Travel can spark unexpected businesses, and Andrea Lee started hers after a pleasant trip to… North Korea? Her story, as told to Ashlea Halpern:
My parents are from Korea, but I was born in Chile, grew up in the U.S. and became a private equity lawyer in New York. It was a 9-to-5 job -- and I don't mean 5 p.m. I wasn't necessarily “unsatisfied,” but I wanted to set my own schedule and build something lasting.
My dad started traveling to North Korea in the '90s as part of a Korean-American business delegation. I went for the first time in 2003 with my mom. People there were not that different from my own family. Despite growing up under entirely different political systems, I instantly felt at home with them. The landscapes were beautiful, raw and inspiring, and being there beckoned me to search harder for truths about people and places. I was convinced more people should have experiences like mine, and so I bootstrapped Uri Tours, which brings people to North Korea, with $20,000 in savings.
Today we're the largest American provider of North Korean tours and travel, on track to hit the $1 million revenue mark this year. But those early days were difficult. I had no travel or business experience. As a lawyer, at least, I was analytical. I could draft contracts, negotiate with vendors and navigate international laws. I also learned that, just like doing business in other parts of Asia, tourism in North Korea is all about who you know and first impressions. There are people there who want to work with foreign partners.
The difficult part has been managing customers' expectations. Last January, we had a big trip planned with three pro snowboarders and Snowboarder magazine. Then, two days before the trip, news of the country's hydrogen bomb tests came out, and everyone pulled out. We've had a number of incidents like that. In 2013, there were, like, 100 cancellations in one week. And because we have a flexible refund policy, managing cash flow can be a challenge.
There's a lot of risk with this business. We constantly reevaluate our procedures. We have to make sure we're conveying the right message about the consequences if you break the rules. After the situation with Matthew Miller [a Uri Tours visitor who, in 2014, was arrested in North Korea after requesting asylum], we beefed up our application process. We ask more questions now and reserve the right to call references.
This is the toughest sales job on Earth -- getting people to go to North Korea when the media is constantly working against us. On the other hand, tourists are fascinated because it's so mysterious. And whenever any high-profile person visits, like [Uri Tours client] Dennis Rodman, it bumps up interest.
Differentiating ourselves from competitors is also challenging, because our tours aren't that different. We all work with state agencies, and many itineraries are the same. So we emphasize customer service. We have a strict 24-hour response policy. One thing I took away from my time as a lawyer is that clients expect a response immediately.
You can't predict politics. But depending on what the relations are between North Korea, the U.S. and China, our operations have to shift. In a way, it's been easier to operate since Kim Jong-un came into power. The policy on tourism is more liberal, and the DPRK recently announced plans to welcome two million tourists by 2020. But there's been more security at the airports. After the release of The Interview, for example, they wanted to see if travelers were bringing in any movies about Korea. They never checked that before. So we just have to build a business model that can withstand political change. At the moment, we're actively looking to develop adventure tours to other remote destinations in Asia -- hedging some of our risks operating in North Korea so that we have a guaranteed stream of revenue even through rocky times.
A friend asked me recently if I'd ever go back to the law firm. My immediate response was no. It would be too easy. The challenges of running a business in Asia, and of navigating different people and cultures, is what gets me. It's stressful, but I like finding opportunity in difficult times. I'm a problem solver.