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

With her demanding job—as a deputy director at the Ministry of Education—and two young sons to care for, Haan found it hard to make time for all that scrubbing. “One day it came to my mind: Maybe I can put a rag underneath an iron or something that boils water,” she says. Add a handle, Haan thought, and she could get the same intense scrubbing but with more sanitizing power. “It would be like a mop but cleaner. And it would be easier than being on your hands and knees,” she says. “The product I envisioned looked so simple. In an era of rocket science, how difficult could it be to make?”

Haan had no background in engineering or manufacturing: She’d studied French in college, and in her early twenties she used that to land a job in the press office of the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters, in Switzerland. Later she went to California State University for her MBA and lived in the L.A. area for several years, working in commercial real estate and the import business before returning to South Korea and taking the civil service exam. Then, after her day’s work was done and the kids were asleep, she spent long hours talking through the idea with her husband and researching what it would take to produce a prototype. An engineer friend of a friend estimated $50,000 and six months and offered to do it. The figure was the equivalent of a full year’s salary at her government job, but Haan believed in her idea. “I thought, If I don’t do this, nobody will—and I was determined to liberate the Korean housewife.”

Though it was unheard of for a woman to start her own company in South Korea, Haan’s husband supported her venture. “We got married when we were really old by Korean standards. He was 40 and I was almost 33, so he thought I was the greatest creature in the world,” she says, laughing. “He’d say, ‘Whatever you do, you’re going to do well.’ ” So in 1999 Haan quit her government job and took out a $100,000 mortgage on the home she and her husband owned. But after six months the prototype wasn’t finished. And when it was, after a year, Haan had to face the fact that it simply didn’t work. Steam irons and portable garment steamers—their -inspiration—required only a tiny quantity of steam to work. The power needed to create enough steam to clean a floor was exponentially bigger. Haan had to start over, but she was out of cash.

“My in-laws knew what I was going through,” says Haan. During the family’s regular weekend visits, her mother- and father-in-law noted the circles under her eyes growing darker, her face becoming increasingly drawn. One night in 2000, as the family sat in her in-laws’ living room, Haan’s father-in-law handed over the deed to his home. “It was a sign telling me, ‘We trust you.’ My father-in-law never doubted that we would be successful.”

Using her in-laws’ house as collateral, Haan took out a second $100,000 loan. With a new engineer working on the project, this time the product was built around the type of heating element now common in electric kettles, which can safely boil a quart of water in less than 30 seconds. It worked. Haan had her appliance, which looked like a lightweight stick vacuum but produced steam from a small water tank. She was also savvier about how much money it would take to manufacture and launch her steam cleaner, so she went in search of more funding—and hit her next obstacle.

South Korean women in business were a rare breed (they are slightly less so now); women inventors and entrepreneurs were rarer still. After applying for one government venture-funding program, Haan was interviewed by a loan officer who thought she couldn’t possibly be running a real company—he called her a “trouser CEO,” a derogatory term for women who operate as false fronts when their husbands aren’t able to obtain funding on the strength of their own credit. “He came to my office, sat down and said, ‘Why don’t you just tell me what kind of business he bankrupted that you’re trying to cover for?’ ” she says.

First published in the February 2013 issue

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