Why this successful 27-year-old entrepreneur who started 6 businesses says she wants to be an employee again

Annabelle Lee
Kko Kko Nara

She was just 18 years old when she became a first-time boss, but nearly a decade on and a string of successful businesses later, Annabelle Lee’s entrepreneurial journey is far from being over.

The 27-year-old Seoul native is one of the owners of Kko Kko Nara Pte Ltd, which runs two Korean fried chicken restaurant-bars under the same name, and Todamgol, a restaurant specialising in traditional Korean fare and rice wine.

Just 10 years ago when Kko Kko Nara first opened its doors on Tras Street, Korean fried chicken was a dish many Singaporeans knew nothing of. Thanks to South Korean dramas like Descendants of the Sun, we now can’t get enough of it.

“We were lucky to start first. Now there are too many (Korean fried chicken restaurants),” Lee said with a laugh.

Despite fierce competition, Kko Kko Nara’s homemade chicken sauce concocted from a secret family recipe continues to draw crowds. Part of the secret lies in using ingredients imported from South Korea, Lee told Business Insider.

The road to success hasn’t always been easy for Lee, though. In fact, her journey to becoming an entrepreneur was full of hard lessons.

A tough start

Kko Kko Nara was born when Annabelle’s mother, during her visits to Singapore, noticed that South Koreans living here missed going to bars for beer and fried chicken like they used to at home.

At the time, Lee was a teenager working part-time jobs to pay for her college education in Singapore.

Lee moved to Singapore when she was 12 all by herself and spent several years studying in her new home before attending college. Drawn by memories from her first ever vacation overseas, the young girl quickly learned to read and write in English.

While other tweens were busy adapting to adolescence, Lee was learning to be an adult. Independence, she says, was a skill she had to acquire very early on.

At the tender age of six, she was often left alone because her parents were busy with work. She recalls how she had to walk 30 minutes to the clinic when she was ill, only to be ignored by nurses who always assumed that she was just a child waiting for a parent.

On one occasion, a teacher at her school spotted her waiting at the clinic by herself. The next day, the school’s principal presented Lee with an award for bravery. She didn’t understand what she was being commended for, though. She had no idea how different her classmates’ lives were from hers.

Hard business lessons

After the initial success of Kko Kko Nara, Lee and her family decided to invest their earnings in new businesses.

“We wanted to try so many things so we kept opening up new places,” she tells Business Insider.

Among the other businesses her family started, a seafood restaurant and a Korean karaoke restaurant were also successful and were later sold to other restaurateurs.

“I was young and I had a lot of energy. Now, just half a day in the restaurant and I’m tired,” Lee said.

But good results were not all she found. Like any successful business leader, she’s also accumulated her fair share of costly mistakes.

“We got cheated many times along the way,” she says, explaining that the family wasn’t familiar with Singapore laws when they first started out.

Not only did they lose money to unscrupulous property agents and contractors, the family also missed out on government grants because they weren’t aware of what they could apply for.

One of her biggest lessons came from a Korean clothing business she started at 23.

“I was still young, and the most difficult thing for me was handling staff. When I handle Korean clients or staff, they think: ‘She’s so young, what does she know about business?’”

“Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with a young boss while I don’t like being bossy, so I ended up doing even more work than my staff!”

In the end, she decided to shutter her business because the Orchard Central boutique hardly saw any walk-in crowds and was relying solely on regular customers.

“It was so sad that we had to close. I tried so hard to make it during the first year, but I realised it wasn’t working anymore,” she says.

There were times when Lee found her age to be an advantage though. Because she was energetic, she maintained a tireless attitude in running the businesses, and handled everything from operations to designing marketing collaterals.

Almost a decade later, Lee still works with her mom, aunt and a cousin to run the businesses. She handles business operations for Kko Kko Chicken Bar while her family manages Todamgol’s operations.

A lifetime of learning

Wanting to see the world, Lee moved to Los Angeles to study international business but found that what the books contained could not compare to the knowledge she gained from managing her own company.

So for the next three years, she took up all sorts of jobs in the US and tried her hand at bartending, interpreting, sales, marketing, and was even a paralegal in a law firm and a personal assistant for the owner of a large car dealership for some time.

Compared to many struggling entrepreneurs, the young restaurateur may seem accomplished, but she insists she is nowhere near success yet.

“I don’t know if you can call me successful, because I’m still learning,” Lee says.

Besides, being a young boss can be bad for the soul, Lee admits. Praise and attention from others can take away one’s humility.

“When you stop being humble, you stop learning,” she says.

She even hopes to go from being an employer to employee so that she can learn more about other industries.

New beginnings

Having navigated the business world on her own, she refuses to let the restaurant business define her, and now yearns to have a mentor who can show her what she is doing wrong.

“I really want to do something bigger… I want to inspire people,” she says.

In a way, Lee’s unwavering courage to constantly step out of the comfort zone is the result of an unexpectedly tough upbringing.

“A lot of people think I’m from a rich family, but actually, I had a really rough childhood,” she said.

She recalls a time when her parents’ divorce and family problems pushed her to the brink. Most of her primary school years were spent living with relatives, causing her feel to feel isolated and alone.

“All my friends talked about their mothers and fathers, but I couldn’t talk about (my family),” she recalls.

There was even a time when she contemplated taking her own life because she couldn’t see beyond the problems she faced at home.

It wasn’t until she started to travel did she finally realise that happiness was a choice determined by a change in perspective.

Travelling opened her eyes to the way other people lived, and fed her hunger to learn about the world.

It is this message that she wants those who are going through dark times to remember: “Even though life is tough, don’t end it. Continue moving forward…because your mindset could change everything”.

Giving back

It’s obvious how her childhood experiences continue to shape the way she deals with money and business.

For instance, she believes that one who finds success should do their part to give back to society.

Often, a byproduct of finding success at a young age is a bloated ego, which in turn could lead to what she calls “losing heart”.

“Don’t forget what it was like when you first started, and don’t forget to help others… If you help others when you can, then when you fail they will help you too,” Lee said.

Recently, Lee agreed to help with a charity initiative called Impact Reality VR, which provides charitable groups with VR technology so they can better engage donors and raise awareness for their causes.

The project will start in Singapore but the founders, who are Lee’s friends, already have plans to take it all over the world.

When asked what she sees for her own future, she says: “I think I will never retire”.

If her life was a book, there would be no way she would allow the fried chicken business to define her final achievements. She adds: “I’m trying to create something which I can be proud to have as a last chapter”.