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  • Writer's pictureAce Gapuz

8 Lessons for Startups and SMEs, from Itaewon Class

Updated: May 17, 2020

First and foremost, let me tell you right now: I've only watched three (3) Korean drama series ever in my life -- Boys Over Flowers (years ago), Crash Landing On You, and Itaewon Class (only because my friends were talking about it and I didn't want to be FOMO). I'd have to admit though, it took me a while to get over how irresistably good-looking Ri Jyeong Hyeok was in CLOY and I'd dream about him at night, but believe me when I say, NO EXAG AT ALL, Itaewon Class has legit changed my life.

Let me tell you why.

But first, stop right here if you haven't watched it yet!!! There may be some spoilers but I'll try to keep them to a minimum. I really suggest -- implore, rather -- you watch it and maybe see for yourself what all the hype's about!

Anyway, this series hit me to the core -- it made me think a lot about why I started a business, what gets me through the daily grind, and how I intend to hustle harder to grow our company moving forward.

My experience so far in putting up and running Blogapalooza as a full-on corporate business meant sailing on rough seas for many, many years and enduring tiny cracks and holes in our boat, until I felt that I have finally mastered steering through the unpredictability of the currents, only to find out that I've made quite a lot of bad calls along the way and that our boat has incurred impairments that need professional mending.

For the past five years, I've been the captain of this boat, maneuvering and making our way through, battle after battle. We've put people in and out of the boat, aiming to find the ones who would lend their hearts to conquer storms with us.

You see, it's not a bed of roses like how it seems at times, and I know all startup founders and SME entrepreneurs will agree. I'd give the world to have even just one full day of not having to think about the company, about our work and clients, about our people. I wouldn't want to do that though; the company, our work, our people all breathe life to my every day. Which brings me to lesson number one.

1. In doing business, you need a deep, seething WHY

Simon Sinek has said it perfectly: "Start With Why" and you'll never get lost. Park Saeroyi's Why is the perfect revenge -- that specific Why powered him through all his years in prison, making him ripe for a vengeful comeback. His Why is crystal clear and his motivation is marked by vehemence.

For us in Blogapalooza, our Why has always been about the influencer community. We want to empower content creators in the Philippines and provide opportunities for them to learn, grow, and be sustainable, which is why at the onset, the intention was just to form a community of creators supporting creators and create a safe space for newbie creators to explore, be free, and be themselves.

But then we realized later on that for this to be realistically sustainable for the years to come, there has to be a clear commercial aspect. Which brings me to lesson number 2.

2. Have a long term plan and be flexible in the way you execute.

Park Saeroyi said he has a 15-year strategic business plan, and I was like FIFTEEN YEARS?! With all this COVID thing happening, I can't even plan for next month. Hahaha!

On a serious note, what "having a long term plan" meant for me five years ago was to be the top of mind influencer marketing company in the Philippines (and killing the two popular names at that time). Of course in 2015, no one was talking much about influencer marketing, so I made a strategic call to position Blogapalooza from being an annual event (which is what it used to be known for) to being a reliable influencer marketing partner, both for the brand and influencer sides.

You can only imagine how many speaking engagements I had to say yes to no matter how small these events were, just so people would know that Blogapalooza IS Influencer Marketing. It took some time for people to finally remember Blogapalooza as synonymous to influencer marketing -- we had to consistently be present, consistently reinforce, consistently try, consistently be hopeful. So we're on to lesson number 3.

3. Be consistent and keep on trying. Never, ever, EVER give up!

The 15-year plan that Park Saeroyi talked about must have felt like forever, with all the unfortunate blows that came his way. He put up a small pub, didn't make any substantial sale for the first few months, so he thought that maybe handing out flyers on the street dressed as a big brown bear will work. (Of course it didn't.)

No sales for DanBam in the first few months? Saeroyi tried out different marketing strategies. DanBam had to suspend operations? Saeroyi used the time for housekeeping to make things better. DanBam cannot operate anymore because of the new building owner? Saeroyi bought his own building!

Through the years, Blogapalooza has launched and pulled out a couple of proprietary products and solutions, and we're still trying to make everything better day after day. We innovate, iterate, refine. We are unafraid to try, fail, and keep on trying. Even if it means facing the giants!

4. Find your Dream Team and stick with them no matter what.

Park Saeroyi was meant to face the giant that is Chairman Jang of Jangga Co., the top food company in Korea. He didn't mind facing this giant alone, after all his 15-year plan was meant to be between him and Chairman Jang.

But he met his Dream Team along the way, and while their boat was still on rough seas, they managed to come out victorious, not because they had the best people, but because they had people whose hearts are in the right place.

