The founders of Coffitivity, a U.S. website that streams ambient cafe sounds, were surprised to discover that some of the site’s biggest fans were in a city with a thriving cafe culture: Seoul

September 13, 2013, 12:17 PM

Big in Korea: Virtual Cafe Sounds

By Jenna Davis

Coffitivity, a U.S.-based website that allows users to stream ambient coffee shop sounds for free, is creating an unexpected buzz — in Seoul. The site, which launched half a year ago, touts the slogan “enough noise to work,” based on research that shows a moderate level of noise is conducive to creativity. The result is a soundtrack of clanging dishware, muffled voices and the occasional unbridled chuckle—all at 70 decibels, the ideal level.While Seoul has the highest concentration of coffee shops of any major city in the world, that hasn’t stopped locals from shunning brick-and-mortar cafes for an online experience in their homes and offices.

“When you go to a real cafe, sometimes you sit next to a loud, talkative customer,” said Yoon Ja-young, 24, a frequent user of the site. “Sometimes there aren’t enough seats, so it can be inconvenient.”

Ms. Yoon is the founder of a fashion startup. According to her, she first listened to the site one day when her team was confined to a small office and unable to agree on background music. Coffitivity provided a compromise.

ACe (pronounced “Ace”) Callwood, a founder and the creative director at Coffitivity, says his team is baffled by the growth of the site in Seoul and other major cities in Asia. “I guess we just expected it to be local,” he said, calling the number of users in the region “astounding.”

Seoul had been the site’s top user city up until recently, when it was edged out by New York City, which accounts for 2.7 percent of the site’s overall traffic to Seoul’s 2.1 percent. Coming in third, at 2.0 percent, is Taipei, another Asian city with a thriving cafe culture.

The site attracts about 7,000 to 12,000 hits per weekday, and Asia as a whole comprises 23 percent of that overall traffic, second only to the Americas at roughly 50 percent, Mr. Callway said. He attributes Coffitivity’s popularity in the Asia region to a feature on Japan’s edition of Lifehacker, a website that offers tips on productivity.

“I think that’s where the beginning of our Asian traffic started picking up, but from there, Korea has just knocked it out of the park,” he said.

Based in Richmond, Va., Mr. Callwood and his partner and co-founder Justin Kauszler came up with the idea for Coffitivity when they spent two weeks working largely in coffee shops on another venture. When Mr. Kauszler, returned to his silent office, he found it impossible to concentrate. He recalled the research paper that credited ambient noise in spurring creativity.

The pair began recording their first ambient sounds at a Richmond coffeehouse. They called the track “Morning Murmur,” with the tagline “a gentle hum gets the day started.”

A month later, with the help of a graphic designer, the site launched on March 4. Just two days later, traffic jumped from 120 page views to 49,000, and they have since registered 4.3 million page views. They have also added two more team members.

The site originally targeted 20-somethings in the U.S. who were “locked into the office environment and couldn’t leave,” so its international appeal came as a surprise, Mr. Callwood said.

According to a GAIN article released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were more than 12,000 coffee shops in South Korea at the end of 2011, up 54 percent from the previous year. The report listed the country as the world’s 11th largest coffee market.

Despite Seoul’s saturation of caffeinated hangouts, locals complain that it’s difficult to find a cafe suitable for serious work. That explains why Coffitivity users in the city will forgo an actual cafe for an environment they can control themselves.

Kim Jin-wook, a 29-year-old graduate student, uses the site to break the silence of the lab where he spends most of his time. “My first impression was that it was remarkable you could convey a sense of space, or spatial presence, through the medium of sound,” he said.

Mr. Kim added that he prefers Coffitivity to a similar Korean site calledWheresound, which emerged shortly after the U.S. site, because he finds Korean conversation too distracting.

South Korea has long offered private rental study rooms, some of which include white-noise generators, but Coffitivity is a more economical option for many because it’s free.

Coffitivity’s founders may never really get to the bottom of Seoulites’ infatuation for simulated café sounds, but they’re hoping their mobile phone app, launched last month, will do just as well in the region. The app is available on iTunes for $1.99, and an Android version is currently in the works.

The website currently offers two soundtracks, and the team hopes to travel globally and collect audio from different locations in the future. For now, they are enabling users to upload their favorite audio to the website, following a set of guidelines.

Mr. Callwood says that only one person so far has submitted audio, a five-minute clip that sounds like “an outdoor cafe with construction on the sidewalk next to the recorder.” Submitted by a Coffitivity user from Kentucky, the clip was called “Jackhammer Java.”

“Honestly, we thought it was hilarious,” Mr. Callwood said. “Our fans definitely keep us on our toes.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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