Business Insight

Here's how a South Korean startup made $38 million from entrepreneurial education business

Jinny Kim
January 22, 2024

Entrepreneurship, education, and business. At first glance, these words don't seem to go together. Here's the reason. 

Let's put 'starting a business' and 'education' together. University lectures come to mind first. Government-supported projects also cross the mind. When you put 'education' and 'business' together, the keyword 'entrepreneurship' alone seems a bit distant.

Although entrepreneurship education has become more common than in the past, the idea of doing business with entrepreneurship education still raises question marks. It can be summarized into three main questions.

① Can entrepreneurship be taught through education?

② Can we make money from entrepreneurship education?

③ Can entrepreneurship education grow into a business?

underdogs, a company specializing in entrepreneurship education, answers yes to these questions. underdogs claims that entrepreneurial education can create entrepreneurs and generate a revenue structure. They're even expanding into the corporate training market. This company is about to go public. It can be said that they have verified points ① and ② and are challenging point③.

What is the basis of their claim? In fact, underdogs has produced more than 13,000 entrepreneurs in nine years. Their cumulative revenue is about 50 billion won(38 million dollars). This is certainly a rare number in the field of entrepreneurship education.

(Revenue growth has been strong since 2021. Source: underdogs)

Of course, the question remains. Why would this company specializing in entrepreneurship education move into corporate training? 

Training for employees and training for entrepreneurs are two very different things. The clue lies in how underdogs has managed to 1) continue to develop entrepreneurs, 2) generate revenue, and 3) scale its business.

Let's recall that entrepreneurship, education, and business don't go together, meaning that entrepreneurship education was an untapped market. That's where the underdogs has been building and surviving for over a decade. Gradually, the growth curve went upward. A market where tens of billions of won can be earned was formed. During this growth process, a player sees things that others don't. They have a golden opportunity to prepare for the future half a step ahead.

underdogs believes that being an entrepreneur is not limited to 'starting a business'. Even if you look far ahead, there are more and more companies that are looking for entrepreneurial skills. In the first place, the need for "entrepreneurial talents" is the reason why the entrepreneurship education business has grown. In this article, we will explore the journey of the underdogs as they scale up their entrepreneurship education business, and discuss their future growth potential and challenges.

[Article abstract].

1. Does 'entrepreneurial skills' really matter?
2. Opportunities for business expansion in entrepreneurship education
3. Entrepreneurial talent, will it lead to corporate education?

1. Does 'entrepreneurial skills' really matter?

"Entrepreneurial competencies are increasingly in demand." We need to interpret this sentence to determine the business of underdogs. First and foremost, we need to define 'entrepreneurial competencies'. Luckily, there is a concept we can use as a reference : Entrepreneurship. If you follow the discourse surrounding entrepreneurship today, you can get a sense of what entrepreneurial competencies look like.

Originally, there was no such thing as entrepreneurship; the word entrepreneur appeared in Europe in the early 17th century. At the time, an entrepreneur was someone who was in " running a business for a living". The word entrepreneur itself comes from the French word "entreprendre," which means to undertake, start, or take on. Back then, entrepreneurs were "people who set up their own business and earned an income without a fixed wage.

"The best English translation of entrepreneur is adventurer."

said Jean-Baptiste Say, an 18th-century French political economist. The idea is that an adventurer is similar to an entrepreneur in that he or she gathers colleagues and resources to embark on an adventure, and leads a team to seek out new opportunities. In that sense, the early entrepreneur was read as "someone who raises capital, assumes responsibility, takes risks, and pursues opportunities for profit.

<3 tasks of a traditional entrepreneur>

1. Commercialization: Recognizing, selecting, and attempting business opportunities
2.Securing resources: Providing goods (services) by securing the resources needed to supply goods (services) that people (consumers) want.
3.Business management: Establishing, operating, and building a business to grow the company 

Since the 20th century, however, the definition of an entrepreneur has changed. Research has emphasized entrepreneurial " mindset" or competencies. For example, entrepreneurship is not limited to starting a new business. The narrative of "entrepreneurial" has also developed to include new production methods, developing new sources of supply, exploring new markets, redesigning and reorganizing processes, and growing existing businesses in new ways.

In other words, the concept of entrepreneurship has expanded beyond livelihood or motivation to involve trying new ideas and new ways of achieving business goals. As a result of this shift, two competencies ultimately emerged as entrepreneurial capabilities : Learning and value creation. The researchers argued that interacting with the external environment to understand its dynamics and create new value represents the essence of an entrepreneur.

