Jin Choi, president of hair tool manufacturer Izutech, embodies the American Dream. His journey started 31 years ago, when his parents brought him to the United States from Korea as a 10-year-old child. "It was a really windy and cold November stepping out of JFK [airport],” Choi recalls. “With merely $3,000 in their hands and without speaking a word of English, they’ve taught me what hard work is all about.”
A former graphic designer and now business-savvy entrepreneur, Choi works day and night at Izutech to ensure that consumers and salon professionals have hot tools that are equal parts innovative technology and superior design. Here’s the tale of how Izutech began–and what’s in store for one of the top tool manufacturers in the beauty industry.
A RISK WORTH TAKING
In 2002, Choi graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, and then immediately began seeking a summer job for the interim before starting graduate school at Pratt Institute. After combing the newspaper for opportunities, he found an opening at Shake-N-Go, one the top makers of hair extensions in the ethnic beauty sector. As luck would have it, he got hired the next day.
Over the course of his stint at Shake-N-Go, Choi developed a strong rapport with the company’s founder and vice president, Mike Kim. Kim grew so fond of Choi that he rehired him once Choi completed graduate school with a degree in industrial design. Choi would work at Shake-N-Go for three years, absorbing as much knowledge from Kim as he could while moving up the corporate ladder.
“The biggest asset in business is relationships,” Choi says. “After working at a few places in my life, I’ve realized that it’s not where you work, but who you work with. Perhaps this is why I’ve hung around with Mike Kim, my previous boss and mentor, for nearly 20 years. Although he was never an easy boss to work with, he gave me so much opportunity and experience, which led me to be confident in who I am today. He is my personal mentor–energetic, funny, fun and a great friend.”
In 2007, Mike Kim and his brother, James Kim, CEO of Shake-N-Go, decided to expand their company by founding a new tool brand called Izunami. And they wanted Choi at the helm as director. The brand launched with flat irons the following year, which happened to be the start of the Great Recession. “We tried very hard to get the brand into the market, but one of our biggest challenges wasn’t the recession; it was the fact that we had so much experience in the ethnic beauty sector, which is totally different from the general and professional markets, that it was very difficult to understand our consumers’ needs,” Choi says.
“It was a huge risk, but I believed in the company so much that I was willing to take a big risk.”
Over the next five years, the Kim brothers grew increasingly dissatisfied with Izunami’s sales and decided it was time to revert their full attention to their fruitful wigs and extensions business. But Choi’s period at Izunami proved to be a tremendous learning opportunity–one he wasn’t ready to give up on just yet.
“It was heartbreaking to see my baby discontinued. It hurt a lot, very personally,” Choi reveals. “Starting Izunami from the very beginning and seeing the big potential the brand had, I couldn’t let it go into thin air. My investors may have thought I was in it for the short profit game, but I saw this as long-term.”
So, Choi took a huge leap of faith and went all in, cashing out his personal savings and 401K to invest, persuading outside investors to join him and scrounging up as much money as he could to purchase and rebrand Izunami in January 2014.
“I adjusted the name because people had a hard time recognizing and remembering it, a foreign name. When I first relaunched our brand, I kept the essence of the logo and changed the name to Izutech so that people understood what kind of company we were and it didn’t hurt the essential look of the brand itself,” he says. That marked the founding of ESD Professional, Izutech’s parent company based in Paterson, New Jersey.
Great risks can produce great rewards, and Choi was banking on Izutech’s success because there was a lot at stake: He had recently married and had a 1-year-old son to support. “It was a huge risk, but I believed in the company so much that I was willing to take a big risk. Throughout the Izunami days, not only did I work on the design and marketing; I also naturally became an educator to our distributors, which led me to sales. All the independent distributors who had a personal connection with me stood by me and were thankful I continued the brand. It was a humbling experience to connect with people who really believed in me and supported me.” That support system proved to be invaluable, and since the company rebranded, Choi has grown Izutech 20 percent year over year.
DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY
Choi says he’s done a lot of soul-searching over the years and has come to the conclusion that his educational and professional careers have revolved around solving one important question: What makes a design good? “That one question led me to where I’m standing now,” he says. “To really understand that question, I had to run a business myself. That question and that philosophy led to all of my products. Design is not just about the beautification of a product; it’s truly a solution to all levels of the process.” For example, Izutech’s bare-bones packaging minimizes waste both to be aesthetically pleasing and to reduce logistical and shipping costs–resulting in lower prices for the consumer.
In addition to his thoughtful approach to design, Choi methodically studies the market and elicits customer feedback to gauge what beauty professionals actually want. When Izutech started in 2008, he noticed a boom in the popularity of keratin treatments, and soon stylists were requesting a flat iron specifically catering to the service. By partnering with a factory in Korea, Choi developed the fastest heating technology on the market and integrated it into his KTX450 (short for Keratin Treatment Express 450 F) series of flat irons for professionals, which continues to be the brand’s bread and butter. “Other tool companies at that time had short plates, typically 3 1/2-inches in length, but what we did was expand them to 4 1/4 by 1 1/4 inches–extra-long and -wide plates. That really catered to professionals’ needs because they could work on bigger sections of hair, saving time and money.”
