Motel Janitor to $1.2 Billion Net Worth: The Awe-Inspiring Journey of Yanolja Founder Lee Su-Jin
Lee Su-jin, the founder and chairman of Yanolja, a global travel super app had a humble start in the travel industry as a motel janitor. His experiences inspired him to create the hotel booking site in 2007. It has since evolved into a popular travel app with over 57 million downloads worldwide. Lee's success with Yanolja, which means "Hey, let's play" in Korean, has also led to personal wealth and he boasts a current net worth of $1.2 billion, as per Forbes. He now owns almost a third of the company with his wife and two daughters, earning him a spot in Forbes' Korea's 50 Richest rankings.
From humble beginnings to hospitality empire
Lee Su-jin was orphaned at a young age. He relied on his family members during his growing up years, according to Bloomberg. At 23, he found himself cleaning rooms at a "love hotel", seeking a stable income and a place to stay. Despite the hardships, Lee persevered and saved money, delving into investments and even attempting a salad business. When the venture didn't succeed, he returned to the hospitality industry, capitalizing on an opportune moment.
In the early 2000s, "love hotels" drew frowns, hindering their business prospects, especially after South Korea enacted an anti-prostitution law in 2004. Fearing for the motels' survival, Lee decided to rebrand them. He launched a hotel review platform in 2005, which later evolved into Yanolja in 2007. His vision was to modernize the hotels, appealing to young couples and travelers by emphasizing safety, convenience, and affordability, as per CNBC Make It.
Adversity to innovation: The birth of Yanolja
Lee's janitorial job, which allowed him to observe guests' experiences in love hotels, proved advantageous. This experience helped Lee better tailor the platform to its consumers. In June 2019, Yanolja became South Korea's eighth 'Unicorn' achieving a valuation of over $1 billion during a funding round.
Two years later, SoftBank Vision Fund 2, an investment company, acquired a minority stake in Yanolja for $1.7 billion, valuing the company at $6.7 billion, as reported by Forbes. The deal with SoftBank led to widespread speculation about a potential initial public offering (IPO) for Yanolja. However, the company decided not to go public just yet, with CEO Kim Jong-yoon stating in a July 2022 press release that Yanolja had no hurry to announce an IPO, given the hospitality industry was still recovering from the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Moving toward AI hospitality transformation
In 2021, the company expanded far beyond travel booking with the introduction of Yanolja Cloud, its own artificial intelligence software for various hospitality and leisure platforms. According to the company's website, a total of 19 million users now utilize Yanolja's software platforms for booking, travel, and property management operations.
Kim expressed pride in the company's extensive reach during an interview with Reuters in 2019. Furthermore, the company achieved Lee's objective of transforming the culture and perception surrounding 'love hotels.' Kim explained that in the past, many people felt too embarrassed to visit motels, but now, Yanolja has successfully attracted guests even for travel, signifying a significant change in the industry.
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