What do Youth Zone and Space Noa in Seoul have in common with Place Ilowa in Jeju?
All three of these places are coworking spaces. Coworking spaces have been gaining popularity in Korea over the last couple of years, they are places where young people with big dreams can work to grow their ideas and collaborate with other users of the space.
What makes Jeju’s Place Ilowa unique is that it isn’t government owned but is, in fact, run entirely by a group of five young entrepreneurs who have put everything on the line to follow their dream.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there were no co-working spaces on Jeju before Place Ilowa. Jeju J Space in Jeju City’s Innovation Hub has been open for a while now and Cheongnyeon Darak (청년다락) was recently opened by the Jeju government. However, Place Ilowa is the first privately owned work space on Jeju.
Opening Place Ilowa wasn’t easy. A lot of work went into getting the space ready and the building has the smell of sweat, not the smells of a newly constructed building. In fact, without the hard work and passion of about 40 volunteers, this space could not have been made.
About the waves of support they received, Lee Geum-jae, co-owner of Place Ilowa said “I almost cried. We did not have anything to give but the volunteers strived to help us with their whole body. That encouraged other people to visit here. I believe this represents the spirit of sharing that we are striving to create. It seems many points gathered together to make one line. That is something that we now have to pay back.”
Lee has a history of entrepreneurship. Before he co-founded Place Ilowa in June 2016, he had experienced several failures as an entrepreneur since 2011. His first venture was a prize winning start-up and while he was able to get support when setting up, he could not achieve the long term results he was after.
He explained that while he was able to get small business start-up support, important factors for keeping the business sustainable such as financial and management expertise were harder to come by. This meant it was difficult to guarantee the durability of his business.
However, despite experiencing these failures, he was not put off and for his latest project he tried to remember what it was that made him start a business in the first place.
The decision he came to was simple, “I decided to do something I really wanted to do! Before Place Ilowa I had tried to do things that were profitable but that were not necessarily things I really wanted to do. This meant that when things didn’t go well, not only was I not creating a profit but I was also not having fun.”
Lee’s original start-up company was located in the Jeju National University Business Incubator Center. However, he was coming to the end of his occupancy which meant it was time for him to search for a new place.
While he knew he needed an office, what he really wanted was to make a shared space where he could share his dreams and worries with like-minded people. He wanted an incubator to help young entrepreneurs like him to nurture their ideas. A place that would become like a reception room for Jeju’s young social innovators.
These ideas led to the thought, what if his office also became a place where other young entrepreneurs could freely visit. After all, he certainly knew the sense of desperation felt by young entrepreneurs when looking for a place to work, so he knew he would be able to help others by opening a space where people could use essential equipment such as fax machines and printers freely. While doing this they would also be able to discuss their future projects.
However, there was a problem. Property prices in Jeju were constantly increasing and this was a big obstacle for a startup company of five young people in their twenties and thirties who were trying to find an office without much capital.
These high prices meant that they could not afford rental on the type of place they originally wanted. Looking for other options, they decided to focus on the old part of Jeju City where rent is much cheaper.
After doing the legwork, they realized that there were unoccupied and abandoned spaces throughout this area of town. Eventually, their search led them to their current location, an old comic book cafe on the second floor of their present building.
Having now found a place, the second challenge was to turn the existing space into something that was actually useable. The huge expenses that would have been required for remodeling were an incredible burden for a team of young entrepreneurs.
At that moment, instead of being forced to give up, he was able to find a group of volunteers who emphasized with his future direction and philosophy. Young people came to help him, mainly at night due to their studies or jobs and helped with the construction of the building.
In fact, it was their commitment that gave birth to the place that is now Ilowa. After making a post on social media to let people know that they were considering remodeling, a team of young volunteers gathered to make furniture, paint, and repair the electrics.
People without construction skills gathered to help prepare late-night snacks or beverages. In fact, it wasn’t even only young people who helped out. One person’s father, who is a carpenter, heard the news from his son and became one of the most valued contributors by helping to build the walls of the new space.
The news of their project quickly spread through social media and more and more people started to participate. The process of building the new space almost became like a mini festival.
Finally, on June 25, 2016, Place Ilowa was finally unveiled. It was a small but touching moment as the young people came together in a part of Jeju that had previously been disregarded by the young.
The offices themselves only occupy about 24 square meters out of the whole 165 square meter space. The rest is used for sharing and is where entrepreneurs and startups who do not have offices gather to plan their future.
One such startup is social enterprise Sumida. Sumida was started by 30-year-old Kim Tae-hyeong who manufactures furniture like desks or bookshelves in Place Ilowa.
“I originally started because it looks fun. However, as I progressed I began to believe that this is the right thing to do as a young person of this society. I put all my passion into the project.”
“Now we have a place to work, things have settled into shape to some extent. The people at Place Ilowa work hard to help us and other young people and we can work without being disturbed.”
As they grew, the space was promoted as a sharing space for youths and people from other regions even started to visit. The attention Place Ilowa is getting and the potential energy it brings can create real changes to Jeju society.
Of course, the team aren’t content with what they have achieved so far and they are constantly making plans.
They held the “Baram Concert” in order to help young people who want to be musicians in Jeju. As well as this, they are leading the “Jeju Young Start-up Cooperative” in order to help young people who have started businesses to come together and encourage each other.
Recently, they also held the “Yamonttakteoljang” with the Jeju Tourism Organization and received positive responses. Finally, they expanded their business to the service area and they help to manage professional personnel for events in Jeju. It is no coincidence that they became a good model to young people in local community.
Co-owner Lee Geum-jae thinks of Place Ilowa as a large plate. In the future, he hopes young people of this society will make a great table fit for this plate. After that, someone will make a kitchen for the table and then a house for the kitchen. Eventually, society will become a better place for everyone to live in.