This is one of my personal posts. Super personal, so don’t expect any Korean food talk here. It’s also going to get a bit bleak.
This started out as a personal diary in 2004, and I still use it as such.
I took a quick glance at my 2016 post. That was a bad year, but I was still optimistic. With each year, my hope chips away.
I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I have mantras–themes–for each year. After 2015 and 2016 financially killing us, I made the mantra of 2017 to aggressively make money. That didn’t mean to be greedy. I meant to take whatever extra job and start any extra business I could. To learn how to make more money in general. I’m entering my mid-40s. I’ve accomplished a lot personally and professionally. I’ve hit a lot on my bucket list. But I don’t like where I am financially. This is where I should have been ten years ago.
How I Stuck To My Plan
Every time I was tired, or there was something that I didn’t feel like doing, I still repeated the 2017 mantra.
I had some money in the stock market, and some of the stocks had done well. I decided to learn more about money and investing. I read books and took courses. I had watched all those YouTube videos from the “gurus.” In the beginning, I did surprisingly well. And that made me cocky and impulsive. I then ended up in a stock that tanked. My loss aversion took over, and I kept expecting it to return, and I didn’t sell it. It got so bad that on December 29th, it was de-listed. Now, that didn’t hurt us much. The smart thing I did was that I didn’t put much money into it. I considered it my tuition. Something to help me learn to control my emotions, which is the bane of a lot of traders.
While my real stock was nosediving, my fake stocks were faring much better. I also have a paper account, and I tested different techniques. I’ve become much better at reading candlestick charts, and I’ve found indicators I’m most comfortable with. I have a series of stops I use to ensure that I don’t find myself in the situation I was with my real account. Still, in the beginning of 2016, I was hoping it would turn out better. That plan got kicked to the wayside by March.
The last gasp of 2016. Near the end of 2016’s wrap -up post, I mentioned that I had a new consulting gig for a restaurant. It was a boat moored on the Han River in Apgujeong. I was skeptical from the start, and I took precautions. They wanted my BBQ on their menu. I helped them get a smoker (yeah, on a boat) and taught them techniques. Actually, my buddy and former sous chef Simon taught them the techniques. But I made sure that I made the BBQ rubs myself. I kept that secret. My rules on entering that contract was that I would not be expected to cook. I’d just consult. They wanted me to hang out every now and then and be the face of the place.
After opening for just a month, they changed their minds. The story was that the wife of the owner didn’t want BBQ as part of the menu. They killed the deal. I heard later that they didn’t stop selling BBQ, though.
And people wonder why I’m so cynical these days.
I lost my job with Korea DMC at the end of 2014. I can’t believe that I was somehow paying all our bills with freelance work and my businesses in between. In 2016, it caught up with us. For the first time in my life, I was late on paying credit cards. I had to face what I refused to believe. Korea is still not a place for a promising career unless you go into business for yourself, as a non-Korean. Even the people I know who are super fluent in the language can’t have progressive careers in companies. Even foreigners pulled in by conglomerates to be executives leave because of their frustrations at just being token foreign faces.
Korea is still only for Koreans.
It’s still true in 2017 that the only steady white-collar paycheck a foreigner can get is as an English teacher. And those salaries have been stagnant for a decade. There is also little room for advancement.
I was so happy to leave the English teaching industry in 2010. Now I’m back in it. Staying with my 2017 mantra to take any opportunity that makes money, my plan after the last restaurant closed in 2016 was to return to my temp gig teaching part-time at community centers. It paid well. I only did it a few times a week. I calculated that if I did it five days a week, I’d be back at making my Korea DMC salary. I’d just have to swallow my shallow pride and be an ESL teacher again. It’s such a derogatory profession in Korea. I was able to get that job back in October 2016, teaching only twice a week. But it did help with the bills. The tour biz was peaking for the year. Then the job went on its winter hiatus in December. To last through the hiatus, I got a part-time job through a recruiter at a local hagwon. I normally would not do it, but the owner gave me a good impression. My experiences in 2016 and such, though, had turned me into a very suspicious person about character, but so far, so good with this one.
I started out working part-time, three days a week. Since I went through a recruiter, they were taking a good chunk of my paycheck. I was planning to make this a temporary job until the community center job re-opened.
Well, two things happened.
