Kevin Hong is an Amazon best-selling author of The Outlier Approach: How to Triumph in Your Career as a Nonconformist. Previously, Kevin grew his startup Dealflicks up to a $15M valuation. He is currently an advisor to several startups including Sinemia and executives/entrepreneurs.
Kevin’s work as an entrepreneur has been featured in CNBC, Times, Forbes, NY Times, LA Times, Xinhua News (China), Korea Times, NDR (Germany) and countless other media outlets globally. His writing has also been featured in CNBC, Forbes, Inc, HuffPost, and many more.
Kevin’s career began at 18, when he dropped out of college and began making nearly $10,000 per month in a networking marketing business despite speaking broken English after moving back from Korea.
After realizing he wanted to achieve bigger things in life, Kevin finished college with a degree in finance and became a stockbroker in Wall Street during the Great Recession and then a stock research analyst for William O’Neil (Investors’ Business Daily).
He then successfully transitioned his career to Silicon Valley to cofound his startup and afterwards, his success lead him to a C-Level position for a subsidiary of a publicly traded company (Vista Group – NZE:VGL) that was the most dominant POS provider in the movie industry.
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Before discussing The Outlier Approach, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Looking at the rearview mirror, I realized what truly shaped my nonconformist way of approaching the business world was my upbringing, which was littered with challenges on social survival.
I learned the importance of hardwork watching my parents. My parents worked 7 days a week to make ends meet. They made it an effort to instill these values in me. I often say, “It isn’t hard to work hard” and pride myself on outworking others.
Inadvertently, by experiencing so much cultural adversity and being constantly linguistically challenged, (In my book I confess I was neither good at Korean or English until the age of 21) I developed shrewd body language skills along with social skills that became my main bread and butter in the business world.
The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
The Great Recession. Every day for a year I worked with clients 2-3 times my age that were devastated and couldn’t fathom what was happening in the market. There was no reason. It was “just happening” since no one could comprehend the market at this time. My clients would sometimes cry on the phone or even contemplate suicide as they watched their entire lives’ savings get wiped out.
This would sometimes happen in a matter of days but sometimes even in a matter of seconds. I was reminded every day about “overnight failure” opposed to “overnight success”. This irrational fear drove me to bootstrap my startup and live in a van with my sales team for over 2 years.
Even after receiving over $4M in funding, I never left the van. We have a tendency to glorify “overnight successes” and the media tends to mythify such accomplishments when there’s always so much ambiguity. There’s a beauty in failing successfully and it’s at these moments we learn ourselves best.
Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
At age 18 I dropped out of college and joined a network marketing business making $10K/month.
During this time, my family had just moved back to the states from Korea, believing that an American education would secure my future. I was bored and impatient with school and was ready to pursue the American Dream instead.
I gladly paid a $400 fee for a “marketing internship” with a network marketing company. Essentially, at that time, my recruiter duped me into thinking I was working for a corporation and had to pay for training. Since I just moved from Korea and my English was choppy at best, I was just thrilled that an American company was willing to take a chance on me and signed up without proper due diligence.
Surprisingly, despite my shaky English, lack of cultural understanding, and young age, within three months, I rose to become the third highest grossing regional director in California.
I began making nearly $10,000/month. I convinced other students to drop out of school with me and countless more to skip classes. Six months into the business, my team recruited over fifteen hundred students across several campuses in California.
By then my business was so big, faculty at school was sending emails warning students to avoid taking meetings with my team. The business model was simple. We would target students who wanted to “get-rich-quick”. Once we signed them up, they would pay four-hundred- dollars.
After they joined, they would have to sell at least two products of any combination of our inferior phone services – long-distance phone services, refurbished cell phones, and even beepers. (Yes, in the year 2003, I was selling beepers.)
We would sell these products in our college dorms or go door-to- door in underserved neighborhoods such as Compton and Inglewood where saving $5 in your phone bill mattered. We would then take about $250 and the rest of our down line would take another $200 or so. Since our products were not great, most customers did not stay too long.
Many of my friends disapproved and my family threatened to disown me since I was skipping college. My rendezvous with business came to a screeching halt when someone lit my car on fire and burnt it to the ground while I was out of town. At this time, my car was parked at my parent’s house and my dad along with neighbors watched the car melt in flames.
When I came back from my trip, I saw my parents distraught and concerned for my safety. A great deal of sadness loomed over them and it pained me. After all, they sacrificed so much because they believed an American education would make a big difference in my life.
I finally took a step back and thought about all the people I might have hurt. The unsuspecting lady in Compton who purchased my products and the college kid who never made his money back.
