Former Love Hotel Janitor Becomes Billionaire, Pandemic Recovery Spurs His Korea Travel Super App

IT HASAs the world reopens and industries from tourism to hotels rebound from the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Korean travel super app Yanolja reported strong first-quarter sales growth in its forthcoming first quarterly report. The report released last week also revealed founder Lee Soo-jin’s stake in the company, officially making the former janitor a billionaire.

Li, who turned 44 in February, is the CEO and the second largest shareholder with a 16.54% stake. His wife Park Chung Hyun and daughters Lee Ye Nim and Lee Ye Ra each own 5.18% of Yanolja. The largest shareholder is SoftBank Vision Fund 2, which bought a 25.23% stake last July for $1.7 billion, valuing Yanolia at $6.7 billion. With such an assessment Forbes estimates Lee and his family’s fortune 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, most recently, cloud computing software that helps hotels and travel companies digitize business processes. The company said that first-quarter revenue rose 19% year-on-year to 100.5 billion won ($80 million), while net profit fell slightly to 8.8 billion won from 9 billion won in the same period.

Yanolja makes most of its money by earning commissions from bookings and charging hotels and travel companies to advertise on its platform. In recent years, Yanolja has been expanding its cloud business, such as management systems that help hotels manage bookings and big data analytics that predict customer behavior. Cloud business revenue accounted for 20.5% of Yanolja’s total sales in the first quarter, compared to approximately 8.5% in calendar year 2021.

In its first-quarter report, the company said that face-to-face digital services have proliferated in the entertainment industry since the start of the pandemic. It is also noted that more hotels are using the software to reduce costs and improve efficiency during the pandemic.

In April, local media reported that Yanolja plans to list on the Nasdaq in the third quarter of this year. In addition to SoftBank, Yanolja’s other investors include Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, online travel giant, and SkyLake Investment, a Korean private equity firm led by former Samsung Electronics chief Chin Dae-jee.

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Like Kakao founder Kim Beom-su, who topped this year’s list of Korea’s richest people, Lee’s success is a rags-to-riches story. Orphaned as a child, Lee worked as a cleaner at love hotels…


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