8 minute read
Startup Story

LA startup KPOP Foods aims to bring people together with Korean flavors

Three men looking at the camera, smiling

How the Veteran-led company educates, delights, and inspires eaters around the world

KPOP Foods cofounders Mike Kim and Theo Lee’s secret sauce for entrepreneurship? Theo’s 80-year-old family recipe, Mike’s military background, and a shared belief in the power of food to bring people together. After graduating from West Point, Mike was commissioned as an infantry officer in the US Army and served for five years. After a combat deployment to Afghanistan and stints at bases in New York, Georgia, Washington and Arizona, Mike’s last duty station was in South Korea. “As a Korean-American, born and raised here in LA, it was an awesome, crazy experience working in Korea,” remembers Mike. “Creating that bond with the people and the culture, did kind of really inspire me, not just about food but to really do something close to my roots.”

After transitioning from the military in 2015, Mike attended UCLA Anderson Business School, where he quickly befriended former investment banker Theo Lee. The idea for KPOP Foods fell into their lap—almost literally—while brainstorming thesis ideas at a favorite Korean barbecue restaurant. “We were with a group of our classmates, many of whom had never tried Korean food before,” said Mike. “They loved it so much that the next day they asked when we could all go back. I realized that we had to do something with Korean flavors." Theo recalled that his undergrad fraternity brothers clambered for the homemade gochujang red chili paste sauce his grandmother sent to his dorm. Why not start with that? The recent spotlight of Korean cuisine by chefs such as Roy Choi, David Chang, and Anthony Bourdain, combined with the ability of social media to serve as a gateway to new tastes and experiences, made it seem like the perfect time to launch a startup focused on making Korean flavors accessible to a growing audience. “We knew that food brings people together in a way that they can share and smile,” said Mike. “So KPOP Foods’ mission has always been to bring people together through the sharing of Korean food and flavors. We want to educate people, but in a fun and delicious manner.”

A Kickstarter during their second year at Anderson helped Mike and Theo raise nearly $40,000 to do a first production run, contract a food scientist, and fill existing orders. However, as neither Mike nor Theo had any background in ecommerce, consumer products, or food, it became increasingly difficult to generate revenues with limited capital. “We knew that we needed someone with the food background, for credibility with both customers and investors,” said Mike. “We looked for chefs that understood our vision of making Korean food warm, approachable, and educational in a fun way.” Theo and Mike found a kindred spirit in celebrity chef and television personality Chris Oh, who shared their passion for introducing Korean tastes to a global audience via restaurants such as Seoul Sausage in Los Angeles and Umma (translates to “mom” in Korean) in San Francisco. Chris joined the team to spearhead product development, and KPOP Foods launched three new sauces—Honey Glaze, Kimchi Mayo, and XXX Chili—in addition to their original Korean Chili Sauce.

KPOP Foods’ mission has always been to bring people together through the sharing of Korean food and flavors. We want to educate people, but in a fun and delicious manner.
Three bottles of different KPop Foods sauces with brightly-colored labels are arranged side-by-side.
Three of the core KPOP Foods sauces.

While Theo had some previous experience working at a fintech startup, fundraising quickly proved to be a full-time job. "I was constantly working on pitch decks, reaching out to potential investors, and driving around to take meetings", remembers Theo.Their early positive local PR and traction was enough to bring on some early investors—including Strong Ventures, a California-based seed fund that finances, supports and mentors Korean-Global entrepreneurs. A longtime Google for Startups partner, Strong Ventures aims to help founders break successfully into the global market through network reach, strategic thinking and executional collaboration. When Mike and Theo first met John Nahm of Strong Ventures after their Kickstarter in 2017, KPOP was still too early-stage to be a fit. “During the next two years, we went through a lot of challenges, but every obstacle prepared us for that next opportunity,” remembers Mike. The team reconnected with John in 2019, who stopped by their office to hear their updated pitch. “We were ready for him this time,” said Mike. “Afterwards, he told us: ‘I'm so glad you guys are doing this, and the fact that you are still here two and a half years later is just the cherry on the top.’ He fully believed in us from that point on, and Strong Ventures has been one of our greatest supporters, connecting us with other portfolio companies, where we can share best practices, and to other investors.” Adds Theo: “We were fortunate to get this kind of mentorship during the early stages.”

