When I caught up with Charlotte Cho, she had just moved her Soko Glam team from a co-working space downtown to a sprawling, bright and airy mid-town high rise. Watching her in action among her 25-person team, it’s easy to forget that the business started with just two people – Charlotte and husband Dave – in their small apartment in Korea.
Korean beauty is big deal today but that wasn’t the case when the pair started back in 2012. In fact, it’s fair to say that Charlotte Cho and Soko Glam have been responsible for the K-beauty phenomenon in the US.
Today, Soko Glam not only sells the best curation of K-beauty products out there, Charlotte and her team are have a hand in curating the Korean products in big stores like Sephora and Urban Outfitters.
She’s a true powerhouse but what strikes me most about her is how refreshingly open she is about the steps she’s taken to get here. In today’s interview she opens up about the challenge to get Korean brands on board in the early days and how she managed to overcome it. She reveals she waited three years before seeking outside investment and why she wouldn’t change it if she had to do it again. And what she’s learned about building a winning team.
I started out at an advertising agency in Orange County, California for one year before getting an offer from Samsung, in Seoul South Korea. Little did I know when I accepted the offer that I would spend 5 amazing years in Seoul and meet my future husband and co-founder Dave. I didn’t have a makeup or beauty background, but was fascinated with Korean beauty and how innovative and high quality the products were, especially after it changed my skin. After launching Soko Glam, we received many specific questions about skincare and techniques, so I went to aesthetician school to learn more about the science of the skin so that I could provide more thorough and helpful answers to people facing skin issues.
ON SPOTTING A GAP IN THE SKINCARE MARKET
It was the genuine love for Korea and the products that changed my skin which inspired me to start Soko Glam. I adopted the skin-first philosophy while living in Seoul and as a result, I saw my skin and confidence transform. It was then that knew that I had to share everything I had learned. My friends were also so excited for me to bring back products from Korea whenever I visited home for the holidays because Korean beauty products were not only readily available in the US, but no one understood which brands or products actually worked! That’s when Dave and I had the lightbulb moment to create a curated site of Korean beauty products that people could easily access in the US and a curation they could trust.
WHAT MAKES SOKO GLAM DIFFERENT FROM OTHER K-BEAUTY DESTINATIONS
From the start, I wanted to make sure Soko Glam was curated with brands and products that people in Korea were using and were excited about. Without having to pay for a ticket to go to Korea, you can trust that all the brands and products available on Soko Glam are either tried and true brands (Etude House, Missha, Skinfood, Banila Co, etc) or up-and-coming brands (COSRX, Hanskin, Klavuu) in Seoul. With thousands of brands coming out of Korea a year, I believe curation is everything, and the selection we have is unparalleled.
We also focus on skincare education, through The Klog – which I hope will become the resource for skincare and beauty trends, as well as a community where you can really connect with others. One testament to our community is the reviews customers leave behind and the engagement we have on social media. They go in depth with their feedback and their suggestions, which is amazing. We also offer one-on-one skin consultations over email or on the phone, which can get you started on your skincare routine.
We also work directly with all our brands and have great, long-term partnerships with them. Most people don’t know this but it takes a lot of time and money to get all products FDA approved for the US and cleared via customers, and many sites out there (especially ones based in Korea are running it through the right processes or work as an authorized reseller). It matters what you put on your skin, so we make sure everything is done the right way.
Soko Glam not only sells direct to consumer on Sokoglam.com, but we also help curate Korean products to other larger retailers such as Sephora and Urban Outfitters. Our goal is to make Korean beauty more mainstream, so we encourage educating others on the benefits of using Korean beauty products, regardless if it is sold on Soko Glam or not.
THE CHALLENGE GETTING K BRANDS ON BOARD IN THE EARLY DAYS
Initially they were so focused on the demand in Asia for their products, the US wasn’t their priority. Soko Glam was a small startup, but we were able to show them early on that we were passionate about their products and could share their unique story about their products to the US.
ON PUTTING K-BEAUTY ON THE MAP IN THE US
The term “K-beauty’ was not mainstream when I first began my outreach to beauty editors and first started speaking about it in 2012. It was a topic discussed amongst a small group of bloggers and some Korean supermarkets would have a tiny selection of Korean beauty products but no one was talking about it in a way that people could relate to it.
