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Samsung: how to break into a notoriously secretive tech giant

Samsung: how to break into a notoriously secretive tech giant

I believe Samsung is the most important company with which ambitious tech firms need to forge links.

This is far easier said than done. But, with the right approach, it can be achieved – and the rewards can be huge. As someone who used to work for the electronics giant and who now helps companies ‘break in’ from the outside, let me explain how and why.

A brief history

Samsung is a group of diverse, affiliated companies and is South Korea’s biggest conglomerate or ‘chaebol’. Staggeringly, it produces approximately 20% of the whole country’s exports, with revenues almost 15% of South Korea's GDP. The company was originally founded in 1938 and, over the subsequent 30 years, branched into insurance, textiles, food processing, retail and more. It got into electronics in the late ’60s – followed by ship building and construction in the ‘70s. Over the last 25 years, it’s dramatically expanded its international electronics business – with mobile phones and semiconductors becoming its biggest sources of revenue.

Samsung today

The group is now the world’s second largest IT company (after Apple) and holds prominent positions in its myriad other lines of business. Samsung has also just become the world’s biggest chip maker - with semiconductor revenues of $69 billion - finally knocking Intel from the lead it’s held for decades. Samsung is not only a powerful influence on South Korea's economics, politics, media and culture, but carries considerable weight beyond its home borders.

For example, it’s enormously important to the Vietnamese economy – making nearly half its phones there and having invested US$2.5 billion to manufacture appliances and displays. It currently employs more people in Vietnam than in South Korea. Samsung has also invested heavily in Austin, Texas – making it one of the largest foreign investors in the whole of the US. It’s ploughed in $16 million so far and supports over ten thousand Texan jobs.

The company is also beginning to invest significantly in South Carolina – a State that I’m proud to be representing  in Korea. Having announced a new home appliances plant there just six months ago, Samsung has already started production there and is on course to make a million washing machines this year. It’s exciting to speculate that the company could provide the kind of economic boost to South Carolina that it’s given to Texas.

The need to forge a connection

So, what’s all this got to do with you? If you’re a tech firm with big growth ambitions, the answer is probably a great deal. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Given the sheer scale of the company, if you can sell or license your technology to Samsung, the volumes and revenues could be huge.
  2. Because of its leadership position and reputation as an extremely demanding company, citing Samsung as a customer will give you great kudos.
  3. If you’re trying to sell to other East Asian businesses – in South Korea in particular – there’s a strong tendency for firms to look to the market leaders when assessing new products. Korean companies will often ask ‘Does Samsung use it?’ – and trial it when Samsung makes the first move.
  4. Samsung is increasingly creating or reshaping entire commercial ecosystems, and strong links with the company may give you influence over standards and designs and an early foothold in new markets. For instance:
  • The emergence of Samsung Pay and associated mobile payment ecosystems now makes Samsung a major fintech player
  • The company recently created a $300 million fund to pioneer autonomous vehicles and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)
  • It acquired SmartThings to advance its ‘connected home’ systems and has just announced a partnership with Vodafone to launch further smart home services

If you’re in any of the above markets – among many others - you’d do well to get close to Samsung.

Notoriously secretive

But the challenge is that the company is tough to break into. I know first-hand that Samsung’s reputation for being highly secretive is well-deserved. There are no readily-available org charts to show you your best points of contact. And teams have cryptic names such as ‘Future Research Lab 3’ or ‘Service Planning Team’.

Samsung staff are also hard to track as they’re frequently shifted between units and projects. And the company’s most important initiatives are developed through ‘task forces’ of personnel from across the business who work intensely on single projects – sometimes without ever leaving the campus! (The on-site facilities include dormitories as well as cafeterias, gyms and others service needed to sustain life).

Window for pitching

The company also conducts a large-scale management reshuffle every December, with numerous senior executives reassigned or let go. This means many managers retreat into a ‘wait and see’ mode towards the end of the year and are unreceptive to outside proposals. Similarly, it’s often some time into the New Year before the newly appointed team leaders’ plans become clear. And managers will typically spend a long time reviewing proposals, with only brief spurts of decision and action.

So the window for pitching a proposal to Samsung can be tight – and timing your approach wisely can make all the difference. With Samsung, you may well also find the kind of slick, Silicon Valley-style presentation you’re used to falls flat. For its decision makers, the devil is always in the practical detail. They’re much less interested in your personal vision and no beautifully-crafted story will compensate for a botched demo. Let them focus on the 'big picture'.

Targeted approach

On the positive side, however, by no means does tough mean impossible. We’ve helped many companies make in-roads into Samsung – and are doing so for some firms right now – and I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact this has had on their business. There are no magic tricks here: a targeted approach, commitment and patience are the order of the day.

Wending your way through the organisation, identifying its priority projects and building trust with the right contacts – though not easy – are vital steps. Invariably, there are at least half a dozen teams which could be interested in any particular technology, so you will need to get to know people in multiple departments and at different levels. You also need a good understanding of Samsung’s commercial goals, working culture and business practices to be able to ‘talk their language’ and match your proposition to the company’s priorities.

In addition, there are some ‘side doors’ into Samsung if you know where to look. For example, Samsung is a mentor on the government-backed K-Startup Grand Challenge, an accelerator programme to attract foreign start-ups to South Korea. And it runs its own incubator programme called C-Lab, through which it gives its most talented engineers the freedom to pioneer side projects. This scheme has spawned over 30 start-ups since it started in 2012 and, in some instances, seeking links with these ventures may be easier than trying to break into the mothership.

Relationship building campaign

This inevitably means a concerted relationship building campaign of meetings, phone calls, lunches, coffees and other interactions, formal and informal. This, in turn, means that having Korean-speaking people – whether your own staff or representatives working for you – based on the ground is an absolute must.

I’ve seen many organisations try to develop and nurture Samsung contacts based in the US or Europe and initially feel they’re making some progress. But this rarely produces significant results as it’s in Korea where the real power lies. It’s also only by getting close to the Samsung HQ that you can, after a period of time, make an informed decision whether to continue pursuing a partnership or invest your resources elsewhere.

While it’s a hugely influential company, not every firm will succeed in breaking in, and you have to be realistic. Too many companies have kept trying for years in the belief that success is just around the corner, while a more objective view would tell them to stop and refocus.

Game changer

So Samsung, in my view, is now the company with which to try to build a relationship for many ambitious tech firms. It’s not easy to make in-roads, and not everyone will succeed. But for smart CEOs taking the right approach, success could well be a game changer.

What are your views and experiences on ways to get close to Samsung or industry leaders?

If I can help with what you’re trying to achieve in Korea or the electronics sector in East Asia, please don’t hesitate to connect with me via LinkedIn here ​

About the Author

Leif Karlen

Leif, who is a fluent Korean speaker, is a Project Manager based in our Seoul office and a member of the company’s electronics sector group.

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