When I was in my third year of university, I met a missionary couple who were visiting Toronto for a few weeks. They so happened to stay a night at my uncle’s house when I was living in one of my uncle’s rooms. So my uncle introduced me to the missionary couple who had been living in Turkana, Kenya for close to 20 years. The missionaries showed me a CD, which explained the work they were doing. At the time, I was really involved in church and even contemplated becoming a missionary one day, so watching the video on the CD really ignited something in my heart. In the end, I ended up volunteering about 3 months with that missionary in Kenya. It was an awesome experience and I believe I received more than I gave. The missionaries were very accommodating, the people there were very friendly, and I had the opportunity to help the local school and church, and assist the medical team that came to volunteer their time. The one main lesson I learned from the missionary couple was not one I expected. And they made sure to stress the lesson often. They told me directly and indirectly, that the most important thing when doing missionary work was to take care of yourself first.
Take care of myself first? I thought that was a little selfish at first, but they explained that it is easy to give and give for a short period of time, but sometimes you run out of things to give, you run out of energy, and you can end up sick, and then you end up not being able to give anything at all, and can end up hating the very thing you thought you loved doing. I never thought of it like that before going to Kenya for three months to volunteer, but up until that time, I always had a roof over my head, all that I needed and more, and never had to really struggle for anything. I was just a university student who always knew I had my parents support if anything were ever to go wrong. And I am truly thankful for the unending support of my parents. However, it did blind me to “REAL LIFE” struggles that I didn’t have to face and I was too naive to even have an idea of how hard life can be at times.
This lesson is also important when running your own business as an entrepreneur in Korea. I truly believe you need to take care of yourself first before you can really help others. You can only truly give what you have and you can’t give more than you are able to.
When I first started my English Gyosoopso business in the Seocho Area (near Gangnam, Seoul). I provided a lot of value. We even drove one student to and from her home, and we had everyday classes at the time! We also took almost any student that walked through the doors, though we stated that we only accepted “top academic” students. In other words, we were desperate and we wanted to do everything to keep the students that signed up for us. However, after a few years of over-providing, we found that it was pretty tiring. Though we could have gotten more students and continued to have generated money, we would have not enjoyed the quality of our life. And the main reason for that was because we were doing things for the students and parents that we didn’t want to do. We would get really burned out during middle school tests and would do extra things for students that weren’t included in the payments we received. I mean, if you just love doing those things it can work out, but I didn’t want to be doing certain things and it really stressed me out at times. But to be fair, when I see what other Gyosoopso and Gongbubang owners do for their students, I am put to shame. They do cooking classes, water gun fights, and hold various parties. I think what’s really important is that you really need to know yourself. Knowing what you are good at, what you are not good at, what you like doing, and what you hate doing, will help you decide what you should and should not do in your business in Korea. And I wasn’t looking to make customized lessons per class, even though I am able to do so. I was looking to make systems that could run without me being present all the time. Unfortunately, my wife and I were afraid of losing students and just kept with what we thought the parents and students wanted. In the end, you do have to say in business, but you also have to draw the line somewhere and say no to certain requests, especially if those requests will end up burning you out and causing you to hate your lifestyle.
If my wife and I said yes to every single request parents made, we would have given up on our small English hagwon a long time ago, but we were able to compromise and said yes to certain requests and no to others.
For example, one parent complained (politely and indirectly, but loud and clear) that the book was too difficult for her daughter and the class level. And you know what, she was right. I chose a book too hard for that class because I had less than a year of experience running my English hagwon and had no idea what I was doing really. However, we were more than halfway through the book, the whole book was prepped for me to teach, and I couldn’t see myself looking for another book, creating new tests that supplemented the book, as well as creating other supplementary material. So I politely told the mother that we weren’t going to change the book and the mother soon after pulled her children out of our school. The thing is, I technically should have changed the book. That would have been the right thing to do.
But why did I say no?
Well, I saw how much work it would take to find a book that would fit in the curriculum, how much time it would take to make the supplementary materials and tests, and imagined myself talking to the other parents about changing the book midway and asking them to purchase new books. So I saw what it would cost me to either change the book or keep it, and it was an obvious choice to me, since at that time I had no more energy to do something drastic like change a book. Yes, changing a book can throw off the momentum of the growth of your school and you have to consider every single thing before you do something like change a major curriculum book.
In the end, I chose my sanity over doing the right thing for the business. Technically, it was the right thing to do because there would be no business without me. Even when I know that the parent or customer is not going to be happy with my answer, I still make the decisions that do not affect my mental health. Of course there are times where you have to tough it out, but there is never an excuse to sacrifice your physical and mental health because your client/customer thinks that since they are paying you, you should fulfill every request they make. That is why you must really learn your limits. If you know your limit, you will know when you can no longer go the extra mile because you lack the energy or mental strength to do so.
So I am so thankful for my 4 year experience of running my English gyosoopso business in Korea. The experiences have helped me to say no to certain things and not feel sorry. I used to feel so bad to say no to certain things (and somewhat still do), but I am now able to foresee what problems may occur if I were to say yes to certain things. And the most important thing for me is to create a business that is sustainable. For my business to be sustainable, the working conditions have to be good for me and future employees. So when someone comes in to my shop and asks for a discount, I always say no. And I lose a lot of customers that way, which is fine with me because my customers aren’t looking for discounts. My customers are looking for a good quality shop that has good quality gifts and that they can trust. My customers are not looking to buy cheap flowers, instead, they are looking to make the person they love in Korea feel special and loved. My customers are willing to pay extra because they know the value of great service and value the person they love in Korea over money. Basically, my customer is past me. And by keeping my ideal customer in my mind, I say no to certain requests, which helps me to stay mentally healthy. That way I can further build my business and not have to waste my mental energy on customers that aren’t my customers.
*I explain more in a podcast about why I stopped running the English gyosoopso business and went all in my flower business.
So a little advice for you; if you are just fresh in your first month or year of business (yes, 1 year is still really young): Work super hard, but remember to think about how each decision you make will affect you and your business for the long run. You and your business, in that order, because you are your business when you don’t have any employees. Obviously if you are looking to just work for a year and make as much money as possible, then maybe you may decide to make some heavy sacrifices, but if you want to create a long lasting scalable and sustainable business, make your decisions accordingly. It’s sometimes better to lose a student or a sale than lose your mind and health. I’m in this for the long run. It’s a marathon and not a sprint.