(Moving from self-employed to business owner to entrepreneur can take you from survival to value creation. Source: Small Business Research)

The evolution of entrepreneurs has led to the concept of "entrepreneurial talent". This is because entrepreneurship has expanded to include not only entrepreneurs but also people in organizations with entrepreneurial capabilities. As a consequence, self-actualization, impact, and new projects have been redefined as the domain of entrepreneurs. As the notion of an entrepreneur has broadened to entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial talent has newly been identified.

More and more companies are looking for entrepreneurial competencies. So what about the future? 

underdogs noted that societal uncertainty is on the rise. For example, "permacrisis" was the 2022 Collins Dictionary word of the year. It's a combination of the words 'permanent' and 'crisis'. This academic term refers to a "prolonged period of instability.

This increase in uncertainty is not limited to macro conditions such as the climate crisis, international affairs (war in Ukraine), and economic risks due to high inflation. It is also an irreversible change for individuals and businesses. According to Professor Linda Creighton of the London Business School, three changes are fundamentally altering our lives: aging, technological advances, and social trends. These changes are so fundamental that disruption is inevitable.

① Aging: Life expectancy has increased by 2-3 years per decade, extending late middle age and early old age. How to live the second act of life after retirement, the formula is bound to change in nature.

② Technological advancement: From manufacturing to domestic labor, the entire industry is affected. As individual productivity increases, women have entered the workforce and started their own businesses, leading to different life patterns than past generations.

③ Social trends: As society moves toward a culture that is less bound by age, gender roles, and occupational stereotypes, individual needs have become much more complex. This is called the "irregularity of need presentation."

Career strategist Paul Millard describes individuals today as being on a "road not taken". They can't follow the legacies that have been taken for granted. People are at a crossroads where they have to make their own path. The same is true for businesses. From Millard's perspective, those who can cut through the chaos and realize business opportunities in an uncertain environment will be increasingly valuable.

This brings us to a comparison of how underdogs defines entrepreneurial talents. underdogs Hustle, a training program focused on startup leaders, defines entrepreneurial traits in three ways.

① Talent that can think beyond the efficient mindset to "effective thinking

② Talents who can build a business from zero to one.

③ People who can validate market demand with little time and money resources.

All three requirements reflect the modern definition of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are not just employees, but people who think about the "effectiveness" of a business, people who build the framework of a business in the midst of uncertainty, and people who discover unknown markets and make value propositions. Entrepreneurial talents follow the virtues of 'value-added creation' and 'opportunity pursuit' that go beyond survival. It seems that one of the representative talents suitable for the uncertain market environment has been selected as the core keyword of the business.

(Source: underdogs)

Unfortunately, we are being asked to become entrepreneurs without knowing what an entrepreneur is and how to become one. The OECD report points out that entrepreneurship education is "the most powerful response to the need for individuals and organizations to develop entrepreneurial capacity as societies become more complex and uncertain." However, the report also pointed out that "current education policies and systems are narrowly focused on teaching examination subjects."

What if entrepreneurship education is the "most powerful response when societies become more complex and uncertain?" With the demand for entrepreneurial skills, this is an opportunity for entrepreneurship education to become scalable. The demand for entrepreneurial talent is growing, but there are only a handful of providers who can systematically teach it right now. That's why it's interesting to watch underdogs scales.

Now it's time to turn the question around. If entrepreneurship education can be a viable alternative, how can the business be sustainable and scalable? It's about how to scale without losing any of the keywords: startup, education, business. underdogs discovered their own way, and that's where growth comes in.

2. Opportunities for business expansion in entrepreneurship education

How can we educate entrepreneurial talent?

When we think of "education," we often imagine a classroom. It has little in common with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. This is one of the reasons why education for entrepreneurship is difficult to turn into business. Until about 10 years ago, entrepreneurship education took the form of a sit-down class. It was far from business.

underdogs also recognized this as a problem. The core of entrepreneurship education is 'practice'. It is most effective when "learning by doing". Researchers have shown that hands-on learning is the key to becoming an entrepreneur. This means that the desk-bound knowledge is not enough to handle the juggling act of starting a business. You have to see it, try it, and learn from experience.

However, entrepreneurship education is far from hands-on (even though its effectiveness is obvious).

There are two reasons for this. 1) education is stuck in a one-directional approach, or 2) education is a side track to the core business, i.e. it's either "business as usual" or education itself needs to be revolutionized. Ironically, building an entrepreneurial mindset is the most stalled.

