Bae: more than a ‘cute idea’
“I remember looking in mirror and thinking how we needed more money. We had already put more money in. I thought ‘is it ever going to end?’. It was stressful.” Tim O’Sullivan.
Three people holding Bae Juice packs. Image from Bae Juice Facebook.
Most holiday daydreams are quickly forgotten on the return home but Tim O’Sullivan’s “cute idea” inspired by an overseas jaunt is now stocked in Woolworths and Dan Murphy’s stores across Australia.
A trip to South Korea led to the creation of a new product for Aussie shelves based on the health benefits of a humble fruit.
That idea is now much bigger than simply a cute idea.
Meeting the in-laws is never straightforward. Tim O’Sullivan had to visit South Korea to meet the family of his partner Sumin Do.
And it wasn’t just the nerves associated with meeting Sumin’s parents. He discovered how hard it is to negotiate Seoul’s labyrinth-like streets. He practiced how to correctly bend his six-foot frame down to bow in respect to Sumin’s tiny grandmother.
And he – most importantly – came across the simple word “bae” which describes the round Korean pear which is beloved in that country and forms a cornerstone of the national diet.
This last lesson has proved rather lucrative.
While South Korean youngsters use pear juice as a hangover cure, Tim found all age groups consumed volumes of pears as a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.
“They always eat fruit after a meal to help with digestion,” he says.
“It’s high in folate – and they were saying they ate as much pear as they could. I remember the exact moment I became interested. We were in a restaurant owned by one of Sumin’s close friends.”
Diners were again knocking back cans of pear juice and Tim asked the simple question about why people drank so much of the beverage.
The answers led him to quickly become fascinated at its potential for his home country, Australia.
“I was standing up asking questions and Googling to see if we have this in Australia,” says Tim.
The trip, in 2018 when he was 24, turned into a journey across convenience stores as Sumin and Tim checked out thousands of types of pear juice.
He found a 100 per cent fruit version at a Korean marketplace and decided this would suit the health focussed Aussie market.
Bae Juice co-founders (from left) Liam Gostencnik, Sumin Do and Tim O'Sullivan. Image: Supplied
Not just a cute idea
The drinks company he founded in May 2019 – Bae Juice – now has distribution in Foodworks, IGA and Dan Murphy’s.
And most importantly, late last year the company struck a deal to carry the product in more than 900 Woolworths stores across the country.
Tim believes Bae is on its way to become a “$1.5 million-plus brand in Woolworths”.
Not bad for a young company run by three friends - kicked-off by hard work, loans from family and friends and belief in an original idea formed just three years ago.
Tim and Sumin run the company, along with Tim’s best mate Liam Gostencnik. But there have been moments in which he doubted himself.
He points to one moment early on.
“I remember looking in mirror and thinking how we needed more money. We had already put more money in. I thought ‘is it ever going to end?’. It was stressful,” he says.
“Then I thought ‘if it was easy no one would do it, we are in 20 stores, and people are reaching out to us on LinkedIn’. I think that was the moment I realised it wasn’t just a cute idea.”
O’Sullivan said he quickly decided it would be more economical to source the fruit and manufacturing in South Korea. And he knew Sumin’s mother was originally from the city of Naju – where the Korean pear industry is based.
“Sumin got her mum involved - she is shy, and cute and beautiful.” But a business powerhouse. Mrs Do threw herself into helping find a pear grower.
“She would be calling her sister saying ‘Sumin and Tim want to find a pear farm’,” Tim says.
There were meetings with suppliers at Sumin’s Aunts house which was also a family restaurant.
They lived above the restaurant in between meetings.
“I was serving customers in the restaurant. It was just hilarious,” says Tim.
Taking Korean pear juice overseas
The hard work paid off with a deal struck with South Korea’s biggest pear grower and manufacturer APC. And Tim got to see his Bae drinks manufactured on site.
By the second time he visited the town a year later – after Bae was now stocked in 100 stores in Australia – the mayor himself travelled to meet the six-foot-tall Australian taking Korean pear juice overseas.
Getting a bank account sorted
Tim says one of the most difficult leaps in the business was setting up an official business account.
“It was the hardest step … we had no idea where to start.”
He says he is still thankful to ANZ in Moonee Ponds for clearing away those fears and getting him started with everything from his company accounts to international transfers.
“We walked out saying ‘wow’. It was a cool moment seeing a Bae bank account.”
Tim says he always knew Bae was a gamble as Australians had never been sold on the benefits of Korean pear.
“When creating a niche product there is a higher risk. People would say ‘you can’t educate a market’,” he says.
“People stressed how hard it is. But (I realised) if you can crack that market you get this rapid growth. It’s risk versus reward. It is risky and it is scary. But at the same time, you can get momentum and you build the brand.”
Tim says COVID-19 has not disrupted the business, although it did make him busier.
“In March 2020, all of our Victorian orders were delivered on the same day. Both Liam and I borrowed our mums’ hatch backs and made deliveries ourselves,” he says with a laugh, “I borrowed my mum’s Renault for what was supposed to be a day – I still haven’t given it back more than a year later.”
A cultural connection
After such rapid growth Tim and the team are not resting on their laurels.
Bae is looking for a brand ambassador who will embody the company’s spirit, something they are hoping to have locked in by the end of the year.
Also on the cards is a push overseas with destinations including Dubai, the United States and the United Kingdom.
While the business is thriving, Tim says it is important to remind himself of the lessons he has learned from Korean culture as a part of the company’s journey.
One of his richest experiences was meeting Sumin’s grandmother.
“It was in the Korean countryside. Her grandmother literally grows her own vegetables and lives right off a rice farm. It was very stunning; it was mind blowing and beautiful,” he says.
“The heating is done by lighting a fire in big steel cauldron to warm the floor. All the uncles and aunties - about 25 of them – were there. They were excited about having an Australian visit.”
He would return on his next trip to help Sumin’s grandmother make a year’s supply of kimchi, the famed Korean household condiment of fermented cabbage.
“We were grinding garlic until midnight.”
But he says this is what Bae is all about.
“This is more than a pink drink sachet we are going to profit from – for us, it’s about having the cultural connection.”
Jeff Whalley is a business writer of more than ten years whose work appeared regularly in The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Adelaide Advertiser and the Brisbane Courier Mail.
In this series, Jeff talks to small to medium businesses about their journey and experience of growth, especially during 2020 - a year like no other.
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