In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Korean beauty is a bona fide phenomenon in the United States, and Charlotte Cho can take a good chunk of the credit for that. Early on, she talked to media outlets about the infamous Korean 10-step skin care regimen, it resonated with readers, and voilà — a viral beauty phenomenon was born.
Cho, who grew up in California with Korean parents, was not a convert to K-beauty originally. "I cared more about perfume and designer jeans than skin care," she says. "I always thought it was something you had to care about when you were older and worried about wrinkles." Her mom would buy beauty products at small local Korean supermarkets, but Cho wanted nothing to do with that. Then, after college, she got the opportunity to work for Samsung in Seoul, where her beauty obsession — and a business idea — took hold.
After "going wild" with beauty products in Seoul and seeing how excited her friends in the States were when she brought products back for them, she looked into e-commerce options. They were few and far between, and most were based in Korea, meaning that shoppers had to contend with labeling they couldn't read and a long shipping wait.
Cho launched Sokoglam, an e-commerce site specializing in Korean beauty products, from her Seoul apartment in 2012. Today, she has a staff of eight full-time employees in New York City, the business has experienced exponential growth and she can add “author” to her list of accomplishments. (You can snag her first book, The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin, starting on Tuesday.)
We spoke with Cho about her path to becoming a K-beauty guru by the age of 30, what it's like to run a business with her husband — who is her company's co-founder — and much more. Read on to find out how the entrepreneur is making it in the beauty business.
Why and when did you decide to launch Sokoglam?
My husband and I both have an entrepreneurial spirit; we both come from a family of entrepreneurs and always wanted to start something [together]. It just made perfect sense. Working at Samsung, I was doing international PR, and I had a great time introducing the press to Korean culture. I really wanted to do that for something I was super passionate about, which was beauty — especially since my whole skin care routine and beauty philosophy changed. I really thought this was something that I could bring to the US and people would be interested because it was so radically different and I saw results.
What were reactions from K-beauty brands when you approached them?
Definitely hesitant. They were more interested in the Chinese market. It was easy to break into those markets because everyone was already interested in Korean dramas and they were aware of Korea's beauty culture, so there was no education needed. It was like, where do we want to focus our energy — a country that barely knows about Korean beauty? It was a big road block. Now, Korean brands are very excited about the US market. Banilaco was the first, and Skinfood and Missha. I had about 20 products when I first started Sokoglam.
When you launched, what happened?
My husband and I were shocked because we had just launched the site and then two or three weeks later Daily Candy wrote a small article about it. It was literally three lines. We answered her questions, it went up, and we sold out within a few hours. Our site was so crappy, too! It was so bad, it was kind of in beta. We sold out so we had to go to Myeongdong [tourist shopping area in Seoul] and buy stuff in bulk at full price just to keep the momentum going.
Who was doing all the work?
We were manually writing the labels and creating one invoice and packing slip at a time. Our whole living room was filled with boxes. We definitely know how to tape boxes now! Now we have a fulfillment center. It was so fun, though. Getting that first order that's not from a friend or a family member is really exciting.
Did you have mentors or get any memorable advice when you first started?
We had a friend in Korea who was a CEO at an early age. She had her own designer firm. She said, "It's going to be a lot of work. It's not as glamorous as you think it's going be." And it's so true. I've worked regular jobs and I've never been so stressed in my life.
How many brands do you have now compared to when you launched?
We had maybe four or five brands at the time we launched and now we have 25. After two years of talking about K-beauty to the US market and gaining a really strong community on Sokoglam, Korean brands are now reaching out to us. We get a lot of requests from them but we have to turn down a lot, because I want to maintain the integrity of the curation on the site. I really like to find off-the-beaten-path brands and help them find success, too. Although Sokoglam was an e-commerce shop at first, it really has evolved into more of a beauty and lifestyle site. We post once a day now on our Klog. We don't just talk about K-beauty, but also culture and food and sometimes products that aren't Korean.
How did the book come about?
I was approached by an agency who saw some articles I wrote. They knew that Korean beauty was rising in the public interest so they asked me if I was interested in writing a book. They thought it was great timing and I would have the right voice for it. I was so busy with esthetician school and Sokoglam and it seemed like a huge daunting task I wasn't sure I was up for. That was last summer. I wasn't even sure it was a serious request. I ended up creating a book proposal in a matter of a few weeks, and all of these publishers were interested in it. Even my agent was shocked. Usually books are published in two to three years, but we made it a point to publish within a year. That was a really crazy feat.
There is lots of competition now in the K-beauty space. How does that challenge you as an entrepreneur?
There are a lot more K-beauty sites popping up. For us, we focus really on the integrity of the curation and making sure we provide both mainstream brands and hidden gems that are not as [well-known]. What really sets us apart is our community. We do have a lot of people who go to the Klog for their information and tips — I think that is really valuable. I think it's great that K-beauty is becoming more mainstream. The more people hear about it and learn about it, whatever channel it's from, I'm happy it's getting more play because I don't want this to be a trend.
How do you manage running everything?
I'm with [my husband] Dave 24/7. We don't spend time apart. People are like, "How do you guys do it?" It really works out well. There's no one I'd rather have done this with. You have that trust and that bond. He works on the numbers and operations side. He's a West Point vet and managed over a hundred soldiers in Iraq. He's an ex-army captain who knows way too much about cosmetics! He's also great at giving me pep talks, because I need a lot of them.
Where do you see yourself and your business in three to five years?
I want people to see Sokoglam as the most trusted Korean beauty and lifestyle site on the web and I really am looking forward to seeing more people get interested in Korean beauty. In LA and NYC they're all savvy now, but really making K-beauty more long-lasting and [well-known] throughout the whole country is a goal. One thing I've learned while running Sokoglam is how to push away doubt and fear. As an entrepreneur, I'm learning to come out of my comfort zone and say yes to more things. I was like, "I'm not a writer, who's going to give me a book deal?" But now that’s it's being published, I know I should never say I can't do things. It's been a wonderful experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed.