[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we have an exceptional guest with us. His name is Karho Leung. Kar is a former accountant and founder of 12 Pell, Kar’s desire for entrepreneurship. It allowed him to break the mold, which he refers to as the Asian American narrative, an upbringing that defines success through one’s ability to thrive in a white-collar career.
[00:00:23] Maggie Chui: After leaving the suit and tie behind, Kar’s inspiration is to lead and encourage others to challenge the cultural norms of success. His passion for serving the AAPI community has made him a keynote speaker at corporate speaking engagements, panels, and round tables to represent the community of young Asian American millennials and gen Z.
[00:00:41] Maggie Chui: After founding 12 Pell, four years ago, the business has expanded to two retail locations and a member’s house. 12 Pell house’s quick rise in media has earned it a title as the barbershop with the largest social media presence in the nation. The business has recently formed a media arm that is focused on leading a generational voice for men’s screaming and education as 12 Pell Powell clients and viewers like to say a visit to 12 Pell.
[00:01:11] Karho Leung: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to be here today because I am a fan from the early days. It’s funny how we’ve got to catch. We got a chance to catch up now.
[00:01:20] Maggie Chui: I am super excited to have you on the podcast today and excited to learn about your story because I remember when we had first heard about12 Pell on TikTok or saw your guys’ content, you guys were just starting. And at that time, I knew that you guys were like blowing up because you guys were like racking up followers so fast and were just grinding it out. After all, you were going on live every day. You guys were posting like four videos a day and it was just moving so fast.
[00:01:46] Maggie Chui: It’s amazing to see how far you have come today. So we’ll get into all of it in a little bit but just wanted to start by, you know, asking you. Where were you born and raised and what was your upbringing like while you were growing up?
[00:01:59] Karho Leung: Yes, I was born in Maine, so I’m a little bit of a New York City transplant. I came here when I was six years old and I pretty much grew up in Chinatown until I bounced around the boroughs a little bit in between.
[00:02:11] Karho Leung: And eventually, when I had a chance to move out on my own, I moved back into Chinatown, because it’s stopping for me. There’s a level of pride and identity that I have with my community here. There was no better place to call home than China.
[00:02:24] Maggie Chui: Wow. That’s amazing. So were you always very entrepreneurial, like when you were growing up, did you always kind of have this creative outlet? I know that you were in accounting before, so I want to know, what was your thought process like when you were growing up?
[00:02:41] Karho Leung: Yes. I always had a very entrepreneurial mindset. To start when I was a kid, I think it grew out of my love and passion for anything and being able to be passionate about anything.
[00:02:52] Karho Leung: I was able to find an opportunity in it. That opportunity eventually turned to monetization. So very early on, it was like Pokemon cards and UVO cards. I would just pick up whatever they had at the car stores as there used to be a store on most streets and all the car collectors and traders would go there. they would buy packs and dump the cars they didn’t want.
[00:03:13] Karho Leung: So I would pick up all the ones that they didn’t want, bring that to school and then let people choose ten cards for like a dollar. That was like my earliest hustle ever. I was able to buy my parents groceries with it at the time. It made my mom proud. I think it was like a moment in time when I understood that I could use my sense for a business to do good for my family and be able to create this happiness and share the wealth.
[00:03:37] Karho Leung: That was kind of like the early days of my hustling journey, but eventually that kind of evolved through multiple hobbies that ranged from streetwear to high-end apparel in high school and college. I was always able to find an interest in something, be able to pick up on it, and then develop that into a passion and eventually make it into like a side hustle.
[00:03:57] Maggie Chui: That’s awesome. I’m curious to know, if your parents, did they have kind of a set plan for you because I just want to hear about your experience in your accounting career too. I know you had multiple jobs during your accounting career. And obviously, that’s a very stable job, right?
[00:04:14] Maggie Chui: I feel like a lot of Asian parents would be okay with someone in accounting or finance. I majored in finance and I was in a lot of finance jobs for my parents to know that I had a stable job, it was like, okay, for them, like, they were satisfied with that. Right?
[00:04:29] Maggie Chui: You left your accounting job to do entrepreneurship, ultimately.
[00:04:34] Karho Leung: Yes.
[00:04:34] Maggie Chui: Did your parents have a set plan for you? Did they want you to have or stay in accounting and what made you ultimately decide to leave accounting?
[00:04:44] Karho Leung: Yes, so basically what we’re describing here is what I commonly refer to as the Asian American narrative. That essentially is it’s based on our cultural upbringing, just the ideals of our culture. Having a white-collar, licensed professional career is highly sought after, but praised in Asian culture. And so, if you’re not doing those things, you’re kind of like the black sheep at the table, not to say you’re frowned upon, but you don’t get the praise from the family.
[00:05:12] Karho Leung: It’s not like, oh, my son is an accountant. My son’s a doctor, my son’s a lawyer. Typically, if you’re any one of those things, when you meet at the dinner table and it’s like a large family gathering, everybody gets a chance to have that moment to be proud. And so for me, being a licensed accountant and passing all the CPA exams was a huge milestone in my career at the time.
[00:05:34] Karho Leung: It was a lot of my parents’ aspirations for me to get a license. My mom always told me, I don’t really care what you do, as long as you get a license in something that way you have something to fall back on and you’ll always have this level of security and she wasn’t wrong. And so to be honest with you, I don’t ever regret taking that route.
[00:05:50] Karho Leung: To be fair, I spent about seven years in the accounting industry, all the way from freshman to full-time. A lot of that time was spent building my career and getting experience in different facets of the industry from working at family offices, private equity firms, and banks to eventually the big four.
