Pre-Series A Program Batch 2 Interview: DIVE Studios
“Pre-SAP is a case study on our own company”
A common misconception about the 500 Startups Korea Pre-Series A Program is that it is just like any random accelerator where mentors provide vague strategic guidance to startups without creating any tangible growth. Any of our portfolio companies that have gone through this rigorous program know for a fact that this is not true. The employees at DIVE Studios, a participant in Pre-SAP Batch 2, were kind enough to share their experience during this program to show how hands-on this program is.
The rising interest in K-pop has become palpable, in which fans from all over the world are more engaged than ever. With this in mind and drawing on his own experience as a Korean-American in the K-pop industry, Eric Nam and his brothers, Eddie and Brian, have founded DIVE Studios, a podcast platform for K-pop fans and audiences. Their vision doesn’t end with just K-pop; their goal is to create a platform for all Asian American voices. Despite having been founded in July 2019, they have seen a massive growth in podcast listenership: in the span of 6 months, DIVE Studios has seen a 200% increase in downloads to reach 1.2 million monthly listeners as of March 2020.
They currently have 8 different podcasts featuring famous K-pop stars such as Tablo, Jamie Park, and Jae of Day6 with an increasing amount of collaborations with celebrities such as Sam Hammington, Korean Englishman (영국남자), and more. Currently their podcasts are available to download on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
When Brian, the CEO, sat down with Alex, the lead mentor of the program, and the 500 team for the deep dive sessions*, he mentioned how he wanted the program to be focused on learning monetization strategies and how to set up proper tracking tools for successful digital marketing campaigns. With the program coming to an end, Brian, Khani (Marketing Manager), and Liz (Graphic Designer) were kind enough to spare some time for an interview to discuss their overall experience during the 2020 Pre-Series A Program* (hereinafter Pre-SAP).
*Deep dive sessions: Deep dive sessions are preliminary sessions held before the program starts between the lead mentor and participating companies to discuss the current situation of the startup and what the main focus of the program should be. To put it simply, it can be regarded as a ‘diagnosis’ period to check which pain points the startup is currently facing.
*Pre-Series A Program (Pre-SAP): a 3-week acceleration program where 500 Startups early-stage portfolio startups receive strategic guidance from mentors on various topics such as product building, product optimization, high level strategy, growth mindset, and leadership. The lead mentor for the 2020 Pre-SAP was Alex Lee with Emilian Vasi as the growth marketing mentor.
Hi, thank you for making time for this interview. My first question is, what were the expectations you had when you first heard of the Pre-SAP?
Brian: The deep dive session before the actual program was very helpful to get a better idea on what this program entailed. For myself, the expectations were that we would get strategic guidance across various topics. It was obvious that Alex is flexible in how he works, so I could see that we would have lots of discussions on what we would work on.
Khani: The first expectation was that I would be in Seoul (laugh)*. Content wise, I expected to learn a lot about digital marketing and how to make paid ad campaigns. The prospect of learning this was exciting because before the program, we were only boosting posts on Instagram without properly knowing what we were supposed to do.
*Due to COVID-19, DIVE Studios had to take part in this program remotely. Khani and Liz were joining in from LA while Brian was under quarantine in Seoul.
DIVE Studios joining in our sessions remotely due to COVID-19
What are your thoughts now that the program has ended?
Brian: Overall it was a very positive experience. You end up being in a bubble with the whirlwind of practical work that goes on in a startup. Whether it was 500 Startups or the mentors, to be able to have a fresh perspective on DIVE, what we’re building, and the ways we can improve as a company was an invaluable opportunity.
Liz: I was shocked at how very hands-on the program was! I expected it to be like a college class, where the mentors would give us a general lecture and we would just be passively listening. It was quite the opposite in reality. During the Office Hour sessions, for example, the mentors expected us to lead the sessions rather than them telling us what to do. In essence, the mentors approached this program as a personal case study of our own company, which surprised me.
Could you elaborate on what you mean about the program being a ‘personal case study’?
Liz: Throughout the program, both Alex and Emilian always challenged us with critical thinking questions.These were the WHY, WHAT and WHEN questions that we were not accustomed to asking ourselves. For example, Emilian would always ask us, “Why are we doing this specifically for DIVE?”, “Why is it beneficial for DIVE Studios?” With the answers we would give him, he would tweak his framework* accordingly. From the start of the program, we emphasized that DIVE Studios is a content producing company and the mentors always optimized their mentoring sessions with that in mind.