The community center program was not renewed by the city. And the other part-time teacher at the hagwon quit. The owner asked me to take it on for five days a week. It was still only a few hours a day. For both of us, though, our impediment was the recruiter. She was paying a lot of money for me, and I wasn’t getting a lot of money for my work. I found out later that this practice by recruiters is illegal. We came up with a plan. She’d lay me off–fire me–at the end of the month. She’d tell the recruiter that she got someone else full-time, so they wouldn’t bug her about getting a replacement. She’d then hire me back as her employee.
And I’m getting a decent steady salary. The deal was that I had to sign a two-year contract and give her some stability. She just moved to Canada last month with her kids to help their education. She wanted to ensure that her business was stable while she was gone. I also wanted the stability, so it worked out. I’ve since hung up my hang ups about teaching English. I’m actually good at it because I had been doing it for so long. I also had some good Montessori-style training at one of my earlier jobs. I am still able to concentrate on my other projects while doing this, so it is a win. The salary is more than I was making full-time back when I started. It’s still nowhere near what I’d make if I was at a university. But it’s a good base point. We also have summer and winter camps, which pay extra. Jian participated in the summer camp, and it was a great bonding experience. She’s planning on joining the winter camp when it starts next week.
This was the fifth year of the tour business. It’s come a long way. I was just crunching the numbers and drawing the graphs yesterday. For a while, we were living off of it. It started out as an idea I had my first year in Korea. When I got the right visa, I took a course on entrepreneurship at Seoul City Hall (2011), and I won an incubation office in 2012. That was also the year I later joined Korea DMC. I’m giving this background to show the growth of the business. Korea DMC helped me by making the tour business part of its operations. I could figure out how to run a tour business without worrying about bills. In exchange, we shared the profits. I learned a lot about bookkeeping, marketing, and just how the tour business works. In 2015, after we parted ways, Korea Food Tours was born. I’m looking at the charts now. I was still unsure about it until May 2015, when bookings spiked. It wasn’t enough to live off of, so I did other work. In 2016, I was busy with the restaurants, and I had a team of amazing people doing the tours. That was the year the business took off. I was paying out most of the money to the freelancers, so I didn’t reap as many benefits from it. In 2017, I was free to take over most of the tours myself, so I could keep more of the profits. This also meant doing a lot more tours. I did four BBQ tours in one week, which is hard on the cholesterol. By that time, I ordered a bowl of noodles and didn’t drink alcohol. I kept with my 2017 mantra, so I rarely turned down a tour. Some tours we closed down because the guides in charge went on to other jobs, left the country, or the tour itself became too unwieldy. The Hongdae Tour closed because Hongdae has been changing so much, the tour guides looked dumbfounded.
The beginning of 2017 showed promise. We were doing double the business of 2016. Then Trump and North Korea happened. Each month there was a flare up, our bookings plummeted. May, June, and August. Those were supposed to be strong months, and they were weak. October and December, while still strong, weren’t as strong as they were in 2016 as well. In the end, the total gross and net for 2017 were better than any year. It just wasn’t as strong as the indicators were–indicating–at the beginning of the year.
Our strong tours were the BBQ, Dark Side, and Chicken tours. We also had more private tours this year. It helps that I enjoy doing this. I meet so many interesting people. Sometimes it seems like a coincidence. I had a long talk with an Austrian neurologist about my 2016 seizure and the meds I’m taking. I had a manager from Amazon on the tour right when I was having problems as a newbie Amazon seller. Recently, I hung out with a couple who own a restaurant in New York co-owned by Quentin Tarantino, and they had a lot of stories about film directors and their experiences with celebrity chefs.
The big thing I learned in 2017 was marketing. I mean, marketing is always a learning process. But early that year, even though my bookings were record-breaking, the net sucked. I saw that it was all going towards marketing. I was spending too much. I stumbled upon a Udemy course on Google AdWords. During my days off, I’d sit there and take notes. Repeating a lot of the lectures. It changed everything. When I put those methods into practice, our marketing costs went down while our conversions were steady to increasing. This is the course here.
The ZenKimchi App. I worked a few months on that. It was to replace the restaurant guide I couldn’t keep up with. It’s okay. Again, it’s been one of those break-even projects. I’m glad I did it, and I use it myself. It’s led to a few tour bookings. I’m going to figure out a way to make it a little more profitable.
Part of my long-term financial plan was to go into online retail. It wasn’t until October 2017 that I got around to it. The plan was to gradually open multiple shops specializing in different things. I play this the way I play strategy computer games. I don’t rush into it. It’s like Sid Meier’s Civilization. I build a city, and I work on it. I work on making it self-sustainable. Then I work on making it profitable. When it becomes profitable enough, I use the profits to start a new city. Repeat.
