The influencer market is one of the biggest and trendsetting ones in this age. PERSONA MEDIA’s CEO John Cho had realized this early on as a media and marketing expert. This is where the startup idea about serving brands, influencers and connecting them for marketing emerged.
PERSONA serves a cross-border marketing partner, supporting brands, influencers in Korea, China and the US.
John Cho spoke to koreatechdesk.com about his personal journey as a media person to an entrepreneur with an influential startup.
1. Please tell me about your personal background, and what are you working on?
I am the CEO of PERSONA MEDIA. My background is mixed with marketing, media, and tech. I studied filmmaking, focusing on writing scripts and directing. And I served my military services in US forces in Korea as a non-commissioned officer taking charge of the profile data and training plans. I was lucky because I could learn how to analyze the profiles and manage the personnel for training.
I started my first startup right after the military service, which is the social media for mentoring each other. And I failed it because I didn’t try to make the team and the business model grow. I had to work for many projects later to cover the damages. I thought the period was preparing me for the next startup and I tried to find the idea, team, and market.
Then I found the opportunity to solve the problems in influencer marketing, and I met my partners. And we chose the right market, which is the brands pursuing Chinese customers. I’m working on making the synergies of teams in Korea and China and expanding our network of celebrities in the states and Europe to expand the business model.
2. What motivated you to get started with your company? And how did your earlier career choices lead you to where you are now?
I found the problem to solve with this company, when I was doing my cross-border e-commerce startup in Indonesia, five years ago. I operated the influencer marketing campaign with local celebrities and influencers. Then I realized three things. First, influencer marketing is the next big thing. Second, the fake follower is the problem, and it’s happening in every country. Third, I can solve this problem with the data validation and make the influencers’ fees reasonable based on the value. So, I finalized the initial deck with those ideas and started PERSONA MEDIA.
As a UX designer and scriptwriter, I kept focussing on the personal characters. It helps me understand influencers more. And I can analyze the numbers on social media because I came to be the project manager and understood how database and backend technologies work after various projects with the engineers. Understanding a person and analyzing the data; these two pillars are essential facts to do this business. Even when businesses don’t understand the data, they can use a data engineering consulting service to help the understand so that they can market their products accordingly to the right demographics. Without understanding and analyzing the data, businesses could be conducting business in the completely wrong direction, wasting numerous resources. And this made me start this company and find a way to grow.
3. Please tell me more about your founding team? And how did the team come together?
We have three co-founders, James, Jay, and me, John. We’re Koreans with different backgrounds from different countries. I grew up and studied in Korea, and I’m specialized in media and internet tech. James studied in Canada and majored in chemical engineering. We met each other five years ago through the introduction of both our fathers. He was working for the services in Grand Hyatt. We started the e-commerce business in Indonesia together. And we began PERSONA MEDIA also. Jay has experience in multiple countries in Europe, Australia, the Philippines, and China. We met at the forum for the executives in the Korean fashion industry. I spoke about influencer marketing, and Jay explained the opportunities in the Chinese market. Jay gave us feedback and emphasized the opportunities in the Chinese market to grow our business. Then he invested, joined the company, and invited us to Shanghai to develop business. This is how we met together and build the company connecting Korea, China, and western countries.
4. How have you attracted users and grown your company from the start?
We thought influencers are our users at the beginning. But we changed that idea to find the product-market fit when we helped the Korean brands enter the Chinese market. Our clients are the brands pursuing cross-border market, especially the Chinese. We serve them not only simple influencer marketing alone but also insights, strategies, and partners they need to enter the market and grow. Influencers are our partners to help the clients together. We support the partners to make better content and get more fans. And it leads us all to better marketing performance.
5. What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We have two business models now. The first one is marketing service fees from the brands. We increased the revenue by targeting the brands that want to enter the Chinese market. We developed a business relationship with the Chinese platforms to make more services and better results. The second model is advertisements on the social media of the celebrities and the influencers we’re managing now. We sell the ads to brands and manage the campaign with the talents. This revenue is growing with more popular celebrities and influencers.
6. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and the obstacles you’ve overcome?
Finding the product-market fit was the most significant challenge we had. The market was so limited to scale up when we pursued the Korean brands with local influencers only. Then we found new opportunities in China. We took the chances and developed business with the right platform, which is “RED”, it’s social media with cross-border e-commerce. And “RED” is the starting point for most brands entering China. We developed a relationship for three years and got the exclusive rights to inviting Korean celebrities.
7. How much money have you raised in total so far? When was the recent funding round?
This round is the first one for us. We had the pre-seed investment from Korea and Israel four years ago when we started. And I re-purchased the shares from them last year.
8. What are the challenges in fund-raising?
It’s hard to find the investment with not only money but also more values like business partners and supports. I think it’s better to get the funding from who understands the market and has the portfolios related to our business.
9. What are your milestones for the next round? And what are your goals for the future?
We got three milestones for the next round. First, signing more celebrities from Korea and the USA. Second, signing more Chinese local influencers and managing them to grow up. Third, sell more brands out of China. Our goal is making $10 million revenue with 20 celebrities, 200 influencers, 100 brands next year. And keep growing up 77% YOY to $100M.
10. What advice would you have for someone interested in doing similar things like you?
We should keep focusing on scalability as a startup. We stop finding a new business model when we make a certain amount of revenue. It’s dangerous having a limited business model because the market changes so fast.