Adili Maimaititure had only a small purpose in mind when he first opened an online store in 2012 to sell Xinjiang nut cake, informally called qiegao.
At the time, the sweet snack had become a subject of ridicule online after a dispute between a Uygur snack vendor and a customer prompted a fight that ended with the buyer having to pay 160,000 yuan ($26,000) in compensation for more than 2,720 kilograms of destroyed cakes. For many people, the story strengthened their impression of the snack as an unaffordable luxury.
“That was not the image of nut cake I had grown up with,” said Maimaititure, who at 24 years old is now the board chairman of the Hunan Mengxiangqihang E-commerce Co Ltd. “The cake is part of the sweetest memories of my childhood.”
Maimaititure, who was a junior student at Changsha University of Science and Technology in 2012, said correcting those public misconceptions about the traditional Uygur snack was part of the motive behind him agreeing to open an online store with two fellow students, Jiang Jinya and Jiang Chunyang.
Maimaititure’s father and grandfather were both vendors of the nut cake in his hometown in Shache county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and helping his father make and sell the snacks was a big part of his happy childhood memories, he said.
“Such misconceptions were all over the place. People made jokes about the cake whenever they could. It made me uncomfortable,” he recalled.
“I wanted people to know what nut cake is really like, to be able to taste it and have a real first impression of it, rather than to be afraid of the price,” he said.
The three budding businessmen first purchased cakes from Uygur vendors in Changsha and sold them on Taobao, China’s largest online shopping website.
“I found that the cakes they made were far from ideal, with barely any sweetness and few ingredients,” Maimaititure said.
He then decided to purchase raw materials from his hometown and make his own nut cakes in a rented house near his college campus. The finished product sells for about 50 yuan for a 500 g cake.
The business started by one Uygur and two Han students was covered in the local media in 2013 before gaining the attention of state media outlets, which proved a crucial element in the company’s success.
“The sales of our products online jumped each time after there was media coverage. Then there would be a mild slump,” Maimaititure said. The company’s highest daily sales volume reached more than 100,000 yuan after Xinhua News Agency published a story about its online store.
However, Maimaititure believes the quality of the product is the more important reason for the company’s success.
“Taobao is an open platform where potential buyers can see feedback from other consumers,” he said.
Maimaititure said the three partners have had to work through disagreements as part of the process of building their business.
“Food could be a problem at times because I can only eat Halal food. But they have done very well on most occasions,” he said.
“Mostly our differences are about how to properly use our resources, such as whether it is necessary to buy chairs or desks. I am always on the side of austerity,” he said.
“Sometimes we use the simplest way to work our differences out: Rock-paper-scissors,” he said.
Maimaititure’s “Plan B” for his future was to return to his hometown and his parents after college.
“My parents wanted me to go home. They always had a strong say in the decisions I made in my life,” he said.
However, the success of the business convinced him to stick to his e-commerce career, and he rejected a job offer from a road engineering company in Xinjiang.
The three also received support from their college and local authorities, who organized volunteers to help them at times and offered guidance on the production process and licensing of products.
The three registered their company and a trademark of their products in June, and also established cooperation with a food production company.
The company now has two units in Changsha, one production plant and the other in charge of the e-commerce business, and has a daily production capacity of five metric tons of nut cake. It registered a total sales volume of more than 20 million yuan in the JuneNovember period. It has also expanded its products from only nut cakes to include other agricultural products, such as dates and raisins.
“We are targeting total sales volume of 100 million in 2015, and a public listing in 10 years,” he said.
Despite his rapid e-commerce success, Maimaititure said his strong attachment to his hometown has never weakened, and he now has a larger mission in mind.
“The agricultural products of Xinjiang have long faced the problem of sluggish sales due to the lack of distribution channels,” he said.
“I want to help Xinjiang farmers get rich. The best way I can do that is through purchasing large amount of their products,”
Maimaititure said the three partners are aware that the support of Internet buyers is the key to their success in the e-commerce business, and giving back to the community is a motivation for their charity efforts, including a donation of nut cakes worth of more than 500,000 yuan to the victims of a magnitude-6.5 earthquake in Ludian county, Yunnan province, in Auguat.
Reflecting on the changes in his life in the past two years, Maimaititure said he has had difficulty adapting to his new role.
Two years ago, he said, he was living on a monthly allowance of 300 yuan and had to work several part-time jobs to pay for his tuition fees.
“Everything changes so fast,” he said.
“We had this opportunity when the nut cake became the center of attention, and that perhaps gave us the impetus to do the right thing.”
The cakes are baked under careful supervision at a production facility in Changsha. The online store registered a total sales volume of more than 20 million yuan in the June-November period.