Isabel Sim is an unpretentious lady who loves dogs.
Sitting comfortably at her office in Ubi, accompanied by her poodle, she talks to Epoch Times about the challenges she faces starting her food company – Hi Trading Supplies.
The 23-year-old graduated from University of Melbourne two years ago. With a degree in Finance and Management, she had worked in a bank for three months as a temporary administrative staff, but doubted whether that was the path she would follow.
“I just could not deal with the daily routine. As a person who appreciate changes from time to time, an office job really would not be ideal for me,” she says.
Then, a golden chance came by.
Her cousin was given the opportunity to work with Dongwon, one of the biggest F&B conglomerates in Korea, through a business associate.
And coincidentally, Isabel was studying Korean language at Seoul’s Yonsei University at that time. She told her cousin Dongwon is a well-known brand in Korea and a quality brand worth bringing to the Singapore market.
After much planning and discussion with their Korean counterparts, Isabel and her cousin started Hi Trading Supplies. Although Dongwon has more than 400 products in their catalogue, the cousins decide to focus on its most popular products – Yangban Seaweed and the canned tuna which dominate the South Korean market. They are also importing beverages such as aloe vera juice, and instant porridges.
“Our mindset was really simple: we just want more people to know about such good quality products,” she says. “I like the way Dongwon does their business.” According to Isabel, Dongwon F&B is putting continuous efforts in R&D to develop innovative, safe and healthy products for consumers.
She adds, “Offering an alternative healthier option for our consumers is what we aim to do.”
Seaweeds are excellent at regulating and purifying our blood and are high in calcium – 10 times more calcium than milk and eight times as much as beef. Seaweed is also high in nutrients and is beneficial for digestive health, and contributes to cholesterol-lowering as well as weight loss.
“Seaweed is embedded in the Korean culture. They eat it as a daily snack or side dish together with their meals. This is because seaweed has a lot of health benefits. But in Singapore, we only eat it as a snack occasionally, and some of them with lots of flavouring. We hope to be able to promote and educate more people about the benefits of seaweed and to let them know that you can snack healthily,” she explains.
“Registering the company is easy, but starting business is not,” she reveals. One of the major challenges they are facing is listing their products in major supermarkets, which involves a lot of listing and advertising fees as well as paperwork.
Through much hard work, Isabel managed to get their products listed in Sheng Siong Supermarket, Prime Supermarket, NTUC FairPrice Finest, and online platforms like Qoo10, Redmart, Rakuten and Gobuylah.
An only child, Isabel was brought up in a single parent family. Her mother was always busy working overseas and she grew up with her aunt. Her experience of living alone and studying abroad all by herself contributed to her independent and courageous personality.
She points out, “Being an entrepreneur means you must be able to accept failure. Don’t be afraid to start your own business because it is really a very good experience for you to learn.”
Editor’s note: 寰喟 (Annyeong) means Hi in Korean.
How is business?
We registered Hi Trading Supplies last year, but actual operations started in late July this year.
I would say slow, but picking up. It is just that in Korean culture, they eat seaweed all the time: it is their snack, it is part of their side dish – anything, basically. But in Singapore, [we] don’t seem to take seaweed so seriously. We are just not (so) open to the seaweed culture.
There is a lot of room for improvement.
Does it take a lot of courage to start your own business?
Definitely, because you will see that the amount of time you put in and the amount of money is a lot compared to doing a normal admin job with your degree – a stable income and a fixed time that you need to put in. [When] you start your own business, it just constantly comes to your head what you can do to make things better.
It is day and night and at the moment, we don’t really draw any salary from the company yet. [We] are more focused on growing our sales, then maybe we will adjust the bonus and [more].
What are the challenges you face in selling these products to various platforms?
Being an entrepreneur means you must be able to accept failure. Don’t be afraid to start your own business because it is really a very good experience for you to learn.
– Isabel Sim
Initially, we thought that it won’t be that hard as Dongwon is so established in Korea. They are listed in the stock exchange for more than US$300 (S$427) per share. We printed a lot of articles about all these products from the Internet.
