Meet a Maker: Kheedim Oh, Mama O’s Kimchi
Kheedim Oh did not set out to start a business. Mama O’s Kimchi, his Brooklyn-based kimchi company, is celebrating 10 years in business this year and aims to become the top brand in the category. But when Kheedim was spending years reverse-engineering and refining a kimchi recipe, he really just wanted some of his mom’s delicious kimchi for himself. Eventually, as he gifted the fruits of his labor to friends and neighbors, a business emerged.
Today, Mama O’s produces a ton of kimchi per week and can be found in stores across the country. Does a food entrepreneur with a 10 year old business have everything figured out? Definitely not, but Oh still has plenty of lessons to share.
Mama O’s is now 10 years old. What is it like to have 10 years under your belt?
It’s bizarre. I never set out to start a business, it just came about because I personally wanted some kimchi. All the stuff in the store was terrible, so I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. It developed from there. My main thing has always been music, and I’ve been a musician and DJ for my entire adult life. I still do it, but not as much.
It’s funny, it didn’t even really feel like a business until 4 or 5 years ago. That’s when I really settled in, and we had these orders, and we had to fulfill them or people were going to be pissed off. So that’s how it feels to be 10 years old: it’s kind of weird that this is what I do now! But it’s great, because business is growing and I’m able to employ people and help them improve their lives as well.
Is there some part of having a food business that fulfills a different part of you than your DJ-ing does?
For me, it’s the same thing. It’s another mode of creative expression. It’s chopping and mixing, but just a different medium. Back in around 2009, that was the big rush of new food companies and I saw the parallels between these young food companies and music bands. Food entrepreneurship was a mode of creative expression in which you create a unique product and share it with people, and if they’re into it, they can follow you like they follow bands.
How long were you running the business on your own before you had employees?
What was it like to hire people and hand off some of your baby to them?
It was great. It freed me up to do fun things like email.
I only hired for production. I am a little short-staffed because I do everything else. I do all the sales, account management, and planning. I wear a lot of hats. The real tough part, that every budding entrepreneur is going to face, is that you have to wear a lot of hats and you don’t have the luxury of focus. It’s really hard. It’s just a luxury that you’re not going to have in the beginning, unless you have money. That’s the bottom line.
If you’re lucky enough to get a loan from your folks or whatnot and you can hire staff, that’s great. I just never had any of that. I’m working towards hiring someone, but I’ve also hired someone before and they didn’t work out.
How has your typical day changed since Day 1?
I started with $50 and a skateboard. I didn’t have funding, and I don’t have any investors to this day. I was making it out of my apartment when I first started, and delivering it a case at a time via the subway. It the same time, I was trying to push my music career and performing at night.
The main difference between then and now is that now I’m much less hands-on in terms of production. Now I’m trying to get more business and do higher-order thinking on how to run the business, the direction, and all that good stuff.
Is Mama O’s where you thought it would be, after 10 years?
I didn’t have a 10 year plan, or sales goals, or anything like that. My goal is to create the best kimchi I can make and that never wavered. Business can always be better, and it can definitely always be worse. You can think about missed opportunities, like in the beginning I didn’t treat this very seriously and you can lose ground that way. But at the same time, there’s no one template for how to run a business.
You can really get caught up in comparing your business to another business, because you have no idea what’s going on with their business. On paper, they may look great, they’re making 10x more than I am, but they have debt, they have to answer to investors, etc. I don’t think about anybody else, I just concentrate on what I’m doing, which is to make the product well and keep growing and forward thinking with an eye on improvement.
You’re nationally distributed. Can you talk about building your distribution network?
One tidbit of advice is that if you’re going after larger distributors…don’t. Don’t go after large distributors, go after key accounts. I was trying to approach distributors to pick us up, but it’s like the chicken and the egg: distributors don’t want to pick you up unless the stores carry you, but stores won’t carry you unless the distributors pick you up.
But it’s better, in the case of someone like Whole Foods, to get them first, and then they’ll tell you which distributor they want you to work with. If you go through the distributor first, they’ll negotiate you down on price. But if Whole Foods wants you, you can be like, “this is how much it is,” and that’s it.
How has the market for Kimchi changed since you started?
It’s growing, thankfully. When I first started, not too many people knew about kimchi. Fast forward to three years ago, and I’m talking to this girl at a party and I’m like, “you know kimchi?” and she’s like “Duh, I live in Brooklyn!”
I’m very fortunate that there was this wave of kimchi and probiotics that was starting to brew up 6 years or so ago. Fermented foods was the #1 restaurant trend of 2018. And I don’t see fermented foods or probiotics going away, because there’s so much new science that has come out about the mind/gut connection and how probiotics are more than just good for you, they’re vital for your life. We have a symbiotic relationship with probiotics, and we could not survive without them. They allow us to extract more nutrients from food.
Can you think of any challenges that you’re encountering at this stage of your business?
Getting paid. It’s a challenge – some people just don’t want to do it. And staying on top of everything. I recommend trying to create as many internal systems as possible so that you can automate stuff.
Are there any specific digital tools that you recommend?
I just switched from Quickbooks to a cloud-based accounting app called Wave. Try and do everything cloud-based if you can, because it frees you up from having to be anywhere. I like being able to access any of my stuff regardless of whether I have my laptop or my phone.
In general, my best bit of advice is to keep a low overhead. Overhead is what kills you. You really need to control your costs. One thing that I am warning against, which I was almost a victim to myself, is that when you start a business you want to buy a bunch of stuff. It makes you feel like you’re doing something. But hold off on buying things for as long as possible. Because ultimately, what you’re going to need is capital. So don’t get into a trap of buying a bunch of sh*t just to validate your business. All it gives you is debt. In reality, you’re just creating more debt.
But I am also just one person doing this! If you write a business plan, you’re getting funding, and you need to buy things, in that case you probably know more about business than I do and why are you listening to me?
Do you have goals for the future of Mama O’s Kimchi?
We are trying to really get out there and go national and international. Ultimately, I want to be the #1. And there are cultural goals, like getting kimchi on the American menu. There are different ways that it could go. I personally love it on hot dogs, but some of my friends swear by kimchi and eggs. I’m really interested in where it’s going to end up in the American psyche.
Basically, I want to be at the point where the brand overtakes the category. No one says “I want a bandage,” they say, “I want a Band-Aid.” That’s the goal.