As part of the new wave of entrepreneurs coming out of the British Chinese community, Nee Hao Magazine has been speaking to the brave pioneers to learn about their motivations, the challenges and the ideas with the hope of raising their profile and inspiring even more innovation from the community.
Reported by Johnny Luk, Guest Editor and CEO of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs
British Chinese entrepreneur, Diana Chan, Founder of Inspire Me Korea
Tell me about your story – what is your background?
I am the Founder and CEO of Inspire Me Korea – a subscription box service that was launched in February 2016 to provide boxes filled with fun items from South Korea. I graduated last year from UCL with a BASc (Bachelors of Arts and Science) degree, studying a range of disciplines including Economics, Geography, Japanese, Marketing, Entrepreneurship and more! I find that those who studied on our course are quite torn once graduating and that was no exception for me!
How and why did you start this venture?
Being British born Chinese, it is fascinating to learn about Asian cultures whilst living in the UK, to further understand my roots and connect because it is so hard to really learn about Asian culture living abroad.
I discovered Kpop at Chinese school five years ago and this led to a snowball effect, I started watching Korean films, dramas and eating Korean food! To this day, I haven’t been able to move on… After finishing my degree I made a solo trip to South Korea for a month and I cannot explain just how much it has changed my life. It was definitely the most memorable trip I’ve made.
When I came back to the UK, I was just miserable. I noticed the beauty of South Korea and how much their culture is in line with my perspective and the way I would like to live. I spent time researching how I can find a job there, or land myself a job in the UK that would eventually send me there. In the end, I decided to bring South Korea here – through my subscription box. I knew that there must be people who want to discover more about South Korea and their vibrant culture.
Why focus on Korea?
South Korea has a special place in my heart. This is partly through the rapidly growing entertainment industry, but also the people that I met in Korea. I can see that there are so many people in the UK who have the same pain point as I – the inability to access Korean products, or at least at reasonable prices without extortionate shipping charges and waiting time.
What are the challenges in doing a start up?
I don’t know where to start! I think I can split this into physical challenges and mental challenges.
Firstly as an inexperienced founder, there are so many things you need to deal with on a day to day basis. You have to be the marketer, accountant, web designer, customer service, you name it. There will be activities that you love, but things you hate too. You will have many priorities to juggle, and at those times, you will wish you could duplicate yourself!
In terms of mental challenges, entrepreneurship is all about risks and uncertainty. Having started my company at the age of 21, I was naive, young and unfamiliar with the startup world. I knew what I wanted to do and had the vision in my head. I just had to deliver to make this a tangible project. With so much passion and enthusiasm to make it happen, I still woke up every day with some doubt that I will be able to pull through.
It put a lot of pressure on me; not only because I had no idea what I was doing, but also because there will be people who put you down. There will be people who do not understand your idea, they will look down on you for not ‘getting a proper job’, and they will laugh at you. It doesn’t get to me as much any more because after launching my company, progress is very evident, but before launching I was afraid to tell anyone about my idea, I would try to avoid the conversation which starts with ‘so, what do you do?’
What’s the most surreal thing that has happened so far?
Seeing people hold my magazine that I’ve written and reading it, and when customers tag us on social media with photos of their boxes still makes my heart leap for a second.
I recently met a customer/fan who handmade a necklace and bookmark with our logo on it. I still can’t quite digest it, but I walk around showing it off to all my friends (haha)!
What’s the feeling of making your first sale?
I remember this very clearly, even though I was half asleep! I was working late the night before to prepare for the launch of the website. I woke up and just made the website live. About six minutes later, I thought to myself ‘I’ve never seen what the backend orders page looks like’. I did not expect to see 10 subscriptions already signed up – that feeling was phenomenal. I felt like a child on Christmas day.
Is it particularly hard for a British Chinese/ female founder?
I feel like either of these factors has not majorly played in the process of entrepreneurship for me so far. I have received a lot of positive energy from everyone, so this never actually crossed my mind. I have been mistaken to be Korean many times, which doesn’t matter too much to me, but it often makes people impressed that a non Korean is interested in spreading awareness of Korean culture!
What are the perks of doing a start up?
You can wear your pyjamas whilst you work! To have freedom to do as you wish. I don’t have to be stuck in an office, I can have meetings all across London, and I can keep creating things and being able to share what I’ve created with like-minded people motivates me to continue to work hard.
Also, without my startup, I wouldn’t have met so many amazing people who run their own businesses or met other Korean culture fanatics. My customers sometimes email me for a casual chat about Korean things and it makes my day!
How do you gain market traction, following, exposure?
I think making meaningful partnerships, connecting with other influential people which are aligned with your mission is important. Cross promoting and word of mouth will help too. If your product really solves a problem, it will speak for itself, so as long as the right people hear about it, they will be interested.
What lessons can you give to anyone aspiring to follow your footsteps?
I would say to do the research. If you want to become an entrepreneur you should explore anything and everything about the market, potential customers, competitors and more. The worst thing is working hard on something and realising that the market doesn’t need your product.
You also need to ensure that this is something you won’t be bored of it in a few years. Due to the multitude challenges, you need to be a strong, resilient and passionate character to be able to keep going.
I wish anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur good luck!
What’s the next step?
Since Inspire Me Korea has just launched, there are so many things I would like to do in terms of design, products, marketing, and there are many opportunities to collaborate with lots of entities so I am really excited to keep working on these aspects.
Inspire Me Korea is now live – to explore more, have a look here