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Snow's shy CEO reshapes the way young Asians communicate

Kim Chang-wook's relentless innovation drives exploding popularity of image-sharing app

SEOUL -- The chief executive of Snow, Asia's latest social media phenomenon, is a shy South Korean with audacious ambition. As head of the popular Seoul-based photo sharing and chatting application, Kim Chang-wook does not enjoy talking to the public. He answers questions briefly in occasional press conferences and is gone as soon as they are done. Reporters complain that he does not mingle or chat with them.

Yet he dreams of reshaping the way Asians communicate -- from the text-centered tradition of emails, chat apps and SMS messaging to a livelier and more interesting image-based model. His dream is already coming true among young Asian females, many of whom have taken to using Snow as their principal method of digital communication.

"Through Snow, we will change Asians' communication culture soon. Our goal is to make communications much more vivid and amusing, though text-focused communications are still dominant," Kim told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Snow is rapidly becoming popular with Asian girls and young women.

His confidence flows from the unexpected success of the Snow app, which has drawn more than 80 million downloads since its launch in September 2015. In particular, its popularity is exploding among girls and young women in their teens and 20s, who love its cute and trendy functions.

Across the region these users are uploading photos and video clips of their daily lives -- eating in restaurants, standing beside Christmas Snowmen, travelling outside their home countries. Analysts say it will not be long before the app tops 100 million users.

However, few people know much about the 40-year-old businessman behind Snow, which is wholly owned by Naver, a South Korean internet content and services provider that also launched LINE, the Japanese messaging company that listed in New York and Tokyo in July.

Kim studied business administration at Yonsei University in Seoul. Before joining Naver, he launched tourist information service website Wingbus in 2005, which Naver acquired in 2009. He also headed strategy at Ticket Monster, South Korea's leading social commerce service company. At Naver, he was in charge of the company's contents service strategy and most recently, led BAND, Naver's social network service.

Kim Chang-wook hopes a more visual model will keep his mostly young users entertained.

Kim helped Naver to launch Snow, a similar concept to Snapchat, a popular photo and video-sharing app owned by Snap Inc. of the U.S. He has overseen its design and content, and has shown clear awareness of the need to stay ahead of ever-changing trends among teenagers, whose attention can switch quickly from one digital communications service to another. In August, Snow's management structure was separated from Naver to streamline the business and speed up decision making.

Kim told NAR that Snow is creating a new culture in the region, helping "shy Asians" to enjoy taking selfies in "innovative" ways. "Asians' shyness sets limitations for them to take selfies freely. But, since Snow's release, more Asians [have] enjoyed taking selfies, making video clips with friends and sharing them with others. It has become a new culture of play," he said.

Machine learning

Snow will launch its own live broadcasting service in 2017 to help users have more fun in visual communications, with camera functions improved through machine-learning technology, Kim said. Machine learning is a field of computer science that enables computers to "learn" without being explicitly programmed.

Kim said Snow is also preparing for business partnerships with a wide range of companies to help them meet potential customers through the platform, signaling that it is moving to find new ways of profiting from the technology. However, he declined to identify potential partners.

Kim Chang-wook shares a selfie using the Snow app.

Sung Jong-hwa, an analyst at eBest Investment & Securities, says Snow's corporate value is about 2.6 trillion won ($2.16 billion), and forecasts that the company will become more valuable as it starts to attract advertisements and content fees, following in the footsteps of Snapchat.

"It's time to pay attention to Snow," said Sung. "Snow is expected to top 100 million accumulated users by the end of this year. We need to remember that LINE [picked up] strong stock price momentum when its accumulated users reached 100 million."

Kim said that Snow aims to conquer the global market after consolidating its leading status in Asia. That is one reason why Naver, in consultation with Kim, has turned down offers from bigger global players in digital communications, including Facebook, which unsuccessfully attempted to acquire Snow in mid-2016.

"Many companies showed their interests in Snow. But I have a dream to offer our services directly to global customers and make it successful," said Kim.

In pursuit of that dream, Naver has teamed up with Japan's SoftBank to launch a $43 million global investment fund to invest in startups and technologies that have synergies with Snow. Kim says he aims to add a wide range of new content to Snow through the fund.

The key to success, though, could be his understanding of the low boredom thresholds of teenagers. It is critical, he says, to keep new content ideas flowing -- and to implement them quickly -- to survive and grow in this fickle market. "I am watching carefully what our young friends like these days. I seek to offer such services as soon as possible."

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