Under the direction of Kooidea’s Andrew Huang, Weiwei Chou’s team successfully kicked off the first sales campaign for the Yoyusunsun brand of dried squid. From left to right: Jacky Chen, Weiwei Chou, Derrick Liu, Annie Sung. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Young and full of energy, college students are given to out-of-the-box thinking. Those years are a good time to found startups. Take the Yoyusunsun brand of dried squid products, launched by Weiwei Chou and a friend while they were at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. At first, they lacked marketing savvy, and sales were tepid. But after they were mentored by Andrew Huang of Kooidea and UnivProd, revenues took a sharp turn for the better, and the brand welcomed two large orders.
Early last year the cross-harbor bridge collapsed in the east-coast fishing port of Nanfang’ao. Although Weiwei Chou’s father, who had been making five or six trips across the bridge every day, escaped harm, tourists were afraid to come to Nanfang’ao and it became hard to move fresh fish hauls out of town. That made it tough on Chou’s father, a fish wholesaler, and his fisherman neighbors.
Into the black with sun-dried squid
To help his father and the fishermen, Chou began turning fresh squid into tasty dried squid. Even Chou’s good friend Derrick Liu, who tends to be leery of seafood, became a fan at first bite. Liu was eager to invest and became Chou’s chief financial backer. Processing squid isn’t difficult. The hard part is selling it. Andrew Huang, who teaches at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST), arranged for them to open a stall at the Hakka Pop-Up Creative Market in the Qsquare shopping mall, within the interconnected complex around the Taipei Bus Station and Taipei Main Station. Yet few in the surging crowds around the stations showed any interest in their dried squid.
Huang took some time out to make a visit. The students told him with pained expressions: “Professor, we only earned NT$800 today.” Each package of dried squid was priced at only NT$150. The branding was cool and the packaging well designed. Yet, despite working at the market all day, they managed to sell only six discounted packages.
To improve sales, Huang, who is skilled at narrative marketing, immediately asked the team members to put on clothes with NTUST’s logo. The arty posters came down, and the touching story of a college student selling dried squid on behalf of his father became the focus instead.
The new strategy proved effective, and Yoyusunsun’s sales rocketed, reaching as much as NT$25,000 in a single day. During the Lunar New Year holidays, it even attracted orders from Jay Chou’s recording company and Data Express, the largest retailer of Apple products in Taiwan.
Breaking the 3% creativity barrier
“Making good products that don’t sell is the most common problem facing graduate entrepreneurs,” says Huang, who has many years of experience mentoring startup teams. “Many colleges have set up incubators with strong ties to industry, but most students start idealistically, and there may be no market demand for their product.” Huang describes the situation as the “3% creativity obstacle.”
To overcome that obstacle by bringing more groundedness to students’ creativity, NTUST worked with 107 other universities and colleges, pooling NT$30 million in 2017 to establish the consultancy Kooidea. Kooidea’s online and offline transnational ecommerce business is called UnivProd, and, in addition to its web-based marketplace, it also has brick-and-mortar locations at Qsquare, Taipei’s Dihua Street, Banqiao’s Fuzhou public housing complex, and elsewhere. Students, small farmers and other social entrepreneurs can test the market’s waters by trying to sell their products at those outlets.
Alums support young entrepreneurs
“Built 120 years ago, this is among the older examples of architecture in Taiwan,” says Huang at UnivProd’s first brick-and-mortar store on Dihua Street, in a building that was home to the Zhuang Yifang trading house during the Japanese era. “Thanks to the support of NTUST alums, we can use it rent free for six years.” Huang often reminds students: “In principle it’s free, but we want to see what your ideals and goals are.” Only after gaining an understanding of the students’ entrepreneurial values can the instructors decide how best to help them.
“The teacher and student are taking the same journey.” Such is a core value of Kooidea. Whenever students embark on a plan, there will be an instructor at their side offering guidance to keep them on track. Whether shoppers compliment or nitpick, handling customers is a trial by fire that students must experience to survive in the “real world.”
As students work on the front lines, staffing the retail locations and interacting with customers face to face, they learn how to improve their products. “Don’t worry about people who criticize,” says Huang, sharing his own perspective on sales. “Criticism is good. Probably half of those who criticize will end up buying.”
Campuses doing good together
Around Mother’s Day last year, Professor Li Yan-ru of Aletheia University led students on a trip into the mountains of Taoyuan County. The team helped local indigenous people to pick contract-grown fruit and turn it into wine. The process of making wine from fresh peaches takes about three months. “The peaches of Fuxing Township bruise easily, so many delivery services refuse to ship them.” Li and his students braved the elements, rolling up their sleeves and standing side by side with the growers, employing processing techniques developed at Aletheia to help solve the farmers’ problems with logistics, production and sales. “Furthermore, we leveraged the power of the alumni of 108 universities and colleges to jointly carry out ‘goodwill marketing’ of fresh ‘May peaches’ from Fuxing. Educational institutions represent a community with substantial purchasing power, and the peaches sold very well.”
There are many moving stories like this involving students working in the public interest or on behalf of disadvantaged groups. Such experiences show the students that they are capable of making a difference, and also provide a way for colleges and universities to meet their social responsibilities.
“College students and faculty are passionate and especially caring.” Every time they put on a sales bazaar or a charity sale, the Dihua Street store is bustling. University employees and alumni have many connections, creating a large network of potential buyers. Huang laughs as he explains that whenever he mentions a sale to students in his executive MBA class, the business owners shoot up their hands, often placing orders for 300 or even 500 items. They are the best kind of customers.
Kooidea has leveraged and extended this power, bringing together college and university campuses all over Taiwan to form a socially conscious agricultural alliance. Each month different institutions select seasonal produce for a goodwill marketing campaign. In addition to providing a public service, the students gain experience with creative marketing.
As Kooidea brings together different educational institutions to support the public welfare, it is creating an ever-expanding “economy of goodwill” that is even extending beyond Taiwan. When a deadly landslide occurred at a garbage dump in Ethiopia in 2017, many Ethiopian students were studying at NTUST. In response, Kooidea joined hands with Oklao Specialty Coffee to purchase coffee beans directly from Ethiopian farmers under fair trade principles, matching Oklao’s processing techniques with Kooidea’s marketing and packaging. The revenues were returned directly to Ethiopian society.
Creating value chains with university brands
“Universities are good brands,” says Huang, discussing UnivProd. Many years of experience have taught him that consumers trust university brands. “People don’t think that universities would be unscrupulous with the products they offer.”
The original idea for Kooidea was to help student startups. No one expected that enthusiastic support from all quarters and links to government and industry would yield an impressive chain of value stretching from innovation to production and marketing. By combining students’ passion and creativity with academia’s R&D and technical knowhow, and then implementing Kooidea’s marketing strategies, this alliance of 108 schools has acquired global reach.
Kooidea has given students a platform to realize innovative ambitions, stirring their creative entrepreneurial spirit and showing society that universities are a force for good in today’s world—which after all is their very reason for existing.