I questioned why making money had to be such a hostile experience?
Unlike many sales representatives, I didn’t have to rely on cheap sales tricks. I was too candid, which made it all the more appealing to work with me. However, at the end of the day, I was a network marketing brat who was taking advantage of people because I knew deep inside the products weren’t great.
The problem was, even though I was candid about the lack of functionality of the product, I knew my downline and other business colleagues weren’t always walking a straight line. If I wasn’t speaking up, I was looking the other way.
Although, a couple days later we found out that my car, along with five other cars, were randomly vandalized in my parent’s neighborhood, the experience changed my perspective.
I was determined to make a change in this world with my skills, but now in a positive way. Money was no longer a scorecard. Money was cheap. I realized anyone can become rich. (I did it without speaking proper English)
I now wanted to enrich other’s lives. Build a company that makes others happy. Besides, with my sales skills, I can always become a used-car salesman and still become extremely successful.
I went back to school and tripled down on my English. I obsessed at perfecting the language. My senior year, my roommate of four years said:
“Kevin, your English is so good. You sound like you were born here.”
I graduated with an emphasis in finance and years later, used some of the funds from trading to cofound a company, Dealflicks, and built it up to a fifteen-million- dollar valuation.
Although it took me a bit longer, taking a more circuitous route to the top but a walking a straight moral line, gave me a much higher return and satisfaction for my overall career.
To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Although it has been the outlier, non-academic approach that truly accelerated my career to higher heights, you cannot underestimate the power of formal education. To be a true nonconformist, you need to understand how to become a conformist as well. Simply put there is no “yang” without the “ying.”
I’ll provide a few examples:
Majoring in finance gave me a solid backbone in understanding businesses from an analytical perspective. I resort to financial statements when assessing bigger companies and I build cash flow models for startups to understand their growth potential 3-5 years into the future. This not only helps me mitigate risk when running a startup but also helps me seize much smarter opportunities.
My education in Korea helped me become well-versed at memorizing key facts and dates. Furthermore, until high-school, I wanted to become a history teacher. Any time, I am speaking to a high-level executive who has extensive knowledge in many topics, I can showcase my library of facts. The other day, during a networking event, I met a lawyer who was from Russia. One of the first things I asked was the battle of Stalingrad as well as the Russo-Japanese war and how Russians felt about those events. The former was a monumental achievement by the Russian army which helped change the momentum of WW2 and the latter was one of the most embarrassing losses possibly in Russian military history. She was impressed with my repository of knowledge.
If you want to be successful as an entrepreneur or corporate executive, you need to become resourceful. Additionally, the more extensive your knowledge base and skill set, the better positioned you are to run different kinds of businesses. Knowledge, whether formal or non-formal is key so it is important to always have that drive to learn.
What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
There are multiple ways to success. I spent too much of my 20s, trying to pass an exam I had no aptitude for – the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams. The CFA exams is a very competitive exam and you are only allowed to take 1 exam each year out of 3 levels. Each level of the exam requires you to study about 6-7 books the size of a telephone book.
I passed the first level and the second level, which is generally considered the hardest, I failed twice and for one of the tests I didn’t show up because I was poorly prepared. Thus, I spent over 2 years studying for this exam which takes over 6 months to prepare.
I am naturally not a great test-taker and struggle with exams that require extensive preparation. Furthermore, sitting at a desk as a financial analyst would have been a horrible fit for me and despite many colleagues admonishing that this route wasn’t for me, my pride kept me going.
Instead of focusing on becoming an analyst, I could have pursued an MBA, learned to code, learned another language, or launched a startup. At the time, because most of my understanding of the business world came from a classroom environment, I only saw a direct route to success.
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
I first watched this film shortly after I re-immigrated to America. I immediately connected with the main protagonist, a genetic “degenerate” who is born in a society of genetic discrimination.
As a F.O.B (Fresh off the Boat) who had immigrant parents who didn’t fully understand the culture of America and as someone who wasn’t attending a top university, it seemed like all the odds were stacked against me.
Quite frankly, it’s hard to assess if the film taught me something, but I’m sure it has helped me in some way. I’ve watched the film about 10 times in the past 17 years (the only film I’ve watched more than three times) and used it as a source of motivation.
Here’s what the film is about (spoiler alert).
Gattaca is a 1997 film about the future. And, incidentally, a box office failure. It deals with eugenics. Based on your DNA, scientists can determine how smart you’ll be, how long your lifespan will be, the occupation that best fits you, etc. The moment you’re born, they take a blood test and you’re tiered based on your future potential.