Korean beauty has been able to grow quickly into the mainstream beauty space because the products actually deliver results and thanks to social media. The industry is no longer dictated by large marketing budgets, so you can gain market share just by having an exciting product that delivers results. Because Korean products are inexpensive, innovative and effective, people were genuinely excited about it. With that said, Korean beauty is really more than just about one cleanser or sheet mask, it was the skincare philosophy that got people to think more about their skin.
FINANCING THE BUSINESS & GETTING IT OFF THE GROUND
It was a full-time business for me and Dave since day 1 in December of 2012. Now we’re at a team of 25! We bootstrapped our business for 3 years. Then, in January of 2016 we received 2 million in angel funding from strategic investors. It helped us focus on hiring the right people to continue our growth. The first five steps we took to launch were not very glamourous! It involved a lot of research (from ecommerce to taxes), procuring a curation of products we were proud of, learning how to take product photography, coming up with a name and finding someone to design a logo! In retrospect, we should have just hired someone to take photos, because ours were terrible. We realized over time that there are plenty of other people that can do it better, and you don’t have the luxury of time to learn how to do it from scratch. But all in all, I wouldn’t change how we started. We were very genuine about our love for Korean beauty and excited to share it with the US, and I truly believe nothing beats passion. Your heart will lead you in the right direction.
THE FEATURE ON THE BUSINESS THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
We started Soko Glam in December 2012, in our apartment in Seoul and would ship our products to the US using the Korean postal service. Shortly after launch, Tiffany Davis from Daily Candy asked if she could feature us. She wrote a short paragraph about Korean beauty and our site completely sold out of our inventory within a few hours. This got us really excited about the potential of Korean beauty in the US. After we moved to New York, I cold called and emailed a lot of beauty editors to spread the word about Korean beauty and I consider myself very fortunate that they were interested in learning more!
Our friends and family were big supporters from the start! We couldn’t have done it without them. Soon after we were covered in many publications from Into the Gloss, Glamour to The New York Times which really drove a lot of traffic to our site, many of which became loyal customers!
WHAT SPARKED THE IDEA FOR HER BOOK, THE LITTLE BOOK OF SKIN CARE
I was a guest writer and columnist on Korean beauty products, techniques and trends for sites such as Refinery29, Teen Vogue and Into the Gloss. An agent read my work and was excited about the rise of Korean beauty and reached out to me! She said I was the perfect person to write a book about Korean beauty, and admittedly, at first I did not believe her because I had never considered writing a book in my life. I’m glad I eventually did, because my went on to be a best seller and it has been translated into several different languages.
FYI – YOU’RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR TEAM
Soko Glam is comprised of really hardworking and smart team members, and I’m so proud to work alongside them. But more than their ability to execute, their kindness and genuine feelings to other team members is what really makes me happy and proud of what we have built. We’re really selective about who we bring onto our team because we want to make sure we built a team that fits the Soko Glam culture.
When we were first starting out, I trained myself to say yes to everything! Regardless of how insecure I was about pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Now that we’ve grown, I’m now challenging myself to know how to prioritize and when to say “no.”
RUNNING A BUSINESS WITH HER HUSBAND
Dave and I work on separate things. I’m more involved on content, marketing and curation, while he’s building culture, and dealing with the numbers. But we’re such a nimble and lean team that wears many hats, we often do work together on many projects.
We can’t help but talk about Soko Glam 24/7, it’s our baby and we’re so passionate about what we do and how we can do better. While some may think it’s bad to constantly bring work home, I believe it’s a gift that we can share and experience growing Soko Glam together.
SUCCESS ON YOUR OWN TERMS
Success is relative, and it means different things to different people. To me, being successful does not mean tons of money or influence, but being able to do something I love and being proud of my work. I’m fortunate to say that with Soko Glam, I have achieved my definition of success but I won’t rest on my laurels and take this opportunity for granted. I will continue to work hard and strive to evolve, challenge and improve myself.
They say that you can be your own worst critic. I’m guilty of that. But I’m proud that I’ve been able to push past my insecurities, and accomplish things that I never dreamed of completing in my life. I never thought I could write a book, but I did and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
You are a work in progress. Embrace change and never stop learning.