[00:06:07] Karho Leung: I was able to get a really good idea of what that industry was like. But also, gained a lot of perspective on what it’s like to operate in that type of setting. And so, taking a lot of that inspiration from how a larger corporation has run. I was able to translate a lot of that inspiration into my entrepreneurial energy.
[00:06:27] Karho Leung: So now, today, there were many benefits that I was able to carry on in hindsight, you know. But when I was frustrated at my desk doing many hours a week, it didn’t seem very obvious. I don’t regret it at all. What allowed me to continue on that path was that I was making my parents happy.
[00:06:43] Karho Leung: There came a point in time where I started to think to myself, like, how much longer am I able to do this for them, rather than for myself? At that moment, I always knew. It’s funny enough. I realized that moment in my sophomore year in college, I was working at Goldman Sachs at the time and I was on the way to the ferry to take it to work.
[00:07:05] Karho Leung: I passed by the park and I saw some kids playing basketball and in my head, I was like, wow, I haven’t played basketball. A year plus, what would I do to play basketball right now? I realized I couldn’t even make that decision because I felt so guilty down inside. I would be leaving my team hanging.
[00:07:23] Karho Leung: It was like my level of responsibility for my work and what I was doing that made me feel like I couldn’t make that decision for myself. That’s when I recognized pretty early on like a sophomore year in college, accounting wasn’t going to be my life. But it was just going to be a milestone that I had to hit.
[00:07:40] Karho Leung: And so, eventually, when I made it to senior at big four and I finished passing all my CPA exams, it was about time. I think that breaking out and being an entrepreneur is something that I didn’t reveal to my parents. Something that my father didn’t even discover until the shop was fully finished.
[00:08:02] Karho Leung: I had walked him into the store and it was his first time being in that space. The crazier part of it was, for months, it was being built, running under his nose, because his favorite coffee shop is only about 10 stores down the block. He would go there every day and I would be in stealth mode.
[00:08:23] Karho Leung: I would like to duck out of the store and just make sure that he doesn’t catch me when I’m going in and out. To my surprise, he never caught me until the day that I walked him in there. And that moment was the final reveal for him. He realized at that point that I was out here, doing something else, doing something different.
[00:08:42] Karho Leung: I was met with a little bit of doubt, but I think that over time he started to become proud about what we were doing. As he watched us grow, he grew into the idea that I could do this. He felt confident that I knew what I was doing.
[00:08:57] Karho Leung: It gave me a lot of validation as we continued to push forward and grow our business.
[00:09:01] Maggie Chui: Wow. That is a crazy story. And so, he didn’t realize it the whole time.
[00:09:07] Karho Leung: No.
[00:09:07] Maggie Chui: Wow.
[00:09:08] Karho Leung: My mother had some sort of idea because eventually, I think about a month out, I decided to tell her because I tell my mom everything. She’s so understanding, even though she was still very encouraging that I consider a corporate path.
[00:09:25] Karho Leung: She’s always leaning on the idea that I could always do both. I think for me, it was just having a break, and taking my journey meant a lot because it was going to be a brand new learning curve. I was just ready to do it all out.
[00:09:43] Maggie Chui: Yes. I think it’s amazing how you were able to realize this early on. You said sophomore year of college, and that was when you realized that maybe accounting is not something that you would do for the rest of your life.
[00:09:55] Maggie Chui: A lot of people don’t realize that until a lot later, like in their thirties or forties, right? The Forties is already pushing it, but you were able to realize in your sophomore year of college, that’s pretty amazing. For you to like catch that very early on allowed you the time while you were still young to build this empire for yourself.
[00:10:16] Maggie Chui: When you talked about how your parents wanted you or your mother wanted you to at least have a license in something, right? So to fall back on, I feel like a lot of us are like the millennial generation or gen Z generation, like we, yes, we do want to do something that we’re passionate about.
[00:10:31] Maggie Chui: And then, we end up having some sort of, I don’t know, some tension with our parents because they want us to be something that we’re not. But then, we have to realize that it’s all they know.
[00:10:42] Maggie Chui: They don’t know much about if they weren’t entrepreneurs, to begin with, or if they were entrepreneurs, to begin with, they don’t want us to go through the same struggle.
[00:10:49] Maggie Chui: They don’t know what that future looks like, right? They want us to have something stable. All they know is like doctors and lawyers. Something to brag to their family members about, to relatives. It’s just easy to talk about that. Oh, my son is a doctor.
[00:11:02] Maggie Chui: My son is an accountant. But when you say like, my son is an entrepreneur, it leaves a lot of great areas, like what does that mean?
[00:11:08] Karho Leung: Right. Then, there’s no good understanding of that in Asian culture. A lot of the time it’s like, oh, does he own a cell phone store? Does he have a fruit stand?
[00:11:18] Karho Leung: A lot of times it’s like, they don’t have the concept down. And again, I guess, as you said earlier, it could mean so many things.
[00:11:25] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. I also think it’s also really awesome how you were able to transfer a lot of your skill set that you learned while you were a CPA or in accounting and you were a really valuable skill to have when you’re opening and running a business. If you don’t have that skill set, you have to like to hire a CFO, you have to hire people in accounting.
[00:11:45] Maggie Chui: Just like a critical part for someone to open up a business for you to have that accounting background because it’s so critical. And I want to know, did you have experience cutting here before? Did you go to barber school or barber college? What was that kind of building block for you?
[00:12:00] Maggie Chui: I know that you had left your accounting job and then I think a couple of months after, or maybe like within a year, you were able to open up 12 Pell, so what was it like leading up to the opening?
[00:12:12] Karho Leung: Yes. I also wanted to just go back and unpack a little bit of what we said earlier because I do want to make a point about how we were able to make that impact at12 Pell.