It is very easy to see how well these products are selling in Korea, and how good they are, but we really need to get the trust from our local consumers. It is hard due to different consumer behaviours.
People are not willing to pay extra for imported canned tuna when they are already comfortable with our Ayam brand. We welcome any kind of feedback. As some people aren’t used to the taste – for instance, some people think that it is a bit salty – we have to adjust to our consumers in Singapore.
Secondly, when you are a small and new company, it is harder to deal with people outside. They will be thinking: “You have to prove to me that your products are good. And what makes you think that it will sell?”
Our first few months are basically on consignment. So if you sell, you will earn from it. It was quite hectic for the first three months, and we had to deal with a lot of buyers who weren’t very responsible. But we can’t offend them because they are our customers.
Things might not fall into place when you think they would. For example, even though we got approval to list our products at one of the supermarkets, there are a lot of levels that we had to go through since it is a [company with a lot of red tape]. One email circulation might take around four weeks.
For us, we really need the volume and the sales quickly. Sometimes, going through these administrative work and emails might take up a lot of time, and time is money.
In addition, I realise that there are many regulations that we aren’t familiar with. But at the end of the day, we learned. A lot of research has to be done.
When we imported the beef jerky from Dongwon, we thought that since the beef was from Australia, it would be approved. But because the processing part was in Korea, we couldn’t get the approval from AVA (Agri-food and Veterinary Authority Singapore).
Is it expensive showcasing your products in supermarkets?
Definitely, because they charge per product, per outlet. And if the weight difference is more than a certain amount, it is considered a new product and it is additional cost. Imagine listing all our products in some major supermarket, per outlet – it is a lot of money.
We didn’t actually choose to list in all outlets, though. To think of it another way, it is more manageable for us at the moment as we are still new.
In the meantime, I still think that it is affordable and practical enough for us to start with these numbers.
Are your parents supportive?
Pretty much. My mum is very supportive. She would buy a couple of cartons and give them out to people around her as a form of marketing for us.
She did give me an option to start this. If this thing doesn’t work well, she doesn’t mind if I have to take a step back and do other things all over again.
She thinks: as long as you know what you are doing and you are happy with it.
What are the most important qualities you must possess to be a successful businessperson?
I think you have to make a lot of sacrifices, your quality time, your resting time, whatever time that you have. First, you really have to think of a backup plan. You can’t assume that things will go your way, because they hardly do.
Also, give yourself more space, more places to fall. If anything happens, you don’t have to be too hard, too harsh on yourself when things [don’t fall in place].
Last year, my cousin and I went to meet our Korean counterpart, and they offered us this opportunity and we wanted to make it happen. Due to various reasons, shipments and the purchase order took longer than expected.
This is what happens when you have food products. You can only sell when they come in.
Any advice to those who want to start their own business?
Don’t be afraid to try because it is really a very good experience for you to learn. You would assume that a lot of things happen in a certain way, but until you actually get to touch it yourself, you will actually realise that it doesn’t seem to flow as easily as you think.
You just supply and you sell them for a profit; it seems simple, but you have to go through a lot of applications and approvals. But [that] said, you’d never know if you never try?
Did you need to come out with a business strategy? Or did you proceed without one?
We did plan strategic stuff when we began, but none of it actually went accordingly to plan. So I think it is better to play (by ear) along the way.
What is your next step?
To try again, and again. To list to some of our existing customers who are getting a little tired of trying to sell our products. Especially the supermarkets, we have a few supermarkets which we want to list our products in.
Hopefully, the current ones can improve and affect consumer behaviour, so people will start buying our stuff.
Do you intend to do advertising?
Yes, we do, but not through TV advertising. The best way to reach out to foodies is through food fairs.
We set up booths in food fairs. This is our advertising cost. We are directly facing our audiences at the food fair. I think it is a very good platform to introduce ourselves, instead of advertising on TV or newspapers where you might not reach your target audience.