(An example of an entrepreneurial education model from the OECD report. You can see that it consists of various activities and stages. Source: OECD)

Let's go back to 2015.

If you wanted to learn about entrepreneurship, you had to find a school class or some sort of online or offline training. These courses were taught by experts in the field, including founders, professional trainers, professors, and investors, to budding entrepreneurs. The content varied. It could be personal stories, case studies, or specialized training in investor relations, finance, or human resources.

This type of entrepreneurship training has a blind spot.

It's usually a lecture based on listening. The content is also dependent on the trainer. The material was either too general or too specific for the individual trainees. E-commerce, manufacturing, and software startups are not the same. Everyone's situation is different, and you have to hope that you're lucky enough to find something that works for you. Personalized hands-on learning was missing.

This doesn't mean there weren't quality hands-on programs for entrepreneurs.

Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator's (YC) YC Startup School and semi-annual batch program are two examples. Startup School is an online course that is free and open to aspiring entrepreneurs. Later-stage startups apply to the batch program, where they receive individual coaching and practical training. This is a great way to learn about starting a business in Silicon Valley from people who have done it before.

Education is a powerful promotional and attraction tool. If you're a venture capitalist or accelerator looking to invest seed money, you can find prospective and early-stage entrepreneurs through educational programs. They can be the first to evaluate and weed out the "'would-be" entrepreneurs. So, investment firms and education are a synergistic combination. Education helps with PR, branding, and deal sourcing.

In this context, entrepreneurial education serves the so-called 'portfolio strategy'. It prioritizes nipping the buds in the bud, while coaching students on real-world experience and unlocking their potential. Betting on the 1% that will explode is the profit model of venture capital. You can't develop into an entrepreneurial "education," commercialize it, or put talent development as a top priority.

This was a stark reality.

Practical training is important to improve the quality of training services, but there were few precedents for introducing practical training. When they did, it was more about gaining investment portfolios and making money than it was about education itself. In order to monetize education, a compromise had to be made. To be profitable, you either had to charge a high price for a small number of potential customers or find a way to get away from the "startup" keyword quickly.

(A photo from ‘underdogs School’ 10 years ago. Courtesy of underdogs)

But underdogs had a different game plan.

First, they set out to "solve the problem" of entrepreneurship education. After defining the problem ("Entrepreneurship should be taught by someone who has started a business"), they focused on differentiating their product. They figured out a revenue model that aligned with the changing market.

Fortunately, they were able to put a structure in place to monetize their product - entrepreneurship training - while investing upfront in elements that would allow them to scale their business. underdogs created their own training content for coaching and built a system to train coaches.

Interestingly, this can be compared to a B2B SaaS company's growth strategy.

1) Solving customer problems is the starting point. 2) Unlock customers' pockets by differentiating itself from existing players. 3) Prioritize a profitable product and marketing from the start. 4) The original educational IP (intellectual property) resembles the scalability of software that can be used over and over again. This means that the IP can be transformed into multiple training programs. The experience of differentiating, building a revenue model, and investing in scalability came in handy when scaling the business later on. (More on this later in the article).

1) Differentiate: How 'hands-on' is being introduced to entrepreneurship education

Entrepreneurs create value by solving problems. There are two main types of problems. One is the case where they are the party of the problem. They add value by solving their own problems. The other is when they spot a problem from the outside. A business is launched by identifying and solving a problem. underdogs was the former, solving problems as an entrepreneur.

"I wish I had done this from the beginning."

Before joining underdogs, CEO Cho founded a social venture called Water Farm, a water conservation solution. He built an IoT shower and developed a service that compares water usage with neighbors. There was a period of two to three years where he didn't try anything. But when he finished his last service, he shut down the company. 

Cho had some regrets.

He wished he had known then what he now understands as an entrepreneur. That's why he decided to join underdogs. Founded in 2015, underdogs started out as an entrepreneurship academy founded by Kim Jung-heon, who now heads the holding company New Black. "Since I didn't start my first business, I thought I had a lot to share with the early founders," says Cho.

(New Black's Kim Jung-heon (left) and underdogs' Cho Sang-rae (right). Source : Business Post)

"We realized we cannot hire people based on resumes alone."

Initially, the underdogs Entrepreneurship Academy was started to gather talents.

The idea was born out of a free entrepreneurship program that Kim was running. The purpose was clear. He wanted to overcome the limits of a resume and find or train talented people who could handle the unique and difficult challenges of starting a business. It's reasonable to assume that he started with entrepreneurial education to find the entrepreneurial talent he needed.