[00:12:23] Karho Leung: So oftentimes, because of this Asian American narrative that we have around success a lot of the young kids that come into our space. See us on TikTok, like 14 to like 17 years old, as young as that. They come in here and oftentimes, I always love to challenge them and ask them, Hey, what do you want to do when you grow up?
[00:12:40] Karho Leung: Or like, what are you interested in? What do you love doing? And sometimes, you know, whether they have an idea, their hobbies almost always don’t align with what they want to do. And sometimes I ask them, why is that? And most of the time, their answer is, my parents, want me to be an engineer or my parents want me to do this.
[00:13:00] Karho Leung: I think it’s okay. Like I want to make my parents happy. And so, I open that floor for the conversation at that very moment. I start to challenge them on the way that they’re thinking. If there is room for them to continue to explore rather than for them to dedicate all their time to exclusively becoming what their parents want, I understand a lot about that. It’s like our parents don’t necessarily want it.
[00:13:26] Karho Leung: It’s not that they want to prevent us from having the opportunity, but it’s the opportunity that they never had. It’s extremely understandable because a lot of them get here and job opportunities are scarce. The fun fact is that when my dad first arrived here, he was a barber.
[00:13:40] Karho Leung: That’s why he was. I think at that moment he was like, wow, this is so like. It’s rather than taking steps forward. It seemed like we were taking steps back because, at that time, the only job that he could get when he got to America was cutting hair because it was like not to say low skill, but something that you could just pick up with the pair of scissors and him getting into the game was out of necessity rather than out of passion and joy.
[00:14:05] Karho Leung: A lot of times our parents run businesses because they have to, not because they want to. And so for us, it’s a completely different position because now we’re in this situation where we create it because we want. And me, going back to your early question for me, I’d never actually imagined that I was going to be a barber full-time or ever.
[00:14:23] Karho Leung: I was going to be behind the chair for a full day, cutting like 16 heads a day. If you told me that when I was still in my suit and tie, I would have said you were crazy. I think that if you give yourself the chance to fall in love with something, that love can develop out of time. The more time that you’re willing to invest in the opportunity to grow the more you’ll fall in love with it.
[00:14:46] Karho Leung: I think that’s what I remember. This is like a Japanese philosophy somewhere, but through passion comes mastery and mastery also continues to develop your passion. A lot of the time, I look at something, and I give myself a chance to be able to develop that interest.
[00:15:00] Karho Leung: When we first decided to open a barbershop, slash retail space, our original concept was a barbershop slash retail, half streetwear, and apparel. I was coming out of my hobby of selling sneakers and liked being in the high-end streetwear apparel space. I thought it would be an amazing idea to be able to combine that with a service-based business, a barbershop, and a barber.
[00:15:26] Karho Leung: The one chair originally, that was our idea. One chair in the back would serve as a communal element. People can come and go from space and it just made a lot of sense to me. It was like, you could come in. You would get fresh from head to toe. And it was kind of a joke at first, and we were like, hey, you know, we could call this head to toe. But we ended up deciding on the name 12 P and the story of that one is not too crazy.
[00:15:47] Karho Leung: We just wanted it to be the location. So that way it’s like, hey, where are you at? I’m 12. People would know where you’re at. They don’t have to be like, oh, I’m at the sneaker shop or barbershop. There’s not too much explaining to go on. But anyways, before we decided on the concept, I guess the greatest challenge was finding a barber.
[00:16:06] Karho Leung: And at that time, we sat on a very interesting block. It’s called barber’s row. There are a ton of barbers there. It’s all barber shops and salons and I was staked out with the challenge of finding us a barber that would fit our environment. I was looking for somebody who was young, drippy, cool, and would fit the face, like the space wall.
[00:16:29] Karho Leung: He could be like the face of the barbershop. I stumbled upon this guy named Junior’s Paradise. His name’s Tim, and he was making cuts out of his basement at the time, but he was famous and popular within the Chinatown community, as well as the Brooklyn Chinatown community. I think one of my friends had said, check him out. You know, you should go get a haircut.
[00:16:49] Karho Leung: I went down there to Brooklyn and I’ll tell you, I barely venture out into Brooklyn. That day, when I got down there, I was invested in doing it. I was like lost in Brooklyn and I found his place and I got a haircut from him and it was the best haircut of my life.
[00:17:04] Karho Leung: And I was like, wow, this is so crazy. I was missing out on this for the last 20-something years of my life. I realized you know what, I had to have him. I convinced him and I was like, you know what? This is going to be dope. This is going to be the first retail slash barbershop space of its kind. We get to pioneer something new and see how it works out.
[00:17:27] Karho Leung: Tim agreed. He said, sure, you know, but he was hesitant because largely his parents disagreed with him being a barber. That was the first level of challenge that we had together. It was convincing his parents. And so, he had multiple talks with his mother and he respects his mom’s thoughts.
[00:17:44] Karho Leung: One day, he finally came back to me and said, you know what? I convinced my mom, let’s do this. The day before we were set to sign him on and get everything settled down, he called me and said, Kar, I can’t do this. I almost had a heart attack and I was like, wow, like why, what do you mean?
[00:18:01] Karho Leung: He’s like, I’m just having second thoughts. Like, I don’t think this is right for me. I was like, you know what? Let’s come out, anyways. Let’s have this meeting and then let’s see what we can do because you know what, I strongly believe that you should give this a shot.
[00:18:16] Karho Leung: You don’t have to give me a commitment anymore. Just give this a shot and let’s just see where it goes. It’s better than just staying in the basement, right? And so, I was able to convince him for that moment, but at a later date, I ended up having to invite his parents, his whole family, to a dim sum. I did this so traditionally like I was about to go on this date with this guy or like I was seeking their approval, but I went there prepared.
