This 17-year-old Korean CEO made $1 million in sales this year. Now he's onto his next venture
At just 17 years old, Sukone Hong has realized his entrepreneurial dream by building not one but two businesses.
The first, a South Korean fashion brand of which he is CEO, has made over $1 million in sales this year and won the recognition of Harvard University. The second, a braille smartwatch for the visually impaired, has advanced orders in the thousands.
That's one way to get back at the bullies.
"It was hard for me to get engaged with school. I kind of got bullied. I had to find something that could change my life," Hong told CNBC Make It.
Building a brand
Teen Hong began his entrepreneurial journey four years ago, when he was in just eighth grade.
Struggling to fit in with classmates at his school in Seoul, he was eager to find a distraction, taking to reselling branded clothes on South Korean search engine Naver.
But with just $150 in his pocket, which swiftly "flew away," he realized he had to change tack.
On Monday morning, there was like 15 orders. Fifty at lunch. Eighty by evening. That week, I sold 300 shirts.Sukone Hongfounder and CEO, Olaga Studios
Hong needed a unique selling point. So, using a $5,000 loan from his grandparents and the assistance of a printing business, he set to work creating his own clothing site offering unisex casual wear with simple, playful designs.
With that, Olaga Studios — Korean for "going up" — was born.
"Nothing happened for like a week," said Hong. "Then, on Monday morning, there was like 15 orders. Fifty at lunch. Eighty by evening. That week, I sold 300 shirts."
Learning to give back
The three-year-old brand since has become a regional success, amassing $1.2 million in annual sales across six Asian markets and ranking No. 1 in Style Share's t-shirt category.
That has enabled Hong to employ a team of 12 to help run the site. But it has also allowed him to pay his parents back for the school fees at the American international school in Seoul to which he relocated.
And it was there that he gained inspiration for his latest venture, which he says is his true calling.
I thought business was just about making lots of money. But after moving school, I had some good education.Sukone Hongfounder and CEO, Olaga Studios
"Before, I thought business was just about making lots of money," said Hong. "But after moving school I had some good education."
"My teacher said that my experience could be used to create a business to help others," he added.
With Paradox Computers, the company behind his braille smartwatch, he aims to do just that.
Finding investor support
Braille smartwatches — which enable the visually impaired to receive real-time information, such as texts and messages from their phone — have been on the market for several years.
But the exorbitant cost of such products — typically upwards of $300 — can make them inaccessible for many disabled people.
After working on a school project about disabilities, Hong realized the inequality and decided there must be another, more affordable option.
"I found that this is so unfair," he said. "And, at the same time, it's a good opportunity for business."
So, he set out to understand the market, speaking to visually impaired people to get to know their needs, and engineers to work out solutions.
Then, with a book of contacts from his existing fashion business, Hong rallied one to back his vision with a $300,000 investment for a 30% stake.
I learned that even though I don't have a background in technology, I could hire all these people.Sukone Hongfounder and CEO, Olaga Studios
"My background as a CEO helped me," he said. "I learned that even though I don't have a background in technology, I could hire all these people."
Six months on, Paradox Computers' $80 braille smartwatch has sold in the hundreds, with a 3,000 pre-order from China currently in the works. But amid his success, Hong said he remains committed to keeping up with his studies.
"When the business was growing rapidly, I thought about dropping out of school. But I met a lot of CEOs and they all told me that I should go to university," he said.
And who knows, as a guest speaker and mentor at Harvard and Stanford, it may just be worth the effort.
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