In an early stage startup, the capabilities of each team member are crucial. That's why it's not possible to build a team based on resumes only. So how can we hire entrepreneurial talent? Kim held a six-week, 300-hour entrepreneurship training program with accommodation. He tried to make the program as intense as the real thing.

underdogs started out as entrepreneurs trying to solve their own problems. This type of entrepreneur is highly motivated to solve the problem they are facing. This is why the initial entrepreneurial training was so intense. They know because they've been there.

"Entrepreneurship can't be taught in moderation." 

The underdogs Entrepreneurship Academy's motto was 1) team-building, 2) teaching what you wish you had known when you were starting out, and 3) teaching like it's a real life experience, so coaching makes up 70-80% of the entire curriculum.

In doing so, they hypothesized that they could 1) solve the problem of team building in startups by finding and teaching entrepreneurial talent, 2) reduce the cost of trial and error for entrepreneurs in the early stages, and 3) increase the effectiveness of entrepreneurial education by changing the format.

Some of these hypotheses were correct. underdogs found its first 10 members through the Startup Academy. It proved that team building is possible by identifying and training entrepreneurial talent. It's also worth mentioning that the entrepreneurial training program itself was successful. After the program, 2,000 people started their own businesses, the business maintenance rate was 63%, the investment rate was 34%, and the job creation rate was 50%. That's a lot of quantitatively positive metrics.

(KT&G Imagination Startup Camp is a multi-year, full-time entrepreneurship training program. Source: underdogs)

Of course, back in 2015, it wasn't common for entrepreneurial education programs to be hands-on, but underdogs made it a default. In particular, they focused on having coaches who were entrepreneurs themselves. The idea was to create a one-on-one coaching system. Differentiation is how startups survive, so it's easier to be in demand when you first hit the market.

In fact, about 90% of underdogs' 250 domestic coaches have started a business. From the beginning, the focus was on building a one-on-one coaching program with people who learned how to start a business by starting one. The trainees benefit from being mentored by coaches with similar startup experience. For the trainees, they benefit from receiving timely feedback that they can apply immediately.

When an entrepreneur faces a challenge, they usually look to a senior entrepreneur.

This is because there are very few people who can answer how to overcome the challenges they are encountering. Until now, entrepreneurs were on their own to find other entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps in traditional entrepreneurial education. One-on-one personalized coaching can be regarded as a system to reduce this cost.

Entrepreneurs who graduate from underdogs are potential partners who can provide training. No matter what kind of business a participant is working on, underdogs has a senior entrepreneur in their network who can give them advice. It's a system where education doesn't end with education, but leaves behind an asset : Network.

"The coaches are pacemakers who work as a team with the entrepreneurs in the course to figure out how to execute the business idea, how to meet customers, and how to improve the idea"

said Cho Sangrae, CEO of underdogs. A pacemaker is an athletician in sports, such as middle-distance running or swimming, who pushes the pace of the race to help athletes achieve their best times. In entrepreneurship education, it means an educator is a business partner who can be a one-on-one practical coach and provide hands-on support.

So the network wasn't just about education. underdogs can do business with each other and become each other's customers. As a group of entrepreneurs, the accelerator can also look for investment opportunities. This network of entrepreneurs has been a great source of support for the education business and other business opportunities. By sticking to their differentiation of "one-on-one coaching," they were able to lay the foundation for long-term expansion.

2) Revenue Structure: From Social Contribution to Partner Boosting

No matter how meaningful the training, no matter how many entrepreneurs it produces, a business cannot be sustainable if it is not profitable.

Interestingly, underdogs linked entrepreneurship education to corporate social responsibility activities. By creating a link between ESG management and entrepreneurship education, they were able to secure business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-Government (B2G) deals. It realized a revenue structure to support entrepreneurship education. In the process, a model of providing free education to trainees was established.

ESG is a hot topic in business these days.

It is a term that encompasses the non-financial factors of a company's environment, society, and governance, and is an acronym for indicators that evaluate the value of a company. ESG management means pursuing eco-friendly, socially responsible, and transparent management in the long term by considering these indicators. It can be understood as the latest version of "social responsibility.

Like the concept of entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility has changed with the times. In 1953, Richard Boen proposed "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR), a proposal that companies should actively share their resources with society. For example, it's not uncommon to see press photos of company employees volunteering to deliver briquettes at the end of the year. The correlation between corporate activities and social responsibility was tenuous.

Since the 2000s, a new claim has been emerging.

