Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to pivot. Our first business model was direct to consumer. Our plan was to sell portable Bluetooth speakers. After a while, we realized that we would never achieve a significant industry shift as a consumer facing company. We knew we’d have to overhaul everything and pivot to a business-facing model. But the thought of throwing out all of the work we put into our product development process, logistics, advertising campaign was dizzying. We hesitated, looking for a reason not to change. Yet ultimately, we knew it was the right move and made the pivot, and it was the right call. So, I learned not to be afraid to change, and to stay flexible, never becoming too attached to something when you know there’s something out there that works better.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Youngil Cho, the Co-Founder and CEO of Resonado. Resonado is a startup setting a new standard in the speaker industry with their Flat Core Speaker (FCS) technology. Brian grew up in South Korea learning about electronics and engineering from his father, LH Cho, a successful serial entrepreneur. Brian traveled internationally for his secondary education. He studied in Vancouver and Auckland, ultimately attending and graduating high school in New Jersey. He decided to stay in the U.S. to study both Finance and Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. After returning from two years off from college to serve in the South Korean Army, Brian, along with three other students he met on campus, founded Resonado while they were juniors in school.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Brian! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Thank you, Phil for your time and interest. I grew up tinkering with stuff in my dad’s garage. My dad, LH Cho, is an engineer who became a serial entrepreneur after leaving his position as an executive at LG Electronics in South Korea. We made many things for fun (I picked up soldering when I was 6, for example). When I was about 12, my mom made my dad disassemble the desktop computer because she did not like how I spent so much time playing computer games. I actually taught myself to reassemble it while my mom was gone, played the game secretly, and disassembled the desktop computer again before she came back home.
I got caught after a couple weeks, but my dad actually laughed and as a compliment, said that I would become a great engineer when I grew up. Ultimately however, I ended up deciding to study Finance and Applied Mathematics at Notre Dame. My dad wasn’t too happy about that decision, but I knew that having been raised as an engineer, and studying finance, would be a powerful combination.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
This particular business idea, Resonado, actually stems from one of the many projects my dad and I did together when I was still home. We were building a surprise birthday gift for my mom. Back then, my dad was running a company which sold digital photo frames that you could upload your family photos to and have them play on a slideshow. Knowing my mom’s affinity for music, we wanted to put a speaker inside to play music as the slideshow played.
However, the challenge we had was that we could not find a speaker that was shallow enough to fit inside this thin photo frame without sacrificing sound quality. We had to let go of building speakers into the frame, but it gave us the inspiration to create a shallow, space-efficient speaker that maintained, or even enhanced sound quality.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
My dad and I had this idea a long time ago but could not commercialize FCS technology for various reasons. I think the two most important things we’ve done to overcome this challenge thus far have been a willingness to take on aggressive risks and being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. One of the most important things to me for achieving success is executing with speed and efficiency. In order to achieve speed and efficiency, I had to recognize that most startups fail. So, I lost all fear of failure. I had to acknowledge that I would not be able to do this on my own. So, I sought out co-founders and advisors that had natural talent where I lacked experience. In this way, I was quickly able to turn an idea into a real business. Of course, there’s much more to that. As much as I’d love to say I overcame this challenge through pure skills and hard work, I owe much of it to my dad’s foresight in having me study in the US during this current tech boom. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time with the right idea. Although ultimately, being able to capitalize on that was the true challenge.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
My biggest advice is to be humble. Don’t let your ego stop you from being open about your ideas and opinions with others. The most seemingly meaningless conversations could lead to some of the most important moments of your life. If you’re humble and open to truly listening to what people have to say, you’ll be able to connect on a meaningful level. You’ll likely find that many have insights that they’re yearning to share, relevant connections that they’re itching to make, and could end up being a mentor, investor, partner, or client.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I think one of the reasons why people say this is because they know that by doing something you love for a living, you’re exposing your work to be judged by others. Whatever it is that you’d be producing, be it music, photography, scientific research, or speakers in my case, you’re exposing it for the world to critique. If you aren’t producing a quality product, you won’t get sales, you won’t get investment, you won’t have an audience. People are inherently afraid of being vulnerable and putting your passion out in the world is the ultimate way of opening yourself up. Personally, I see this is a way to improve my work. The only way to get better is by competing, and you can’t compete without putting your work out in the world for all to see. Doing what I love stays fresh and enjoyable because I’m driven to produce better work every day.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Having autonomy and being able to move an organization in the direction I want it to take is what I enjoy the most. I’m well aware that having the ability to do this isn’t common this early in a professional career, and I’m grateful for it. Every decision I make affects my entire professional career and, as CEO, also affects every stakeholder, those who invested into our company trusting me and the company’s vision, and those who I hired as part of the team. It is a great responsibility that I am blessed with at such a young age and creates the pressure I need to motivate myself daily, to never settle and never stop pushing forward through obstacle after obstacle.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Working as CEO of my own tech startup is everything I hoped it would be and more. I fully expected the long hours, and I look forward to them every day. Starting a company from scratch has enabled me to be hands-on with every part of the business, from behind-the-scenes like developing the product, logistics, or manufacturing, to the public-facing aspects like presenting to investors or giving a speech at an event. The variety of responsibilities have contributed to a well-rounded skill set that I never would have obtained anywhere else.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore; I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
