It is not uncommon for people to get obsessed with or occasionally distracted by the latest technological innovation. In this regard, Ji Hoon Heo (14) is no different, but the technology he is getting distracted by is not something most people see every day.
“Sorry, I’m trying to multitask…I’m not very good at it,” the 28-year-old business owner said during our interview. “I’m operating heavy machinery right now.”
As the founder and CEO of TesBros, a company that designs and produces various products for Tesla brand vehicles, messing with heavy machinery isn’t a part of the entrepreneur’s daily routine. But when no one is available to operate a giant flatbed cutter and you have 100 orders to fulfill that day, somebody’s got to do it.
The same way a good business owner does what has to be done for the success of his company, TesBros was something Heo had to do, even though his professional life could have gone in several directions.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, he grew up on the island of Saipan off the coast of Japan after traveling for his father’s missionary work. He described himself as a “fat chubby kid” when his dad insisted Heo exercise to lose weight at six years old and he settled on tennis.
“(My dad) literally dragged me to a tennis court and I cried all the way to the tennis court because I didn’t want to play,” he said. “I had my first lesson and I came back with a big smile on my face.”
It turns out his interest in tennis came with some natural talent. Heo traveled to nearby Australia and New Zealand, playing in tennis tournaments from ages 10 to 12. As one of the best junior players in the region of Oceania, he skipped one-third of his high school experience due to his commitment to tennis training and tournaments.
“When I would get back, I would just do all-nighters for about a week and I would not sleep,” he said. “I think it taught me to be a very fast worker.”
He attended Hawaii Pacific University on a full academic and athletic scholarship before deciding to transfer to Morehead State when he wanted to keep pursuing tennis with a change in scenery and atmosphere.
“Morehead State had tried to recruit me when I was a freshman and they offered their hand and said, hey, the offer is still open,” Heo said.
As a tennis player at MSU, Heo developed a close bond with his teammates and other student-athletes. He also became close to several of his professors while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in convergent media, particularly communications instructor John Flavell (87) (he said he and his students used to call him “Flava Flav”).
“Looking back at it, I really appreciated the attention,” he said. “They really took the interest and they really cared.”
Heo’s early interest in technology (he used to take apart radios and TVs as a kid to see how they worked) was amplified in college. As an intern for MSU Athletics, he helped in developing its capabilities to live stream sporting events. Even though he continued to play tennis and was ranked in the top 400 in the world at one point, he felt like he had other talents and passions he should devote his time and energy to exploring.
Heo always liked telling stories with his camera and attended the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) to earn a Master of Arts in Journalism. He initially worked as a graduate assistant at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media before being hired as an instructional assistant professor. He taught a variety of multimedia courses and developed the university’s drone program.
“And I always wanted to fly a drone. Who doesn’t want to do that?” Heo said.
While Heo enjoyed teaching and affecting his students’ lives, he felt like it wasn’t wholly fulfilling him.
“I was doing something right there and they wanted me to stay but I wasn’t getting the satisfaction I wanted in life,” he said. “I felt like I had a different calling and I was fighting it.”
That calling came when two things happened. The first was when Heo’s mild obsession with the latest technology led to test-driving a Tesla for the first time.
“I sat in it and I tried autopilot for the first time in my life and I was blown away,” he said. “Anything with new tech really got me excited so when I saw Tesla, I was like, this is totally me. And then I saw the price tag and I said, this is not totally me.”
At least it wasn’t at the time. It just forced Heo to save up his money and talk to his wife, Annalee, to purchase his first Tesla Model 3 in July 2018.
“After about three to five months, I thought what could be better about the car,” he said. “I can’t remember why, but it just kind of moved me to do something about it. Instead of saying, that was just an idea, move along, I decided to take action.”
The first idea he came up with was a simple one: A label for the door button, which he said always gave people trouble when they got in the car for the first time and couldn’t find the electric door release’s unconventional placement in the interior. On uneventful drives to Morehouse College in Atlanta to teach for a month in Jan. 2019 and back to his Oxford, Mississippi, home, a combination of problem-solving and boredom driving got him thinking. He began raiding craft stores like JOANN Fabrics and Michael’s buying vinyl and started cutting and shaping the ideas in his head. Eventually, he upgraded by purchasing and learning to use a Cricut electronic cutting machine.
“I messaged my business partner JP and said, ‘Hey man, you want to make a quick buck?’” he said. “We didn’t think about if this was going to scale or anything. We just wanted to make $300 extra bucks a month.”
He launched a Facebook group in January 2019 under his blogger name TeslaBros and opened a PayPal account.
“We got one message, and then we got two, and then we got five, and we got 10,” he said.
Then, Heo and TeslaBros (now TesBros) got 300 orders…in its first two days of operation. While he was continuing to teach at Ole Miss, he spent his nights getting TesBros off the ground. Using the Cricut in his garage, the company designed, cut and packaged problem-solving products. A grassroots following came soon after thanks to innovative products like Chrome Delete, a do-it-yourself kit that “blacks out” all the chrome elements of a Tesla’s interior for a fraction of the cost of having it done by someone else.
“From year one, day one, actually, we were profitable,” Heo said. “We operated with $500 in our pocket. No loans. Nothing. We’re really proud to say that.”
The success of TesBros led to him leaving Ole Miss and scaling the business from Heo’s garage to 800 square feet of office space to its current 3,000-square-foot facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The company has found a successful niche and continues to grow but Heo would like to use his company’s resources in a positive way. In the future, he said he would like to create programs in STEM fields in underserved parts of Chattanooga and surrounding areas, hoping to mold the next technological innovator like Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the same technology TesBros was using to make its products were now being used to manufacture face shields for the area’s medical workers.
“To me, I think it’s too shallow to say I sell Tesla accessories. It has to be more than that for me,” he said. “I just want to make a difference in the place where I feel like I’m gifted. Trying to make a small dent. That’s all we want to do.”
Ji Hoon Heo has come a long way as an entrepreneur. He has gone from giving tennis lessons for extra cash as a teenager to learning invaluable lessons on the many ways a company can be successful. Heo will be the first to say that success doesn’t come without both a passion for what you do and a dedication to see it through.
“It was a feeling for me. For me, the risk was worth it for me, whether I make it or not,” he said. “If you have that kind of conviction, do it and you’ll make it work and stop just talking about it. At one point, you have to take the leap and at one point, when you take that leap, you get better at jumping. And then those leaps get stronger and farther.”
For more information on TesBros, visit www.teslabros.com.