SEOUL — When Erin Lim had her first baby three years ago, she never set out to start a company. She was desperate for a product that could help her carry her son with less pain, as her neck hurt every time she held him.
“Products that hold the baby tightly and safely look ugly. But if they look fashionable, they don’t do their job properly,” Lim said.
While she was struggling to solve the problem from a consumer’s perspective, her husband, Kim Dong-hyun, told her that instead of trying to find the perfect product, it would be easier to make it.
This advice was no surprise coming from Kim, who discovered his entrepreneurial spirit in college when he launched a sound equipment business. He later went on to found TMON, a leading social commerce platform, with three co-founders. But Lim, a marketing strategist who joined TMON as its 30th employee, had never imagined herself running her own business.
“He told me that if I make a product I need, there probably are other people who need it,” Lim said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald. “In retrospect, the most difficult part was how long it took between deciding to make a product and actually producing a prototype.”
Thus, Kony By Erin, a startup that produces baby wraps, was born.
Since then, the company has really taken off.
Once they got that first baby wrap out of the way, selling 500 in two weeks, it all went relatively smoothly. The 3-year-old company says its revenue reached 14.7 billion won ($11.9 million) in 2019, up 194 percent from the previous year.
But this achievement would not have been possible if the company had relied solely on the South Korean market. With a fertility rate of 0.85 children per woman as of the fourth quarter of 2019, the country is home to a shrinking market for baby and children’s products.
Explosive demand from the Japanese market, as well as from the US and Singapore, fueled the company’s growth. Its overseas revenue, which comes from more than 50 countries, makes up more than 80 percent of its total revenue.
Lim and Kim, who is now chief operating officer of Kony By Erin, attributed the company’s development to social media marketing and to a seamless global delivery system that made global expansion possible from the get-go.
The first baby slings, made by Lim, went viral among new mothers and spread via word of mouth to become especially popular in Asian markets. Being able to ship them directly to customers was important because it provided a way to gather feedback. This is how the company improved its products. Direct shipping is an especially big advantage now that everything from shopping to education is upended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Due to COVID-19, Amazon.com has stopped offering premium delivery on baby wraps, on the grounds that they are not essential products.” As a mother of a newborn, however, Lim thinks baby wraps are not luxuries. “For those who just had a baby, holding their baby is something essential.”
A new breed
Maybe due to this company’s origins as a passion project, Lim sought flexibility above all else and thus created a rather unique corporate culture.
Even before COVID-19 forced people into lockdown and got more people working remotely, Kony By Erin was already based online. Lim and her 15-member team — 14 of whom are moms — meet once a month. The company has no offline stores.
“I wanted a job which allows me to work and take care of my kid simultaneously. I wasn’t sure whether I could work 9-to-5, so I wanted to work flexible hours,” Lim said.
Kony By Erin does not run on a 9-to-5 schedule. Rather, employees decide their own goals for each month and work to accomplish them by the end of the month.
With the company growing fast, Lim and Kim have bigger ambitions.
“The ability to observe a company grow from 30 to 1,200 employees (at TMON) is a real asset and gave me a perspective on how to grow an organization,” said the husband, who said he is happy building the business together with his wife while raising their two sons and doesn’t feel the need to seek other business opportunities.
Our goal is to build up good products slowly at my own pace and make Kony a must-have brand for new parents,” Lim said.
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