Had I been anywhere else in Seoul, it may have proved difficult finding the Southside Parlor as a new arrival to the city. Luckily for me, however, I was in the west end of Itaewon and just a lick away from Haebangchon; probably the two places with the most English speakers in the city. It only took a few moments before I ran into a foreign couple who pointed me the way, and, three flights of stairs later, I was introducing myself to Rob Lyu and looking over the menu.
Lyu is the founder and CEO of Atlas, a multi-lingual operating service with too many functions to fit into one description. A Korean-American with a background in politics and economics, Lyu bounced around from investment banking to private equity before finding himself in a venture capital group that focused on new technology startups.
“I meandered around a bit with things that I thought I should do before striking out on my own,” Lyu said. “Finally in 2013 I quit my job and took the plunge. My first company didn’t work out, but by the end of it, it was sort of obvious that there was nothing else for me but this.”
One friend’s invite to Korea, a well-received startup website, and a year and half later, Lyu finds himself on the forefront of digital assistance technology with Korea, and the expat-Korean experience, as his starting model.
“When I first came to Korea in January 2015,” Lyu explained, “I realized how bad my Korean is. I was constantly asking my Korean friends for stuff. At the same time, I started seeing what was happening in the virtual assistance space, and I thought ‘I need this here!’ Having backpacked, traveled, and lived abroad for big chunks of my life, the idea of a virtual travel assistant resonated immediately.”
So how does Atlas work?
Atlas is a human-operator based assisting service that receives and responds to messages via Kakao, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, and e-mail. You can make a request in English—say you want to order food or reserve movie tickets – and they’ll brief you with their best options and prices. After you authorize the transaction, you’ll make a payment via card, PayPal, or bank transfer, and they take care of the rest.
Outside of basic transactions/orders/payments, Atlas can provide information and services that address the friction of traveling and living abroad; advice, recommendations, translations, information on the subway system, banking, visas, and virtually anything else regarding life in Korea. Their services have ranged from translating love letters to helping solo travelers find emergency medical assistance in the middle of the night.
“We called someone’s landlord once when there was a conflict,” Lyu said, “and rallied him to help our customer out. It was kind of like, ‘Hey, he’s new here, let’s show him the best of Korea and try to be empathetic about this.’ We see ourselves as a cultural bridge to help people navigate things that seem intuitive back home but can be absolute black holes when overseas.”
All the operators, according to Lyu, are Korean natives who have lived abroad for a significant period of time, making them “like-minded and familiar with the expat experience,” Lyu said.
The next step for Atlas is releasing their app, which Lyu describes as “providing a richer user interface beyond text messaging and helping organize [their] data to provide a more personalized and relevant experience.”
In terms of branching out internationally, Lyu wants Atlas to be the “travel friend” for the independent traveler, backpacker, exchange student, digital nomad, and expat of the 21st century.
“It’s like having a local, native friend in your pocket.” Lyu said. “Wherever you are in the world you’ll have a helping hand, an inside scoop on what’s happening and where to go, all just a few text messages away.”
Find more information about pricing, FAQ’s, and general information here:
Curious about how others had used the service, I asked Lyu about interesting services Atlas has provided. He came up with this:
- “I have a dog I can’t keep and need to give away by 6pm tonight” – A user messaged us at 9am and sent us a picture of her dog. We almost adopted her as an office dog, she was so cute. We posted the dog on numerous Korean websites and searched up and down Naver to find a foster family or a “no-kill” shelter in his area. Eventually we found a pet shop/pet hotel, sent them a photo and they immediately offered to take her.
- “Can you translate this note for me?” – We’ve gotten a number of medium length, personal messages that people want translated into Korean to ensure nothing is lost in translation. Without getting into too much detail on any particular letter, they are usually in situations of extreme emotion, whether love or joy or conflict. Sometimes it’s a sincere thank you card or a love letter. We’ve done break up letters and a “lover scorned” letter. We’ve also done multiple emails to help people through conflicts with their employer, with their landlord, and with Korean friends.
- “When is [famous K-pop group’s] flight leaving for their Thailand concert?” – We’ve helped some die-hard K-pop fans get concert tickets or send gifts to their idol’s entertainment agencies. One user wanted to get the flight schedule for a famous K-pop group so they could go to the airport to get pictures/autographs. We posted on a bunch of fan cafes to no avail. We also contacted a number of reporters, and eventually one got us the relevant info.
- “Is there a veterinarian in Seoul that could be considered ‘holistic’? For example, one that offers alternative medicine for dogs in addition to conventional medicine such as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy or herbal remedies?” – We found one in Seocho-dong that can provide acupuncture starting at KRW 23,000 and alternative medicine starting at KRW 38,000.
- “Help! I cracked my tooth and need to get it fixed before I leave for Thailand tomorrow” – We had a traveler who needed a last-minute dentist to repair a cracked tooth. We could not book an English-speaking dentist on such short notice, so she called us from the dentist’s office and we served as her interpreter to get it resolved.