Starting a Korean-Australian Business from Scratch: Tim O’Sullivan & Bae Juice

AsiaOptions sat down with Bae Juice co-founder Tim O’Sullivan to find out how he brought a much-loved Korean product to the Australian market for the first time, and his experiences in getting a Korean-Australian business off the ground.

Parts of this interview have been adapted for readability.

Hyundai is Korean?

Hendrick Hamel was a Dutch sailor who shipwrecked on Korea’s Jeju Island in 1653, at a time when the peninsula wasn’t much more than a few mentions on nautical charts projecting off the Chinese mainland. Despite Australia’s significant trading relationship with South Korea over the past decades, now Australia’s fourth-largest two-way trading partner, it is only in recent years that South Korea’s cultural influence has skyrocketed into mainstream consciousness.

Tim O’Sullivan’s knowledge of Korea was obviously not as low as Hamel’s, but before meeting his Korean partner, Sumin Do, in Australia, it is fair to say his interactions with the country were somewhat limited. Several months after meeting his partner, Tim went on his first trip to Korea and instantly fell in love with the country. Compared to other countries he had visited, Tim says, Koreans genuinely seemed interested in his story. “I talked to owners of coffee shops, chicken restaurants… they all asked me where I was from and showed so much love.”

Rediscovering the Wheel

This first trip was also Tim’s first exposure to bae or the Korean pear.

Our agenda in the first week was hectic. Every single night it was a different bar, karaoke, soju, fried chicken… in five days we went out five nights.

Every night when I came home, Sumin’s mum would have a freshly cut Korean pear waiting for us and she’d make sure I ate it. I didn’t understand why at the start [she made us eat it], but I just keep eating it because it was delicious. After a while she started cracking open cans of bae juice, which we drank before we went out each night. The fridge was full of it.

Eventually, Sumin explained that her mum is actually from Naju – the home of the Korean pear – so she has a passion for the bae. She just kept feeding it to me, and I just kept waking up feeling good.

Initially, Tim wasn’t sure why he felt so good every morning. “I didn’t feel a million bucks, but I knew I should feel worse.” He wondered if alcohol volume was less in Korea, was Cass weaker then Carlton Draught? Maybe it was the spicy food making him sweat it out? Eventually, Sumin’s mother explained that the Korean pear has been used traditionally for generations to prevent hangovers, a fact later confirmed in Tim’s initial investigations. Everyone he asked, from diverse demographics, seemed to regard the Korean pear’s benefits as common knowledge. Moreover, pages of Google results and scientific studies talked about their health benefits. As Tim delved further, he was more convinced he had hit a gold mine.

Tim’s Korean experience with the fruit had planted a seed in his mind. Back in Melbourne, he discovered there were only a few places that sold bae juice, whose stock he quickly depleted.

I asked everyone at work who ordered a coffee from me, from optometrists, to solicitors to uni students… ‘what are you doing tonight?’ and if they were going out, I gave them a sachet [of bae juice]. A couple people came back to me and asked, ‘what was that?’ – they all said it tasted good, and they felt good too’… I knew I was onto something.

The effects varied between individuals, but many reported lack of dryness in the throat, no headaches, a cleansed feeling, and less sensitivity to light – all symptoms backed up by past scientific research which point toward the bae’s natural richness in alcohol detoxifying enzymes.

What appealed to Tim, even more, was the lack of natural hangover ‘cure’ offerings on the market. Several $10 concoctions were available, but “at $4 a pop, 100% natural, and with generations of proven use behind it,” there seemed to be a significant gap in the market for his product.

The Pitch

Tim returned to Korea with an idea, but with limited business experience outside a year-long stint managing events in Vietnam after high school, and co-owning his family’s cafe in Melbourne. For round two in Korea, Tim’s vision was clear, “I want to find the biggest bae supplier in Korea and pitch a repackaged product for Australia.” With the help of Sumin’s parents, three meetings were set up with major Korean pear farms that week. It was at the peak of summer, so “we were wearing shorts and a t-shirt.” Several stars aligned from the get-go, as not only was the first farm visited the largest Korean pear farm in the country, they had coincidentally been exploring international opportunities at the time, none of which had materialised yet. Tim’s pitch, based around Australians’ propensity to drink, a lot, was well received. Within the half-hour, they had a full tour of the factory. Another hour later, they shook hands and the factory agreed to package and fulfill an order if Tim could put together a proposal.

