“My disability has never stopped me,” says Kwang Chae Ko, CEO of Witlife – a successful online business for household goods. Speaking at a seminar at the eBay Korea Seller Education Gangnam Center, he is talking alongside a sign language interpreter about what motivated him to begin his startup and the difficulties he faced in being an entrepreneur with a disability.
His company sells everything from kitchen products to leisure goods, all online through Gmarket (www.gmarket.co.kr ) and IAC (www.auction.co.kr). What started as a one-man operation with Kwang Chae working from home has now become a thriving small business with a warehouse and employees.
Born with second-degree congenital hearing loss, he is testament to the adage that through self belief and hard work you can overcome disadvantage and succeed.
At first Kwang Chae didn’t know what to do with his life. It was in a program called ‘My Left Foot’, an online disabled education course run by the Korea Employment Promotion Agency for the Disabled, in collaboration with eBay Korea, where Kwang Chae found the support and guidance he was seeking. The program was the “opportunity of a lifetime” and gave him the courage and support to found his startup in 2005, he says.
Success didn’t come swiftly, or easily. “People would comment that a deaf person founding a startup was insane,” says Kwang Chae. “They told me that working in a factory was best for my ‘situation’”.
Determined to prove doubters wrong, he refused to give up hope that he could win in business. Yet he faced many obstacles. The communication barrier made it difficult to secure vendors. “Though government offices had a lot of sign language interpreters, most businesses did not,” he says. “It made it difficult to clearly express myself and get my wishes across.”
Getting the correct product range was also a challenge as he found it hard to stay on top of the news and ongoing popular trends. It took years of research for him to find the right mix of merchandise for his customer, and to make the business economically viable.
In the eleven years since he started his company, Kwang Chae has learned many valuable lessons. In business, he says, relationships and customer service are the keys to success. With every purchase, his customers receive a personal thank you message and a ‘good thought’ book. He also personally handles all complaints.
In life, meanwhile, he has learned that you need to enjoy each day, and that even when your future looks bleak, you must persevere.
“To all the deaf people in Korea, if I can do it, then you can you too. Do not be swayed from what it is you are passionate about”.