INTERVIEW WITH AARON KO
Do you remember who your first friend of the opposite sex was? Like real friend.
Mine was Aaron Ko. He was a glasses wearing, perfect grade carrying, Korean skater boy in my small class of about 70 students at the alternative school I attended.
I don’t remember exactly how or when our friendship started, but it was in the days of instant messaging. Countless hours were spent behind screens, and as an extremely shy introvert, I finally had the license to communicate without my social anxiety holding me back. Together we over-analyzed everything we possibly could, and in the process figured out how to open up and let our vulnerable, awkward souls spill out. Our biggest common denominator was dealing with rejection, going through it together helped normalize the confusing and painful feelings.
For that reason, we have always had a special bond. We drifted into different social circles for the last few years of high school, and by the time we graduated Aaron Ko had blossomed into an amazing extrovert, risk taker, and life liver.
We both went to the University of Washington and I saw him around a few times our Freshman year and later heard the news that he was addicted to heroin. Once out of rehab, he went on a walk with me and described everything in great detail: how it happened, what it felt like, and what it took for him to turn things around.
The next years were a blur of Facebook statuses. He was sharpening scissors for a living and going on trips that didn’t seem real. He traveled to places that people typically haven’t heard of or wouldn’t want to go to. He became the first Korean American gold miner in La Rinconada, a mining town in Peru that is extremely impoverished and isolated. He became a soldier in the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) and fought in the world’s longest-running genocides. He also went to Bangladesh to investigate the murders and trafficking of the Rohingya genocide.
Fast forward to the present and Aaron Ko owns his own scissor company, Moto Shears, selling shears that he designed, has his own podcast, is a stand-up comedian, and is writing a book.
I had no idea that the teenager that I spent hours pouring my heart out to on instant messenger so long ago would end up being the most interesting person in the world to me. And no, this post is not sponsored by Dos Equis. He lives his life in a way that is so foreign to me, it is like he is a unicorn. I think we can all learn something from Aaron, whether it be to take more risks and live a little more recklessly, or shop a little more in the Trader Joes frozen aisle – take your pick!
Leaving a Lasting Impression. My interview with Aaron Ko.
Steph: What is your favorite meal?
Aaron Ko: Honestly, anything from Trader Joe’s frozen aisle. It is the best frozen aisle ever. I will pick something specific – it would probably be the $2.99 pesto linguine that you can cook in like 8 minutes on the stove. That one’s the shit.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Hold on let me think really hard about this. Uh…Conflicted. Definitely conflicted. Excited. And also curious.
The first one is definitely conflicted, because I feel like I don’t feel one way about something. My general demeanor toward life is that I am very excited about it, even the shitty parts. I don’t even know if excited is the right word, it is more like reckless. The last one is definitely true too, definitely curious.
Reckless is a better word than excited. A lot of my choices are actually pretty reckless.
Do you still cut your own hair when you sell your scissors? What has been the most successful sales tactic?
Oh I definitely still cut my hair when I’m selling scissors. That seems to be the one thing that no one would ever do to themselves in public. The shock value of it is very intense, even more so for hair stylists.
A lot of things have changed. The biggest thing that has definitely changed is the Instagram sales.
Stylists when they see me, don’t see me as a scissor salesperson. I am so educated about hair and cutting hair that when they talk to me, it feels like they are talking to another stylist who has figured out what tools work and don’t work for specific types of cutting. I look at their tools, ask how they cut, and once I have heard their description, I don’t oversell. I am trying to find what will work with them currently. I know that what I can successfully do at that point is work on building their set. I would rather have a client buy a scissor from me every single year, than buy 7 scissors for me all at once. So many referrals come with dealing with people slowly. True trust is slowly earned. The initial purchase is a leap of faith.
What are your thoughts on the power of human interaction vs. technology? Sounds like things have changed a little but I know when you first started you were doing things the old fashion way and were popping into salons without any warning.
I think the thing everyone could obviously see when I first started Moto was that I was having a lot of fun. I was not a business professional. I was a kid, who had a truck and a bag of scissors and was just driving recklessly around the United States, not fearing where I would sleep, what I would eat, or who I would meet. And I think that that resonated with people a lot at the beginning to see that that was successful. That I started in Washington and made it all the way to Houston, and that this thing could go on infinitely, there was no end to it.
My life is so wild that I know there are a lot of stylists who follow me on Facebook and live vicariously through me. So when they see me again it has nothing to do with them needing anything necessarily, they would pay $250 to sit down and tell them what I have been through. They would pay for my time.
I don’t have anything negative to say about technology. What Instagram is doing for me right now, the way that it is connecting the world, a lot of these stylists I would never be able to meet in a million years because my life span is too short.
*Steph misunderstands Aaron and think he says “because my last name is too short” so I ask what that has to do with Instagram*
I am always under the assumption that I’m not going to live that long, it’s not morbid or anything like that, I am just very temporary. But I am also leaving a very lasting impression on my industry. Which is that the power to have your own vision that is completely unorthodox and have no plan can succeed. I think that has always been a very big appeal to people in general, is the idea to have no plan and seeing success.
