Soko Glam co-founder Charlotte Cho tells Ann about the special, terrifying, intimidating moment when her dream became her career. She also discusses how she learned to invest in her company and herself.
CHARLOTTE CHO: I was trudging through the snow in one of the worst winters in New York City. I was going to a Brooklyn Night Bazaar, and I was carrying a suitcase full of these Korean beauty products. And then just, everything was drenched. I was in tears. I got there, but then, no one was even there because it was snowing so hard. And so we spent a lot of money to even have that set up. And I was thinking, “What am I doing? Is this what I should be doing?”
ANN FRIEDMAN: Charlotte Cho is the founder of Soko Glam, an online marketplace for Korean skincare products. She launched it in 2012 with her husband Dave as honestly? Just kind of a side project. Today, it’s one of the largest retailers of Korean Beauty, or K-Beauty for short, in the United States. Charlotte is a top “skinfluencer” — is that a word? It should be—but it took her a really long time to figure out that skincare was her “thing.” She was a big believer in skincare but had a hard time believing it could be her career.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It: a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
On this episode: What happens when you just can’t commit—to your career, or to your dream?
CHO: This is really embarrassing to admit—I did not like washing my face at night. And so my mom would be horrified. My mom tried to get me into skincare but I didn't want to listen to her. I was so busy being rebellious and just going to the beach and not wearing sunscreen. I was not about to listen to my mom. I was more interested in designer jeans or Juicy lip glosses or even make up. I was way more into makeup than I was into skincare because I thought skincare was something I'd worry about when I was much older.
FRIEDMAN: Right. And I think that, was kind of the dominant cultural thing in the U.S. at that time too. Like, Oil of Olay commercials like where it's like only when you're getting older and have wrinkles, would you care about skin care.
FRIEDMAN: So if skin care wasn’t something you were interested in when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
CHO: So that’s a great question. All throughout my college life I was trying to find myself trying to find myself, trying to to figure out what I was best at. And I was honestly very confused…
Definitely changing majors… a drama major… switched to film and media studies… political Science… I was part of this magazine… part-time jobs as a waitress… doing tons of internships… went to L.A. … went to Irvine… driving all over the place… And so it was a mess.
I was just exploring everything and anything I could do because I love learning the inner workings of how things work, but I never knew what was for me. I was kind of throwing stuff to the wall and was seeing what was sticking. And I ended up basically deciding that I wanted to go to Korea. And that’s when everything changed for me.
FRIEDMAN: Can you paint us a picture of what it felt like to you to be in Seoul for the first time?
CHO: So I remember coming down the elevator at the airport and then I was just surrounded by a sea of heads and they all had dark black hair, or they were brunette. It felt like being in a huge family. Everyone on every corner could be your uncle, could be your aunt, could be your brother, could be your sister—and they treated you that way. It did feel like I was somewhat part of a family. And I think maybe because I didn’t grow up with a ton of Koreans. It was so interesting and I felt really strangely at home.
Ann: So when were you introduced to Korean beauty?
CHO: Basically I was 22 when I went to Korea, and all of my friends and colleagues that were around the same age as me, they were shocked I didn’t have a skincare routine and I knew nothing about skincare.
FRIEDMAN: Could you talk me through what the routine is?
CHO: Yeah, well they call it the 10-step skincare routine. The first step is always the oil cleanse… add another cleanser… a water-based cleanser… so that’s called a double cleanse. Then you tone… essence after that… and then a serum… a sheet mask... an eye cream... an exfoliator…. You don’t have exfoliate every day but if you have time to exfoliate. Top it off with moisturizer … Then sunscreen as your last step.
FRIEDMAN: How did that come out with your colleagues, were you just chatting about it?
CHO: I would invite them over to my little studio in Seoul and they came and saw my vanity. And they were like “where's the rest of your skin care?” And I was just like… “uhhhh... this is my skincare routine” and they were so shocked and they essence shamed me.
FRIEDMAN: What is that?
CHO: There’s this product called “essence.” And I didn't have it nor did I know what it was. And so when they asked me like “what essence do you use?” I was like “what's in essence?” They shamed to me not knowing what that was. [laughs] So it was a huge learning curve for me.
FRIEDMAN: That is such a tell about how culturally important this was that they are not only are they looking in your vanity and admitting it to you but then they're going to like, roast you for it.