Khani: This was a very hands-on program, where the mentors would go through our business and what we want to achieve, and then customize a lesson around that. It was definitely an upgrade from a regular business class, as the mentors would give us business strategies that can be readily applicable to DIVE. It was also helpful to hear the reasoning behind why certain strategies would work better for us. They really tried to understand our company inside-out and introduced us to the best-fitting strategies for our current situation.
Framework: The mentors of the Pre-SAP Program specialize in teaching various frameworks that cover topics such as prioritization, paid ad campaigns, marketing funnels, and more. The mentors also create templates for these frameworks that aid the participating companies in applying these elements.
What about you Brian? What was your take on how the Pre-SAP mentors conducted the sessions?
Brian: After the one-on-one private sessions with Alex, who has extensive experience working with a variety of startups with different products, business models and growth stages, I definitely gained more confidence in leading a startup. He’s seen a lot of companies over his years whereas I just know what DIVE can do. To have someone pass on those learnings, apply them to DIVE, and pinpoint the parts we can improve on was very insightful.
What were some of the most insightful lessons from this program?
Brian: For me it was the ICE Framework* that Alex taught us. Going through a mock ICE methodology with Alex during a 90-minute session helped us ideate new monetization strategies and prioritize them based on Impact, Confidence, and Ease.
So far my team has never prioritized tasks in such a structured fashion and I think being able to learn this framework came at a timely fashion. At a certain point, growing companies have to implement more infrastructure when it comes to working; you can’t do things the way you used to. At DIVE, we were more casual when it came to decision-making but to go through a structured exercise that evaluates and justifies why certain opportunities are worth exploring was something we didn’t realize we needed until the actual implementation session. As a CEO of a startup, I think that’s half the battle; knowing you have so much to do but learning how to buckle down and pick the few things to focus on the right time was an important lesson.
Khani: The landing page was something we really needed but didn’t know. It’s funny because right before this program, I mentioned to Brian that we were losing valuable data as we didn’t know who was clicking on our sites because we were not tracking important data points of our users’ customer journey. We didn’t know how to go about solving this issue but now, with the learning lessons from the program, I’m confident that we can build, track, and create ads for better information tracking and decision making.
Liz: Throughout the program I got into the habit of asking myself, “Are our ad dollars being used effectively?” Prior to the program, I didn’t ask this question and didn’t know the importance behind this mindset. Now, this is the first question that pops into my mind.
*ICE Framework: A framework used in 500 Startups to prioritize various tasks from scoring ideas based on Impact, Confidence and Ease.
An example of a landing page made by DIVE Studios
Could you elaborate on how the learning lessons of the program have impacted your day-to-day working style?
Liz: I noticed that we were just working non-stop, many times without a clear direction, which is typical for a startup. This onslaught of work made it hard to determine what to prioritize, would it be the current posting schedule or a new initiative that could benefit our company in the long-run? Now those prioritizations are clearer from the lessons we’ve learned during the program.
Khani: As Liz said, instead of just sticking to a routine, I put more thought into everything I do. When I boost a Facebook or Instagram post, I now think through everything I learned from Emilian and Alex.
What would be some word of advice for the next batch companies?
Brian: Go into the program with an open mind. Expect to learn novel ways of tackling your company’s problems and don’t be afraid to be challenged on how you think about your company. A lot of CEO’s or employees can mistakenly think that their way of working is always correct but, instead of having that mindset, make sure to come with an open mind.
Liz: Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, can you help?” Be honest with the mentors and share what you know and don’t know. That way the mentors can truly understand where you’re coming from and can help you out accordingly. You need to trust the mentors because after all, they want the best for all the companies participating in the program.
Khani: Try to think of questions you would ask to the mentors beforehand- this way your team can effectively manage the mentoring sessions given with each mentor. And having said this, don’t be afraid to ask! Remember: there is no dumb question. Alex and Emilian have so much experience mentoring startups so asking questions can seem intimidating, but they’re so friendly and you can see that they genuinely want to help.
What are the next steps for DIVE Studios now? What can we expect?
Khani: We already know what ads we have to put out now so we’re going to work on that. I’m excited to take all this information, organize our targets and start implementing this in different strategies!
Brian: One of the biggest realizations I’ve had in this program is the importance of recruiting. We’re going to get started on the merchandise and sales teams*, and I understand that a lot of my focus will be on finding the right personnel for these projects. It takes a lot more time and effort for me to become an expert at everything. Instead, finding the right people 1) saves more time and 2) will help me become more efficient and productive with my time.
Merchandise and sales were monetization strategies developed during the program.
Thank you so much for this interview! We’re so excited to see all that DIVE Studios will accomplish.
You can find more information on DIVE Studios here:
- Website: https://divestudios.io/
- Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/divestudios