[00:18:42] Karho Leung: I had Excel sheets built out. I had potential income brackets that he could hit based on how the business would go. I created a whole plan for them and I wanted to sit down and I wanted to pitch it out to his parents so they could understand that their son is in good hands.
[00:18:57] Karho Leung: That’s number one. And number two, we were serious about this. And after that dim sum meeting, their parents were, you know, they were and. I can’t believe that’s what I thought about doing the second. He told me that he was worried about it, but now that I look back at it, I realize it was a pretty slick move because that’s what got me our first, most pop-in barber.
[00:19:20] Karho Leung: Tim is a huge face of the brand right now. So I think about it today. That was the best hundred dollars I ever spent on dim sum.
[00:19:27] Maggie Chui: Yes. Oh my goodness. That is crazy. I mean like a CPA would like to do that. You had all the numbers, all the charts, all the data to back it up. That was what they needed.
[00:19:39] Maggie Chui: For a lot of Asian parents, it’s really hard for them to see. How can this be successful, right? Or like, how can I trust that my son or my daughter can be okay doing this type of job, right? That’s not a fault to them because they just don’t know any better, right?
[00:19:57] Maggie Chui: I think, very similar to when I quit my full-time job to do Asian. Also, I work full time, and couldn’t get my parents to understand, like, how are you going to make money? Like, how do you make money from a community? They don’t understand ads and sponsorships and all of that, right?
[00:20:12] Maggie Chui: It just didn’t make sense to them. Especially being like an online digital platform, their generation, didn’t have much of that. They didn’t have exposure to social media. They didn’t have exposure to online communities, so it’s very hard for them to understand, but wow, that is very, very well-invested.
[00:20:29] Maggie Chui: A hundred dollars that you spend on the dim sum for them to just change their mind based on the data that you were able to provide, it is amazing how you’re able to turn it all around.
[00:20:40] Karho Leung: Yes, so like, after that day, I was like, there were two things, I kind of conquered. That first challenge was like getting their parents comfortable, but it always sat in the back of my head where I could lose to any moment.
[00:20:53] Karho Leung: If the business doesn’t go the way that we plan it to, that was like a level of risk that I wasn’t willing to endure, especially if I was so passionate about trying to create this vision. And so, I ended up enrolling into Barbara’s school, myself with Tim and we were going to get it licensed together.
[00:21:12] Karho Leung: We went through 550 hours of training and when I was actually in barber school, that’s when we made multiple pivots to our business. Originally, the concept was only a one-chair space and then we made it into a three-chair space by the time we graduated. Because through school, I recognized that there was a lot of potential in this industry.
[00:21:32] Karho Leung: One, because I realized through conversations with the students, that many people didn’t want to be there. I asked a lot of the students, what made you interested in barbering? Like, what got you here? A lot of the responses I got at the time were, I don’t want to, I’m tired of working a retail job.
[00:21:48] Karho Leung: An office job is not for me. Or like, you know, I heard barbering can make you a lot of money. And so like, I felt, what was the driving force behind it? The reason for them choosing these careers was a lack of better words, but not so interesting. It made me realize, if I were to put an ounce of my energy into improving and trying to be passionate about this, I could discover a lot because I’m in a space where people not to say aren’t necessarily passionate.
[00:22:19] Karho Leung: They’re not fully unlocking the full potential of the industry and so I realize that if this is what the new talent looks like, coming into the game as being turned out, there’s a lot that we could do. If we’re willing to focus on all the little things that people want. That’s when I realized I had to get serious about this.
[00:22:37] Karho Leung: There could be a lot of untapped potentials here. And so, I started breaking everything down from how the business is done from an end-to-end experience. From making the appointment to them, leaving the shop, and from them having an out-of-the-barbershop experience. What I mean by that is a lot of the time, traditionally, you walk into a barbershop, you sit down, you wait, and you’re queued up to get a haircut.
[00:23:02] Karho Leung: Depending on how fast your shop operates or how high demand it is, that could be 10 minutes or it could be three hours. I remember when I was younger, I had moments where I sat at the barbershop for like two hours waiting to get cut. That was just a lot of time lost in a terrible experience.
[00:23:17] Karho Leung: And then, you’re also sitting in the shop sometimes where it may or may not be the environment that you enjoy waiting in. Sometimes, I would be at the salons and there would be a lot of banter going around. There would be nobody that I could talk to or nobody that I could relate to and so I realized that we could create a better environment for booking.
[00:23:36] Karho Leung: We could create a better environment in terms of an atmosphere where you go in, you feel welcome, you feel excited, you feel connected. The conversations are relevant. People around you understand what you’re talking about and what you’re interested in. And then, on the third level, I realized that we could also improve a lot of the out-of-chair experience, which I feel was severely being underutilized in the barbering industry.
[00:23:59] Karho Leung: A lot of the time, it’s very transactional in these spaces. You see your barber next time you get a haircut and that’s it. And so, what we sought to do when we first opened our concept, 12 Pell, is we want to solve all these problems and be able to provide added value at every level.
[00:24:16] Karho Leung: And eventually, we ended up having a booking appointment system. You have an exact time slot. We created a shop atmosphere where everybody in there feels welcome from the moment that you step in and you’re offered water to the moment that you leave. We check out and everybody says bye to you. It’s like a community thing.
[00:24:34] Karho Leung: From an outside-of-the-chair experience, we created a lot of opportunities for our clients to engage with us outside of the shop. We threw a lot of events. We threw a lot of popups in the space. We allowed other creators and people from our community to leverage our space and the most important thing that we learned out of all that was that we were able to build communities simply out of us being the interconnectors of people.
