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Loving the grind: A K-pop fan finds business opportunity in fandom

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“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

The famous quote by American writer Mark Twain serves as an aspiration to many. Having a job that you enjoy doing every day feels like a dream, free from the usual boredom and stress of most employees. If you love movies, imagine how exciting it would be to work for a busy film studio in Hollywood, or to curate your favorite films at Netflix. If you live and breathe music, think about all the great times you would have jiving along to soul-moving tracks, selecting some of the biggest hits for featured playlists at Spotify. If you're into K-drama and K-pop, how amazing would it be to be part of a set for a hit Korean TV series with Song Joong-ki, or to have your own K-pop online store with access to all the amazing official merchandise of your beloved K-pop idols?

But the hard truth is that many would hesitate to step out of their comfort zone and brave the harsh outside world when faced with self-doubt and a declining global economy. How will I make it? people often ask themselves. Instead of following their heart, they settle with some 9 to 5 job that promises stability and familiarity. It is the practical choice after all. But it does indeed leave a lot to be desired. The path not taken will always hold possibilities that dreams are made of.

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For Marilyn Buenaflor and her business partners, they understood the risks and yet opted for an adventure. A collaboration between an accountant, doctor, and engineer, the trio are already successful in their own respective careers. For many, that success would have certainly been enough. But they were different; they were ambitious and passionate individuals with a goal in mind.

Discovering their mission

With the arrival of the Korean Wave in the Philippines, Marilyn and her business partners, along with countless other Filipinos became enthralled with talented Korean artists such as Super Junior, Seventeen, and BTS. Almost everyone knew a family member, friend, or even co-worker who stanned a Korean idol group or two. And it was not so strange to see people bust out a move once a boppy K-pop tune came on the radio or was blasted on high volume by fans on their mobile devices, whether it be at the park, mall, or even the small confines of a jeepney. Who didn't know the song Sorry, Sorry by Super Junior or Fire by 2NE1? Stores that wanted to cash in on the hype played catchy K-pop songs over and over again through their PA systems to attract customers. People both young and old huddled together in front of televisions or peered intently down on their smartphones to watch the latest Koreanovelas or newly released music videos. Even fashion was influenced by glamorously dressed Korean idols to the point that Filipinos, who were once content with just a plain t-shirt and battered jeans, began experimenting with their looks and outfits.

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Marilyn in particular fell so much in love with her favorite idol groups that she went to great lengths to see them; booking flights to Korea just to watch their concerts and experience their hair-raising, heart-thumping performances live on stage. She also bought their official merchandise, and in a bid to support her idols further, she began accepting pre-orders from fellow Filipinos. The first seed was planted then, and now Marilyn and her business partners have created Project 17, a K-pop merchandise online store offering official merchandise of their favorite K-pop groups.

Masters of the market

Being avid K-pop fans themselves, having traveled to Korea and attended concerts of their favorite K-pop artists, and becoming part of various fan clubs, they knew exactly what their market wanted. With a business born out of their desire to support their biases, the trio managed to find time to establish and manage their business, even after working long hours at their regular day jobs. Their dedication exceeded even that of most hard-working entrepreneurs, and to great effect.

With the official merchandise that they offer on their website, Marilyn and her partners are able to provide a way for Filipino fans to support their idols and feel closer to them even during the pandemic when most are stuck at home. Project 17 is not only a business for profit but also a business of love. It brings happiness to the K-pop community — a priceless commodity during these uncertain times — and serves as an inspiration to others trying their hand at what they love most, and to live their best lives.

So how did Marilyn and her partners do it? In our interview with the dedicated K-pop fan and online store owner, Marilyn tells her story in which we learn that with passion and commitment anything is possible.

I’m Marilyn Buenaflor, 30 years young. I’m an accountant for an international company and currently working from home. I'm a full-time employee but I do online selling as a part-time job.

Before the pandemic, I only occasionally sold merchandise I bought whenever I went to Korea or attended concerts of my K-pop idols. I started [doing this] in 2014.

However, it was in 2019 that my two business partners and I founded Project 17. I do the store management after my day job, which usually ends at 3:00 PM. My business partners, a doctor and an engineer, help me with marketing tasks.