I know this is not the best year to be as profitable in this industry as we would want to be, what with all the repercussions of the pandemic and the global economy crumbling to pieces. This is why I've made it my main goal to build a stronger Blogapalooza Dream Team this 2020. We're not completely there yet, so I'm putting it on the Company's Vision Board that this year, by hook or by crook, we will have our Dream Team. :)

5. Never be complacent.

Sometimes I think that having a Dream Team will give me that much-needed and well-deserved (real, legit, uninterrupted) rest that I've been wanting to have for years. While (God-willing) it may be true to an extent, complacency has never been in my dictionary -- and neither should it be in yours, regardless of how successful you think you or your business may seem.

I don't know about you but I felt that Chairman Jang was too complacent and thought too highly of himself, thinking that Jangga Co. was so big, a mom-and-pop DanBam is like child's play.

The Three Little Pigs (yes, that children's story) told us that while the first two pigs built their houses quickly and spent all the rest of their time playing (ultimately they ended up being the big bad wolf's lunch), the third pig painstakingly labored to construct his house using bricks, so the wolf wasn't able to blow it off and destroy it. And speaking of wolf and lunch, I remember very well one of my college professors saying that we must always think that somewhere somehow a big bad wolf is looking out to take our lunch away.

6. Age doesn't matter!

Well yeah, it actually does, but probably not as significantly as how we would think. The DanBam Dream Team built IC Co. from scratch, and then newbie IC Co. took over decades-old Jangga Co. The Board of IC Co. is just a small team of 20- and early 30-somethings!

I know boomers would frown upon millennials being extremely idealistic, but let me tell you this -- millennials are idealistic because we know there are ways to make things better! Remember, we're that "sandwich" generation between Gen X (who are pretty much like the traditional boomers, only younger) and Gen Z (who are all about innovation and efficiency), so we know and have lived through how things used to work and we are proficient in coming up with new solutions to old problems, as we are able to look at old things from a different lens.

Next time someone questions why a 20-something (me) leads a company of 7,000 influencers all over the Philippines (Blogapalooza)? Well let me invite him/her over coffee and we can talk about my story.

7. Don't let love get in the way -- or better yet, have a very, very supportive partner.

Can we talk about Oh Soo Ah at this point because ugggh how could she be like that to Park Saeroyi?! But you see, our main man is not a soldier of love; Saeroyi would admit over and over to liking Soo Ah but would still prioritize important business matters even if it meant calling raincheck on dinner dates with her. We must not let love get in the way of our success!!! (Insert girlboss laugh here) :P

Or better yet, we can find ourselves a Jo Yi-Seo, who made it her life goal to support Saeroyi in reaching his dreams, subsequently making her goals a reality. Truthfully speaking, I believe that love that gets in the way of what you find in your heart to be good for you is not the kind of love you should subscribe to.

And speaking of Jo Yi-Seo...

8. Influencer marketing will boost your business in epic proportions!

You have no idea how much I love the character of Jo Yi-Seo! She's a go-getter, doesn't take no for an answer, she's your overall grit girl, and she knows how to use her influence in social media to help a business make money -- I love her so much!

In case you missed it, the inflection point of DanBam's success was when Jo Yi-Seo talked about it in her social media channels. That's just ONE influencer; can you even imagine the impact of tens or hundreds of influencers talking about your business, encouraging their followers to try and buy your product and helping you make money?

Sales pitch: Need help with influencer marketing? There's Blogapalooza for that. Think of us as the Yi-Seo to your Saeroyi -- we're young, creative, and determined. And we will make you fall in love with us, whatever it takes. :)


Bonus lesson: Know what you're worth! Park Saeroyi asked for KRW 5B (PHP 205M) with no hesitation, because he knows where to take his business, and he knows he, his team, and his business are well worth it.

You have no idea how many big players have approached me to partner with and/or invest in Blogapalooza, but their prices and deal propositions never felt right. I know in my heart what we bring to the table, and I know that we are, and will always be, worth so much more.

Make no judgments though -- I'm open to taking in Company investors, if they're like Kim Soon-rye (Toni's grandma in Itaewon Class) who genuinely believes in what we stand for, who would commit to fight wars with us, and if their hearts are also in the right place as mine. :)

Anyway, I am grateful to have had a bit of rest to watch and finish Itaewon Class in like 3 days, and write this blog shortly after! These periods of rest and recreation are very limited, since running Blogapalooza has filled every minute of all my days since I started the company five years ago. I've never taken legit vacations, never had legit weekends, never experienced real rest, as I'd always think of having to prepare for what's next. No exag at all.

Do I have regrets? Oh, no shame, A LOT.

Did I ever feel like giving up? Quite a few times.

Will I ever back down? Over my dead body.

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