It took a while to start because I needed some capital. It wasn’t until August that we finally paid off our debts from the restaurants in 2016. Much later than I planned. By October, I had enough capital to give this retail thing a go. It was and still is a learning process. I spent a lot of money in experiments–figuring out which apps and which techniques worked. I wasted a lot of money on those automated marketing apps. I wanted to see if they could do a better job than me.
They just wasted my ad spend. I looked under the hood, and they were making rookie mistakes. I knew they were rookie mistakes because of that Udemy course I mentioned earlier. Even though it took more time, I took over the marketing reins and set that all up myself. I A/B tested to see which campaigns worked the best.
Customer service. That’s the headache of this industry. Generally, my customers are happy. I get maybe a 2-3% gripe quotient. My personality tends to gravitate towards the complainers. No matter how many people I make happy, it’s the few gripers that weigh me down. I have a long background in the service industry, from waiting tables in college on through the tour business. So I can handle the customer service well. On top of that, I’m reducing and eliminating the elements that were the causes of their gripes.
So far, though, the ZenKimchi Store is breaking even. GeekDrink paid for Christmas. I just opened a new store, WatchMi. It focuses on affordable smartwatches, unique watches, and accessories. The idea came because of my fitness band. I really like the Xiaomi Mi Band. The Mi Band 2 is pretty darn good, especially for the price. I mean, I keep hearing of FitBit and even Apple spouting about their new premium smartwatch features, and I go, “The Mi Band already had that, like, a year ago.”
So I’m selling Mi Bands, Mi Band wristbands (which are very cool–I like mine), and Apple Watch wristbands. I’m going to expand into unique watches if things go well.
I have plans for a couple more stores to open this year. The plan is to open one every one or two months, depending on the success of previous stores. Just like the tour business, I just enjoy doing this. It fulfills my need to create.
The Big Questions
I think I’ll look back on 2017 as a turning point. It’s the beginning of the end.
Well, let me back up and recount what happened in my personal life.
Jian started elementary school. We had been worried since her conception about how she’d be treated as a “fusion” baby. Turns out, she’s done fine. She’s not the most popular kid, but she’s popular. Only a couple boys have said racist things to her, and those boys are dicks to all the kids and are not liked much. To rub it in their faces, Jian keeps winning awards for her Korean language skills. Her speaking isn’t as fast as other girls her age. But her reading and writing are at the top of her class. She has also delved into art and music. Her piano skills and singing have been impressive. She has a strong voice, and she is able to hold a note better than most seven-year-olds. She takes piano lessons, but lately she’s been teaching herself songs by ear. And I’m not just talking about picking out a melody. She’s doing it with two hands. She learned to swim this summer, and we sometimes go to the local pool. I enjoy that. Except Korean pools aren’t as much fun. You’re there to swim, not play.
Jian also got her own smartphone this year. She dropped it in the bathtub a few weeks ago, but we’re going to get it fixed. I like having her connected more to us and having her more independent. Her 2018 promise is to take on more house chores. Last night, I gave her the first lesson in washing dishes.
The cat. The cat hates me. But I’m glad we got her. She’s helped Jian a lot with her emotions. And EJ has gotten close to the cat. She’s grown up, and she’s not as troublesome as she was as a kitten. No more jumping and knocking things over. Less biting of our toes. Now she hides all day in the closets and comes out to play at night. We had her spayed in early summer. There’s a small animal clinic next to Seoul Grand Park that does it for cheap. Other than an early visit to a vet, she hasn’t been problematic. She pukes every now and then, but that’s it.
EJ took a three-month intensive English course that she had been wanting to take for years. They study South Park episodes. She finished it in December, and I’m impressed that she completed it. I’ve noticed her English is better, but she still has habits that block her. Still proud of her.
The 2016 seizure really messed me up. The fractured spine still is painful. It’s healed, but it is in constant pain. It hurts to go from lying down to sitting and from sitting to standing. Running, jumping–I have to be careful. A few nights I woke to painful back spasms. I hate the epilepsy meds. I still insist I don’t have epilepsy. A lot of adults have their once-in-a-lifetime seizure. I believe that was my one seizure. The Austrian neurologist I mentioned before agreed. But my Korean neurologist is adamant that I’m an epileptic and must remain on these meds for three years. They slow me down, mentally. I’m not thinking as sharply. My thought processes are muddy. I’m also sleeping a lot longer. In September, I missed my appointment to get my prescription refilled, and they couldn’t fit me in for another month. I went a month without meds. And you know what? I started feeling normal again. I was sleeping better. My mind was sharper. Then I went for my appointment. The doctor berated me for going off the meds, re-prescribed them. And I’m back to this muddy plane.