Through word of mouth, the KTX line became a hit in the Middle East and South America. Clients with coarse, thick, wavy and long hair particularly cherished the flat irons because they straighten unruly locks without causing damage. “The flat irons were our firstborn children. Those were the products that really gave us credibility with our users and the ability to expand to dryers and lower-tier products.”
“Design is not just about the beautification of a product; it’s truly a solution to all levels of the process.”
The KTX flat irons feature titanium plates, but Izutech also offers ceramic varieties. “A lot of companies say titanium heats up faster than ceramic; I don’t believe that’s true. It’s the heater underneath the plates that makes it unique,” he says. The main difference between the two types of plates is that titanium won’t erode from the chemicals used in keratin or straightening treatments, but ceramic plates will gradually grind down when they come into contact with harsh chemicals. “For natural hair, I’d recommend ceramic flat irons because ceramic and tourmaline naturally release negative ions, so they seal the cuticles.”
One of Choi’s biggest career highlights came at last year’s Cosmoprof North America in Las Vegas, which marked the launch of Izutech’s color line of tools. Made in China, the line includes travel-friendly flat irons affordably priced at $49.95 and mini blowdryers for $59.95–available in Cotton Pink, Lilac Purple, Turquoise and Sky Blue. They became instant best-sellers. “I couldn’t keep up with the demand. The very attractive price point, colors, technology, packaging and way they were being displayed–our customers loved it. It was the product line that made Izutech known to the mass market. And since then, we started rolling out other products that would stand side by side with the flat irons,” he says.
Because many hairstylists and salon owners to this day haven’t fully recovered from the recession, it was imperative for Choi that the color line be effortlessly salable for salon professionals. “As the solution to that, what I did was design a six-pack display so salon professionals could buy it wholesale and sell them to customers to make up some of what they’ve lost. That has been very successful and led us to bigger sales channels and buyers,” Choi says.
MORE INNOVATION TO COME
Choi currently runs what he calls a “lean company,” with five full-time employees. When it comes to the company culture, he says it’s all about trust, open communication and relationships. He has also placed a great deal of that trust in the manufacturer reps he’s worked with since the early days of Izunami, with The Kirschner Group representing the northeast and VNC Sales covering the rest of the country, Canada and South America. “People have been very loyal to me, and I’ve been very loyal to them–small or big,” he notes.
Choi’s calculated growth strategy and hands-on approach for executing his full vision have driven Izutech’s success. He has a hand in everything from packaging and product development to creating educational materials and sales flyers. Instead of offering hundreds of SKUs, Choi prefers to slowly roll out new products after receiving critique from a test audience. “We have a three-step strategy where we test the product and get feedback, refine it a little bit more and then launch and push it as a regular, steady product,” he says.
In January 2019, at the International Beauty Exposition in Las Vegas, Izutech will unveil a brand-new category to its lineup: curling irons. “Izutech is not just a flat iron company; our mission is for Izutech to be a styling company, with tools to create all types of styles,” Choi says. “Eventually, we’re going to not just do tools–because there are many ideas sitting in the back of my head right now. But we have to get the most essential tools out first before coming out with more innovative things.”
Putting the utmost care into all he touches, there’s no doubt that Choi will continue to maintain a high standard of quality for future products, ensuring that all items are attractive, easy to use for consumers and merchandisable for retailers. By nurturing his attention to detail and artistic sensibility over the last two decades, Choi has already taken Izutech to greater heights than he could’ve ever imagined– and he has no plans on stopping anytime soon.
“I never had business experience in the past. What I did have was experience in product design and development, marketing and sales. But business is a different animal because you have to understand cash flow, finances and accounting, so there was a big learning curve. That made it more challenging and fun for me. I’m always looking for challenges and I get bored easily. Running a business is the right forte for me,” he concludes. Using his aptitude for picking up new skills and learning through good, old-fashioned trial and error, there’s no telling how high this savvy entrepreneur will soar.
6 BUSINESS TIPS FROM JIN CHOI
Izutech’s president shares his advice for burgeoning beauty entrepreneurs.
- Quality Comes First: “There are many ways to cut corners to make the product cheaper, but we don’t choose this way. We bring maximum value and quality to
- our customers at a competitive price point.”
- Build a Rapport with Manufacturer Reps: “The Kirschner Group and VNC Sales & Marketing have been with us since the day Izunami was born, back in 2008. Without them, Izutech couldn’t be here today. It was their dedication and loyalty to our brand that got us here.”
- Get Feedback from Distributors: “Their feedback has been what shaped Izutech’s products. It is so much fun listening to them because it gives us the opportunity to change.”
- Be Passionate: “You have to really love something to risk it all, which I did. I literally put ‘all in’ to this business. It’s very difficult, but if you don’t love something that much, it’s not going to happen. Owning a business is not a fantasy; it takes real dedication, resiliency and creativity.”
- Listen to Your Customers: “A lot of our customers were satisfied because what they’ve suggested has been reflected in our products, so they feel it’s customized to their needs. That’s been a part of our success.”
- Learn from Your Mentors: “Beauty is changing with online and Amazon, and the way we distribute has changed a lot over the years. First, start by getting experience at a company you admire before jumping into your own business.”