Part of my ongoing effort to keep up to date on events occurring in South Korea, I joined Entrepreneurs In Seoul Facebook group. Tony is another member within the group and he recently launched a new venture Entrepreneur Korea.
I asked if he would be willing to share with Korean Convenience readers about his experiences? The following interview was written by Tony about his experiences owning two businesses in South Korea.
Editors note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Small Business Interview: Tony Choi, Entrepreneur Korea
1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background? What made you initially want to come to South Korea?
My name is Tony Choi and I was born in Toronto, Canada. I came to Korea after finishing my undergraduate degree in 2007 and taught English for a year in the Chungnam Province with the EPIK program.
Then I came back to Korea in 2010 and have been in Korea since. I went from teaching at an English hagwon, to working at a Korean company, to teaching in a Public School, to starting my own English Gyosoopso, to starting my own Flowers and Gifts business, to selling my Flowers and Gifts business.
I initially wanted to come to Korea because I wanted to learn more about my roots and understand the perspective of my Korean family members. Also, there was something tugging at my heart to come to Korea and I honestly didn’t know what it was.
2. Can you describe what Hagwons are for the readers who are not familiar with the South Korean school system?
A hagwon is a business that people pay money to attend to either learn a particular set of skills or to enhance their skills to help them get higher scores on a test. The most common example is an English hagwon business.
A lot of students attend an English hagwon to learn English or to improve their overall English ability. Also, there are English hagwons that specialize in helping people past certain tests.
3. Can you tell me about your business and or businesses?
a. How long were you in business?
IGL English was an English Gyosoopso that my wife and I started in April 2013 and closed in February 2017. A Gyosoopso is pretty much a one-man run English hagwon.
Flower Gift Korea is a gifts and flowers business that I started in April 2016 as a side business while running my English Gyosoopso. We sold the business in September 2018 and it is currently being run by new owners.
b. What service (s) and or product (s) do you offer/manufacture?
IGL English was an English teaching business, and we focused on teaching elementary and middle school students overall English. Flower Gift Korea was a business that mainly sold flowers, but we also sold gift boxes, chocolates, stuffed toys, and a few other products. You can check out the flower Gift Korea website to see what is currently being sold.
c. The process of getting product and or service to customers? (i.e. Mail, Email, or Amazon, etc.)
IGL English: We basically relied on personally handing flyers to parents in front of schools and striking up conversations. Also, it helped that I was a Native English teacher at an elementary school not too far from where we opened up our English Gyosoopso, so most of our first few students attended because their parents heard from a friend or a colleague that I was a good teacher.
Flower Gift Korea: I created an ecommerce website (online shop) on the WordPress blog platform that acted as my homepage. I then worked hard to spread the news about my flower business via my own personal network. And we heavily relied on social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram to make people aware of what we offered.
When I first started Flower Gift Korea, I made a social media post almost everyday. Through social media I was able to draw people to my website and I was also able to close sales on the different sns platforms I was utilizing.
d.What made your business unique?
The only thing that made IGL English unique was that I was a unique teacher. It’s not to say that I’m extra special, but for a small hagwon type businesses like a study room or a Gyosoopso, you are pretty much selling yourself as the product.
However, Flower Gift Korea was very unique because we were the first online English speaking flower service in Korea that had a face to our name. We were present on social media and I made sure people saw that there were real people behind the business. That helped build our reputation and many people began to trust us. Also, it helped that I could speak fluent English, so people often felt more comfortable dealing with us than with our competitors.
4. On your business page Hagwonstart.com it states there are 3 main business components. They’re money, law and marketing can you explain why an entrepreneur needs all three?
In short, you need to know how much things cost and how much money you can make because without any money coming in, you aren’t a business. And though you won’t know all of the laws, you do need to understand that you will legally have to pay taxes and know some major things not to do, because then you will need to pay some hefty fines.
And if you can’t market your product or service, no one will buy it. So in the end, I guess everything about business revolves around money and how much money you have left over after all of your expenses. Also, if you are weak in one aspect, then there’s always the possibility of partnering with someone.
5. How much preparation do you believe an entrepreneur should have before opening a business in South Korea? (i.e. Capital, Investors, Business Visa, and Social Media)
It really depends on what kind of business you want to start. My wife and I started Flower Gift Korea as a side business with less than 3 million won. I just had to pay for a decent server, a good website theme, some floral education, and flowers to make our initial products.
If you are looking to start a restaurant in Seoul, then you may need to have 100-300 million won saved up (or have some investors lined-up). In the end, you need to make sure you have the right Visa, so you should research first on getting the right Visa. There is a new F2-7 visa, which is probably a good Visa to consider for people who don’t have 100 million Won lying around.
And the best time to start a business is now.
You’ll never be fully ready, so my advice is start with getting the right visa. As you go through the process of getting the right visa, network with as many people as you can, and take action so that you get closer and closer to actually starting your business.
I know people who say they would start a business if they had more money, or if they learned more Korean, or if they didn’t have to do this and that. In the end, this all just means that they are just afraid to get the ball rolling. And being afraid is normal, but my advice is set a timeline and stick to it because you’ll never be fully ready.
