar’ entrepreneurs,” said Song, explaining that a new-collar entrepreneur is someone who knows how to utilize cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, pursues change and is eager to collaborate.

In particular, CEO Song shared his inclination for team players who welcome cooperation.

"When you focus on people, you are bound to notice things that aren't on paper," said Song.

Noutecompany team
Noutecompany team

One of the portfolio companies that Song is fond of is Noutecompany Corp., an operator of the digital stationery marketplace, Webudding. The platform sells digital stationery products such as notebooks, calendars and stickers, which have become a huge hit among millennials and Gen Zers.

Dver Corp. is another startup to catch the attention of Song. The digital logistics startup initially began as an in-house venture company under telecom operator LG Uplus Corp. 

According to Song, both startups have a solid understanding of the consumer-oriented industry landscape.

CEO Song also expressed his confidence in AI startups, pointing out that there's endless scalability when AI technology is adopted.

"Companies that make use of AI technologies to better their businesses will be able to survive -- regardless of the sector," said Song.

Further, Song shared some advice for startup entrepreneurs, identifying the ability to execute as key. In addition, he stressed the importance of collaboration and risk management -- always bearing in mind that a business could flop.

Going forward, Capstone Partners will continue investing in domestic startups rather than companies abroad as Song is confident that there are many hidden treasures at home to discover. The company is also looking to carry out an initial public offering next year.

Write to Jong-woo Kim at jongwoo@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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