Living the dream…
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon back in 1981 and South Korean newly-weds Do Won and Jin Sook Chang have just landed at Los Angeles International airport.
They are pretty much penniless, having spent their savings on their flights, and can only speak broken English.
But coming to America has been Do Won’s dream since he was 13 and now he’s finally here and in search of one thing: The American Dream.
He’s had minor success as an entrepreneur back in South Korea, running his own a coffee delivery service but, as he recently told Forbes magazine, “At the time [people in] South Korea weren’t living as well… The opportunities were really narrow”.
For him, America was the land of opportunity.
Luckily for the pair, Do Won’s sister is already settled in LA and has a spare room they can stay in, but still, Do Won and Jin Sook waste no time in hunting out jobs.
Incredibly, by Monday morning (just two days after arriving) Do Won has a part-time job, washing dishes in a local coffee shop. It’s a start but Do Won knows he needs to make more money if he is to save enough to start his own business here.
Within weeks Do Won has two more part-time jobs: as a petrol station attendant and office cleaner. He’s working up to 19 hours every day and exhausted, but he’s determined to make as much money as he can. Jin Sook is also quick to find work, in a local hairdressing salon.
Over the next three years they manage to save enough to start a business. Now, they’d initially come to America with the idea of setting up their coffee business, but Do Won changes his mind after getting some inspiration — from the petrol station of all places.
He’s noticed a few regulars coming in to the petrol station driving really expensive cars and asks them what they do for a living. They all reply with the same answer: they are in the garment industry.
So Do Won and Jin Sook decide that’s the industry they will try and get in to. They take $11,000 of their savings and purchase a small clothing store in their local neighbourhood. They call it Fashion 21.
They decide to target their store at young Korean-Americans living in the local area, offering the latest designer trends at a fraction of the cost (buying wholesale or direct from manufactures to get better prices).
The previous owner of the store only made $30,000 a year from the clothes they sold (which were old-fashioned and pretty unappealing), but Do Won and Jin Sook’s decision to target a younger audience pays off. In the first year alone, Fashion 21 makes $700,000.
Encouraged by such early success, the pair decide to reinvest the money and open another store, and then another.
A change of name to Forever 21 (done to widen the appeal of the brand) boosts sales further and within five years the pair have built a mini-empire of 11 shops.
Over the next 30 years, and despite a few niggles along the way, their empire keeps on growing.
Forever 21 is now one of the most successful womenswear brands in the world, with nearly 800 stores worldwide, including the UK. There is even a Forever 21 store in the small South Korean town the Changs left way back in 1981.
Do Won and Jin Sook have gone from penniless immigrants with no qualifications and barely able to speak English, to a combined net worth of $4 billion, putting them at #380 on the Forbes list of billionaires (just one place up from vacuum cleaner legend James Dyson).
Their “American Dream” came true.
Start living your “dream”
What Do Won and Jin Sook have achieved over the past 35 or so years may seem pretty extraordinary.
But in reality, anyone can do what they’ve done.
After all, they didn’t invent anything new and world-changing like the car or the computer. They just sell clothes.
In the beginning they didn’t even design them; they just sold on what they’d bought at the wholesalers.
If your dream in 2017 is to start your own retail business (or indeed any type of business), here are a few lessons you can learn from the Changs:
1. Be prepared to work hard for what you want
Do Won worked three jobs and up to 19 hours per day in order to save enough money to start a business.
If you want your own business but don’t have any start-up capital, then take a leaf out of his book. Get a second job or even a third if you can manage it.
Or sell some of your belongings to earn some money. For example could you swap to public transport and sell your car to free up some money?
It will be tough and you will have to make some sacrifices, but if you are as determined to succeed as Do Won was, you’ll do anything to make it happen.
2. Be patient
“You can’t go into business thinking that success will come to you in just one or two years.”
Overnight successes are as rare as unicorns. As in, they don’t really exist (sorry).
Even businesses that have seemingly “come from nowhere” and experience rapid growth are the result of years of blood, sweat and tears. And come only after the entrepreneur has failed at least once or twice.
There is no such thing as a free ticket to success-town. You have to pay your dues. Do Won and Jon Sook certainly paid theirs and now they’re reaping the rewards.
3. Know your business and your customers
Chang has often been asked for the secret of his success and his answer is always the same: If you want to succeed you have to know your business and your customers inside out.
After becoming inspired to get in to fashion retail (instead of the coffee industry as he’d previously planned on), Do Won got a job working in a clothing store so that he could learn exactly how everything was done and get an insight in to what customers really wanted.
And he dedicated time to researching the local market and what the competition were offering.
By doing that, Do Won was able to turn a tired old clothing store, that sold out-dated fashion and barely made a profit, in to a thriving business.
And by remaining true to their audience and providing a consistent service over the years, the Changs have grown a huge, dedicated customer base.
4. Be prepared to face challenges
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Changs and their Forever 21 brand.
The economic downturn and growing competition from online clothes retailers has hit the company over the past decade. In 2015 they had to close some of its bigger stores amid falling revenues.
They’ve also been threatened with court action on a number of occasions, by designers who believe that Forever 21 has stolen their copyrighted designs.
But the duo have weathered the storms and are even looking to expand the company by a further 600 stores worldwide in the next few years.
5. A better life is about more than just money
“For me family is the most important… When people talk about the American Dream, they are talking about a better life. However, if the business is doing well but your family is broken, that isn’t quite success to me.”
For Do Won and Jin Sook the bedrock of their business has been their happy marriage and home life.
They remain a close family and have chosen to keep the business in the family rather than sell it off on the stock market. Their daughters now work for the company too in management positions.
Both are deeply religious (a verse from the bible is printed on each Forever 21 bag) and have donated a huge amount to various charities over the years.
They get just as much happiness and satisfaction from helping others as they do turning a profit.
Remember: money alone cannot make you happy. It’s what you do with it and who you spend your life with, that make you happy.
Having good health and having a happy family by your side are what truly make you wealthy.
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