Abraham Choe – Founder and CEO of Ulife

[quote]I ask for help and advice all the time. Know what you’re good at, but also know what you are not good at. And repay the favor when you can.[/quote]

As a University of Oregon student, Abraham Choe, Ulife Founder and CEO, knew he wanted to create his own company. It took only one trip to The Duck Store for him to figure out exactly what that meant. After receiving a laptop as a gift from his family, Choe went searching for a university-branded laptop sleeve. To his surprise, he couldn’t find one. So, like a true entrepreneur and diehard Duck fan, he purchased a University of Oregon decal sticker and plain laptop sleeve to produce his very first prototype. This was the start of Ulife.

Some people told Choe his idea was too simple. Others said he needed to move to New York or California to make it big. But despite being turned down two times for a trademark, Choe stayed committed to bringing his concept to life. He recruited his college roommate, Vin Luu, to be Chief Operating Officer and his high school friend, Daniel Lee, who was working at Morgan Stanley at the time, to be Chief Financial Officer. Together, they worked toward an ambitious goal: to establish Ulife as a household name while promoting school spirit across the country.

With the contributions of a few family members and friends who agreed to invest in the company, Ulife got the foundation it needed to evolve. Once Choe, Luu and Lee found a manufacturer, the company began gaining momentum, expanding its product line to include university-branded iPhone and iPad cases, as well as mouse pads. Today, Ulife is proud to be selling items in select stores and boutiques, including The Mac Store, Walgreens, The Duck Store and Made in Oregon.

What are you working on right now?

Ulife is currently working on a fundraiser campaign on indiegogo.com. The funds will go towards new product development for iPhone 5 and iPad 3 cases. Ulife’s goal is to raise $30,000.

Where did the idea for Ulife come from?

My mom came down to visit me in Eugene one day. She surprised me by buying me a new laptop for my senior year (2009) at the University of Oregon. Wanting to take care of new prized possession, I went to the campus “Duck Store” to buy a UO-branded laptop sleeve. To my surprise, I didn’t find one. So I bought a black generic laptop case and a UO decal sticker and made my first prototype.

What does your typical day look like?

I meet with Daniel Lee, the CFO and Vin Luu, the COO, to discuss branding and marketing strategy. We pack and ship products to our retailers and online orders. We also take a look at projected sales for the month, look for potential retail outlets and send several emails every day. I reply to vendor emails and customers questions. I like to read a couple of articles related to business/marketing. I go to the gym and watch ESPN for an hour a day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When Dan, Vin or I come up with an idea or design for a Ulife product, we like to run it by our support group, which consist of some close friends and my brother. My dad used to always tell me, “We were designed with two ears and only one mouth for a reason.” So I always try to listen to any and all feedback I can get. Once we collectively agree, we submit a trademark application form to The University of Oregon Trademark Office and take it from there.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The one trend that I keep seeing is new companies with a social cause. I think it is a great trend. Ulife donates $2 for every product sold via shopUlife.com to a textbook fund. In the future, we would like to do even more and are always thinking of creative ways of giving back to society. Profits without a purpose is a recipe for disaster.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was my first year in Eugene. I was a dishwasher for a Shiki Japanese restaurant. Every night, I would go home with my jeans soaked up to my knees and my shirt damp from sweat. When I applied for that job, I thought it was for a server position. When they called me back, I found out it was for a dishwasher. I called my mom to discuss my situation, and I’ll never forget what she told me: “Abraham, if you want to go to the top, you have to start from the bottom. If you work hard, the owner will see, and you will be a server.”

She was right. I washed dishes for two months. Then I was busser for another couple months and then became a server making pretty good tips. Looking back on it now, it was so valuable a lesson that my mom taught me. You can’t be afraid to start from the bottom.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

The only thing I would do differently is I would have started earlier. I wish I had this focus and drive my freshman year at UO so I would have more time to network. I understand now that “time is your most valuable asset.”

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I ask for help and advice all the time. Know what you’re good at, but also know what you are not good at. And repay the favor when you can.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Preparing for the start of the fall term this summer, we placed a large order for iPhone 4 cases. When the products arrived from China, they did not pass our hand inspection quality inspection. So we asked the manufacturer to redo the iPhone cases or we would ask for refund. Long story short, we got screwed. So I switched our iPhone case manufacturer to South Korea. We are recovering from our loses right now. The lesson from this story is this: “You are only good as your manufacturer.”

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I know a few business owners in the food industry. I always tell them, “You should offer a free drink or a small discount for customers checking in on Facebook.” These days, with social media, everyone is looking for social validation. Rewarding customers for checking in is something more businesses should do. Majoring in Economics, I learned that people need incentives to get them to do something.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I’d make it where everyone had to pick a dream and follow it. The only way I know how to go about it would be to inspire people by following my own dreams.

Tell us a secret.

I wanted to be an actor when I was in high school and thought that was my ticket from rags to riches.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?

1.  Inc.com – Videos and articles that provide me with ideas that I can apply to Ulife.

2.  Entrepreneur.com – Love reading interviews about people I admire.

3.  Youngentrepreneur.com – Love reading new trends and ideas about young startups like Ulife. I can relate and learn a lot from others’ experience.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

This is an easy one for me, but my dad might get upset with me for not picking the Bible. I highly recommend The Brand Against the Machine by John Morgan. This book has helped shape Ulife’s business plan.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

It was earlier today, watching the NFL season opener of the Cowboys versus the Giants, because my brother Paul’s fantasy football player Victor Cruz dropped three passes today playing against me. [Laughs.]

Who is your hero?

Suny Chung and Bill Chung, my two uncles, are my heroes. They both have their own companies, Sodium Partners and Design Infini. They are self-made, and they’ve been training me that “its not how much you make, but it’s what you do with your money that is more important.” They have mastered the art of giving.

What would have you majored in if you knew back then what you know now?

I would major in Social Media and Entrepreneurship. I majored in Economics so that I could graduate sooner (ran out of money).

What is your father’s occupation?

My dad is a professor at a Christian university and a pastor at a Korean church.


Abraham Choe on LinkedIn:  www.linkedin.com/in/abrahamchoe
Ulife on Twitter: 
Abraham Choe on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/abe.choe
Ulife on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/myUlife