I often think about how “easy” my life would have been if I had just accepted a job in the finance industry. I probably would’ve lived a more comfortable life and definitely wouldn’t have had to worry about my own financial well-being, nor about the organization whose financial wellbeing is crucial for eight employees and several investors. However, I then remind myself of how blessed I am to be able to live the life that I always imagined — running my own company and having strong support around me. Living one’s dream can defeat any negativity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The company’s first name. When I started this company, I decided to name it “Flato.” I chose the name because our first product was literally a flat “O.” I knew it was a mistake from the mostly negative feedback I got from the general public, and that’s when I knew that I needed a marketing guy on the team. I learned to focus on what I’m good at and be open to bringing in talent for areas I don’t have experience.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Growing up, my dad seemed like Superman to me. He seemed so big and omnipotent, since he always had a solution no matter what the situation was. Now that I am in his shoes, running a company as the CEO and being responsible for my own team, I feel how much pressure and responsibility he must have felt as not only the CEO of more than 100 employees under him at one time, but also a father of two children. Having my dad as CTO of Resonado is a blessing, as now I am able to work with him and reconnect as father and son, especially since we have been apart for most of my life due to studying abroad and serving in the Korean Army. My dad inspired me as a kid and still inspires me today, by instilling in me what it means to be a leader in not just an organization but also for a family.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Last year I found out that FCS technology is being used by therapists to treat children with autism in lieu of drugs through a recently discovered form of audio therapy. It turns out that FCS technology provides the most efficient delivery method, thanks to the form factor and crystal-clear sound quality. Once we found out about this, we decided to offer those products to the company that discovered that form of therapy at cost. Although our products weren’t developed for that purpose, every day we’re discovering new ways in which we can use our technology to make the world a better place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- When starting something new, always under promise and over deliver. Whenever you’re starting something new, and you don’t have significant experience, always expect for things to be a lot harder than you imagine. At the beginning, when pitching to investors and prospective clients, I would always talk about our aggressive growth plan and how quickly we would get everything done. It worked amazingly well, and I had every intention on delivering, until I realized that it was simply impossible for everything to work out as smoothly as you think. There will always be snags in projects completely out of your control, and you have to learn to expect them.
- Always get a second opinion. When I was first starting out, I would take advice or recommendations from experts, or those who were considered experts, to heart and immediately act on them. After getting burned a few times, I learned that you should always get a second or even third opinion before making a decision on something you lack experience in.
- Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to pivot. Our first business model was direct to consumer. Our plan was to sell portable Bluetooth speakers. After a while, we realized that we would never achieve a significant industry shift as a consumer facing company. We knew we’d have to overhaul everything and pivot to a business-facing model. But the thought of throwing out all of the work we put into our product development process, logistics, advertising campaign was dizzying. We hesitated, looking for a reason not to change. Yet ultimately, we knew it was the right move and made the pivot, and it was the right call. So, I learned not to be afraid to change, and to stay flexible, never becoming too attached to something when you know there’s something out there that works better.
- Explore every opportunity that makes sense. You never know where you could get your next investment or PO from. If you see something that has even a glimmer of potential, look into it, and it could be the game-changer you needed.
- Don’t ignore your instincts Always do your research, but even if something checks out in every way rationally, if you don’t feel right about doing something, don’t force it. Your instincts can tell you things that are impossible to see or sometimes don’t make sense, but they’re usually right.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire a movement where people could come together and revel at how much we all have in common and rejoice in what makes us unique. Music, for example, is an authentic reflection of culture for so many nations, and something that has been bringing humanity together for generations. In a world that’s growing more divided each day, I’d love to be able to be a part of a movement that unites.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be humble.” Being humble and accepting that you always have more to learn has been a major contributor to where I am today.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Andrew Yang. Although he has been getting a great deal of attention these days with the presidential race, I find him to be interesting not because of any political affiliation but because of his rational way of looking at the world and his problem-solving mindset.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.