Hyunwoo Sun is the founder of the popular website ‘Talk to me in Korean’. Together with his team, he helps Korean learners from all over the world to reach a high level of fluency in Korean, without them having to visit Korea.
He started as a content creator but he now runs a company with what is soon to employ over twenty people. The business’ study materials have become some of the most popular books in the Korean learning market and are now even used at some universities!
In this interview you’ll learn:
How Hyunwoo grew a huge audience in a niche market
The importance of building life-long relationships with your audience
Why your books should be ‘Instagrammable’
How Hyunwoo got started
Hyunwoo started in 2009. Some of his international friends were asking him about the Korean language and culture, and he would hear the same questions over and over again. He decided to answer some of these frequently asked questions on a blog that he created. He found that the people who were the most interested in his content weren’t great readers. They wanted Hyunwoo to tell them the answers in person, so in order to make his content more personal, he decided to start a YouTube channel and a podcast. His content quickly gained popularity and he wanted to do more, but Hyunwoo also knew that if he wanted to go all-in, he had to turn his efforts into a business.
“Our growth has always been linear. The fact that we started ten years ago on YouTube, teaching a niche language like Korean, has helped a lot.”
From a hobby to a business
At first, Hyunwoo had no idea how he could turn his hobby into a business. His only goal was to help people who were learning Korean. Even at a stage when he didn’t have any revenue streams, he continued creating content for free. At one point he almost ran out of savings. Fortunately, there was a Korean government organization that saw how well his content was doing on social media, and it offered Hyunwoo a monthly fee in exchange for him and his team to run its social media channels. This allowed Hyunwoo and his team to pay the bills for another year, and create even more useful content for free. The good news was that Hyunwoo’s team could keep doing what they were doing, but the bad news was that they still didn’t have a sustainable business plan. One year later, Hyunwoo decided to end the contract with the government organization. He then asked his audience if there was anything that they would buy from him. Hyunwoo created what his audience asked for and it was then that he finally had a business on his hands.
”The majority of our followers never buy anything. In fact, only 3 to 4% ever buy something from us and that is more than enough to run the business.”
Building life-long relationships
At ‘Talk to me in Korean’ it’s all about building life-long relationships, according to Hyunwoo.
Hyunwoo has always been very personal in his content. He talks about his personal experiences and his family. The idea is to create strong relationships with your audience and to become a friend to them. When people familiar with Hyunwoo want to buy Korean learning materials at any point in time, the first thing that pops into their mind is him, a familiar and friendly face, and therefore Talk to me in Korean. And so, naturally, they will want to buy from him. On top of that, many Korean learners don’t just buy a book, pass a Korean test, and halt their learning for good.
”Learning Korean is a life-long hobby for most people in our audience and every time they want to buy materials, they will come to you. It really is a life-long relationship that you have with your following.”
Hyunwoo shares a lot about his personal life in his content which helps to build strong relationships with his following.
From content creator to CEO
Hyunwoo finds that running a company is a lot of fun; ‘’It’s a bit like learning a language, you have to figure out how the ‘grammar’ of your company works. The rules for a certain language are already set, but that’s not the case in my company. That means I have to be very good friends with my employees.’’
The TTMIK team consists of content writers, video producers and editors, designers, customer support, and a management team.
What books should I create first for my audience?
Hyunwoo says that language learners don’t own more than three grammar books most of the time. However, they do have a lot of vocabulary books. Vocabulary or phrasebooks are like side dishes. People will always buy them and the good thing is that they’re quite easy to create. That’s why he recommends people to start with vocabulary or phrasebooks.
‘’Test the market and see how the market responds. Do more of what works. Also think about ten years from now and what you want to be remembered for.’’
How to publish a book
First look at what content you already have – can you turn it in a book? If not, then just write one page per day, for example. Publishing books is quite easy these days with print on demand platforms like Amazon.
Your book doesn’t have to be perfect the first time you sell it. Make sure you have an MVP (minimum viable product) and improve over time!
A few of Talk to me in Korean’s books
Your books are used at universities in Korea, how did that come about?
Traditional books that were used to teach Korean at universities were good, but in most cases, the design was somehow limited. Hyunwoo’s books are very nicely designed and they were picked up by university students who showed them to their professors. Professors from multiple universities invite me to come to their university and give seminars on how to teach Korean online.
The importance of ‘Instagram friendly’ design
Hyunwoo’s books are stylish, fun, and look much more modern than traditional books, and there is a good reason for that. ”The fact that our books are ‘Instagrammable’ has been a major contribution to our success,’’ he says. Hyunwoo: ‘’Social media is such an important part of our lives today. People usually only share what makes them look good. Sharing a photo of yourself with one of TTMIK’s nicely designed books, makes you look cool.
The next time you meet a friend they will say ‘Ah, I see that you were learning Korean, what book are you using?’ That’s how people spread the word for you.’’
Hyunwoo believes that physical books are better than ebooks. It’s important to keep the students motivated with a nicely designed book that they want to show to everyone.
Hyunwoo’s final tip:
‘’Always think about what your customers want to buy from you and what they like about you. Have confidence in what you’re teaching. Also, make sure to be authentic, people will like you for who you are.’’