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

Haan didn’t get that grant. But she eventually landed $200,000 in government loans, and by 2001 she had 10 employees and the first batch of products—3,000 units. “Then, during the quality test, we found out that about 10 percent of the cleaners would leak within the next three or four years,” she says. Haan trashed the entire production run and began again from scratch.

Meanwhile, it was time to persuade South Korean stores to carry the device. The problem was, all the buyers were men. “Even the lingerie buyers were men!” says Haan. When she pitched the buyer for one department store chain, his gaze began wandering halfway through the 30-minute demonstration. At the end of her spiel, she was dumbfounded to hear him repeat the question he’d started with: “Why would anyone buy a steam cleaner when we have vacuum cleaners?”

Haan channeled her frustration into working harder. She began selling HAAN steam cleaners directly to her female target audience, using no advertising and relying only on word of mouth. It was thrilling for her to see how quickly the product clicked. By 2003, the company’s revenue was about $6 million. “We did pretty well as a small company,” she says. “But we were still not making a profit. When you introduce an appliance, you need a lot of people. You need R&D, quality control, production, sales.” Another infusion of cash came that year from her father. He hadn’t approved of her venture when she began and still didn’t think she had done the right thing by jumping into the risky world of entrepreneurship. But he wanted to support his daughter. So he gave her the deed to hishouse, and she took out another $100,000 mortgage, bringing her total start-up investment in HAAN to half a million dollars.

And then, right around the time the guy with the ax showed up at that coffeehouse meeting, she broke through with a slot on Korea’s Home Shopping Network television channel. “I cold-called and pitched,” she says. Haan sold 2,000 steam cleaners in her first hour-long appearance. The channel booked her for future on-air sales, and the public began to clamor for the steam cleaners. She increased production, and on November 30, 2004, HAAN turned a profit for the first time.  “That’s when I realized, I’m going to survive,” she says. Sadly, her father never knew she’d made her dream come true. He’d passed away earlier that year.

For the next two years, HAAN continued to grow in Korea. In early 2007, ready to try her fortunes in the U.S., Haan cold-called QVC. Megan Flanagan, the QVC assistant buyer who took the introductory meeting with her, needed little convincing. Flanagan and her colleagues had noticed that their -customers—mostly female—were increasingly seeking nonchemical solutions for their cleaning problems. HAAN steam cleaners fit the bill. But even better, says Flanagan, “she had a story to tell.” In September 2007, the cleaners sold out in six minutes during an afternoon slot. Haan went back into production immediately. Her product has been selling on QVC ever since, with new models introduced each summer. It became typical for HAAN to sell 20,000 steam cleaners in a single special-event appearance.

Today the woman who once struggled to explain why anyone might want a steam cleaner oversees the production of multiple models, ranging from small handheld devices to deluxe appliances with various attachments. She sells them in 10 countries, and in fall 2012 she launched exclusive models in Target. She’s now using her technological and manufacturing know-how to test a steam-activated skin-care line. Last year her husband joined the company full time as its chairman. Haan has set up her U.S. headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that bastion of Amish culture that also happens to be home to QVC. Haan now splits her time among South Korea, China and the U.S. and recently enrolled her oldest son in a Massachusetts boarding school.

First published in the February 2013 issue

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