CHO: Yes. “She's never been to a Korean sauna before!” They just called it a jjimjilbang. “Oh my god, you must have layers of dead skin cells on your body!”
FRIEDMAN: Is this like generations of accepted cultural fact that a skin care routine matters, or is it still kind of new in 2008?
CHO: I think that's why Korean beauty is such a huge phenomenon in the U.S. right now. It's because it's not about one product or one trend. It's about the skin-first philosophy that has been around in Korea for centuries. They've always taken care of their skin, they always saw skin as kind of the pinnacle of beauty. Also when I went to bathhouses in Korea I noticed that the whole family would go. It would be the grandma, the mom, and the daughter. And so three generations would be there exfoliating their body, taking care of their skin, slathering on moisturizer. And I remember overhearing a conversation where the grandma would be telling her granddaughter, “Remember to always moisturize after you take a bath.” And she was explaining the importance of moisturizing. So it was just a different culture and it's ingrained at a very young age. Like we're taught you need to wash your hands up to use a restroom. That's a similar thing that's ingrained for Korean people when they're growing up. You must moisturize. You must exfoliate you must put on sunscreen and stay away from direct sunlight. It's just part of the culture.
FRIEDMAN: Right/ When you put it in those terms it makes a lot more sense that your co-workers would be like, “what is going on with your vanity?”
CHO: Exactly! They thought I was like a barbarian! But they took me under their wing and they taught me everything I needed to know.
FRIEDMAN: I assume you had a bunch of friends back in the U.S. right?
FRIEDMAN: And around the time that you start getting into this and having a routine, are you talking to them about it?
CHO: Yes. So I'm Google chatting them the whole time and I'm telling them that, “you got to try this, my skin has transformed.” Essences. You should know about sheet masks. And they're like, “yeah I kind of heard about that from my friend, but you can't get them over here.” They would also tell me like “also I don't know how to use it. Can you tell me like what step, and why I need to use it?” And they were just really confused about the whole thing, just as I was confused. So I was able to kind of handhold them and walk in the process. And then they got into it because I would ship them stuff or I'd bring them home when I went back home for vacation or whatever it was. And they wanted more.
Whenever I went home to California and I would obviously stay with my parents, my mom would compliment my skin. Actually my mom doesn't give a lot of compliments, so I knew something was up when she gave me that compliment and she said, “Your skin looks so good.” I was really shocked. And it felt really good because it was me. You know it wasn't just like, “oh, your lipstick looks great. What's the color?” It was inherently you. And I think that's what really attracts me to skincare because it's about you and your skin and everyone has skin and no matter what tone you are or what age you are, it's your skin, and so when someone compliments you, it feels really good.
FRIEDMAN: So, I know that you run your business with your husband Dave. How did you two meet, and did you already share a love for skin care?
CHO: I remember the first conversation we had about skin care. I basically was trying to show off all my knowledge and I expected him to know nothing because I stereotyped him. And thought he’s a guy, in the military. And he's just like me, he grew up in California, so he must know nothing about skin care. And when I told him about my routine he was like, Oh I do that. I do that too.
FRIEDMAN: A man who double cleanses!
CHO: It really works. I basically showed him my vanity. And I shared with him, you know, when I have dry skin I use these, and when it's a winter I uses this when it's spring... I basically listed everything that I did. And he was like, “Oh I use this sunscreen.” And I was like, “What?! No you’re stealing my thunder!” So he was actually very into skincare.
FRIEDMAN: So did it become a shared hobby?
CHO: Dave and I would go back to California together for the holidays and we'd bring back so many products. We felt like kind of like Santa Claus every Christmas we knew exactly what to get.
FRIEDMAN: Did you have like a suitcase full of products?
CHO: A suitcase full of products. It was years later when I realized I became this go-to source for Korean beauty and skincare and I love how fulfilling it was when people mentioned, “oh my god, I got a compliment on my skin the other day!” And how happy that made me feel. I just realized, “oh my gosh this is something that... this is my thing.”
FRIEDMAN: Were you immediately, like, now this is going to be my career, my business, my everything?
CHO: We were just looking for something creative to do on the weekends. And so because I was so passionate about skin care and because I was just really into sharing my tips and my favorite products, we said, “hey, how about we just create this little shop online that lists all of our favorite products and we're able to provide access to people that want it?”
FRIEDMAN: I'm curious about as you're setting up the website and doing all this stuff, what were your expectations for what it was, or what it would be?
