Amazon.com for North Korea

China has Alibaba and Taobao, much of the rest of the world has Amazon.com — but not the DPRK, where a team of North Koreans pitched for an e-commerce platform on the domestic intranet that would connect customers with businesses through web and mobile apps. The pitch was part of our latest Pyongyang Startup Bootcamp, a series of talks and mentoring sessions with CE volunteers who spent a week in the DPRK to help more than 80 Koreans develop business ideas for the local market.

"We want to solve a problem for consumers and sellers, save them time and bring convenience", the Koreans explained in their elevator pitch. While the team insisted there was "no competition at all" for such a platform, the DPRK already has several websites with similar value propositions, among them ManmulsangSae Byol (not to be confused with Sae Byeol, a new chat app for trading companies), and Naenara, bearing the same name as the web browser included in North Korea's own Linux-based Operating System, Red Star OS.   

Other ideas developed by teams were a new type of toothpaste that promises better performance than existing options, a children's snack that is supposed to strengthen the country's kids, a soy bean drink, and a natural kimchi-preservative that helps keep this national delicacy fresh even longer. "Other preservatives use chemicals, but our product would only use natural extracts", the team explained. As a winner of the pitching competition, however, CE volunteers chose a business idea which did not rely on bold scientific claims: Stuffed animals, with designs and characters tailored for the domestic market. "Every child likes plush toys", the Korean team stressed. "We already make food products that are popular among parents in our country. If we make stuffed animals, the parents will buy those, too!"

"I learned more than I expected from this trip. Not only by seeing and feeling the country myself, but also from other workshop leaders."

While many challenges remain for the frontier entrepreneurs in North Korea to get a startup off the ground, participants said they found it useful to learn how to flesh out ideas using a Business Model Canvas. CE volunteers also talked about effective project management, creating a Minimum Viable Product to keep a startup lean, growing a business using the AARRR framework, identifying crucial customer segments, and other topics. 

"I learned more than I expected from this trip", said one CE volunteer. "Not only by seeing and feeling the country myself, but also from other workshop leaders." If you've been considering to join a trip, now is a good time! Our next program is in June, and we continue to accept applications until April 14. Get in touch!