In this imagined future, genetic manipulation is so common that if you’re not genetically enhanced, you’re deemed a degenerate. Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, the protagonist of the story and, incidentally, a degenerate.
It’s a classic story of overcoming the odds, in Winston Churchill’s words, of never never, never, never giving up. Not accepting others’ expectations appeals to me so much and I think a lot of that is mirrored in my book, The Outlier Approach.
Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:
Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
This reminds me of a proverb, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There’s a beauty in involving others as well as giving credit discretely.
From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
I could relate to this quote because when you are launching a business or even a new product in the market, you are looking for opportunities to disrupt it. Thus, so much of what you hypothesize could deviate from practice. As basic it may sound, the best approach is sometimes to go through the process of trial and error to test out what works specifically for you, your team, and/or your product/company.
From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
As I mention in my book, careers are changing faster and faster. The future will belong to the ones who not only adapt but also diversify their careers. In my book, I highlight the synergies and benefits of having a diversified career, similar to a portfolio manager shuffling through different investments and rebalancing his/her portfolio to constantly mitigate risk and amplify gains.
I believe we might have already passed the point where successful people only see adapting to the current job climate an approach to success. With the advent of technology and a workforce that is becoming much more mobile, global, and liquid, having a portfolio of 2-3 careers that you can build in parallel can give you a significant advantage.
African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
My dad always told me, if you want to build a long-term relationship, always give a little bit more. If so, people will keep coming back over and over again. He was never a businessman but he understood reciprocity when it came to building relationships.
In my book, I was able to juxtapose certain characters as I narrate some of my stories. Everyone has that friend that is brilliant but always wants a deal slightly better for himself or herself even when doing deals with friends while we all have friends who are always giving a bit more than they take.
While taking care of yourself may benefit you in the short-run, it is a strategy that wouldn’t pay off in the long-run. I hope I was able to illustrate this well enough in my book.
From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”
When I first presented the “Man Van Campaigns,” our solution to acquiring business partners for our app, Dealflicks, most people start scratching their heads thinking… “Why didn’t you just hire sales representatives?” It isn’t until I spend a few minutes explaining why we couldn’t use that approach that it leads to “Eureka!” and they said “Well that makes sense.”
As an entrepreneur, you are the person that is most knowledgeable about your business. You think about the business day and night and you tried every solution imaginable. Not everyone will understand you at first and that’s ok because that is part of the game.
From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Anybody can come up with an idea. An idea is just an idea until you take action.
Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Have you ever driven in the wrong direction and felt good about how far you’ve gone toward your destination only to find out you were going south instead of north?
Doing something useless with great efficiency could lead to a confirmation bias of the wrong idea. We often fall victim to this time and time again.
Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended evening? Why?
Napoleon. Not only was he an outsider as a Corsican who had to adapt and learn the French language, similar to what I had gone through, but he was one of the few leaders in history that excelled in school before realizing his potential.
He was a military genius as well as someone who was able to cultivate immense loyalty from his soldiers. I’ve always been fascinated by him.
Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Be Patient. Change never happens overnight. This reminds me of how difficult it is to shape something as direct as company culture. The process of recruiting, training, managing, and leading is a journey.
You have to understand that change is an iterative process and once change has occurred, maintaining the new status is another challenge in itself
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
A company with a clear goal and vision, one that has transparent culture with a clear feedback loop from management,
Employees that understand the company’s culture, whose recruiting process that understands how to recruit the right people, and company culture that emphasizes the development of its employees professionally and personally.
Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?
I believe in today’s day and age, employees have false expectations on what a normal work environment looks like. You have company’s like Google and Facebook that depict a work environment essentially like an adult playground. This distorted view along with unreal expectations are a source of employee dissatisfaction, which is resulting in many just “mailing it in”.
People tend to judge others’ happiest moments against their most miserable moments. Social Media are also at fault. Why? Because many folks only share the most exciting and positive moments of their day.
In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?
I believe there just needs to be better education on how we’re consuming content. In today’s world, every channel is customized for our own liking. From YouTube to Facebook to Netflix. All information is tailored to match the viewer’s perspective. It’s almost scary because we are beginning to live in a world where we are trapped in our own confirmation biases because of this.
As a result, it seems like younger and younger generations have expectations that often deviate from the norm because they are so used to consuming information within their own “bubble”. We may need to spend more effort at schools or during training in a corporate environment to make employees understand and set realistic expectations.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
The accelerating pace of change. It seems like we are at the dawn of so many changes that are about to happen. Having an adaptive mindset will be key.
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Kevin cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
His Amazon link
His Inc. link
Link to a YouTube video of his program about branding at University of Chicago
Cinema Intelligence link