Before I was writing about startups for a living, I too dabbled in entrepreneurship.
The year was 2009, and I was waiting for university to start. Then, getting an internship didn’t even cross my mind because I just wanted to spend my last few months of freedom doing the things I love.
One of the things I loved (still do) was K-Pop – in particular, DBSK.
But beyond watching their videos (at 240p) on Youtube and downloading scans and clips from the massive fan community on Livejournal, I wanted to do something more.
And I wasn’t alone in this thought.
Meeting up with two friends who were also DBSK fans, we hatched an idea to turn our love for K-Pop into a business.
With nothing to lose, we got to work immediately.
We started with designing and selling screen-printed t-shirts, but after that proved too tedious, we printed our designs on pin badges, quickly realising how much higher the profit margins were for less effort put in.
Business was brisk, and we sold our creations to friends, to friends of those friends, and even to absolute strangers waiting in the line for K-Pop concerts to start.
We eventually put the business on indefinite hiatus after school started, but even with zero dollars spent on marketing, we managed to sell over 100 badges in barely a few months.
So when I heard about the trio behind KpopKart, an online K-Pop marketplace, I knew that I needed to tell their story.
3 SMU Undergrads Who Bonded Over K-Pop
KpopKart aims to be a one-stop platform for fans to browse and buy K-Pop products – whether they be creations of fan artists, or official fan merchandise.
Typically, buying K-Pop products is a messy, tedious process that involves trawling through blogshops and social media sites.
Due to a lack of regulation, however, instances of scams and sellers going MIA have emerged.
KpopKart co-founder and CEO Vera Sun (20) experienced this first-hand after attending the WHITE NIGHT concert by BIGBANG member Taeyang in 2017, and realised how difficult it was to purchase fan-made products.
It was around then that she started toying with the idea of creating an online marketplace revolving around official and unofficial K-Pop merchandise.
A fan of K-Pop since 2011, the second year law student was a member of SMU’s Investment club, and soon got acquainted with co-founder and CFO Janessa Sim (20).
Like Vera, second year accounting student Janessa is also a longtime K-Pop fan and loves K-drama, older K-Pop groups, and BTS.
In January 2018, the duo participated in a hackathon, but initially had no idea what business plan they were going to pitch.
Admitted Vera: “Most of our peers came prepared with an idea except for us.”
I then communicated my idea [of creating a K-Pop marketplace] to Janessa, and we decided to just present the idea we had in mind, as both of us were very interested in K-Pop and believed in the potential of that untapped market.
The judges didn’t take too kindly to the idea, however.
“They slammed it and did not think that it would be a feasible business,” shared Janessa.
“[There was also] uncertainty of whether such a marketplace was what K-Pop fans needed at the moment.”
With that advice in mind, they launched a store revolving around something else they loved – K-Pop idol-inspired fashion.
“We felt that clothes worn by idols are not easily accessible to fans, so we decided to start a store selling idol-inspired fashion, t-shirts, and hoodies.”
While they managed to secure a supplier from overseas for their products, their biggest challenge was getting traffic to their page.
To get around the problem, she took the online business offline, and visited the venues where K-Pop concerts were held to sell their products and gain more exposure.
She also makes sure to keep a large catalogue of different outfits to boost the frequency of purchases by interested customers.
“The store is still alive – @littlekpopwardrobe on Carousell,” quipped Vera.
From K-Pop Idol Fashion To K-Pop Merchandise
Even though business took off, the duo still felt like they needed to “add more value to the community”.
“There was a much bigger [issue] to tackle – the problem of the unregulated space [of K-Pop merchandise] which was causing recurring stress to fellow K-Pop fans.”
LittleKpopWardrobe also served as a proof of concept to show that K-pop products were in demand.
Without wasting any time, they revived their old business plan, but soon faced a roadblock – they needed a CTO that could build and maintain the website.
Confiding in her friend about the hurdle they faced, Vera was introduced to Moh Moh San (25), who was coincidentally both a “superb coder and avid lover of K-Pop”.
Just like her other 2 co-founders, Moh Moh is a longtime K-Pop and K-drama fan (who also loves BTS), and they immediately clicked over their common vision of a K-Pop marketplace for fan-made merchandise.
A competent coder, Moh Moh gained her coding experience from interning at the Future Cities Laboratory in NUS and working at influencer marketing startup Popular Chips.
“Her technical prowess made her the perfect co-founder KpopKart needed,” beamed Vera.
Overcoming Doubts And Winning NUS UNICON 2019
As a startup revolving around the K-Pop industry, which can be seen as ‘fluff’ compared to those with a focus on ‘heavier’ fields, Janessa recalled that many did not take them seriously initially.
“We also struggled as none of us had any business education or background aside from LittleKpopWardrobe. Credibility was a key issue for us, so we had to do something about it.”
Unfazed, they worked even harder to refine their pitches to mentors and investors, and even won the grand prize at a pitching competition at UNICON 2019, a two-day conference for international student entrepreneurs.
Selling Merch To Fans In Over 20 Countries, Looking To Raise $400k Angel Round
KpopKart officially launched on the 6th of February this year, and while they struggled to gain credibility at the start, they have managed to sell over 100 products in over 70 sales transactions within 1.5 months.
Currently, 95% of their customers come from overseas, with 80% of them being based in the US.
“That said, we are already transacting across more than 20 countries. We are confident of the international nature of our business and are looking to create something for the world to be our audience,” said Vera.
Running on their cash prize from UNICON 2019 and an Acceleration Grant of $10,000 by SMU’s startup incubator, Vera shared that currently, they’re still not monetising the business.
We are at a stage where scaling matters most to us, so we will only start to monetise when we hit our target customer traffic.
They are, however, looking to raise an angel round of “around $250k to $400k” and “have been in touch with angel investors” recently.
“We will be using the funding to build an official website for KpopKart with in-house tech developers on payroll. We will also use the proceeds to fund marketing campaigns and host K-Pop related events to help create a stronger branding for KpopKart.”
Their vision for their startup journey doesn’t just end at a K-Pop marketplace, though.
“We have aims to become more of a social-commerce platform, where K-Pop users can create their own K-Pop related content aside from just shopping for products.”
“We hope to also be able to branch out to other niche industries.”
Check out KpopKart here!
Featured Image Credit: KpopKart, Mochi Pins