When the World Says No to Your Invention

Romi Haan couldn’t get anyone to buy into her steam-cleaner invention. But she pushed through failure—and now runs a thriving global business 

by Alison Overholt
haan image
When Haan, shown here at her Seoul, South Korea, warehouse, introduced her steam cleaners in the U.S. on QVC, they sold out in six minutes.
Photograph: An Ji-sup

Romi Haan knew becoming an entrepreneur was risky. It meant navigating her father’s disapproval, abandoning her secure and prestigious career at South Korea’s Ministry of Education and accepting the social isolation that went with being a woman in the male-dominated Korean business world. But she never imagined that the challenges would include facing down a man who brought an ax to a meeting.

The ax wielder had been purchasing steam cleaners in bulk from Haan’s still-struggling company using a discount intended for corporate gift programs. He was behind on his payments to the tune of $300,000, so she’d done some digging and discovered he wasn’t affiliated with any firm. Instead, he was illegally reselling the appliances on the Internet for a profit and siphoning off Haan’s legitimate online sales. In a strange way it was a compliment that after the five years she had spent getting her eponymous company established, HAAN steam cleaners were enough in demand that a swindler would target them. Haan hoped that by confronting the man at a café near her Seoul office after work one evening in 2004, she would embarrass him into paying his debt and stopping the illegal sales.

Instead, after ushering her into the inside seat of a two-person corner booth, with privacy curtains shielding them from view, the man pulled an ax out of his briefcase and set it on the table. “The head was huge, but the handle was small,” says Haan, 48. “That’s how he fit it in there.”

She tried to leave, but the man blocked her exit and, with the hatchet on the table between them, demanded that she continue supplying him with her product. For the next three hours, they faced off across the table, tensely but quietly. “He always came back to the same subject, and I kept coming back with the same answer: We can discuss it tomorrow, at the office,” Haan says. Finally, just after midnight, the café closed and the two left, along with the other patrons, who were unaware of the strange showdown that had taken place. Haan sued the man to recover the money he owed her (she had no evidence to file criminal charges), but even though she won, she was never able to collect on the debt.

Thinking back, this soft-spoken woman with the easy smile says she knows she should have called for help or summoned the police, but she froze: “I was just too busy trying to pretend I wasn’t scared.” Maintaining an unruffled front in the face of setbacks and confrontations—though no others as dangerous as this—had become second nature since she began her entrepreneurial journey in 1998. Moreover, Haan learned two valuable lessons that night: First, she was tougher than she had ever imagined. And second, if a man wanted her products badly enough to set up an online swindle and threaten her with an ax, she was definitely on to something. In fact, Haan was building a $150 million international consumer-products company on the back of one very simple idea: It was time to make a better mop.

Haan’s enterprise was conceived one morning nearly 15 years ago as she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor of her apartment in Seoul—something she did morning and night, every single day. “In Korea we do everything on the floor: We eat on the floor, we sleep on the floor, the kids play on the floor,” she says. “Having a clean floor is a very big deal.” And the twice-daily scrubbings fall to the women. Haan’s husband, Namsuk Koh, a salesman for an educational-toy company who (unusually for his gender and almost unheard of for his generation) often pitched in on household chores, had declared floor cleaning off-limits. He once told her, only half-joking, “Men are not ergonomically designed to be on their hands and knees to clean the floor.”

First published in the February 2013 issue

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