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Romi Haan believed so strongly in her home appliance company that she was willing to lose everything to get it off the ground. She not only risked losing her house by taking out a mortgage for funding, but she risked the houses of both her parents and her in-laws. She understood that if things didn’t work out, “everybody was on the street.”
Today Haan is the celebrated founder and CEO of Haan Corp., a multimillion-dollar company in South Korea, and she did it through an unwavering confidence in herself and her vision. That determination helped her break into a male-dominated industry, move past early product delays, finally find a market in her home country, and then achieve explosive growth by expanding to the United States.
In 1998, Haan got the idea for a cleaning appliance she thought could be so revolutionary it would be worth leaving her secure, high-level job as an officer in the Ministry of Education.
In South Korea, homes are kept warm through heated floors rather than by furnaces. People walk barefoot in their homes and eat and sleep on the floor. That means keeping the floor clean is of utmost importance, and that task is traditionally delegated to the woman of the household. Women often ended up scrubbing their floors on their hands and knees.
Haan hated this, and felt that it could be significantly improved if there were a kind of steam mop that could quickly sanitize floors with ease. Haan was a professional woman, with an MBA from California State University, Los Angeles, but she wasn’t an engineer. Even so, she found herself working on a prototype. She left her job and founded Hanyoung Electric in 1999.
“I felt obligated to liberate the Korean housewife!” Haan tells Business Insider. “If not for me, nobody would be able to do that.”
A planned six months of product development turned into two years, and Haan struggled to find funding. She was able to get government loans, but she remembers how investors turned her down, which she says was at least partially due to cultural biases based in South Korea’s traditional gender roles.
One time, Haan says, a male loan officer met her to evaluate her new business, and he asked her what industry her husband had gone bankrupt in — because why else would a woman apply for a small business loan if she wasn’t covering for a spouse with bad credit? “It was just unthinkable for him that a woman would start an appliance business,” she says. But she used this sexism to empower rather than discourage her. “I know I won’t forget that person for a long time.”
To overcome this challenge she took an incredible risk. With the support of her husband, who worked as a salesman for an educational toy company, she mortgaged their house for $US100,000 in cash. Eventually she mortgaged both her parents’ and her in-laws’ houses. She understood that failure was a possibility, but she didn’t let it stop her.
She accepted that if her business venture failed, she was willing to work nonstop to support her family and get everyone back on their feet. “I could go in the street and start new again,” she says matter-of-factly about the possibility of losing everything. This belief was enough to keep her motivated even after the first steam-cleaner model flopped because it was overly complicated.
And although she was convinced that Korean housewives would immediately appreciate her product, she found herself pitching it to men in charge of retailers, who couldn’t understand why it was better than a vacuum. So when retailers turned down her mop, she decided to pitch directly to women, and the buzz around Haan steamers grew.
Haan cold-called Korea’s Home Shopping Network channel and pitched her new, simpler steam mop in 2004. The network had her on, and she sold a whopping 2,000 mops in her first hour-long appearance. They kept calling her back. She turned a profit for the first time by the end of the year, and sales increased dramatically in 2005. Companies like Samsung and LG started producing imitations, but Haan’s models took around 80% of the market. She struggled to keep up with demand.
In 2006, she renamed the company Haan Corp. to differentiate it from the competitors and connect it to herself, since she was now regularly appearing on television to sell her steam mops. That same year, she acquired a bigger manufacturing plant in China to accommodate Haan Corp.’s constant growth.
By 2007 Haan was a household name in Korea and decided to take a shot at the U.S. market. She contacted QVC, the popular home shopping network. That September, she appeared on the channel to pitch her steam mops to Americans — the mops sold out in six minutes. Haan has since used home shopping channels in both Korea and the U.S. to sell directly to housewives, and today she continues to expand her company’s product line with other household appliances.
Last year, Haan Corp. brought in $US120 million in revenue and maintained 75% market share for floor steam cleaners in Korea.
Haan has used her success to inspire other female professionals in South Korea, which she says has made significant strides toward gender equality in the past decade. For her part, Haan Corp. has instituted a program that helps women coming off maternity leave reintegrate into the company, and Haan dreams of having a female CEO lead the company after she retires.
If she had the chance to start all over, she says, she would work for an appliance company first to understand the industry, and she would study marketing so that she knew how to convince initial customers they needed her product.
But even though she struggled for years through trial-and-error, it was her sheer determination that allowed her push through and achieve incredible growth.
“One thing that kept me up was that I never thought of giving up,” Haan says. “I think it helps to be more confident. I was young, and I always thought I would push to the end.”