When business developer Yeon Hyun-joo announced that she was leaving KaKao Corp, more than 25 of her 50 team members volunteered to join her.
It was December 2016, and the team had been toiling for a year to develop a new customer-to-customer (C2C) home cleaning service platform for the internet giant. But when KaKao’s management abruptly decided not to roll out the service after all, Yeon was not ready to give up on what she had created. Eventually, she and six other KaKao employees left to found Cleaning Lab (청소연구소), a startup connecting home occupants with trained cleaners.
Today, Cleaning Lab boasts more than 50,000 users having grown by an average of 30 percent every month since its launch in March 2017. This is Yeon’s startup story.
Korea Exposé: How did you join KaKao Corp… ?
Yeon Hyun-joo: I went to KaKao in 2013 after years of doing various jobs at IBM Korea, Daum, and NCsoft. After having my third kid, I decided to stop working. But I soon found myself close to depression because I really missed work. My husband encouraged me to go back, so I joined KaKao in 2013 after two months’ break.
… and why did you leave?
My team was formed at KaKao in October 2015 to create an app-based cleaning service. Back then, there weren’t many cleaning-related apps because people were still relying on the traditional method of calling up a service center to find cleaners. At the end of 2016, KaKao’s management decided to not pursue the service after disappointing earnings that year. So the team was disbanded.
How did you react when you heard the news?
I asked for meetings with CEO Rim Ji-hoon (who resigned earlier this year) and Kim beom-soo (co-founders and largest shareholder of KaKao) and told them I thought they’d miscalculated, and that the project should be continued. When they said no, on the spur of the moment, I said “I’m going to pursue this service on my own. Are you sure KaKao won’t launch the same service in the future?” I left with a written guarantee that allowed me to launch the KaKao-born service on my own — I’m very thankful for their kindness.
What was leaving like?
Initially, 25 of my 50 team members volunteered to leave with me, but I dissuaded most of them — especially the ones who were the sole breadwinners in their families. I warned them in advance, saying that startup life was supposed to be very tough, that I might not be able to pay them and that we might have to work at my house. But I also told them it would be great to work with them if they were really confident about the service, given that we’d been preparing it for so long. In the end, six members left with me — I’m so grateful to them.
For an office, we spent a month using empty classrooms for free at Seoul Business Agency through the kindness of Seoul Metropolitan Government. Then, at first I spent my own savings to rent an office in Pangyo and pay salaries. It was difficult then, but my husband was very supportive and we also received one billion won ($930,000) in funding from K Cube Ventures in April 2017.
Let’s talk about Cleaning Lab now. I heard you had to clean houses yourself at the beginning.
I cleaned houses even when I was working for KaKao, in order to fully understand what was needed. When our service started, all our employees, including me, regularly cleaned houses.
Some people feel ambivalent about letting strangers into their house to clean. What’s the security process?
Users can input a digital door lock code on our app — the code is briefly shown to the cleaning manager once he or she arrives at the house.
Have you had any difficulties with users?
Some users treat cleaners as inferior to them because of prejudice. We are working on changing that perception. First, all our cleaning personnel are referred to as “manager-nim” (nim is a respectful suffix in Korean). At the very beginning, some of our users would ask, “When’s the ajumma coming?” (Ajumma is an informal and sometimes dismissive term for married and middle-aged women). Now, the same users say, “When would be a convenient time for manager-nim to come?” Also, we’ve made the scope of managers’ work very specific to avoid any unnecessary work and misunderstandings.
How about when working with cleaning managers?
Our cleaning managers — usually in their 50s — have particular characteristics. They generally do enjoy the job because they get pleasure out of leaving houses spotless. But some are worn out both mentally and physically because they have no one to share their hardships with as they don’t tell their family and friends about their work, and previously didn’t have a company to protect them. For example, if a user was simply asking the whereabouts of her wallet in the house, a cleaning manager could misunderstand her and lash out, saying, “What are you implying?”
We talked to a lot of experts about how to care for women in their 50s — an age when a lot of transformations are happening, both mentally and physically, like the menopause.
We regularly meet our managers in person to talk to them, or phone them up, write them handwritten letters or even send them presents. I’ve noticed that when we genuinely show them care, their mental stability, sense of belonging and trust in us goes from 10 to 100.
From taxis to matchmaking, South Koreans are embracing apps to manage an ever more aspects of their lives. Given the country’s high levels of smartphone ownership and busy working households, Cleaning Lab looks set to grow well beyond its current 50,000 users.
Cover image: Cleaning Lab CEO Yeon Hyun-joo. (Image courtesy of Cleaning Lab)