If you are working a job and are waiting to start your business, then learn some skills and increase your knowledge. Read up on doing business in Korea, network, and learn Korean.
6. You partnered with Korean business owners to purchase flowers for Flower Gift Korea can you tell me more about that process? Ex: How did you meet and form your business agreements?
Note: I speak somewhat fluent Korean and was able to build relationships with Koreans.
Simple, I built relationships with them over time. I invested money and time to create great relationships with flower merchants. I basically shopped around till I found a flower merchant I thought had great quality flowers and then just kept buying flowers from them.
Over time they knew we meant business, and once we increased our orders, they would give us discounts here and there. Another partner we had, we just went to the area where a bunch of merchants were and found one and just tried them.
Over time they saw we meant business and then slowly gave us better prices. I basically approached people quietly and showed them that I could be a great customer or that I could bring some value to them.
There’s no secret way of finding the best manufactures or suppliers in Korea. If you are just starting out, chances are that you won’t get any great deals or people may even just ignore you since you will most likely be a small fry.
You need to prove yourself in Korea to people and show them that it is worth their while to partner with you. And you will need to approach them or be introduced to them. The new owners of Flower Gift Korea inherited all of our contacts for the business, so they don’t need to go through the whole process of finding partners. But if you have no one to introduce you, then you’ll have to find them and approach them yourself.
So in short, you need to offer something to them. You need to be of value. We actually did not write any agreements or anything like that, so though I had a lot of “partners”, I never had a partner where I shared my profits with. Unless you count my wife. And again, you or one of our partners needs to be fluent in Korean if you are looking to partner with Korean merchants and manufacturers.
7. Who where your target customers? (i.e. South Korea, Abroad or both)
IGL English targeted the parents in the neighborhood since most parents like to send their children to hagwons that are easily accessible.
Flower Gift Korea targeted English speaking people who had a reason to send flowers and gifts to people in Korea. So it was a worldwide market. Flower Gift Korea had a lot of English speaking customers living in Korea and received orders from over 75 different countries.
8. How did you go about marketing your product (s) and or service (s)? What has been your most successful form of marketing?
Our most successful form of marketing is word of mouth. If someone tells someone your business is good, then they will believe it. That is why I focused my efforts on trying to get reviews from as many people possible when first starting Flower Gift Korea.
If you are just first starting off and don’t have many reviews, then I think another form of social proof is important. You can just post some really nice photos of your product or service, or provide some really helpful advice. Then it is important to engage the customer and ask them how you can help them.
9. Describe your typical workday?
For IGL English it was different depending on the day. I basically arrived at my Gyosoopso by 2pm or 3pm and then taught till about 9pm-10pm. I taught mostly from Monday-Friday, but also taught on Saturdays on certain years.
Once I got to my third year of business, I had very little to prepare since I was usually teaching the exact same curriculum and material as the year prior. If I had six different classes, then I might have did some preparation for one of the classes, but it was very systemized. However, year one was a lot of work.
For Flower Gift Korea, I would wake up in the morning, check the orders, see what flowers need to be bought, buy necessary flowers and supplies, go to our shop to make the flowers and gifts, deliver the gifts for the day, check social media and customer service, and then do some marketing. Honestly, everyday was different because the amount of orders was never consistent throughout the week. Some days we had just 1 and on super busy days we could have 100 plus. But super busy days weren’t very common.
Now, I will most likely go to a coffee shop to create content based on my experience as an entrepreneur / small businessman in Korea.
10. Where did your organization’s funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
We never used money from investors. Besides money we had saved up, we did get some business loans through some government programs that no longer exist. For IGL English, we got a 10 million won business line of credit, which we paid off within a year.
And for Flower Gift Korea, we got a 20 million won business loan through a government program when we shifted from online business to brick and mortar shop. My wife went through the process of getting the loan.
If you aren’t Korean, then the loans we got would not be possible for you. We basically had to show how much money we were currently making, how much rent we would be paying, and submit some other financial information. I unfortunately cannot go into detail about the whole loan process because I’m not very familiar with it.
11. What are your goals for your company?
I currently do not own a business, but I am currently focusing my efforts on creating helpful content for EntrepreneurKorea.com I’ve always wanted to teach others how to do business in Korea and share my experiences as well. I plan on writing a book or a few on doing business in Korea and life as an entrepreneur in Korea. For now, I will focus on content creation and if anyone wants me to create content on something specific, I welcome the suggestion.
12. What advice would you give to individuals who want to launch a startup in South Korea?
Start small and start right now. If you fail, learn from it and adjust. Don’t be one of those guys that talks about your idea for years and then complains that someone stole your idea and then uses that as an excuse to feel sorry for yourself.
If you are still scared, learn more about doing business in Korea and learn some helpful skills. Learning Korean is a very useful skill to have. Depending on the startup you launch, you may not need Korean, but the ability to use Korean when necessary can only be a benefit.
To learn more about Tony Choi and read additional business advice check out his website Entrepreneur Korea
If you plan on opening a business in South Korea check out the Facebook group Entrepreneurs In Seoul.
If you liked this interview check out similar posts:
Written by: Tony Choi
Interviewed by: Erica Dozier