CHO: Again, it was such a passion project that we didn't really have any aspirations to make this our livelihood. And it's funny because when I would share this idea with friends, they would say a lot of negative things. Not a bad way. They're just saying—keep in mind this since 2012 when no one was really trusting buying cosmetics online—and they're like “I don't know if people would want to buy something online they've never touched, felt, or even heard of. Who would trust that?”
FRIEDMAN: So you had kind of thought that you're going to move to New York, Dave’s gonna go to business school and you're going to apply for P.R. jobs, maybe?
CHO: Yeah, I think that was basically the plan.
FRIEDMAN: And then what happened when you got to New York?
CHO: So, I started brushing up my resumé because I was like, OK, well, we are living the most expensive city in the world. I no longer have a job. We're living off of our savings. Dave also is not making any money anymore so...
FRIEDMAN: I’m sweating.
CHO: Someone's got to pay the bills. I started thinking about it seriously, and started job searching.
FRIEDMAN: So and at that point, Soko Glam is taking up 20 hours a week? More? How big a part of your life is it?
CHO: Well at that time because I was now moved to New York City and I wasn't working a full time job, it was my full time job. Soko Glam was... I was working on it day and night. And then there was this moment when DailyCandy—I don't know if you remember that—I love DailyCandy, too bad it doesn't exist anymore
CHO: I love that.
FRIEDMAN: Maybe you could explain what it is for people who are listening who don't know.
CHO: DailyCandy I think was one of the first online magazines and they did such a good job because they covered such interesting topics. They covered a lot of start-ups and small businesses. It's no longer around. But they wrote this tiny blurb about going to Soko Glam to find your favorite Korean beauty products that you can't get in the U.S. And so that article went out and we expected nothing. We didn't know how big DailyCandy was. And we sold out.
I remember that moment, because the orders kept coming through, and we sold out of every single product within a couple of hours. And we saw from the orders that most of these people didn't have Korean last names like Kim, Lee or Park. And so we were like “oh my gosh, non-Asians are loving this!”
FRIEDMAN: And that was a surprise?
CHO: Because we didn't really explain what it was, and we thought maybe it was too foreign for them to really trust it. And so it was really great to see that people who are non-Asian were really curious and excited and willing to purchase these products they have never heard of.
FRIEDMAN: Is that when you started to feel the momentum change for the company?
CHO: It started to pick up, I mean after the DailyCandy mention some other editors reached out and organically started asking questions about these products, and so I started doing P.R. for Soko Glam. I was in New York City—mecca of all of these beauty publications—and so I would cold-tweet and cold-email these editors and try to get in front of them and tell them about Korean beauty.
FRIEDMAN: Was it a tough sell?
CHO: At the time when I was cold-tweeting and cold-emailing, I would ask them, do you know what K-Beauty is? And they're like “Oh yeah yeah yeah. Kardashian Beauty?” [laughs] So that's the thing that got me. And I was like, “No no no, it's actually quite the opposite of that. But let me explain it to you…”
So that's how it all began and they were really receptive to it because the products were really truly unique and different and they never heard of it before and they never had anyone explain it to them. So it caught on. And they would introduce me to their editor friends at another publication and it just kind of snowballed.
Things started to stack up. We bought filing cabinets and different pieces of furniture just to help organize the inventory we had in our apartment. We had to sell off our TV and our TV stand because we just didn't have enough space for that and we never watched TV anyway. [laughs] And we also couldn't let anyone come over because it was just kind of a mess. And it was basically a warehouse. It was a fulfillment station. And so everything started to smell like cardboard, especially when it rained. And it was just filled with tons of office supplies and printers and packaging supplies tape. You name it, we had it.
FRIEDMAN: So it sounds like to me that this is your job. [laughs] You know when you moved to New York, even though maybe that wasn't the plan...
CHO: I definitely put my heart and soul into Soko Glam because I was so passionate about it. I think it didn’t register with me at that time that, wow, that this passion project that I’m really excited about and I feel that people are really loving, could really sustain me, and be my livelihood.
FRIEDMAN: Did it feel like it was sustaining you? Or did it feel—it sounds extremely stressful to me to be living in a house that smells like cardboard.
CHO: [laughs] It was stressful. Everything we made from the business was put back into it, to extend the amount of products we had or to get a better box, or shipping service. We were very, very bootstrapped, and we were putting any money that we made back into it.
