Li Ye's parents expected their son's crazy idea of opening an online barbecue store to flop. But the young businessman has become a millionaire and dreams of building his company into the KFC of the Chinese barbecue industry.
Born into a family of modest means in Yancheng City, Jiangsu Province, about a four-hour drive from Shanghai, Li enrolled in Shanghai Publishing and Printing College in 2005 to pursue a multimedia design major.
His parents moved to Shanghai in 2006 to look after him and run a small barbecue stall at the night market, selling skewers of meat and vegetables.
"My parents work their tails off to support the family. They could at most sell 1,000 yuan (163 U.S. dollars) of barbecued food every night, and they only made a profit of about 100 yuan from it," said the 30-year-old entrepreneur.
"My mother was diagnosed with knee arthritis after long hours of standing, and my father was diagnosed with hyperlipidemia after toiling at the grills every night for years. Now I can make enough money to support them financially, and I want them to enjoy stress-free retirement starting this year," he told Xinhua Tuesday in an interview.
BARBECUE STALL, ONLINE STORE
Li found his business inspiration in his parents' humble barbecue stall. Some college students organizing barbecue parties and eager to avoid exhausting preparation work used to come to the stall to order ready-to-cook barbecue.
When his parents received these orders in the amount of several hundred yuan or more, they were overjoyed. They did not need to cook the food, but could make a handsome profit from the sales.
Now Li can make as much money daily online as his parents earned each year at the market. The business revenue of Yesbbq (Yesbbq.taobao.com) surged to 8 million yuan last year from 2.8 million yuan in 2012. The company's profit margin remained stable at about 30 percent, three times higher than his parents' barbecue stall.
"My business is a combination of my family's barbecue tradition and my major in college," he said.
However, life was not so easy during the company's start-up phase. Li waited anxiously for more than three months to receive his first online order, in the amount of 278.5 yuan, after setting up the company in November 2008 on Taobao.com, China's e-commerce titan.
His parents and younger brother all helped at the family-run company, but it only registered a meager business revenue of about 200,000 yuan in 2009.
Li's parents objected to the hassle-free return policy and partial or even full refund service provided by the company in the beginning. But strict quality control, good service, sound corporate reputation and patience helped the young entrepreneur find career success.
"Reputation is the lifeline to online sellers, as your customers cannot see you face to face," Li said.
The company even promised to refund customers one yuan for every minute behind the scheduled delivery time.
Good customer service has retained thousands of customers for Li and helped Yesbbq grow into a company with 30 full-time employees, 40 part-time delivery workers and three delivery minivans.
The company's space in Yangpu District, about six miles from the Shanghai Bund, has also increased to more than 10,000 square feet from less than 800 square feet in 2008. The company's return rate has stayed as low as two percent.
"Now many Chinese people care more about having fun than having food. Some people living busy lives in metropolises like Shanghai love outdoor activities, so online barbecue stores are a sunrise industry, and e-commerce fever will help make it into a future darling," he said.
Total transactions on China's online retail market jumped 42.8 percent in 2013 from the previous year to 1.89 trillion yuan, figures from the China E-Commerce Research Center (CECRC) revealed. The Zhejiang-based CECRC last week predicted the market would expand to 2.79 trillion yuan this year.
Li values the potential of restaurant franchising, and Yesbbq now has branches in six other Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shenzhen.
He aims at building Yesbbq into a one-stop barbecue shop where customers can not only order skewers of meat and vegetables, but also buy charcoal, rent barbecue grills or even hire barbecue chefs for different events.
"Online customers have diverse needs. If a company can meet the needs of one in every 10,000 customers, it can be hugely successful," said Liang Chunxiao, an expert with the China Information Economics Society, a Beijing-based research institution.
"We strive to provide customers with whatever food and service they need for outdoor barbecue parties," said Li.
In November of last year, 13 of Yesbbq's barbecue chefs catered to 810 guests at a large outdoor party organized by a foreign company in Shanghai. Yesbbq now charges at least 100 yuan per hour for each barbecue chef, a new profit driver for the burgeoning business.
"With more and more foreigners coming to China, the barbecue market will further balloon," said the savvy businessman, who dreams of becoming China's Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the global fast food chain KFC.
He is already well on his way to achieving the lofty goal by standardizing the company's barbecued food, using skewers carrying the company logo, hiring a third-party food provider based in Shanghai to ensure timely food delivery during peak business season, and seeking strategic investors.
"No industry is better or worse than others. There is no role model in the online barbecue industry in China, and I have to rely on perseverance and creativity to blaze my own path," said the businessman.
(Xinhua correspondents Liu Weiwei and Zhang Yao contributed to this report.)