Around 5 a.m. in Seoul, when most of the city is still asleep, it’s not difficult to see backpack-toting men in their 50s and 60s waiting in long lines outside staffing agencies, wondering if there are any day jobs available for them.
For their female counterparts, or ajumma as Koreans would call them, the situation is slightly better but not very different.
“Cleaners who were working in this industry before … like at 6 a.m., they go to the employee referral agencies, then they wait in the waiting room. If a job comes in, they get dispatched. But if it doesn’t, they waste their whole day. They go home empty handed,” said Victor Ching, the founder and CEO of Miso, an app that matches cleaners with those who need cleaning services.
“It was really touching when I would meet cleaners and they’d say, ‘Who would have imagined that you can just open your phone and then get a job?’”
Founded in 2015, Miso is an on-demand service that allows users to book domestic helpers in Seoul and other major cities in the country with their mobile phones. The online-to-offline platform, which has 116,000 registered cleaners to date, does not charge the workers any registration fees. Miso earns its revenue by taking a cut with each booking.
What sets Miso apart from other door-to-door cleaning service providers is its trademark “two-hour service.” While its competitors require customers to hire cleaners for at least three to four hours, Miso offers a two-hour option, which has attracted single and two-person households living in small apartments.
Contrary to the perception that reduced minimum service hours would put workers at a disadvantage, the two-hour service has gained popularity among cleaners as well because it turned out to be more lucrative. With the help of algorithms, Miso can allocate two two-hour jobs in the workers’ vicinity, instead of one four-hour job. The cleaners’ total income eventually went up as the hourly wage of a two-hour gig, which can go up to 15,000 won ($13) an hour, is higher than that of a four-hour one.
“One cleaner, she was actually crying when she was telling me this, but just the pain of having to go every morning to an office, and then having to wait … But then just being able to open a smartphone and choose when you want to work where you want to work. I think that difference is very, just heartwarming,” the Korean American entrepreneur said.
The company was recognized for its ability to make a difference in the daily lives of job hunters and many other people struggling to deal with household chores. In March, Miso became the first Korean business-to-customer company to be included in the growth program of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup accelerator that discovered Airbnb, Doordash and Dropbox.
In the same month, Miso was finally able to break even, partly due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
“Last year with COVID, I think you have this trend that people (are) spending more time in their homes. And because of that, they want their homes to be a place that they enjoy,” Ching said. “If you look at the trends last year, where you have the amount of money being spent on like new appliances such as air purifiers, new refrigerators or new TVs, people want to invest in a better quality of life in their homes. And I think Miso service helps provide that.”
Transactions made on the app jumped 45 percent in April compared to that of January. For the whole of 2021, the company expects the total transaction amount to surpass 100 billion won.
The CEO added that he was able to push for Miso’s counterintuitive concept of a two-hour service -- which seemed “stupid” but eventually ended up being right -- thanks to his experience as co-founder of Yogiyo, the second-biggest food delivery platform in Korea run by Berlin-based Delivery Hero.
“When people have this imagination of a tech startup, they view a bunch of engineers coding on a computer, and they build an elegant, automated technological solution. But with online-to-offline (business), you really need to understand the offline component,” he said, reminiscing how “crazy” it was to launch Yogiyo in Korea.
“When you start a food delivery service, you need restaurants. But if you don’t have any customers, then no restaurants want to sign up with you. So Yogiyo basically hired 100 employees to do data entry. They took every leaflet they could find and entered the menu information into the Yogiyo system,” he recalled.
When orders started coming in, Yogiyo transferred all of those orders via telephone and asked restaurants if they could make deliveries.
It seemed stupid at first, “But when I saw it working, then it connected the dots of why they decided to do it this way,” he said.
Now, Ching aims to apply his offline expertise and innovations to more than 70 different kinds of services offered on Miso, including a moving service.
During the interview, the CEO demonstrated how Miso’s moving service is designed from the customers’ point of view. Customers are charged a fixed rate and all users have to do is decide how many trucks they need. In contrast, one local moving app charges variable rates depending on specific needs. They have up to 35 different categories where customers have to check a plethora of options -- such as how many beds and TVs they have -- a process which can easily take more than 15 minutes and fatigues users.
Based on its success in Korea, Ching said that Miso aims to become the “Amazon of services in Asia,” with expansions currently planned in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia.
“If you’re branching out to different countries, the second country you open it, you have to have the highest likely bit of success. For us, we’re probably more likely to be successful in the second Asian country, rather than a totally different, like European or North American market. We’re going to continue to expand until we offer every service imaginable,” he said.
By Kim Byung-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org