It was argued that there was a business opportunity in solving social problems, and that it was therefore possible to pursue both business and social objectives. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter championed the idea of "shared value creation" (CSV). A prime example of this is the "silver courier" program, which has created senior jobs for people who help deliver packages on a community basis.

(Silver courier business created over 1400 senior jobs. Source : CJ Logistics)

In 2023, the Sustainability Standards Board (SSB) aimed to publish an international standard for ESG disclosure. In Korea, the draft ESG Basic Law has been released and the debate is heating up.

As a result, companies need to plan their social contribution activities from a long-term perspective, not a one-off. The question of how to conduct a business that makes business sense and is socially acceptable has deepened.

underdogs combines these social contribution issues with entrepreneurship education.

The idea is to foster entrepreneurs who build sustainable businesses while solving social problems. Social contribution has evolved into fostering social ventures that solve environmental problems or supporting entrepreneurial teams that revitalize local economies. Along the way, they began to build relationships with large corporations that entrusted them with clients.

Entrepreneurship training was an attractive proposition for companies considering ESG management.

For example, training local entrepreneurs is a strand of social impact. Historically, entrepreneurs have been seen as a major engine of economic growth and job creation. Fostering entrepreneurs on a local basis is in line with the social mission of supporting small businesses while addressing the social problem of community loss.

For another instance, underdogs, together with SK E&S, ran ‘Localize Gunsan’, a project to train young entrepreneurs in Gunsan for three years. Gunsan is neighboring Iksan, where SK E&S has a subsidiary, and is a special industrial crisis zone and an employment crisis zone. In 2019, the project aimed to " promote tourism and generate jobs and local income by utilizing local resources," and provided entrepreneurship training, office and housing support.

(Localize Gunsan, a regional regeneration startup education project. Source: underdogs)

In three years, the project selected and nurtured 26 startup teams. 'Localization Week', a festival that brings together startup teams and local small businesses, has become an annual event. Overall startup team sales increased to KRW 1.2 billion in 2019, KRW 2.9 billion in 2020, and KRW 5.65 billion in 2021. At the time, entrepreneurship education and ESG were a fresh combination. Localize Gunsan set a precedent that a large-scale entrepreneurship education project can produce quantifiable results on ESG.

In addition, the entrepreneurship training, which was linked to social contribution, was provided free of charge to the trainees. underdogs lowered the barrier to entry for entrepreneurial talent by providing free entrepreneurship education, which previously required individuals to pay a fee or be in an investment firm's portfolio. Entrepreneurship education has created value through ESG management for clients and free education for trainees.

‘Hana Social Venture University’ is the largest entrepreneurship education project between underdogs and Hana Financial Group.

It is a unique endeavor because the program provides entrepreneurship education to more than 1,500 pre- and early-stage entrepreneurs nationwide. Educators are selected from entrepreneurs in each region and trained in advance. The project is in cooperation with 30 local universities to rent training venues and recruit trainees.

① Support entrepreneurship education through the social contribution marketplace to provide free education.

② Connect stakeholders such as community-based coaches, universities, and entrepreneurial talent.

③ Ensure that social contribution activities result in job creation and local economic revitalization.

④ Position ESG projects as "entrepreneurial universities" on a national scale.

In particular, the project is distinctive in that it has partnered with universities. Local universities play an important role in fostering talent as well as local culture, knowledge, and networks. However, as the school-age population plummets and young people flock to the metropolitan areas, regional attrition is accelerating. As a way to overcome this crisis, experts suggest that local university governance should be established that leverages local characteristics.

Through Hana Social Venture University, underdogs is trying out a model of a startup university that provides 1) social contribution capital, 2) free entrepreneurship education nationwide, and 3) startup universities. The program lays the groundwork for solving the problems of local universities, regional attrition, and entrepreneurial talent development at the same time. It is a novel experiment to grow the entrepreneurship education business in the sense that it seeks to build a system rather than a one-time project.

(‘Hana Social Venture University’ Final Performance Sharing Meeting, Source : Hana Financial Group)

Ultimately, as entrepreneurship education was linked to ESG, opportunities arose to collaborate with leading companies. It was a stepping stone to build a network of partners.

For this to be a lasting partnership, it was important to provide more than just startup training. Partners need ESG performance and indicators. With that in mind, it is worth noting that the program operates a complete system for partners, including reporting results, performance management, ESG consulting, and holding events. This relationship paved the way for the second and third generations of social contribution-type entrepreneurship education.

