Ever wonder what it’s really like starting a business? If you’ve ever chat with an entrepreneur, you know it’s no walk in the park. Getting something off the ground is hard work, but the experience of taking an idea from concept to reality is well worth the crazy, 24-7 rollercoaster ride.
Don’t believe us? Take it from Charlotte Cho, the mastermind behind Soko Glam, America’s first Korean beauty e-commerce destination. She started the K-beauty craze that’s completely transformed the beauty industry. We caught up with the entrepreneur to get the whole story behind the startup. She gave us the full scoop, from the wins to the losses. Read on to learn how she turned an interest into a full-blown international sensation.
Why did you start Soko Glam and what were you doing before?
“I was born to Korean parents and raised in California. I really wanted to live and work in Korea, so I moved after college. I worked at Samsung doing PR. I immediately fell in love with the culture and the beauty. Skincare isn’t a big focus in the US until you’re older. I learned a lot about skincare through Korean women. They were so savvy. That is one of the reasons Korean beauty is so innovative is because of the savviness of their customer base.
When I went back to the US, I really wanted to bridge the gap between the cultures, and I thought beauty would be an amazing topic. It was really hard to purchase these products in the US, so my husband and I started Soko Glam in 2012. It’s been 4 years of crazy, non-stop startup life, but it’s been such an awesome journey and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
What gave you the initial idea? Was there a big moment or conversation that started it all?
“Every time my husband and I would go back the US, we would stuff our suitcases with Korean beauty products. It was like Christmas. My friends and family always said they wished there was an easier way to get the products, and we thought we’d bring them to the US. So, we started the online store while still in Korea.
We had an editor write about us when we only had 20 products on the site (it was a really janky site) and everything sold out in a few hours. From there, we took it really seriously and made sure the curation was solid. We really wanted to focus on brands that were actually popular in Korea. We were actually the first company to bring the concept of K-beauty to New York. It’s really revitalized the entire beauty industry.”
In Korea, it seems skincare knowledge is passed down through women. Was that a major inspiration for you when you conceptualized Soko Glam?
“Yes, definitely. In Korea, skincare starts like a really young age. At Korean saunas, you see grandmother’s exfoliating their granddaughter’s bodies. It starts really early, much earlier than the US. You also see mother’s pushing baby strollers and they have entire contraptions that protect their children from sun exposure. We knew American women would fall in love with this tradition too.”
The business has been so successful all these years. Were there any obstacles in the beginning?
“Moving from a very corporate position to startup life was very daunting. When we moved to New York, I felt compelled to apply to other jobs, because I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to work out. And New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so it was just that fear of not having that stability. Every month I would say I was going to start a new job, but Dave, my husband, gave me great advice. He would always say, ‘If you’re never going to give this 100%, this will always be a side job. Give it 100% for a full year and then reevaluate.’ He was right. You might as well just focus. And that really helped in the beginning.”
Did you have a mentor that helped you along the way?
“If you’re stuck in a situation where you don’t have a lot of knowledge about what you want to do, just reach out. People are eager to help you. It just takes one phone call. You just have to ask. Even if you get shut down, you have to be persistent.
Everybody you meet, you should be good to them. There are so many people in my life I would have never thought would help me, but they really came through when I started Soko Glam. For example, my former boss became so interested in the business. He felt the potential and eventually joined on full-time. He was our third employee.”
How would you describe your personal style as an entrepreneur?
“Because it’s very go go go, and I want to be relaxed, I’m all about the tomboy-ish, menswear stuff. I don’t typically wear lots of skirts and dresses unless I have events, but I love relying on Unlimited to help me dress up a bit. At the end of the day, I just want to be comfortable.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE CHO