The interesting thing about not having a plan and seeing it work out, is that starts to formulate your idea of what success is. Because to me, it wasn’t about money. Seeing Moto work out in the beginning was like, “Wow, the power of human interaction can literally physically carry me around the entire United States.” And now it’s carrying me around the world. I think technology and Instagram can do the same thing, it just depends on what your quest is.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
This is where conflicted comes in, a lot of people would externally look at me and think oh he has a lot to be proud of but I’m proud of like nothing that I do. The other day one of my clients wrote basically that the way that I decided to do things made it very possible for her to have a respectable scissor while she was practicing, making no money and barely able to pay rent. And now she is a legit stylist, she has all the best scissors and she is living a comfortable life. The tools were so important to have in the beginning.
That is actually what I am really proud of. I’m proud of any of the good that I’ve ever done, whether I know about it or not. Because a lot of it I really don’t know about.
You have traveled to some very unusual places, some involving quite a bit of risk. How did you choose these places and make the decision to go for it?
I alone didn’t have nearly the strength to go and travel the places I did like La Rinconada or the Rohingya crisis or the Karen genocide.
How did you even decide to go to those places?
When I first started my road trip [in my truck, selling scissors] I met this girl named Nicola, I thought she was the love of my life. We talked about all of our dreams. I was so crazy for this girl, Steph, she told me her dream in life was to have a bar that had a nursery in it. So people could be surrounded by nature.
*Steph has another miscommunication and was picturing a bar that welcomed babies*
I remember going to my notepad and hand drawing an 18 page business plan of her dream coming to reality, with phone numbers and how to get all of the registrations and capital and everything she needed to make it happen. When I gave it to her and she saw that someone listened to her dream and put so much of themselves, so much love into their dream… I realize now that is probably the scariest, freakiest thing you could do to someone you just met once. But I did that for her! And she ended up rejecting me and I felt so much pain. I did the greatest thing I could possibly do for her.
That prompted me to buy a ticket to go to the Olympics in London and use the Olympics as an excuse to meet up with her, even though she didn’t know I was coming. I was going to surprise her. It is a crazy story. You know that shit to follow your heart, that’s what it was, I thought if I didn’t do it I would forever regret it. I would have fully regretted it. I did go, and I never met her. Instead I got on a bus with a dude I didn’t know who asked if I wanted to go drink with him.
I wrote a message to her in an empty bottle of Jameson and cast it into a river. I hung out all night with this guy and then lost him so I figured the only thing left to do was go to KFC. A guy was there and asked for 50 hot wings, I thought it was really funny that he would even ask such an asshole question.
We started talking, and had a bunch of hot wings. His name is Chris Jeon, he literally explained to me that he at that time was one of Google’s youngest managers of his division and was using the position to go to London and talk to homeless people and get paid. He had this opportunity because he became really recognized all over the news for going over to Libya and joining the Libyan rebels to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The shit he had to go through was crazy, he was drugged with ketamine, was driving around in tanks, had to prove himself to the army by diving into shallow water head first, and he had to fight the Libyan general or whatever. All of this shit blew my mind.
I was like “Chris why did you do it?” And he said he did it because he wanted to have empathy.
I was like, “Woah.”
I understood empathy at a completely different level than he did. That is what inspired me to go to all of those places. I wondered if I had that kind of empathy. Or would I have a level of empathy where I didn’t care.
You mean to a point where empathy was bigger than fear?
When it was bigger than anything, willing to risk everything. The same way you see someone put their life savings on one roulette spin, he was doing the same thing with his life. It was so inspiring to me. So I went home and googled the shittiest places to go to ever. I found La Rinconada which is a little gold mining town in Peru, but nobody knows anything about it. All the articles that are written about it are shitty.
There’s no documented footage, there’s nothing. I am going to go to this place, find out what is going on, and be the first American person to work in a gold mine in a city where there is 30,000 people and no cops.
I talked to Chris about this and he was like “You know there is a possibility they will just shoot you and throw you in a mine and nobody will ever find you again.”
When I went up there I finally learned how to speak really good Spanish because it was important to my survival. There was even another language they spoke called Quechuas which was like ancient Incan language that I had to learn when I was up there. To answer your question short – it started with Chris showing me what true empathy was. It all started from me being reckless.
Once I knew that I could handle La Rinconada, I know that I could dive deeper into the reality of the world, basically. Once you go forward like that, you can never go backwards. It changes your whole perspective on everything. Any news that I ever hear about anything, I know how it really is and how to think about it. And how people on the ground level feel about it. That is sort of the general story of my life – trying to understand what is going on at the ground level. People see door to door sales as weakness, but really you are seeing the roots of the system.
You go to Rinconada and meet the people, you don’t just read what reporters have been paid to write online. You go and see for yourself. When I went to La Rinconada I thought a lot about who I was doing that for. I am pretty convinced that a lot of the things that I did, even the grand gesture for Nicola, were for myself, for sure. I wanted to prove to myself that I had that kind of empathy, or that I could love someone like that.
What is something that really matters to you?
That people can…that people can laugh about things. The way I mean that is this – I’ve been to some of the most bleak situations I’ve ever seen, but we can still laugh about things. It would be really sad if you took that away from all of the misery in this world.
F**k, I feel like that’s the most serious thing I’ve ever said in my entire life.