After ESG, entrepreneurship education began to be utilized as an opportunity to spark new business engines, such as 'open innovation' entrepreneurship education. Through the open innovation program, underdogs' Partners explore new items to collaborate on, companies to invest in, etc. During the discovery process, underdogs coaches examine the business feasibility.

Through entrepreneurship education, connections are forged by laying the groundwork for collaboration. underdogs entrepreneurship education is conducted in a form that directly helps clients' businesses, such as "Entrepreneur Discovery Competition".

There is also a growing number of partners who are aiming to foster entrepreneurs themselves. This is the third generation of "partner-boosted" entrepreneurship education. For example, a platform company introduces entrepreneurship education to grow entrepreneurs within the platform.

As a start, NAVER and underdogs are organizing the SME Brand Launcher. The purpose is to promote the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Smart Store through entrepreneurship training and coaching. By increasing their sales and revenue, NAVER Smart Store will eventually grow as well. Entrepreneurship education targets the shared growth of platform companies and partner entrepreneurs. The need for this is also expected to rise.

Entrepreneurship education does not end with 'education'. However, because it is 'education,' the synergy has been achieved. These various collaborative relationships with partners have had a positive impact on underdogs' core business. underdogs has transformed entrepreneurship education into a profitable business and a business networking opportunity.

3) Scalability: Quality control is the key to a thriving business

One-on-one in-person coaching has its pitfalls. You can become dependent on your coach. There is a risk of choppy training. Because it's individualized, you may not be able to control the quality. This ties into the scalability issue. It's hard to scale a business if you can't control the quality of the education. Operational uncertainty is fundamentally fatal from a business perspective.

How did underdogs manage to expand its entrepreneurship training program across the country?

The bottom line is that original educational content was the key. Interestingly, underdogs invested in developing its own content from the beginning. Teaching coaches were also a focus. underdogs was in charge of the entrepreneurship training materials and methodology, which is why the quality was consistent.

The training content can be understood from the perspective of the IP business. underdogs' own curriculum and training content are the original. Based on this, the coaches provide training that is both individualized and embedded with the original IP. It's like movies, TV shows, dolls, and theme parks that contain IP and are unique in their own right. The education is mainly derived from the IP of the underdog, not the individual coach.

This allows companies with original IP to expand their reach while maintaining quality. They have the power to control the content. underdogs also spent nine years developing a startup methodology, skill set, and framework. With the original training IP as the centerpiece, they were able to consistently deliver hands-on training. It became the foundation for connecting entrepreneurship education with ESG and eventually corporate education.

(Source : underdogs)

The entrepreneurship methodology underlying the underdogs' program has changed twice.

Initially, the six-step methodology evolved into a seven-step and then a four-step version. As the business grew, so did the audience for the training, which was focused on pre- and early-stage startup teams. The original content also evolved to accommodate more trainees as the company matured.

In 2015, the company literally adapted its entrepreneurship methodology for "'beginners'". At the threshold of starting a business, trainees could do one of two things. Either they've identified a social problem that they really want to solve, or they're strong-willed but lost. Entrepreneurship education should give them the opportunity to practice before they dive into the real world of business, so that the knowledge and experience they gained could be used as a springboard for action.

As the number of participants rose, the core of the program became clearer.

Ultimately, they found that "establishing the entrepreneur's own perspective through the process of defining and analyzing the problem" was the most important for social innovation startups. Soon after, underdogs' startup methodology was expanded from six to seven steps. The previous step of analyzing items was broken down to focus on discovering items that could be grabbed.

The second inflection point came in 2019, when the number of corporate clients looking for underdogs increased. The scope of the training expanded from early-stage small businesses to the entire spectrum. Internal feedback indicated that the 7-step entrepreneurship methodology, which heavily emphasized the fundamentals of entrepreneurship theory, might not be the right fit for everyone. It was time for a new version that focused on execution and validation, so the company decided to condense the content into four steps.

(Source : underdogs)

Not only the methodology, but also the teaching methods have become more advanced. IF matrix, ST matrix, I.O.I problem exploration methodology. These are skill sets that underdogs independently invented for entrepreneurship education. In the context of the importance of team building in early startups, the DOGS Entrepreneurial Personality Test was also designed. It consists of a total of five personality tests and workshops.

As a result, after 9 years of coaching, the IP has been invested in to ensure that the content is customized and consistent for each individual student. The sophistication of IP has implications for underdogs' business expansion, as it helps them achieve economies of scale in startup, education, and business.

