December 23, 2022
David Lee, Yonsei University Class of 1996, studied Civil & Environmental Engineering and founded Iyuno, Leader in Global Media Localization
We are living in an age where global content from different countries and cultures can be enjoyed through various OTT services and platforms. When we watch a foreign TV show on Netflix, what would the viewing experience be like if the story is not translated to fit our language and culture? Even if we can understand the story, our enjoyment of the show will be affected since we would not be able to experience the story in the context of our own language and culture. That is the reason why global media content that is consumed in one part of the world is localized to different languages all around the world 24 hours a day. Media localization not only involves translating but also editing content, such as pork in Indonesia or political content in China, to ensure that it is suitable for specific regions. This is when Lee discovered a new opportunity in the localization industry and founded Iyuno, which currently provides localization services to global OTT and media companies, including Netflix, Sony Pictures, and Disney Plus, so their content can be enjoyed anywhere in the world. By bringing cutting-edge technology to the field of subtitle translation, which was once considered a small red ocean industry, he has made Iyuno the global leader in the industry and a company considered one of the most successful cases of a startup expanding into the global market.
“I was very free-spirited during my college days. In the first semester of my freshman year, I even received an academic warning because I was too busy playing pool and drinking. Rather than focusing on my schoolwork, I devoted my time and energy to building friendships and connections with those around me. There were times when I became engrossed in computer music because I wanted to be a songwriter or agonized over ways to develop a video chat platform. I didn’t carefully plan and implement these ideas, and in reality, I was more of your typical slacker college student. (Laughter) Then I started dreaming of studying abroad in the United States, and since my grades weren’t high enough, I enrolled in another semester to retake my courses. That’s when I started this business, which goes to show that hardships can turn into a foundation for success later in life.”
Near graduation, David Lee decided to study abroad in the US to major in structural engineering, and he briefly got a job at a small translation company to gain work experience and earn some pocket money before going to school. However, his paychecks frequently arrived late, and he decided to set up his own translation company in a small office with two friends. At the time, he had no intention of turning back on his decision to study abroad, and Lee and his friends agreed they would keep the company running for just one year. However, he soon discovered that the reality of the business was different.
“The first client we had was a DVD production company, who often paid in 6 or 12-month intervals through bills receivable. After one year of starting the subtitling company, my partners decided to quit and go their separate ways because it became too difficult to manage our losses. We were in debt. I could have also jumped ship and studied abroad, but I’m actually optimistic to a fault. I developed automated software programs to improve the inefficient translation process, and as the company grew, along with my passion for business, I reached the obvious decision to give up studying abroad.”
The company underwent several crises when former employees stole the programs to launch their own startups, but true to his optimistic nature, Lee simply accepted the situation. Instead of falling into despair, he found fault with himself for failing to convince the employees of his vision, and he looked to the future.
Lee had been in the business for 8 years in Korea, but he was still in debt, and for his much-needed breakthrough, Lee turned to the global market. In search of a lifeline, he left for Singapore.
“When we were running the company in Korea, our only client was the Singapore branch of a multinational broadcasting company called “Discovery,” and we only received orders for the Korean language pair. I headed to Singapore because as an SLP (Single Language Provider), I felt like it was impossible to have a competitive edge in pricing or escape the overbearing attitude of customers. At the time, over 70% of the Asian branches of multinational broadcasting companies were in Singapore, so I figured there had to be a demand for multilingual services.”
However, it was difficult to shed the perception that they were a Korean company, and in the early days of setting up the business in Singapore, they had to actively seek out potential clients. They had their first big break when they met with Sony Pictures. Lee caught wind of news that Sony Pictures was going to launch a multilingual channel exclusively for Korean content through a contract with a Korean broadcasting company. Since Lee’s company already had subtitle processing technology as well as the technology to transfer large content files through a regular internet network, Lee was able to offer services beyond what Sony wanted and succeeded in securing a deal with the company.
“We ran into many obstacles in the process. The first order we received was a Korean to Malay dubbing project, but we didn’t have a branch in Malaysia at the time, so we hired a subcontractor to launch the language service. However, there were many quality and delivery issues with the subcontractor, and we reached a point where we had to delay the launch of the language pair. When we tried to terminate our contract with them, they threatened an employee of our company who was in Malaysia at the time. I even met with the chair of the company we subcontracted and got on my knees to plead.”
In the end, Lee succeeded in launching the Malay language service, and the broadcasting company expanded their business by establishing a branch in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Lee’s company now had the foundation to offer services in multiple languages to clients in Singapore, and this was the moment they took one big step towards becoming an MLP (Multi Language Provider) from an SLP. They continued to grow and became the biggest localization company in Asia with branches in 10 countries. Without receiving any external investment up to this point, Lee achieved this growth while making a profit of over 20%.
By applying his insights into the market, Lee was able to respond to industry trends one step ahead of time. Realizing that the media trend would shift from pay TV to OTT services, Lee set up a branch in the US in 2016. As he predicted, the market for OTT services grew rapidly, and OTT providers and video production companies around the world came to Lee for his company’s high-quality translation and services.