To some it may sound weak, but 2016 traumatized me. The betrayal at the BBQ Pub. The pointless hours spent at OK Burger. The seizure and back fracture. It crushed a lot of my hopeful attitude. I think I could use some therapy to work on this. It has clouded over everything since then. After working on Bourdain and losing my job at Korea DMC at the end of 2014, I felt lost. I had reached a life goal and lost a promising career track. The restaurants in 2016 I thought were going to put me back on track, but that was basically an entire year wasted. It’s put my whole perception of myself into question. I thought I was on this path, and now I’m not so sure. I have to recognize that 2016 was traumatic. And how to deal with trauma. It affected me way more than I thought it would, and I need to put it behind me.
I worked hard and started losing weight early in the year. That’s true for many people. I had a bad health report. Cholesterol was high. Borderline diabetes. I’ve switched to eating oatmeal every morning. In general, I had moved to a healthier diet. I stopped drinking for a while but fell off the wagon later in the year. I’m going back on the wagon now. In my experiments, drinking has the strongest effect on my weight. I went from 95 kg to 87 kg. Now I’m up to 102 kg. After winter camp is finished at the end of January, I’m getting exercising again. I spent all my free time setting up the stores and creating the app, as well as working on the tours. Most of that work is done now. After the winter camp, I’ll have free time again to work out.
This is what may be changing things. Since we started living together in 2006, we have been dealing with housing contract renewals every two years. It’s been stressful. We finally got forced out of our original place in 2014, when the owners decided to sell. We couldn’t find another affordable place in Anyang, which prompted our move out here to the boondocks of Gimpo. I’ve grown to like this little hamlet. I’m surrounded by rice fields. But even this place is growing too quickly. Hanhwa, the builders of this apartment complex and the owners, have decided to sell all the apartments. And they’ve decided to sell them at ridiculously high prices. Almost half a million dollars. I can understand that if you live in Seoul or one of the better suburbs. But we’re out in the country next to one of the airports. We have planes flying straight over us. That’s why we’re surrounded by rice fields. We’re on the edge of where companies can legally build high rise apartments near the airport. And they’re still asking for half a million dollars for a 3 Br 2 Bath apartment?
Most of our friends here balked, but some of them have given up and bought at what I call the gapjil price. It’s because we now have kids in elementary school. We don’t want to disrupt their lives. Now that Jian has started elementary school, our housing choices are limited. We’re going to have to seriously downgrade. EJ wants to go ahead and buy a place this year and fix it up. I hope this will turn out well.
The Big Move?
It was this latest housing dilemma that made us rethink everything.
Why don’t we just leave Korea?
Our multiple attempts at stability have not succeeded. Even moving out into the country, we’re getting priced out. The only way I can pay bills is by teaching English and running multiple businesses on the side. The hard reality I’ve had to face is that this blog hasn’t led to as much as I hoped it would. It’s led to some opportunities, but not anymore. If anything, it helps with the tour business. I keep thinking if it was worth it. The blog is sort of what kept us here. I started a career as a Korean food writer/specialist. But here I am in 2018. English teacher hustling to make ends meet. What if I didn’t let the blog dictate me? What if we moved back to the U.S. while I was still in my 30s?
I’m still young, but I feel time running into me. I worked hard for the hope that it would pay off in the end, and it mostly hasn’t. All those late nights working on and fixing the site. All the money poured into server space. Projects that failed. Remember that social network I tried to make in 2008? Of course you don’t. Advertising was a pittance and way too unreliable. It seemed like everyone else in my class of bloggers got a book deal but me. Heck, I started out around the same time as Pioneer Woman. But I’m stuck out here in Korea. I’m not near New York and the publishing houses. I can’t make it to the networking parties. That’s why even people who have never even lived in Korea have had more luck with Korean book deals than I have. No matter how hard you work, it’s still location and timing that matter.
God, I’m sounding bitter. I’ve watched the people around me, even in Seoul, get the success that continues to elude me. I don’t want much. Just stability. Enough money to go on a vacation for once. Buy a house. I’m getting burnt out.
