Vivian Ke, Story Seoul

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Story Seoul is your first business. What motivated you to start it?
Many years of working for other people and coming from an immigrant background. My family emigrated from Korea to Canada and they worked really hard so I inherited a strong work ethic from them. Unfortunately, a strong work ethic can be challenging when you are working for other people because you put in 110% but might still not be able to do what you really want to do. I have a lot of energy and passion, and I want to do something that I really believe in.

When we moved to Thailand, we initially lived in Phuket. At that time, I was also spending a lot of time in Seoul and I learned more about Korean skincare and cosmetics. It’s such a competitive industry and they are about 10-12 years ahead of western cosmetics because Korean women are constantly demanding better and more affordable products. I have very sensitive skin and used to get frequent allergic reactions so I was looking for clean products. The problem is that a lot of products contain ingredients that we are not even aware of and that we might be allergic to. I realized there was an opportunity to create something healthier, removing a lot of the common ingredients found in skincare. My original plan was to import cosmetics from Korea but I ended up producing my own instead.

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  • What were the key steps of turning your idea into Story Seoul? I did research on 342 companies in Korea that do formulation and manufacturing to pick the ones I wanted to work with. I had a list of criteria I was looking for. When a company met all those criteria, I would then test their products. I worked in finance for many years and had to constantly learn about new companies in different industries. Those skills turned out to be extremely useful in setting up Story Seoul.

    I hired an R&D team to formulate the products I wanted and then I found a manufacturer. Because it was a new brand and I needed to gain credibility, and to ensure safety and good quality control, I chose a manufacturer with the highest standards. It took about a year from the time I started working on it to the time I launched in Thailand. I registered Story Seoul in December 30th, 2014 and the products arrived in November 2015. For a very long time I wanted to start something but I didn’t know exactly what it was so when I found what I was looking for, I was very determined to make it happen.

“Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you want to do but you know there is something you need to do. And then as you keep searching and meeting people and exploring, it comes to you and then you know.”

What do you enjoy most about what you do? Connecting with people and sharing something that it’s healthy. I want to improve people’s quality of life. I also enjoy the constant learning that comes with it. It’s very satisfying.

What has been the steepest learning curve in growing Story Seoul? The steepest learning curve has been adapting to the cultural differences. I thought that because I am a woman and I am Asian, it would be easier to relate to other Asian women. I have learned that the Thai culture and the psychology of the consumer are quite different than what I was used to. Many people are not that health-conscious and don’t pay much attention to the ingredients of the products they buy and put on their skin. They often pay more attention to other things – what the media says or how the package looks like. I had to learn how to tell my story in a way that resonates with my target market here in Thailand. That’s been my biggest learning curve.

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  • Looking back, what would you do differently? My biggest regret was that I didn’t start branding before the products arrived to Thailand. At that time I thought, ‘How can I sell something that is not here yet?’ I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Looking back, I have realized that I could have started sharing my story then because I already knew my concept and I already knew how I wanted women to feel by using my products. It’s about building brand awareness from early on.

    What are the key lessons you have learned so far? I learned to be more patient. I used to be very impatient. When I was applying for FDA approval in Thailand, I got really worked out over the delays and wasted so much energy. Then it all came together. I learned that if you are doing all the right things, it’s going to happen even if it might not be exactly when you want it to be.

    I have also learned that the most important thing is that you try every day. There are so many days that I was so beaten down, so discouraged by miscommunication, unfortunate events, people trying to cheat me, lost in translation moments, but you just have to keep going.

The mindset should be that you can’t give up. Even if you are discouraged, you have to keep going. Even if it’s only an hour a day you put into it, is better than not doing anything at all.

Worst & Best Advice you have ever received? When I was in Korea and I was developing the concept for Story Seoul, some people told me that I couldn’t do it. I had never had a business before, had no experience in skincare therefore I shouldn’t do it. The best advice I have ever received was that these are personal opinions and they are reflection of those people’s limitations, not mine. If I wanted to do it, I should do it.

I really believe in the saying ‘there is nothing in the world that cannot be done’. If you put your mind to something, you can make it happen.

What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? Invest in knowledge. Read to stay up to date with industry trends and developments. Meet as many people as possible and listen and learn from them. Find your tribe to share that energy and encourage each other. Celebrate the little victories – getting into this distribution channel, the first sale. The first time of everything is the most amazing feeling – I love it.

What’s next for Story Seoul? We are in the process of finalizing new products to launch in Thailand. It’s going to be sunscreen SPF 50, serum, and eye cream. We are also working on expanding our presence in the region so it’s a lot of exciting developments coming up for us.

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