Being recognized as an expert in the field of education is quite important. underdogs' approach of investing in original educational content was a smart strategy in the long run, especially for startups, because it allowed them to be trusted by their customers. It allowed them to build a reputation that said, "There's this place called underdogs, and if you train there, you're doing something right."

As underdogs gained more enterprise customers, its training offerings tended to become 'upsell's. The length of contracts also extended to years. Upselling is an approach that targets people who have already purchased a product or service to convince them to buy an upgraded product, rather than attracting new customers. Specialization led to scalability, reputation, and higher revenue.

Entrepreneurship training is a niche and specific product. It can be tough to sell or scale consistently, but it's noteworthy that underdogs has a high repurchase rate. Entrepreneurship training with hands-on coaching has been repurposed into a variety of training in partnership with the social impact sector. Here, the original IP ensured consistency, scalability, and expertise. It has contributed to not only attracting but also retaining corporate clients. 

3. Will the idea of entrepreneurial talent be adopted by corporate education?

After focusing on entrepreneurial education to scale the company, it was time to look for a bigger pie. One of the most likely candidates for underdogs is the corporate training market.

The keyword "entrepreneurial talent" reveals underdogs' ambition. From the beginning, the underdogs team stated their intention, "We organized the startup methodology so that even if you don't necessarily become an entrepreneur, you can strengthen your job/practical capabilities based on education." In fact, the underdogs Entrepreneurship Academy was intended to be a team building program for early stage startups.

However, we cannot deny that corporate education is completely different from entrepreneurship education.

The ultimate goal of corporate training is to get a return on investment for the entity paying for the training (the company), which is expected to increase worker productivity and reduce turnover. Learning about entrepreneurship is not directly related to that. Furthermore, entrepreneurship seems to be incompatible with "lower turnover".

underdogs entering the corporate training market face three main challenges. 1) Positioning themselves as "entrepreneurial talent" in the corporate education market. 2) Securing demand in the unique Korean education market. 3) Responding to the demand for online education that has been introduced to the corporate education market after COVID-19. 

(Source: underdogs)

The main issue in the corporate training market is up-skilling/reskilling. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of uncertainty these days, especially with the automation of tasks due to advances in IT technology. As a result, there is a trend toward retraining. Upskilling, which is the development of workers into more advanced roles, and reskilling, which is the reorganization of jobs, are popular topics. The idea is to improve outcomes through training, not new hires.

In this market trend, underdogs need to leverage their competitive edge in terms of entrepreneurial talent.

The edge can be a differentiator, but it's often a struggle to convince customers to recognize it. In entrepreneurship education, there was a consensus on the need for one-on-one practical coaching. This time, the challenge is to convincingly convey their edge in the existing corporate education market.

In addition, the specificities of the Korean corporate education market must be considered. For example, there are only a few existing players in the corporate education market that are affiliated with large companies. Multicampus, a leading corporate training company, is a B2B training organization within the Samsung Group. This means that it can obtain stable demand for corporate training from affiliates of the same group (captive market). HUNET, which is not part of a conglomerate, has also been in the corporate training business since 1999. Given that the scale of corporate training in Korea is not as large as in other cultures, it will be difficult for newcomers to break through the B2B sales network.

In addition, after the pandemic, corporate training has adopted a form that combines online and offline. The market, which was originally dominated by offline collective training, has begun to notice the efficiency of online and the usefulness of personalized training and training management. Employees have also shown that they most prefer to receive company training online. The three years of Covid-19 have been a time for traditional corporate training providers to become proficient online.

(Source: underdogs Archive)

How is underdogs expanding into the corporate training market? The company is approaching the corporate training market in three main ways. 

① Diversify entrepreneurship education with on-the-job and in-house venture education

② Leveraging the partner network built through the education business

③ Activating online education services and providing hybrid online and offline education.

The trend of entrepreneurship that we introduced earlier has expanded from an individual's innate qualities to 'Corporate Entrepreneurship'. It has two meanings.

①The organization itself, not just the founder, falls under the concept of entrepreneurship.

②Organizational entrepreneurship is practiced not only by new organizations but also by existing organizations.

Let's start with ①. In the first half of 2023, underdogs held a job training lecture. underdogs Hustle, a startup-type core talent development program, was launched as a B2C program. Although it is not a startup education, it is an entrepreneurial talent education in that it teaches competencies similar to those of an entrepreneur. The goal was to train office workers in business development and strategic planning. The competition rate was 50 to 1. The reaction was quite explosive.

