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How I grew my career: James Lee, General Manager, Korea

Learning how to plan your career is the most important thing no one taught you at school. Luckily, there are many professionals with exciting career journeys to get inspired by! 

From joining the company as employee number one in Korea to working his way through five different roles in just five years, James Lee has had a fascinating career at Klook. He tells us how he finds his footing in completely new roles, what it was like to work at Klook in the early days and what’s the definition of success that guides him. 


What attracted you to Klook in the first place?

When I joined Klook in 2016, I had recently come back from a two-year around the world trip. I travelled through Europe, Asia, Africa, North America. It was an amazing phase in my life but there were definitely pain points. Booking transport or tours, finding information online, all this was so much more difficult than it should be. I worked at Samsung Mobile before this trip and I kept thinking: I used to work for one of the leading technology companies but when I’m traveling, I can’t use my phone to book a train ticket? What’s up with that?

Then I learned about Klook, who was essentially trying to solve the problem I faced for two years. I was thankful to join the company very early on. I was employee number one in Korea and one hundred something globally. 

James Lee at a desert

After a two-year trip around the world where he faced problems of booking activities and tickets, James joined Klook.


What was your first role like?

On my first day of work I didn't have an office. I didn't even have a MacBook. All I had was an email account and a Slack account. So I wrote down some things that I thought would be a good start: there's no website in Korean, there's no customer service, there's no marketing. The list was long but you have to start somewhere so I started by localizing the Klook website into Korean. Then I started hiring and when we made the first couple of hires, we got our first office in Seoul. 

All in all, it was a very scrappy environment. There was a limited amount of resources: all the translation (tens of thousands of lines) was done on Google Spreadsheets. The Localization team was working part-time. But we were able to get stuff done. If you don't have a hammer, use a rock. Working with limited resources is a matter of mindset: working with what you have, adapting quickly, finding hacks to ultimately achieve your goal. It doesn't matter how you do it, it's the results that you drive that matter.


What was it like when Klook started to grow very quickly?

Klook closed Series B funding in early 2017 and I stepped into my second role - General Manager (GM), Korea. At that time, we were rapidly scaling up. We went from using rocks and stones to this new tool age. We started using Google Calendar. We had no use for Google Calendar before! We were such a tight team, if you needed something, you would just tap someone on the shoulder, have an impromptu meeting. Now, we needed more structure, we needed to be strategic.  

When you’re used to this mentality of “what’s the new idea? Ok, let’s do that tomorrow!”, it’s difficult to adjust to the cadence of planning for the next week and month, and quarter. But eventually you realize that you need that process and that processes don't slow you down — they empower you to scale up more.

It was also a big change for me as a people manager. All of a sudden, the team grew from 20 people to 50. One thing I learned is that sometimes you have to balance team output and team management (keeping the team aligned and engaged). I was really learning how to slow down and work with others together as a team to drive impact.

As the Klook Korea team grew, we moved to a bigger and fancy office!

As the Klook Korea team grew, we moved to a bigger and fancier office!


Where did you progress from there?

The third role I took on was Senior Marketing Director, Global Planning & Ops. It was a completely different landscape going from a local to global portfolio. In this role I discovered three key elements to creating impact in a central role: 

1) The right tools and workflows are needed to make everyone’s day more efficient. We identified the 2 biggest “blockers” to our productivity -  payments and budget requests - and created toolkits for for them. 

2) Communication was essential to keep all Marketing colleagues in the loop. We created an internal Marketing Intranet that provided updated information, and also helped with documentation and onboarding new Klookers.

3) Most importantly, setting aligned goals and sticking to them helped keep us focused on the end goal as #oneteam. 


You then moved into a whole new area of localization, how was that experience?

My 4th role at Klook was Senior Director, Content Operations. I used to be an interpreter when serving in the Korean military, but managing the Localization and Product Content team was a whole different ballpark. 

Thankfully, I was able to use all the different experiences I had accumulated to still create impact. In my first role, I single-handedly localized our Korean Klook website; and now we had a team of localization experts working on our product globally. I took the time to understand the workflows, the problems they faced and the day-to-day work of the teams. Then drawing on the skills I gained from planning and operations, I was able to solve the biggest pain points and improve team engagement.


Klook Korea website in 2017

A snapshot of Klook Korea website today

How our Klook Korea website looked like in 2017 vs today.


What role are you in today?

I’m back in the role of General Manager, Korea. Although the title is the same, we’re living in very different times with Covid-19, and so I would say it’s a completely different role. We are a much bigger company as well, and I need to make bigger strategic decisions. I'm re-learning and learning so much every single day.


That’s 5 roles in 5 years! What’s the key to pivoting between such varied roles in such a short time?

I would say, first of all, don't do it if you can help it [laugh]. It’s very tiring, but also very rewarding.

I think the key is the resilient mindset that I have. I'm not afraid to go back to zero. It's always exciting and challenging for me, and I think that's what kept me going through all these roles. Whatever a new role brings, I'm always able to learn from it. Whether I fail or succeed, it's a fruitful experience. That's the most impactful part for me.

James Lee shows off his super cool PATH socks!


How would you describe your career philosophy?

It’s important to know what your endgame is - what do you want out of each experience, and are you able to identify and seize opportunities in front of you? Life is short and unpredictable, who knew that we would have to go through a 2-year pandemic. 

For me, my endgame is to be able to look back and know that I contributed and added value to others. When I was travelling the world, I took a lot of time to define what success meant to me - and I concluded it was to be of value to the world. So whatever I set out to do, I always strive to do my best and do it so fantastically well that others can benefit from my actions. 

In my experience, life is 99% luck and 1% my effort. I couldn’t have achieved any success without the help of other people and the team, and without the opportunities that are laid out in front of me. So I'm always very grateful and inspired by what comes my way. 


Looking for a new career?

Apply for roles at Klook


klook.pngPosted by Klook Careers

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