Correction: This story was updated at 9:53 a.m. on Friday, March 6, 2020, to state the island of Saipan is a U.S. commonwealth southeast of Japan. A previous version stated it was off the northern tip of Japan.
Ji Hoon Heo, a 28-year-old Korea-born entrepreneur who moved to Chattanooga last year, is capitalizing on the Tesla boom.
His TeslaBros company, which is housed in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse on Amnicola Highway, makes accessories for Tesla automobiles — things like button labels for the cabin and chrome "black-out" kits for Tesla exteriors.
TeslaBros.com succeeded from day one, Heo says, largely by making products in house instead of outsourcing, which made for a lot of late nights cutting out patterns.
"Our first two days when we launched we had 300 orders," said Heo, who goes by Ji (pronounced "g"). "We made $10,000 in our first 30 days."
In its first 11 months, the company generated $200,000 in sales and made a profit, Heo said.
"I tell that to business people and they say 'That's impossible,'" Heo explained. "You normally don't make any money your first three years [as a start-up company]."
Heo, who is CEO of the company, is a former teacher at the University of Mississippi and former world-ranked tennis player, but he said he has always felt like an entrepreneur at heart.
When he was 4 years old, Ji moved from Korea to the island of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth southeast of Japan. His father was a missionary, Heo said, and money was scarce.
"It's always been my nature to be resourceful," he said. "I've never had money, so I have to be creative."
By age 12, he was teaching tennis lessons for money to buy a guitar, he said. By 19, he had 10 tennis students in Saipan who each paid him $500 a month for tennis instruction.
As a kid, Heo also liked to disassemble TVs and radios and then put them back together, he said. "Nerd" and "geek" are names he embraces.
Heo was a Division I tennis player at the University of Hawaii and later at Morehead State University in Kentucky. After graduating from college, Heo said, he needed a break from sports and decided to look for place where he could study journalism and teach.
For three years he taught classes at Ole Miss, specifically drone photography, a specialty that meshed with his lifelong love of technology.
In 2018, while teaching in Atlanta, Heo said he saved up enough money to buy a Tesla Model 3, the "affordable" sedan in Elon Musk's growing stable of Tesla EVs.
Driving his Model 3 one day in 2018, Heo had an epiphany. Teslas have electric door buttons, not door latches, which often confuses passengers unfamiliar with the layout. They often mistakenly pull on emergency door latches to exit the vehicle.
Heo had a vision to make small vinyl labels that would make it clear, at a glance, how to open the Model 3's doors. He went to craft shops to buy materials and purchased a used vinyl cutting machine to make the labels.
Tesla owners immediately began ordering the labels, which sent Heo on a hunt for more products. When he learned that some Tesla owners were spending $1,200 to have the chrome on their cars professionally "blacked-out" with adhesives, he decided to design DIY kits that sell for a fraction of that cost.
Heo said he and his wife, Annalee, who is from the Memphis area and works for CHI Memorial, moved to Chattanooga last year. He said his wife nixed his idea of moving to California. And in retrospect, he said, it was a decision that was good for his business. Lower costs in Chattanooga have allowed his business to thrive, he said. Plus, Heo said, the couple love the Scenic City.
Part of his mission as a businessman is to give back to the community, Heo said He especially wants to do more to promote STEM education in elementary schools and to help fund animal shelters.
"We are trying to play a role in this community and see what we can do to make it a better place," he added.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.