As the world opens back up and industries from travel to hotels rebound from the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Korean travel superapp Yanolja posted strong first-quarter sales growth in its first-ever quarterly report as it prepares to go public. The report, released last week, also revealed founder Lee Su-jin’s stake in the company, officially making the former janitor a billionaire.
Lee, who turned 44 in February, is CEO and the second-largest shareholder, with a 16.54% stake. His wife, Park Jung-hyun, and daughters Lee Ye-nim and Lee Ye-ra each own a 5.18% stake in Yanolja. The largest shareholder is SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, which bought a 25.23% stake in July last year for $1.7 billion, valuing Yanolja at $6.7 billion. At that valuation, Forbes estimates Lee and his family’s net worth at $2 billion. (Forbes applies a 10% discount to private company valuations.)
Founded in 2005, Yanolja—which means “Hey, let’s play” in Korean—has expanded from short-stay hotels to transportation and, more recently, cloud-computing software that helps hotels and travel companies digitize business processes. The company reported that first-quarter revenue rose 19% year over year to 100.5 billion won ($80 million), while net income decreased slightly to 8.8 billion won from 9 billion won during the same period.
Yanolja makes most of its money by taking a cut from bookings and charging hotels and travel companies to advertise on its platform. In recent years, Yanolja has been expanding its cloud-based business, such as management systems that help hotels manage reservations and big data analytics that predict customer behavior. Revenue from its cloud business contributed 20.5% to Yanolja’s total sales in the first quarter, up from about 8.5% in calendar year 2021.
The company said in its first-quarter report that non-face-to-face digital services have been spreading across the leisure industry since the start of the pandemic. It also noted that more hotels are using software to reduce costs and increase efficiency during the pandemic.
Local media reported in April that Yanolja is planning to list on the Nasdaq in the third quarter this year. In addition to SoftBank, Yanolja’s other investors include Singaporean sovereign-wealth fund GIC, online travel giant Booking.com and SkyLake Investment, a Korean private equity firm led by former Samsung Electronics executive Chin Dae-je.
Like Kakao founder Kim Beom-su, No. 1 on this year’s Korea Rich List, Lee’s success is a tale of rags-to-riches. Orphaned as a child, Lee worked as a janitor at love hotels before starting Yanolja. Lee, who holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Kongju National University in the central South Korean city of Gongju, used his connections with toilet paper suppliers and hotel owners to launch Yanolja, according to a Bloomberg News article.
Lee is the latest to join a growing group of self-made billionaires in South Korea, where family-owned conglomerates have traditionally dominated its economy. Lee Seung-gun, for example, who ran away from home to launch a startup against his parents’ wishes, joined the three-comma club last year, following a $410 million funding round that valued his startup, fintech superapp operator Viva Republica, at $7.4 billion.