The company applied the same know-how to job training as it did to entrepreneurship training. For example, the business development course was divided into two parts. The first six weeks were devoted to execution-based workshops from the idea stage to customer validation. The second six weeks are devoted to actual startup business practices and case-based 'scale-up projects'. The program maintained a hands-on approach to training talent not limited to starting a business.

(Source: underdogs Hustle)

The underdogs Hustle is partly about validating the demand for entrepreneurial talent, and presumably the underdogs have heard from their entrepreneurial networks that the same HRD challenges apply to mid- to late-stage startup teams at Series B and beyond. There aren't enough lead-level talent to go beyond hands-on and make business decisions. But startups can't afford to train people themselves. If individuals are coming to job training on their own, it's a good indication that there is enough demand for training.

If job training that fosters entrepreneurial talent is sufficient for ①, then ② ("not only startups but also established organizations conduct organizational entrepreneurship") is represented by in-house venture training. An internal venture is an independent task force (TF), business team, or department within a company, and its main purpose is to cultivate a new business in a short period of time. It is a sample of corporate entrepreneurship in that organizations take action to expand into markets different from their main business or to develop new products.

The statistics are a stark reminder of the rapidly changing business environment.

In 2019, the McKinsey survey calculated the "age" of S&P's top 10 companies. The median dropped dramatically from 85 years in 2000 to 33 years in 2018. Startups have swept in, and traditional powerhouses have been pushed out of the rankings. Even large companies are not safe. Corporate entrepreneurship has become a prominent response to the crisis.

In-house entrepreneurship is the primary driver of corporate spin-offs. Employees or teams who are part of an organization, but show the innovation, initiative, risk-taking, autonomy, and competitive drive characteristic of entrepreneurs, can be the seeds of an in-house venture. This is where internal entrepreneurship education comes in. As a solution, underdogs proposes a training program to develop in-house entrepreneurs with an entrepreneurial mindset.

It has expanded its entrepreneurship training to include job training and in-house venture training. What strategies are needed for underdogs to enter the corporate education market in earnest? 1) Content and system, both must not be missed, especially online capacity. 2) Differentiation is key. If you're a latecomer, you need to sharpen your edge. 

In corporate training, online competency does not only mean 'online content'. As corporate training has gone deeper and deeper into the online world, it has also become an industry that offers training management and assessment, hence the business process outsourcing (BPO) business. This is where companies can use their online learning data to monitor learning, make personalized recommendations, and evaluate training performance. For organizations budgeting for training, there's no reason not to go with a BPO provider.

(Source: underdogs Archive)

underdogs' strength is its experience in building a training management system that connects ESG and entrepreneurship training. It has the system and know-how to provide not only training products but also the entire process of planning, operation, and evaluation for corporate clients. It is necessary to think about how to apply this to corporate education. There is also a way to actively leverage customers who have experienced its online capabilities.

On the other hand, careful approach is needed in order not to get caught up in a rush to increase 'online content'.

While online capabilities are required, it shouldn't be taken as a sign to go "all in". Be selective about what online content to create, rather than just copying competitors who already have a wide range of online training content, either in quantity or quality. underdogs have a long history of "hands-on" training, so they can take a long, hard look at how to bring that "hands-on" experience online, or across online and offline.

In the end, the same is true for corporate training: content that delivers results wins. This is especially true when less than 30% of corporate training is actually used on the job. If underdogs rushs to increase the amount of online content, they might even stagnate. This is the time of year when demand for offline training is picking up. It's better to use the edge and dig in.

What's behind underdogs' success with entrepreneurship education?


Preparing for this article has given me a new perspective on underdogs' business expansion. They've put in place the tools to scale the company for the long haul. The one-on-one coaching system, education IP, and business network are all long-term investments that were done with the intention of growing the company 100x or more. These assets are acting as fuel to accelerate their rapid growth.

"They're not stuck with the innovations they've made in the past."

Hanyang University's Impact Research Lab concluded that underdogs has been consistently innovative for nine years. It pointed out that it is an "entrepreneurial organization" that has been capable of maintaining innovation. It showed the essence of finding opportunities, trying new ideas, and creating value through them. By educating entrepreneurs, the company has become an example of entrepreneurial talent.

underdogs is a company that specializes in entrepreneurship education, but I wonder whether it will be a company with a broader scope in 10 years. The future is not set in stone. 'There's still a long way to go.' This sentence seems to give underdogs a sense of anticipation for the future. I hope that the path of underdogs' journey serves as a good reference for budding talents.

Written by Jinny (underdogs) 



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Jinny Kim
underdogs. Media Manager & EO STUDIO. Freelance Writer