[00:24:55] Karho Leung: Being able to unpack all those problems and then solve each one at a different level, allowed us to create that higher-level experience that we could so confidently deliver today.
[00:25:06] Maggie Chui: Yes. You bring up a lot of great points and I think there are a lot of, let’s say barber shops, hair salons, and even nail salons, right?
[00:25:14] Maggie Chui: There’s a lot of them like Chinatown or run by, you know, Asian families or Asian households. They have a lot of banter, but you might not be able to understand what they’re saying, or you’re not able to communicate with them because they’re just speaking with their coworkers.
[00:25:32] Maggie Chui: And there’s noise but they’re not connecting with the customer.
[00:25:35] Karho Leung: Yes.
[00:25:35] Maggie Chui: But you’re supposed to have the experience revolve around the customer because they’re the ones who are coming to your store and paying you for the service. And that service also involves your experience, right?
[00:25:47] Maggie Chui: As soon as you sit down, as soon as you step into the door, what is that experience that the customer is going through? I love that your barbershop, 12 Pell fosters a very big sense of community. That’s what brings people back when they feel. They found community within this space or this shop.
[00:26:05] Maggie Chui: A space for the type of barbershop talk that people often reminisce over. I think that there are a lot of situations where people feel very vulnerable sitting in that chair because they’re like having someone else touching them, you know, do anything like whatever to them. And so, that allows them to like to open up and talk about their deepest, darkest secrets, their most vulnerable feelings.
[00:26:28] Maggie Chui: You’re giving them that safe space to do so which is very intimate. Something very special. If you can make them feel comfortable in that moment, they will come back because maybe they don’t have anyone else to talk to. For someone to listen to them, hear their story, and feel like their voice is being heard, that’s what makes people want to come back and want to feel like they matter.
[00:26:51] Karho Leung: Yes, and we get that often. So a lot of the time, people that come into their space, the first thing that they say, they also express through our online reviews. They feel welcome the moment that they walk in and that’s the energy that the whole team gives off.
[00:27:06] Karho Leung: From a cultural perspective, it’s funny. I call myself the director of culture. Now, I like that title more than the founder. I love it because I think that over my last two years, I’ve gotten to dive deep into what it means to build a culture in a company. And right now, the way that the whole team operates, we operate like a family and it shows the people that come in and interacts with us, see that vibe, they feel it.
[00:27:30] Karho Leung: It’s only through that relationship we all have with each other. That’s how we’re able to give this energy to the shop. I think that’s our greatest moat.
[00:27:40] Karho Leung: So like, if anybody were to look at this business and think it’s just a bunch of young kids in the shop, that’s why they’re able to build this successful social media empire.
[00:27:49] Karho Leung: It’s not as easy as you think.
[00:27:50] Maggie Chui: Yes.
[00:27:51] Karho Leung: Get the team together to do four to sixty tosses in one day, after a day of cutting hair and late-night meetings and early mornings. This morning, I was so surprised. We had a commercial shoot this morning for a bank.
[00:28:08] Karho Leung: And last night, they had changed the call time from seven-thirty in the morning to six-thirty. I had called one of the guys, Peter. And I was like, Peter, is there any chance we can get somebody down there at six-thirty instead of earlier? And see if we could also tidy up the shop a little bit so that we’re prepared for the shoe.
[00:28:26] Karho Leung: I wake up at seven o’clock and I look at the cameras and everything is finished and I called them and I realized looking at the cameras almost the whole team was there. Some guys live in Queens that just got home from our last night’s class. We throw classes like barber jams with each other so that we can improve each other’s skills.
[00:28:46] Karho Leung: Some of them just got back from class less than six, seven hours ago. They’re back in the shop, and this is not because we asked anybody to be there. It’s because they wanted to be there. And so this, this team culture that we built, is something we’re very proud of. But also it’s our most challenging thing as we continue to grow because now we’re looking at like, how can we keep this energy alive even as we expand to multiple locations and take on new projects.
[00:29:16] Maggie Chui: Yes. I think those are just one of the growing pains, right? As you get bigger, as you scale, and expand, you’re always going to feel a sense of ownership being taken away from you. How do I make sure that the culture stays? You know, the same with all of the branches, with all the barbershops, right?
[00:29:36] Maggie Chui: That’s always going to be every founder’s problem, like growing at a high speed of, like, how do I make sure that the culture is maintained? How do I make sure employees are aware of what the culture is?
[00:29:49] Karho Leung: Yes.
[00:29:50] Maggie Chui: But I think having that foundation matters. There are a lot of companies that start without that foundation at all. They don’t even pay attention to the culture. But the starting point is very important for you to kind of lay that foundation so that if you expand and when you expand, you’ll always tie it back to how you guys first started.
[00:30:10] Maggie Chui: I love that you emphasize so much on culture. The culture is what keeps the company together. If employees can see that there’s no culture or if there’s like an unhealthy culture in the work environment, they notice that you know?
[00:30:22] Karho Leung: Yes.
[00:30:22] Maggie Chui: It’s very obvious, and they’ll pick up on that. That’s why a lot of employees leave when they don’t see a healthy culture in the work environment. I love that you put so much emphasis on culture and make that a real priority, like a really big priority. So I do want to ask when you were starting, was there anyone who questioned your ambition?
[00:30:45] Maggie Chui: I know it’s not like a typical Asian barbershop attracting gen Zs and millennials, especially situated in Chinatown where you would normally see very old-school barbershops.
[00:30:55] Maggie Chui: Was there anyone who tried to challenge you and say, I don’t know if this is going to work out? Especially like during the pandemic, like you guys blowing up during the pandemic. I’m sure there were a lot of hardships. There were a lot of challenges, but I want to know, what was it like for you if anyone had ever questioned your ambition when you were starting with?