As Theo and Mike built their networks, connections often led to more mentorship and support opportunities. While the KPOP Foods team was still working out of the UCLA Anderson Venture Accelerator, a fellow cohort member introduced Mike to Bunker Labs, another Google for Startups partner organization that provides community, programs, and courses to help military veterans and military spouses start and grow successful businesses and startups.”I was amazed and inspired to find so many other Veteran entrepreneurs in LA.— I wanted to be a part of that community,” Mike reflected. So in 2018 he joined the second cohort of the Bunker Labs Veterans in Residence program, a business incubator that connects veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs and business owners with coworking space, local community, a national business network, and targeted support to grow their business. Not only did Bunker Labs give Mike actionable advice and support, it forged lasting relationships. “It was an instant military bond,” Mike said of the experience. "It's family, it’s respect, it’s knowing that we’re not alone. My Bunker Labs group is still very close and I try to attend events whenever possible. I’m extremely proud of the group as we’ve had a couple of exits and tremendous growth in others. It’s awesome to catch up with old faces and see what the newest cohorts of Veteran entrepreneurs are building.”

I was amazed and inspired to find so many other Veteran entrepreneurs— I wanted to be a part of that community. It’s family, it’s respect, it’s knowing that we’re not alone.
Six people stand and four people sit on a couch smiling at the camera in a white, modern office.
KPOP Foods cofounder Mike Kim and his Bunker Labs cohort.

Most recently, KPOP Foods expanded beyond its bustling ecommerce site to 1,300+ retail locations across the U.S. From July 2020 to July 2021, KPOP Foods grew nearly 400% in store count as the pandemic shifted consumers' relationship with food. “People are craving more authentic ethnic flavors and prefer the convenience of cooking restaurant-style meals at home," said Theo. The KPOP team has stayed ahead of rapidly growing demand and changing audience preferences with the help of Google Ads. “Google Ads has helped us grow our brand awareness and get great results at a great value,” said Mike. “A smaller startup like us needs to get the best return on investment out of content like brand videos. Our cost per view is around one to two cents—you can't really get better than that.”

Google tools and trainings have also helped the KPOP team stay on the same page while collaborating remotely over the past year. “When we started using Google Analytics, I was so excited by all the crazy data you can see—from conversion rates, to sessions, to user pathway,” said Mike. “To make sure the entire team shares a basic understanding of the capabilities of the platform, I tell my team to do the free Google Analytics Academy, and leverage other free Google certifications and product resources.”

With people and passion, any challenge is surmountable.
Three men smile looking at the camera while raising their beers together over a table with bowls of noodles.
KPOP Foods cofounders Mike Kim and Theo Lee celebrate a fundraising round over some Tsukemen (Japanese dipping noodles) with John Nahm of Strong Ventures.

Looking ahead, Theo and Mike aim to become the premier Korean food company in the world by continuing to introduce as many people as possible to the joy of Korean food and flavors. “We want to be as inclusive as possible,” said Mike.”Everyone is welcome. We encourage you to discover, to be curious, to grow, to look for something different, and to enjoy it. I guarantee I will find something that you like in Korean food.” Their guidance for aspiring startup founders is also universal: “My advice on entrepreneurship doesn’t change whether I’m talking to other Veterans or not,” said Mike. “It’s passion and people. You need passion for what you’re doing to get you through the toughest of days. And the bigger your vision, the more important it is to have the right people who share your passion. Your team is your family, your business is your baby. When I need support, my team has my back and when they need my support, I have theirs. With people and passion, any challenge is surmountable.”

Learn more about KPop Foods