“Even though we were on the other side of the globe, Netflix also contacted us when they were preparing to expand their services from the US to the global market. And we agreed to work with them as a localization vendor. However, different from our previous broadcasting company clients, we received a huge volume of content from Netflix, and we were also expected to use advanced technological tools we weren’t yet familiar with, such as a platform to precisely manage the quality of subcontractors or a system to automate the process between the headquarters and subcontractors. In the early days, we encountered many serious technical errors and internal quality check issues. To resolve these issues, we developed an automated quality check function on cloud that would automatically flag all errors. Through this process, we received the Netflix Preferred Vendor (NPV) of the Year award twice in two years, which is an award given to Netflix vendors who provide the highest quality services. Our company and Netflix built up trust over time, and we expanded our services beyond subtitle translation and dubbing to content editing and mastering. We also helped Netflix successfully launch its global business, growing together in the process. I learned, not only from the new technological tools, but also from the more intangible aspects of the company, such as their work culture.”
“We are a tech company,” says Lee. Investment and interest in innovative technology was what ultimately led to the growth and success of the company. With thousands of different guidelines from OTTs and broadcasting companies around the world and thousands of translators concurrently working in multiple languages, the most effective quality control solution ends up being a cloud system that allows everyone to translate, subtitle, and edit at the same time and share this process with each other on the same screen.
“There are creative aspects to working on TV shows or series, but due to the tight budget and large volume, I would say it’s closer to supply chain management. Translating tens of thousands of videos per month requires finding skilled translators, but it’s also essential to have technology that provides uniform quality control and automates the process as much as possible. For example, there aren't many creative elements in simple sentences like “Hello.” Automating such processes through AI isn’t just beneficial for cutting costs since it also improves the quality of work produced by allowing translators to focus on the creative process. That’s why I’ve been interested in technology for so long. I’ve always invested in future-oriented automation technology so that the company can run smoothly even if it grows to five times the current size.”
As a trusted partner of the world’s leading OTT subsidiaries, such as Netflix, Sony, HBO, and Disney Plus, Lee has already proven the competitive edge of such technology. His company currently has 67 branches in 34 countries and provides localization services to more than 100 languages ranging from Korean to Tongan. Iyuno has become an industry leader with the largest share of the market following the acquisitions of BTI Studios in 2019 and SDI Media in 2021, both of which were the number-one companies in Europe and in the United States.
To grow his company into a global leader in the industry, Lee overcame a long series of failures. Even more impressive is his future-oriented mindset and drive to confront challenges head-on while remaining optimistic. These traits also intersect with his life philosophy and motto, which can be summed up in three words.
“My three favorite words are respect, change, and persistence. Respect is what makes a lot of things possible. Friction can arise when different people work together, but once you win over their hearts by showing them respect, what seemed impossible before can be achieved. Also, when most people reach a certain level of expertise or achieve a small level of success, they tend to stop learning and solve all problems within the confines of their existing knowledge. But success can be the biggest enemy of success. Embracing change and viewing the changing world with an open and unbiased mindset is crucial. And business aside, I think the secret to enjoying life is to never stop learning and to always try new things. Lastly, I don’t think anything is easily obtained, so the only way to succeed is to not give up. Persistence seems to be the greatest virtue of every successful businessman.”
As can be seen from his motto, Lee derives a lot of enjoyment from the process of achieving his goals. Rather than going through life with one unchanging goal, he finds happiness in the process of chasing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, setting new goals even after experiencing failure, and taking on new challenges every day.
“But one day, I’ll also retire and live a peaceful and boring life. Truthfully, I’m not looking forward to such a day because I’m scared I won’t be able to cope with the boredom. I'm sure something else will ignite my passion by then. Until then, I plan on fully enjoying this process.”
Finally, as an entrepreneur who overcame numerous challenges to achieve success, Lee offered a warm word of advice to the younger generation of Yonsei students. “In a rapidly changing world, I hope you will expand your horizons and pave your own path through new experiences. Do not be afraid of tackling new challenges to achieve your dreams.”
“Even with technological innovations, people will still have an important role to play. That's why I place a lot of importance on the wisdom to understand and empathize with others, as well as the interpersonal skills to resolve conflicts. These skills are all the more important for generations who grew up in the digital age. Also, don’t lock yourself in a box—make the most of your college life by building relationships with diverse groups of people and seeking out new experiences. Real-life experiences can teach you lessons that can’t be learned through books, and I hope you develop your own philosophy and perspective of the world by reflecting on different opinions and challenging your beliefs. You don’t have to tread so carefully through life.”
Alumnus David Lee might be afraid of retiring and becoming bored with a peaceful life, but there is no doubt that he will discover a new passion and find happiness in the process. That’s because he has always viewed life through an optimistic lens, turning past setbacks into forward momentum.
To read this article in Korean, click here.
Iyuno (www.iyuno.com) is the media and entertainment industry’s leading localization service provider. As a trusted global partner to the world’s most recognized entertainment studios, streaming platforms and creators, it offers end-to-end localization services – from dubbing, subtitling and access services to media management, transformation and distribution services – in over 100 languages for every type of content distribution platform. The company's 75-year collective legacy is unmatched in operational expertise, scale, capacity and breadth of services. Leveraging the best in breed creative and technical talent, state-of-the-art facilities and next generation technologies, the company now boasts the largest global footprint with 67 offices in 34 countries. The company’s scale and customer-centric approach is focused on its mission of connecting content, connecting people. For more information, follow @IyunoHQ and #WeAreIyuno across social platforms.