A journey of a bookkeeper who became a shopping mall CEO
We all may live in the same era, but not everyone can be a digital nomad. Especially for people who have been living in the age of analog, such as North Korean refugees, it’s hard to adapt to the digital world and make a living.
Here we meet, Ms. Jang Mi-hyang, who is managing an online shopping mall as its CEO with the
help of a computer without her work being limited by where she is or the time of the day. We live in a world in which online shopping has become a part of everyday life. Unlike in the past, when one had to physically go out to buy stuff, now people can have their orders delivered with one click of a button. While people can buy products in New York from Seoul, it is not easy for buyers to become an online seller. This is because you have to carve out your own space and make profits within the
Anyone can start an online shopping mall and that’s also what makes it a difficult field in which to become a professional. What is Ms. Jang Mi-hyang’s secret to running her own online shopping mall as her main job rather than a side job?
The company and the camaraderie
In 2013, Ms. Jang Mi-hyang, who was a full-time housewife, enrolled her daughter in a daycare center and started her job at a company that sells household items and provided supplies to second-hand stores. She worked as a bookkeeper. It was her first time working as a bookkeeper, but with the encouragement of her co-workers, she enjoyed her job. After three years of working and understanding the scope of her work, she gained the confidence to do anything. However, the company was getting worse every day. As online shopping established itself as a trend, the vendors started to shut down their stores and the company’s sales started to lose money as well.
A sense of crisis had set in. What would happen to me if the company goes down? Is there any way to save the company and myself? Around that time, the company decided to expand its sales channels to online.
However, there was no one with online sales experience nor anyone or anywhere that could teach it.
She and the company had to figure it out on their own. Once I made up my mind to take it upon myself to take on this job, I told my supervisor. First, I signed up for free online classes but I needed to do more. Her supervisor entrusted her with learning from an online sales expert for a couple of months. After learning the web language and the basic skills, such as registering products, she was able to register hundreds of products in various open markets. Now that she had mastered the basics, it was up to her to apply them.
There’s no such thing as easy gains. She doubted whether she could manage the vast amount of work of checking each channel, product planning, advertising, marketing and placing ads.
There was an increase in sales but the distribution margins were small. This was due to a lack of experience in online product sales. Because her supervisor believed in her, she could not give up.
And the moment she wanted to give up on this project, she remembered all the efforts she had made up till then.
The life is what you make it to be
Ms. Jang Mi-hyang is from Chongjin.
Back when the market was the center and bustling with life, Mi-hyang’s house, which was located near the marketplace, was always busy. People who came from the northern border to buy and sell would board and stay the night at her house.
It was like an unofficial inn. It was those visitors who told Ms. Jang Mi-hyang that she could save enough money to start a business if she worked in China for a few months, and those words made her decide to cross Dumangang River in 2005. However, her plan went awry from the start. The person who was supposed to take her to a new job turned out to be a human trafficker.
After being tricked into believing that the villages near the border were dangerous, she ended up in a remote mountain village, and her husband with his 8-year-old daughter was merciless in physically abusing her. The argument started because of her wish to visit a nearby Korean-Chinese village. After the argument broke out, her mother-in-law encouraged the husband that he could “make her half dead because nobody would know.” The fear of being beaten to death came over her.
The only thing she could do was to lay low and wait for an opportunity to escape. In order to escape, she needed to blend into Chinese society seamlessly. She was not fluent in the language in the beginning and she realized that she could not take a single step forward without knowing the Chinese language.
She asked the woman next door to help her with learning the language whenever she had time. In a town where people of the same family names lived together, it was not easy to find an opportunity to get out of the village unnoticed. Two years later, the long-awaited opportunity finally presented itself. She got on a bus to supposedly go to the market. She went around the market and took another bus heading to a different place. She took three buses and ended up taking the last bus heading to Harbin.
By the time she arrived in an unfamiliar city with no friendly faces, it was dark. After walking around a brightly-lit city and checking out stores for ads for hire, she knocked on one of the restaurants. Mi-hyang, who was young and pretty, was hired as a waitress serving in the hall but there was a problem. Even though she was fluent in the language, she couldn’t understand what was being ordered as she was not familiar with the menu because she had never had Chinese cuisine.