Way back in 2014, when I was going back and forth to Korea, I really loved Super Junior. That's why I decided to take pre-orders of their official merchandise from other fans. I bought the items in Korea and then delivered them to the buyers when I came back to the Philippines. I was not really after the profit. My goal back then was really just to help Super Junior increase their sales.

My business partners and I consider our current business a passion project. We only sell the merchandise of the groups that we like. Project 17 is actually named after the K-pop group SEVENTEEN. I am affiliated with an international K-pop fan club so it is easier for us to find the items that our buyers are looking for.

As K-pop fans, we enjoy the business a lot — from packing to delivery! We also love the fact that we can buy our own K-pop merchandise using the profit from our online store.

As K-pop fans, we enjoy the business a lot —
from packing to delivery!

project17-merchandise

We already know where to buy [our products] since we are K-pop fans ourselves. We scour music stores online, compare the prices, and whatever store has the cheapest and most practical prices, that is where we buy our products.

The biggest struggle for us is the waiting time for the shipment. It usually takes three (3) weeks minimum for the items to be delivered to the Philippines. Sometimes, the websites where we source our products do not accept credit card payments either.

Before using Cafe24, we posted our products on Twitter and Facebook Marketplace and collected orders using Google Forms. We tried other popular online marketplaces in the Philippines as well.

We wanted to eliminate the manual collection of orders through Google forms, which we had to do when posting on Twitter and Facebook. For the other online marketplaces we tried, the commission fee was a downside. In order for you to earn profits, you had to consider the commission first. We also tried another e-commerce platform, but while it is pretty simple, the problem was that the functionality was very limited if you were only using the free plan. I would have needed to pay just to upload and manage products the way I wanted, so I thought it wasn't worth it.

We were also looking for an e-commerce platform where PayMaya could be used for checkout. We really wanted to give our buyers the option to pay using debit cards and credit cards. We also wanted a platform with low fees for payment gateways.

We wanted to eliminate the manual collection of orders through Google forms. [...] We were also looking for an e-commerce platform where PayMaya could be used for checkout [...and with] low fees for payment gateways.

I checked a lot of websites that offer e-commerce services, but to have the features that I wanted, it required payment, and personally, I did not think that it was practical to get their paid plans considering that we had just started the online business back then. Upon researching, I stumbled upon Cafe24. I thought it was familiar. Then I remembered. Cafe24 is used by withdrama and SMTOWN. I got curious so I registered and realized that it's free to use and there's no limitation on the number of products I can post. I immediately told my partners “I think I found the right platform.” Right then and there, we transferred to Cafe24. Now, with our own website, we can just tell our customers to go there directly to browse our items.

’I think I found the right platform.’ [...] Now, with our own website, we can just tell our customers to go there directly to browse our items.

The available payment methods made me happiest. Now that we can accept credit card payments, we've gained an edge over other K-pop merchandise sellers.

Now that we can accept credit card payments, we've gained an edge over other K-pop merchandise sellers.

I also realized that it's nice to have our own website where our buyers can register. I love that we can reward points to our loyal customers just like with withdrama.

Having a website for Project 17 through Cafe24 surprised me a lot. There are loyalty programs I can set up and themes that I can personalize. There are also a lot of default features which I can tweak just a little to make it our own. I also like that I can add products without limitations.

As of today, we've already sold a number of items. All of the purchases are legit and not trials. The sales are a big improvement considering we are just starting the business.

As of today, we've already sold a number of items. All of the purchases are legit and not trials.

Our first sale was an album. One of our repeat customers contacted my business partner to inquire about this particular album because they were interested in buying it. My partner relayed it to me and I said, yes, we can take pre-orders. I thought it would be a good time to test our Cafe24 website as well, so I put the album the customer wanted on the website. After that, we gave them the link and informed them that they could register to earn loyalty points. Just minutes later, we got our first official order through the website.

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I would definitely recommend Cafe24 to my friends who want to start an online business. It is beginner-friendly. Even if they don't have extensive experience in website building, they can still use it to make their own website easily. There are also themes they can use, so their website will look pleasing to buyers, as well as the various payment methods [they can add].

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