Theo Lee is the co-founder and CEO of KPOP Foods, a food brand inviting people to discover and enjoy Korean food and flavors through their products.
Mike Kim and Theo started KPOP Foods during the final quarter of their MBA program at UCLA Anderson. Before starting KPOP Foods, Theo worked in energy finance at OneWest Bank and then served as the Manager of Finance for an early-stage fintech startup. Theo is a big UCLA sports fan, and in his free time, he can be found training in Krav Maga, hiking, snowboarding, or doing anything outdoors.
Q: What would you like to see your team accomplish in 2019?
Following our Kickstarter campaign, in which we raised 376% of our goal, we ran into a lot of challenges, especially since neither Mike nor I had any background in e-commerce, consumer products, or food (Mike served in the army before coming to UCLA Anderson). One was growing our revenues with limited capital.
I remember when we first began selling on Amazon, we only sold like five bottles the first week. It was pretty depressing, but after doing some research and fixing several things, we soon became the #1 new selling chili sauce on Amazon for three consecutive months.
We were also fortunate to get some local PR which allowed us to enter several local grocery stores. Alongside revenue, fundraising was too hard. While I had some previous experience, fundraising from investors was a full-time job as I was constantly working on pitch decks, reaching out to potential investors, and driving around to take meetings. Thankfully we had some positive traction, and it was enough for us to bring on some early investors.
Overall, as an early-stage company, there are always so many things that need to be done, from operations, product development, sales, financing, etc. Given the resource limitations, it’s essential to prioritize and focus on critical aspects of the business. We were fortunate to get that sort of mentorship early on, and this helped us during the early stages.
Q: Who is your role model or hero?
My co-founder, Mike Kim. His leadership and work ethic are incredible and inspire many people and me at KPOP Foods to work harder. He’s also just an incredible person, and you can see that through his family and friends.
Q: What is your favorite book?
Shoe Dog – just an incredible story of how Nike got to where it is today.
Q: Do you use any specific method or system to run daily operations?
To help keep track of where things are, I like to write things down on paper or a whiteboard and organize it via business unit or function. For example, in marketing, I’ll write down all of the key projects and initiatives. Then every two weeks or so, I’ll meet with people for 15-20 minutes to talk about how things are progressing, where he or she may need help, and get key updates.
Q: Why did you choose your present industry at this time?
Korean food and flavors have grown a tremendous amount the past couple of years thanks to celebrity chefs, such as Roy Choi, David Chang, and Anthony Bourdain, shining light on Korean food. Korean BBQ has also become an enormous trend/experience and has served as an incredible gateway for newcomers to try Korean food. Combining all of this with social media and how it can be used as an avenue to educate and inform people to new things, we believe there was no better time to start KPOP Foods.
Q: What is the best/worst moment you can remember in your career?
One of the most stressful times was when we were in the middle of our equity crowdfunding campaign on SeedInvest. As part of the campaign, our minimum fundraising amount was set at $200,000, and if we didn’t hit that amount, all of the capital raised would be sent back to the investors. It was a stressful time as we were constantly reaching out to potential investors, taking meetings, discussing aspects of the business, and providing further due diligence materials.
While we realized we weren’t a perfect investment for a lot of people, it was still really hard to take rejections, and this led to thoughts about failure and how we’d let people down, both our employees, friends, and supporters. On the final day of the campaign, I remember waking up, and we were at $177,000. It was a crazy couple of hours reaching out to potential investors who were on the fence, and somehow, we ended up surpassing the minimum and finishing the campaign with $217,100.
I’ll forever remember that time, and we’re always incredibly thankful to the community of supporters that helped us during that time.
Q: Looking back – if you could advise a younger version of yourself to do something different – what would it be?
I would encourage my younger self to be more open to different types of internships and work experiences, especially in college. I ended up taking on a lot of finance-oriented internships as I knew I wanted to work in financing and banking upon graduation.
However, today, I see a lot of college students working at startups and many different companies in various verticals and industries. I wish I could’ve had this experience early on, just to learn see and learn more. It also would’ve been great to get an internship working internationally and seeing how business is done outside the US.
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