[00:31:13] Karho Leung: Yes, all the time. As a matter of fact, to this day, there’s still. I think there’s just a lot more confidence in the leadership team now, no matter what.
[00:31:25] Karho Leung: Sometimes I think about what comes from people questioning and looking at it from the outside and not understanding it. What our intentions are. What we’re going for is typical because it’s really hard for them to see it in our shoes and feel the same way we feel about our work. I kind of set that, and a lot of times, I take that feedback.
[00:31:50] Karho Leung: I take it with an open mind because I do understand that it’s their perspective that creates that sort of criticism or feedback rather. And so, like right now, we’re actually in the process of test trials. One of our member spaces that we’re about to newly grand open this month. We’ve been soft opening it for the last two weeks. There’s a membership space that I want to build for our community.
[00:32:20] Karho Leung: That came in line right around the COVID challenges. And so, that’s a very interesting story because during that time, within a year and a half, I went from deciding whether or not we could continue to keep our doors open to opening two locations in the same year. It’s so insane.
[00:32:41] Karho Leung: Well, the same year and a half, almost two years now; time flies. So it’s like, I lose track, but it’s about two years now, to be accurate. That journey was just so insane. The highs were highs, and the lows were the lowest of lows. I was dealing a lot with my family. My dad wasn’t doing so well last year, health-wise.
[00:32:59] Karho Leung: It was just a lot of challenges that we were going through. I think that people looking at it from the outside never really understand what’s going on on the inside. And as an entrepreneur, I feel like you just have to pivot and you have to not be stoic about it, but you have to not be unbothered. You have to ensure that you’re maintaining and doing everything you have to move forward because that’s all we can do.
[00:33:23] Karho Leung: When I was faced with the moment of almost deciding to close a shop during COVID, I thought to myself, would I regret it? And at the time, I was under a lot of pressure because I was an only child and I supported my family. I had my space, like my place, my apartment. I had my parents’ apartment. I had to pay double the rent, and I also could pay for the store’s rent.
[00:33:42] Karho Leung: And at some point in time, cash flow was going to run low where I couldn’t hold it down unless I had to ask for help. And to me, I felt like I gave myself a point in time and I said, hey if we don’t reopen by September, I might have to consider it. And fortunately, love phase two came in around July, and we were able to open before July 4th.
[00:34:06] Karho Leung: So that was when we dodged a boat there. I think that was kind of where I was. If I walk the runway as long as I can, if it gets to a point where I can’t carry it anymore, I just can’t do it anymore.
[00:34:19] Karho Leung: We got back into the business. We operated for two months, and then we realized we were in a very bad position because, number one, how sensitive is our community to COVID?
[00:34:32] Karho Leung: A lot of people are still afraid to come back and a lot of our community also lives at home with their parents and elderly. So out of safety reasons, people were reluctant to come back into the space because it’s such a high-traffic space. And so, at the time, I was thinking about it, and I was like, what could we do?
[00:34:50] Karho Leung: Now that I got past the first hurdle, we can be open now, but now we don’t have a business. There were days we had less than four clients in the store, and it was devastating. It wasn’t that it didn’t only exist just for us. That was every other shop on the block. And so, at that time, I turned to the only thing I knew.
[00:35:10] Karho Leung: That would be our best shot at getting out of this alive, and that was social media. And so, we put together a little campaign to come back to our store and did this whole airlines video, and it was like a mockup of like, please fasten your seat belts, there’s turbulence.
[00:35:27] Karho Leung: So we did this whole mockup version and we did it like in the barbershop and we just showed what we were doing for precautionary reasons and everything. That was the first viral video that got us a lot of praise, even though it didn’t get us a lot of clients, but I said, hey, that’s a start.
[00:35:42] Karho Leung: We’re getting attention now. Let’s see how we can leverage this to build more awareness. You know, Chinatown’s suffering, not just our shop, but Chinatown’s suffering. And so, we went on to do another video for July 4th, and we ended up deciding to host a free barbecue on the block, which was probably completely illegal.
[00:36:03] Karho Leung: But the block was dead at that time. Anyways. I was like, you know what, what’s the worst that can happen? The cops show up, they tell us to pack up our stuff. We go home. We were like, you know what, let’s just do it. We got one of our friends, a DJ to come out, and I hit up Wilson Ang, who has a dim sum restaurant right around the block.
[00:36:20] Karho Leung: And I said, can I use that corner of your space? We set up, and we had a DJ going on. We had some hot dogs grilling, and gave out free food to the community. But the night before, we made a video and said, hey, pull up to this free barbecue, spend $45 in Chinatown anywhere, and we’ll give you a free haircut.
[00:36:39] Karho Leung: At that point, we had nothing to lose, and we just wanted to bring more awareness to the fact that everybody was hurting. And so, like throwing this free barbecue, we made that video. We woke up the next morning and it was completely viral. We had like over three-four hundred shares in one.
[00:36:58] Karho Leung: People pulled up to Chinatown. They purchased stuff. They brought their receipts to the store. We scheduled times with them to get a free haircut. That was our second viral video. And at that point, I was like, wow, we’re able to make an impact here because even if they weren’t spending the money with us, we got them to come back to Chinatown to break that stigma of COVID being so rampant in our community.
[00:37:21] Karho Leung: So it’s like we got everybody to dip their toes back into Chinatown. Now, finally, that was like our greatest win for that summer. But at that point, I realized we had to double down on social media and we were super scrappy at the time we were working out of our store. We just set up a table, literally on the street.