The owner grumbled, “You must have been living under a rock not to know this”. Feeling embarrassed, she begged to work in the kitchen instead. As she was doing the dishes in the kitchen, she thought about how she could work at the restaurant for a long time. It looked like the job of doing dishes was replaceable but assisting in the kitchen seemed to be very valuable. Upon returning home from work, Mi-hyang bought various vegetables from the market and started practicing her chopping skills.
Each Chinese dish requires different ways of chopping the vegetables, so after many hours of practice every day, her skills started to improve. A few days later, when the busy hours hit, the chef was busy and the kitchen assistance was having difficulty, Mi-hyang volunteered, “I can help”. Even though the chef was doubtful, he let her help him as he didn’t have any other ways of managing the busy hours. The chef saw her skills and gave an approving nod. After two years of working, Mi-hyang became an essential staff member at the restaurant.
One day, she heard a familiar accent of Joseon at a rice store in the market. It was a pleasant sound for Mihyang, who had been surrounded by the Chinese language for a few years.
She followed the voice of the elderly lady who spoke with a Joseon accent and the elderly lady introduced her to a church. It was a Korean-Chinese church.
“Are you from North Korea?”, said the evangelist whom she had just met and her heart sank.
“No”, she said and it was hard to calm down her palpitating heart.
“It’s ok. You can tell me whenever you are ready to share. I can let you know how North Koreans like yourself can go to South Korea.”
She was confident that she had become Chinese, having blended into Chinese society without being noticed, but the reality was that other Korean-Chinese people easily recognized her as a North Korean right away. It made her think a lot about things. The more she thought about the future, the more anxious she was of having to hide herself.
She went to an internet cafe. For a few days whenever she had time, she looked up the news of North Korean refugees, trying to decide what to do. Then she came across this one place. It was a site called, ‘Association of North Korean Defectors’ . There she gathered basic information of how North Korean refugees settled in South Korea and the routes of defecting.
The next day, she met up with the evangelist and with his help, she came to South Korea in November of 2009. Each day was an opportunity created by overcoming a different hurdle.
Pave the way with passion
The company that pioneered online shopping formed a team. Mi-hyang worked with her team members as a team manager.
Now that she had other team members to delegate work to, she was able to see things more in detail.
She made an effort to understand the customers’ needs by analyzing competitors’ ‘categories’.
“Each site has loyal customers and their needs must be met. Not only do we check daily sales but we also need to analyze the site and look at things from different angles. Ads and top searches are good but they do not guarantee high sales. Over time, we accumulated data on what rankings are appropriate and their cost-related information.
We also didn’t stop there and started a sales promotion along with marketing and publicity.
I was able to learn the ins and outs of online sales through my experience of cooperating with the MD (product planner) on the sales event and that really showed its results in the company's sales.”
Not everything went smoothly as planned. She had to argue with the manufacturer because there was a problem with the supply of products, and faced difficulty because the negotiation did not go well with the MD.
Ms. Jang Mi-hyang was an ad manager as well as a product planner. From time to time, she had to deal with rude customers and on other days, she was in charge of packing thousands of packages all day.
It was hard work but it was also rewarding. Ms. Mihyang is confident in saying that she played a part in generating sales that surpassed the initially planned annual sale of 5 billion won.
In 2021, Ms. Jang Mj-hyang left the company after 9 years of hard work because now she had a new dream. She planned to open her own online shopping mall business. It was a decision based on her experience and knowledge of the business. She registered her business and started working. In her free time after finishing her work for her own business, she still works for her former company which she was devoted to.
“As long as you have a computer, you can work anywhere and anytime. You can also work other jobs on the side. It is important to understand that each online site has its characteristics. I would look at the top ten sellers and learn how they advertise their products and learn about their products, as well as read every customer review and adjust the price and the description of the product. We also check advertising costs against sales, search keywords and check competitors’ sales every day. I have registered approximately 1,700 products. I can make enough sales in a few hours. So I recommend this type of work for those who want to work and raise children at the same time. This job is possible for anyone who knows how to use a computer and put in effort.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic, she has become more confident in her stand. North Korean refugees should challenge and learn to move with the new flow of the world and one cannot help but to nod in agreement. “I hope people don’t stay with the analog way of doing things but make ways into the internet market. I think it’s a promising prospect. Whoever needs my help, please feel free to contact me.”