The Bae Juice production line.

K-Business

Back in Melbourne, Tim and his business partner Liam Gostencnik contracted designers, marketing plans, and nutritional certifications, out of their own pockets. All ‘consulting’ was done via Korea’s most popular messaging platform, KakaoTalk. “We would shoot them a message at 2am with a question, and the managing director would answer within two minutes. There were no dumb questions, and they were great at explaining everything. It was a super-efficient process.”

With the Australian summer approaching, Tim had to put aside any hesitation in seeking out help to have his 50,000 unit order placed in time. This means reaching out to mutual connections on Linkedin, or even someone he played footy with 10 years ago who had experience in logistics.

When you’ve got so much on the line (7.5 thousand kilograms of juice!) you don’t really hold off pushing send on a question if you feel uncomfortable or not… people were generally pretty fascinated with the idea and willing to help.

As was revealed during our chat, more than anything it was Tim’s belief in his idea that saw it come to fruition, the how-tos of business were something that could be picked up on the way.  When it comes to learning business he says, “I’d never do it any other way… Every issue we’ve had has had some sort of positive outcome.”

Building-your-own Korean-Australian Business?

  • Ripe Conditions for Trade: Korea presents an attractive opportunity for import-led businesses into Australia, in part thanks to advantageous pricing, established trade channels, and increased Australian demand for Korean products. The 2017 Free Trade Agreement only enhances this equation, and according to Tim, has made the process relatively seamless, while removing the costs which would previously impact new businesses.
  • Quality Won’t be Neglected: Put simply, poor quality products with bad branding don’t cut it in Korea’s ultra savvy marketplace. If you’re planning on partnering with a Korean producer, you can rest at ease when it comes to attention to detail.

At every station [on the juice production line] there were two people – lab coats, goggles, notepad… anything with a hint of residue was thrown out…having a really high standard product means there’s less risk involved.

  • Language Can Open Doors: With a deadline looming, Tim and his supplier rushed to locate a mandatory trading license, only to realise after two weeks that both parties had been referring to the same document, which they already possessed. Outside of the large chaebol, professional English may vary. It would pay to have a local guide, or seek the aid of a Korean-Australian business organisation. “Even though Sumin was fluent in Korean, she wasn’t familiar with the specific business terminology.” Tim explained that this language barrier wasn’t even restricted to Korean, “we were asked to send something by business today, but there were ten words every day I didn’t understand.”
  • Deals Over Dinner: As you may have heard, Korean business relationships do not generally start and end in the boardroom. Tim enjoyed the personal and affable relationships established with his business partners over dinner, drinks, and noraebang.  For Tim, these were occasions to further build mutual trust with his partners and helped confirm that both sides would work toward actualising their business’ vision.

What’s to Come

“Before Bae juice, we wanted to call it liquid gold. 100% natural juice that’s proven to help your hangover, and it’s not in Australia,” Tim explained. Australian’s have responded to the product’s traditional usage, as well as the ‘natural product’ angle, which aligns with Aussies’ increased interest in wellness.

Indeed, Tim expressed his intention to broaden the scope of the drink from just a drinking aid – it can help during pregnancy, with cholesterol levels, blood, cell development, is low in salt and high in fibre, along with many other health benefits. Because of his positive experience with working in Korea, Tim is actively looking at other opportunities to expand his business and networks in the Korea-Australia space, especially around wellness products drawing from Korea’s plethora traditional healthy foods.

The journey of Bae Juice, from inception to first shipment, demonstrates the readiness of untapped Korean markets to engage with unique international opportunities, attested to by the recent introductions of many well-known Korean stalwarts into Australia across diverse industries.

As the Korean wave has by now truly reached Australian shores, it is hard to ignore the inviting conditions for Korean-Australian partnerships and indeed, bi-lateral investment. It is only a matter of time before these opportunities are realised, and Tim’s example shows that with the right mindset, the Korean marketplace is more accessible to anyone than ever before.

You can taste some Bae Juice yourself through selected suppliers or on their website.

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Alexander Ekkel

Director at Asia Options
Alexander has studied and travelled extensively in South Korea for over a year. He enjoys actively keeping up to date with the goings-on in the country and is dedicated to acquanting Australians further with this exciting nation. He studied Economics and Chinese at the University of Melbourne.

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