My dad runs a real estate management business in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. He’s decided to sell it. My brother and I have talked about taking it over. This summer, when my dad and I talked about it, for the first time I started taking it seriously. EJ did, too. We got in the mindset that we’ll eventually move to Colorado. I also think I should be near family again. I want to take care of my dad. I want to be near my children from my previous marriage, who are all now grown. The plan was to move when Jian hit her teens, but we may do this sooner. Nothing is definite. But it’s now being seriously considered as an option. My big worries are, of course, money. Health insurance.
But now, I don’t feel as much loss aversion if I leave. I still have a ton of posts to add to this blog that I just haven’t have had time to do. I can do that from anywhere. But keeping up with the Seoul restaurant scene? I’m done with that. It’s a fool’s errand. The scene is way too erratic to keep up with. I run Restaurant Buzz Seoul on Facebook. That helps feed the ZenKimchi App. After working on Bourdain’s show, I have no desire to be a media fixer anymore. TV and radio jobs here have dried up. I’ve considered going more into voice acting, but I hear even that profession is dying out. I’m just going to miss all the friends and the city of Seoul itself. It’s my city. Friends continue to leave. My favorite spots continue to shut down. Loss aversion doesn’t matter. Loss happens.
The 2018 Mantra?
Last year was to aggressively make money. I have now figured out a system. I’ve planted the seeds. I have a stable day job. The tours are set into a groove. I have figured out the basics of retailing with the stores, and they’re set up. If I have a little extra money, I can invest more wisely than I did before. The app is functioning and growing.
And that’s it.
All my actions this year will concentrate on growing what I’ve already established. I’m going to work on my physical and mental health as well. And work on my relationships. Spend time away from the computer. Away from the bottle.
Here are my goals. I’m making them reachable. If I go beyond that, then bonus.
- Tours: Grow by 20% net and gross for the full year
- When we started the tour business in 2012, we had the 2018 Olympics in our business plan. We even thought we’d have tours in Pyeongchang itself by this time. But now, I haven’t even seen many bookings at all. Others haven’t either. Either people are being really last minute, or the dour predictions for this Olympics are larger than predicted.
- Smarter marketing. In 2017, I moved to a better booking platform. It costs more, but it’s easier to connect with Google AdWords and Facebook. I can even pay other websites and bloggers commissions for selling our tours.
- Contribute more to charity events
- Less is more. You’d think that having a lot of different options would get more bookings. But it doesn’t work that way. People get overwhelmed by choice. I’m focusing on the tours that work and growing them. I may bring back the Buddhist temple cuisine tour if I can find a good guide for it.
- Stores: At least five operating and profitable stores, making a total of at least $1,000 month in net
- There is one more store after WatchMi that I definitely want to build. After that, I’m going to see where the wind blows. I have a lot of store ideas, but it takes testing to see what will work.
- Start my first FBA shipment. As in, I buy some products in bulk and put them in an Amazon warehouse, where they sell it.
- Test more sales channels (eBay, BuzzFeed, Pinterest)
- Health: I already have curbed a lot of my bad eating habits. I still have more to do.
- Find a steady exercise lifestyle I can stick with. I really enjoyed running and swimming. I sort of liked my gym, but I don’t like all the prep work for going to the gym, like lugging shoes, workout clothes and water. I know it sounds stupid, but in order to do something I generally don’t like, I need to remove discouraging hindrances. I want to do weight training.
- Get my weight down to 85 kg. Or pack on muscle. Or both.
- Drinking: I can’t totally stop, but I’m going to go back to what I was doing at the beginning of last year. I’m going to stop drinking on the tours. Bar trips will no longer be rewards for good behavior.
- Spine: Find a way to get rid of this pain
- Seizure: Get a second opinion on how to handle this
- Mental: Get some basic therapy to get over the trauma of 2016
- Investments: Get them back on track by the end of the year
- App: Figure out ways to make it profitable or shut it down
- Blog: Add those posts I’ve had backlogged and clean up the site.
- Housing: Make a permanent decision on this.
- Other stuff
- If I have time, I’ll get into voice acting
- I want to have enough money to take a vacation. I still have never seen Thailand.
- Go on more dates with EJ and with Jian. There is a lot of relationship repair to be done.
- I really need a new computer. That’s been on the list for two years now.
UPDATE: The day I wrote this, I found out that the Winter Camp won’t be happening. So I’ll be able to start working out sooner. Jian is sad about not having camp, but I’ve arranged it so she can go to some classes in the afternoon with me.