December 29, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Snow CEO turns to youth to liven up chat apps

Kim Chang-wook wants to make it easier for 'shy Asians' to communicate

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL The chief executive of Snow, Asia's latest social media phenomenon, is a self-effacing South Korean with an audacious ambition.

As head of the Seoul-based company that developed the eponymous photo-sharing and chat app, Kim Chang-wook does not enjoy talking to the public. At the company's occasional news conferences, Kim's answers are terse. He does not linger afterward.

Yet he dreams of reshaping the way Asians communicate -- moving them from the word-centered tradition of emails, chat apps and texting to a livelier image-based model. "Our goal is to make communications much more vivid and amusing, though text-focused communications are still dominant," Kim told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Snow app has been downloaded more than 80 million times since its launch in September 2015. It is particularly popular with girls and young women, who love its cute and trendy functions. Analysts say it will not be long before the app tops 100 million users.

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

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, a Japanese messaging phenomenon that listed in New York and Tokyo in July.

According to Naver, Kim studied business administration at Yonsei University in Seoul. Before joining Naver, he created a tour information website called Wingbus in 2005, which Naver bought in 2009. He was head of strategy at Ticket Monster, South Korea's leading mobile commerce company. Later he oversaw Naver's content strategy. Most recently, he led the strategy team at Band, a mobile social media platform run by Naver.

Kim helped Naver to launch Snow, which is similar in concept to Snapchat, a popular photo and video sharing app owned by Snap of the U.S. But he is clearly aware 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 was separated from Naver to speed up decision-making.

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

Kim told the NAR that Snow is creating a new culture in the region, helping "shy Asians" to enjoy selfies in innovative ways. "Asians' shyness limits their ability to take selfies freely. But since Snow was released more Asians are enjoying taking selfies, making video clips with friends and sharing them with others. It has become a new culture of play," he said.

PAY ATTENTION Sung Jong-hwa, an analyst at eBest Investment & Securities, said Snow's corporate value is about 2.6 trillion won ($2.16 billion). He predicts 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 total users by the end of this year. We need to remember that Line [picked up] strong stock price momentum when its total users reached 100 million."

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

South Korean media reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested the acquisition through Kim. They attended the same high school in the U.S., according to MK News. "Many companies showed interest 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 Group to launch a $43 million global investment fund that will put money into startups and technologies that have synergies with Snow.

The key to success, though, could be his understanding of the low boredom thresholds of teenagers. It is critical, he said, to keep new content ideas flowing 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 quickly as possible."

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