[00:37:40] Karho Leung: We were like, we did the roadside dining as everyone else did. But it was our office table, and we had our laptops propped up every day, just trying to bang out content. It was around November when it got colder. When I realized we had to keep going and it was too cold for us to sit outside anymore, we doubled down and found ourselves space, and we ended up creating content out of there
[00:38:05] Karho Leung: It was a lot of pivots along the way that got us to where we are, a lot of doubts at every single phase. It’s hard to figure out why and what we’re doing. I think, at the time, a lot of the stuff made sense because the challenges for us weren’t just business challenges.
[00:38:21] Karho Leung: It was a challenge that we were facing for our whole community. So from the outside, I think even when we threw the barbecue, they were like, what are you doing? Why don’t you guys focus on your business and cut your hair? Get your clients back in. Reach out to your clients.
[00:38:36] Karho Leung: It didn’t seem like the most immediately obvious choice for people to be like, these guys are just messing around their donor barbecue. They’re just having fun during this time. And we got backlash for it too. Some people were like, hey, that’s so irresponsible for you guys to get people together during this time and ask for people to come out, especially when COVID going around.
[00:38:56] Karho Leung: We were in phase two. It was a very sensitive topic in our community, but we still chose to push forward because what else were we supposed to do? Sit there and wait. And so, a lot of the times when we make these decisions, we always look at the greater good and be able to, like, what is the potential outcome and what is the potential greater good?
[00:39:16] Karho Leung: Is it worth the risk? So yes, if the cops shut us down, yes. We got a ticket, you know. What’s the worst that could happen? We get a few disapprovals here and there, but overall we brought over four hundred shares to let people know that Chinatown is hurting. And I think that was well worth it.
[00:39:32] Maggie Chui: Wow. I love that so much. I think during COVID, and during the pandemic, you’re always going to get backlash. And at that time, emotions were so high, you know, everyone was super sensitive about everything. If you get more than ten people together, people will be like, why are you bringing people together?[ And then, if you don’t bring people together, you know, businesses are struggling.
[00:39:56] Karho Leung: Yes.
[00:39:57] Maggie Chui: No one was doing anything about it. At least, like the mom-and-pop shops, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t have a social media presence.
[00:40:04] Maggie Chui: To rally people together to create this sort of impact and disperse this news at such high speed to use social media as a platform to spread the word.
[00:40:15] Maggie Chui: I love that you are not only thinking about your own business, which I feel like a lot of businesses or business owners at that time when they’re stressed out, but they also can’t make payroll. They can’t pay their investors. They can’t do all these things. They’re just going to think about how to survive.
[00:40:30] Maggie Chui: They’re just going to think about their own business, but you can think outside the box, like how can we revive Chinatown and keep Chinatown afloat during this time and encourage people to spend money at other businesses so that you can bring people back to your own business. I think that’s such a commendable thing to do, and I know that you guys were featured in the Chinese newspaper for your effort to bring business back into Chinatown.
[00:40:54] Karho Leung: Yes. Yes. Yes.
[00:40:55] Karho Leung: That was our first press feature. We were so ecstatic at that time because it meant the whole world to us. It was finally over. And, I think it’s funny because to Chinese parents, if you’re in Forbes, you’re in like CNBC, you’re in Fox Five, they’ll be like, okay, cool.
[00:41:11] Karho Leung: You’re in the news. You’re in a Chinese newspaper. It’s like a trophy, and then they’ll frame it on the wall. That was the most impressive milestone for a lot of our team because when their parents saw it or their aunts or whoever saw it, it gave ultimate validation that we were doing something right.
[00:41:28] Karho Leung: It was just so crazy to see because I think, immediately following that publication, we had a lot of the older generation that walked past our store and said, that’s the store that we read about. We even had two older gentlemen, or I think in the seventies and eighties, that came in to get a haircut, and they were like, we read your story. We love what you are doing for the community and are here to support you.
[00:41:53] Karho Leung: That was like the craziest level of validation ever. From the generation above us, which we thought we could never convince.
[00:42:01] Maggie Chui: Yes, because your demographic is like Gen Z millennials. When I saw that on ABC, like when you guys talked about how those two older gentlemen came in, I was like, oh my gosh, that pulled on my heart string so much because that’s true. Your demographic is gen Z and millennials, it’s hard to break into that older generation. He saw it in a Chinese newspaper.
[00:42:21] Karho Leung: At least get them to understand what we’re doing.
[00:42:23] Maggie Chui: Yes.
[00:42:24] Karho Leung: And so, thinking from the level of understanding, it’s hard because, like you were saying earlier, we don’t have the same level of conversations. We don’t have the same level of interest.
[00:42:32] Karho Leung: We grow up with such a large generational gap, even more so because of technology now. So it’s like for me to stay tapped in with my mom. I’m always busy, and I’m such an entrepreneur. I’m always onto the next thing. Finding time for her to explain to her all these things is a little bit harder.
[00:42:50] Karho Leung: I just actually thought of a solution for that when I was like, let me just open an Instagram account for her and have her follow me, and she could see all the ridiculous things I’m doing live
[00:42:58] Maggie Chui: I love that. So we are nearing the end of the podcast, Car. I just have a couple of last questions for you. I do want to know, since starting your TikTok, which I am sure has just turned your life around, it’s gotten you so much business at 12 Pell, how have you seen your life change since starting 12 Pell? Since you know, going viral on TikTok, having so many new customers, repeating customers, and just having them have the safe space to like, share their stories with you. How have you seen yourself and your life change as a person?
[00:43:35] Karho Leung: Oh, tremendously. I think that it is true what they say when you grow too fast, you end up in this race trying to catch up. I think that our success by no means was overnight. It was something that we worked through for two years.