I was in the middle of deciding if I should pursue this company called Soko Glam, and I didn't know if it was going to work out long term as a way to sustain myself. So we in our small, tiny, little apartment in the Upper West Side, packing boxes and hustling and literally carrying these boxes to the post office in the snow. And also just kind of being hunched over the computer wondering when we're going to get more orders or if we're going to get enough orders or if we’re growing month to month. And I had this self-doubt inside of me where I was wondering, “Is this going to be a long term thing, or is this truly going to be a side project?”
FRIEDMAN: Was there something during that period, or a day when you're like, “God I really don't know if I can do this anymore?”
CHO: This was four years ago. I was trudging through the snow in one of the worst winters in New York City. I remember being in Uggs. It was knee deep snow. I was going to a Brooklyn Night Bazaar, and I was carrying a suitcase full of these Korean beauty products. I didn't have enough money to really take a cab all day from Upper West Side so I decided take the subway. And that meant walking at least like 15 minutes through the snow. And then just everything was drenched. I was in tears. I got there. No one was even there because it was snowing, and I was thinking “What am I doing? Is this what I should be doing? Do people even care?” It was a moment of a lot of self-doubt.
I would still mention to Dave that, “you know I'm starting to look at places to work at. Maybe I can work part time or something.” It was me always bringing this up. And he told me one day—and I remember this very clearly—he just kind of sat me down he's like, “Charlotte, don't work on your resumé anymore.” He's like, “Don't even look for jobs right now.”
And I was like, “Why? This is not realistic! We need to work at least part time somewhere. I can work part time, I could totally do it.”
And he was like, “Charlotte, seriously. Do not touch your resumé. Do you not even think about different jobs that you can pick up. Because every moment that you spend looking for jobs or brushing up your resumé, you're basically saying that this isn't going to work out. And if you don't give 110 percent, then it's not going to work so you might as well not even do it anymore. You have to pick. And you have to just go full steam ahead with that one pick.”
That was a light bulb moment for me.
FRIEDMAN: Were you like, “Yes, he’s right,” right away?
CHO: It resonated with me right away.
FRIEDMAN: Why do you think that is?
CHO: Because I trust Dave. [laughs] He's really wise, and I think he had made a great argument. It was just me being very risk-averse at the time. And trying to be responsible. I mean, we had savings to live off of, so why not go full steam ahead, and then reassess? Then if it’s not going to work out—because a lot of businesses don’t succeed within the first year. Then we can say, “Alright, we tried our best.” And then fold it. Or, I don’t know what to do with it, but make that decision then. But why not now? Why not give it 110 percent? Because that 10 percent of you thinking about, “Oh that opportunity looks interesting maybe that could be a good part-time job.” Or “I should spend 20 minutes of my time refreshing my resumé.” That’s 20 minutes of time you could put into Soko Glam.
FRIEDMAN: Soko Glam has become one of the leading Korean beauty brands in the United States. Charlotte is the author of The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin. And maybe this goes without saying, but she and Dave are no longer shipping orders from their apartment.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp. And I’m your host, Ann Friedman. These episodes are double-cleansed and toned by producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell. It was scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to Max Linsky, a true bro-file in courage, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode: When your employer doesn’t share your values, or value you, how do you know when it’s time to leave?
SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: It was very clear that I wasn't going to grow there because they they told me that. They literally would not allow me to try new things. And it was the first place I'd ever worked where I was just tolerated. Where I think people thought “meh, she’s alright.” But you know what I loved about it? Was recognizing that you can be very successful in a context where people don't particularly like you.
FRIEDMAN: Emmy award-winning reporter and anchor Soledad O’Brien tells me about a time when she realized she could improve her skills—but she couldn’t improve her employer.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Antje Danielson was fired by her best friend.
Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit—and her job.
Charlotte Cho never thought her skincare hobby could be her career.
Soledad O’Brien’s dream job wasn't a dream at all.
Jessamyn Stanley couldn't stop saying "I'm sorry."
Samin Nosrat wanted to be a writer, not a chef.
Glennon Doyle fell in love with someone who wasn't her husband.
Claressa Shields was told to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Hillary Clinton almost dropped out...of college.
Cameron Esposito got her big break...and then it fell apart.
Amanda Nguyen took Congress to task for survivors’ rights.
Rebecca Traister went freelance and almost went broke.
Audri Scott Williams ran an unlikely political race.
Kathleen Hanna hated being the face of Riot Grrrl.