Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Mother of three turns fish maven

BUSINESS MODEL Who says that a 30-something housewife can't handle her responsibilities to her family and also run a thriving online food business?

By Joyce Huang  /  STAFF REPORTER

Lu Su-feng makes good use of the Internet by selling a variety of food products containing milkfish.

PHOTO: SEAN CHAO, TAIPEI TIMES

Taking advantage of the Internet to help her pursue an unorthodox business idea, 35-year-old homemaker Lu Su-feng (盧淑芬) seven months ago started sharing with others her love for one of Tainan's most well-known food products -- milkfish (虱目魚) -- through the nation's first online milkfish purveyor.

Milkfish is an important aquaculture product for people in the southern part of the country. Pronounced sabahi in Hoklo (more commonly known as Taiwanese), the fish is the centerpiece of many a traditional meal in Lu's hometown of Tainan.

"However, using milkfish to make all kinds of milkfish-flavored dishes -- including hamburgers, sausages, hot dogs and even popsicles -- subverts tradition," Lu said.

"I love challenges and I enjoy subverting tradition," Lu said, discussing her business orientation as a woman entrepreneur.

In her eyes, there's no dish that can't be made with milkfish.

She established her online business -- www.sabafish.com -- last December with working capital of some NT$300,000.

Now, with the Mid-Autumn Festival drawing closer, Lu said that she plans to introduce the nation's first-ever milkfish-flavored moon cakes to the market next month. She believes that the product will expand people's ideas about milk-fish and broaden their taste for novelty food.

This entrepreneur can go on practically forever about how amazing milkfish is. But before she went into business, she didn't seem to match the stereotype of an online entrepreneur.

"I was a computer idiot. I knew homestyle cooking," Lu said.

She didn't know how to use a computer and had no work experience outside the home, so she's leaned heavily on professionals in various fields. "I hire all kinds of help -- accountants, Web site designers, frozen-food professionals and dieticians -- to help me facilitate my unusual ideas about milkfish," she said.

Lu has monthly revenues of about NT$100,000.

She now surfs the Internet frequently, but more importantly, she has found producers of frozen food in the southern part of the country who don't mind that her business is on the small side so far.

"They told me that all food processors started small, which gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my business," Lu said.

"I feel that I've found a business model that is tailor-made for me," she said.

Online or telephone orders are delivered within two days. The flexibility of Lu's business model not only allows her to take good care of her three children, but also helps her make money in her spare time.

The only chore that takes up a lot of Lu's time is building customer relationships -- sending many hand-written letters to ask customers their opinions on her products, which she does because online transactions provide no face-to-face contact between the buyer and the seller.

Indeed, all Internet businesses face difficulties connecting with customers, according to Lillian Chang (張庭庭), secretary-general of the Taiwan Small Office/Home Office Association (SOHO).

Often, business operators have no way of knowing whether customers are satisfied with their products or services, so new approaches to this problem are necessary, Chang said.

But by the same token, online businesses have advantages over their conventional counterparts because they pay less for space and can use the Internet for promotion, Chang said.

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