[00:43:52] Karho Leung: Just figuring out every day, and to this day, we still are, but we’re much better at thinking on our feet and being fast about what we’re doing. And more recently, I’ve become a lot more intentional about what I do. And it’s very important to stay mindful because now, we have such a big voice that we create such a representation for the general gen Z and millennial Asian American kids. You know, looking up to us, there’s a lot of power there. I think that how we communicate with our audience and what kind of relationships we build in that space must be just that much more intentional and meaningful. And so often, I find myself reflecting a lot more now.
[00:44:39] Karho Leung: So I take a lot of time, like, when I wake up in the morning, I get out of bed. The first thing that I automatically gravitate to is a habit that I’ve recently tried to break, or I’m still breaking. You know, I get on my phone. I only check the messages for about five minutes.
[00:44:54] Karho Leung: And I go on to my morning routine, where I’m reflecting. I’m cleaning up, and I’m doing a lot of mental reflection. I think that has brought out a lot of change for me because I’m just more conscious about the things that we’re doing. So whether it’s like right now, we’re currently dealing with an over-demand issue.
[00:45:14] Karho Leung: So there’s so much demand right now, but I have to be intentional about how we onboard if the talent is right for our team. And so, it’s not about onboarding people just because we have the demand and can, you know. Make the bottom line. It Makes more sense. Now it’s like, does this make sense for our culture?
[00:45:34] Karho Leung: Does this make sense for our community? I think that I’ve matured a lot in my mindset. And that’s a part of this process that I enjoy a lot. So now, I can look at things very differently and through multiple perspectives. In some sense, I think that it makes me excited.
[00:45:48] Karho Leung: I mean, even having this opportunity today to share my story with all the viewers from the Asian Hustle Network podcast, I think is an amazing thing because I think we did this story. Maybe a year or two years, I think it would be very different, but now I’m able to speak much better because I’ve had that time to reflect on our journey and be conscious about what we’re doing.
[00:46:10] Maggie Chui: Yes, I love that. I love the growth mindset. So we have one last question for you, Kar.
[00:46:15] Karho Leung: Okay.
[00:46:15] Maggie Chui: What plans do you have for yourself and 12 Pell? Let’s say in the next, like five years, five to ten years.
[00:46:24] Karho Leung: So, in the next, well, actually, in the next two to three years, we hope to own all of the gen Z and millennial voices for men’s grooming and personal care.
[00:46:34] Karho Leung: I think that there is a big opportunity in that space because a lot of the companies that used to do it are not so much focused directly on it anymore. Many companies and brands have become much more on the lifestyle side. And so, there’s no real authoritative voice that owns that space, as much as it used to be anymore.
[00:46:57] Karho Leung: And we’re looking at new media in a very different way. Now you’re looking at short format content being at the top of the winning list, and we’re spearheading that for the barbering industry. Right now, we are in this position to be able to make this level of impact. We want to keep going.
[00:47:16] Karho Leung: And more recently, we’ve developed our company’s media arm. That’s our end goal in the next two or three years. Really To capture being able to create solutions for everybody around the world because now it’s much larger than our community in Chinatown, much larger than the United States.
[00:47:34] Karho Leung: We have an audience worldwide. We have stylists from Germany and, like other academies, messaging us and things. Wow. We love the content you’re putting out. And much of it is the content we put together because of how we treat this space. We want to keep that energy level super high.
[00:47:51] Karho Leung: We intend to continue to grow the team on the media side. Something that we’re doing special for our community is we’re continuing to build out that space. And so, as I mentioned earlier, we have this membership barbershop that serves mostly the younger generation. That’s aspiring to do something creative or existing entrepreneurs within our community.
[00:48:13] Karho Leung: And so, the idea is that I took a lot of inspiration from Soho House, being a member for like, the last couple of years, But I realized creating a space where a lot of people with the right energy come together can create a lot of value. And so, the idea is rather than you watching us grow. You know, going on or like for the last four years, here’s your opportunity to grow with us.
[00:48:35] Karho Leung: So you can and the way that you can apply for membership is you have to have two barbers recommend you and two existing members recommend you. And then, you’re able to apply and then tap into our network. We want to create shared resources for our community, for people who are passionate about going and making a change or doing something that they are passionate about themselves.
[00:48:56] Karho Leung: Through this membership system, my idea is to build this high-value community that will continue to drive more change in Chinatown. And through that network, we can leverage resources together so that we can build these things, whether it be a shared photographer or shared events coordinator or something like that. Maybe you might even be able to meet your next business partner in our space.
[00:49:16] Karho Leung: The whole idea has that physical location where everybody can get together. When Asian Hustle Network wants to throw their next meet-up in New York City, you already know where we are going.
[00:49:26] Maggie Chui: love it. Yes. We can’t wait for all of that exciting news to happen. And as you guys continue to expand and grow globally, your target audience is already getting there globally or already there.
[00:49:41] Maggie Chui: I think that there’s no doubt in my mind that you guys are going to accomplish all of those goals. We are very excited about all of those future ideas and plans for you and 12 Pell. So, Kara, where can our listeners find out more about you than 12 Pell?
[00:49:56] Karho Leung: Yes. You can find us on Instagram @12Pell and TikTok. We’re trying to grow our presence on YouTube, but we just haven’t figured out long-format content to the degree that we want to produce it. But you know, it’s coming soon. My handle is @fatboyk.
[00:50:20] Karho Leung: Don’t ask me why. It’s been a name that I stuck with for the last. So many years of my life, but you can find me on Instagram if you have any questions or if you’d like to reach out and ask me any questions.
[00:50:30] Maggie Chui: Awesome. We’ll leave all of that in the show notes. Kara, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. It was amazing having you on the podcast.
[00:50:38] Karho Leung: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
[00:50:40] Maggie Chui: Of course.