Gallery of oddities makes for a ‘funique’ museumDon’t just stand there! Come on in! Welcome to the “Funique House!” There are more than 300 fun and unique (“funique”) items on display in what used to be a tiny regular house. There’s a toilet that talks: “Don’t forget to wash your hands!” and eyeglasses for lazy people, enabling one to watch TV lying down. This museum is filled with such creative items, and averages about 300 to 500 visitors each weekend.
The people who run this place say they never intended to set up a museum. The whole idea was foreign to these IT employees. What triggered the project was a “surprise gift event” at their software company. Anyone going on an overseas business trip had to bring back a unique gift for his or her colleagues, and they chose plenty of items that were fun yet not practical enough to be marketable, such as a thumb-sized TV.
“Everyone had so much fun waiting for gifts and boasting about what he or she found, that one of us suggested we open a museum. It seemed like too good an idea to laugh off. We had already noticed that this event had brightened the office atmosphere and helped us to think more creatively. The thought of sharing this with others is what got us started.”
Let’s just do it first
The “Funique House” is run by Valution, a small IT startup company that develops software and educational resources. To its employees, all of whom were science majors, running a museum seemed foreign at first. They agreed it sounded like a fun project but hesitated to jump into it because no one had any experience in the field. Chief Choi Jae-uk, nicknamed “Smarty” by fellow colleagues, was against the idea more than anyone else. He recalls his objections, saying, “Running an offline business is different from running an online one: an idea, no matter how good it is, isn’t going to be enough. It takes a lot of investment, and if business doesn’t go well for some reason, the mother company could be in trouble too. In other words, there was just too much risk involved.”
President Kim Deok-yeon stepped up when his employees weren’t taking any action. He would say, “How about running the museum this way? Doesn’t it sound like fun?” to get them brainstorming for ideas. As a previous sales and human resources chief at Haansoft before setting up his own company, he was a firm believer in the saying “the blue ocean industry is about the fun that draws people in.” At their boss’s persistence, the employees decided to “just do it” and they began setting up their museum in May 2003.
Ignorance is bliss
In the beginning, they had to handle both their IT work and the museum setup simultaneously. The profit they made from the IT business all went into the museum, so at first they spent more time on the former, but as the museum project became more defined, they began focusing on it, even giving up vacation time. They say it was because preparing for the opening of the museum “was really fun.”
The most important thing, of course, was securing enough exhibits. They would fly to Japan, Hong Kong and the U.S. to look for toys or tools, and hunt down inventions online. They also needed to come up with a clear concept for the museum.
For this, they visited every single well-known museum in the nation to analyze visitors’ needs, while looking up information online and in bookstores to decide how to run the museum. The first standard they set for their museum was that “it had to be a place where visitors could feel and experience the fun.” They wanted to change the common preconception that museums were boring and dull. The “Do Not Touch” sign was first to go. They were going to provide a more personal experience for their visitors. A small house in the Hongdae area became their venue because a real house seemed to suit their purposes better than a cold office building. Of course there were calculations involved; they knew they would save a lot of money by using the first floor as a museum and the second floor as their office. The employees even decorated the museum themselves with the help of friends who had studied interior design. Displaying exhibits and designing the halls in this 40 pyeong space (132 sq. meters) took many days ― and a lot of headaches. “We didn’t receive any professional help. But we wanted to use our lack of professional knowledge to our advantage, because that meant we could come up with entirely original ideas.”
After a yearlong preparation, they finally put up a signboard in Dec. 2004. By then, they had acquired about 150 exhibits, including a urinating mannequin from China worth 100 won (10 cents) and a hanging mobile by an American artist, worth 3.5 million won ($3,500). The museum was ready.
“A Funique Success”
They ran a trial period of one month, during which they saw three to four visitors a day. They hadn’t done anything special to promote the museum nor was the location, a quiet residential area, good for luring passers-by. Mr. Kim would encourage his employees by saying that things were bound to get better, but he admits that he felt frustrated and began having second thoughts. When they went ahead with the formal opening in Jan. 2005, and a couple of weeks later, he was on a business trip to Hong Kong. There he received a text message from Lee Chang-su, one of the managers in Seoul. “It’s a smash hit!” was all the message said. It turns out the museum was caught on a TV camera by chance, and they saw a huge increase in the number of visitors. Students were on winter break, and families were lining up with their kids ― they had up to 700 visitors in a single day. The employees were delighted to serve hot drinks to those waiting in line outside. They couldn’t even feel the cold.
Once word of mouth spread, everything went smoothly. They turned their office upstairs into another exhibition hall in March, and in September, they opened a larger annex in Seochodong. After receiving requests from the south, they opened another branch in Busan. This coming April, they will open an “English Funique House” in Paju’s “English Village,” Gyeonggi province. There is no doubt they’re enjoying a smashing success.
When asked how they felt about their huge success, they stare at one another and chuckle. “The key was our belief that a sense of ‘fun’ could translate into a successful ‘business.’ If we had kept worrying ‘what if things go wrong,’ we wouldn’t have been able to create this success. We’ve discovered the power of a fun and unique idea.”
by Kwon Hyouk-jae
For more information, visit www.funique.com or call (02) 335-0546. The Hongdae and Seocho museums relocated to the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan on Feb. 25.