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Vegetarian entrepreneur succeeds with Web site, guidebook

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- When he became a vegetarian 18 years ago, Lin Hung-jui never imagined his chosen lifestyle would eventually become his livelihood.

Then he founded the Web site Suiis (www.suiis.com) in 1997, and today, with the additions of a specialized online market, travel agency and local restaurant guidebook, it has evolved into Taiwan's most popular online source of information for vegetarians.

His latest project is the release of a new updated version of his pocket-sized Taiwan vegetarian restaurant guide, last published in 2006.

The 2006 third edition, which sold out all 15,000 copies printed online, was a remarkable success story, especially for a book that did not have a single picture. Volumes with sales of 10,000 copies in bookstores are generally considered best sellers in Taiwan.

It also clearly reflected the rapidly growing number of vegetarians in Taiwan and the increasing demand for information on vegetarian restaurants around the world, trends that Lin believes will push sales of the updated version to 20,000 or more after it is launched exclusively on his Web site later this month.

According to the Almanac of Food Consumption Survey in Taiwan 2008, vegetarians — using the broadest definition that includes individuals who eat vegetarian only at specific times — accounted for almost 10 percent, or 2.3 million, of the country's 23 million people.

This 10 percent will be the main target of the updated pocket-sized guide, which will sell for NT$150 (US$4.60) apiece and offer information on nearly 6,000 vegetarian restaurants compared to 5,000 in the third edition published three years ago. Just don't expect any frills — or pictures.

“It has been rejected by bookstores because it looks like those travel guides that are provided for free,” Lin says.

Although the information on vegetarian restaurants can also be found on the company's Web site, many vegans still like to get a hard copy of the 2-centimeter-thick, 300-page guidebook.

Lin, 40, started the Chinese vegetarian Web site in 1997 and combined two words — “vegetarian” and “easy” — to form its name. The words are symbolic of his personal beliefs and also inspired the philosophy underlying the business — making a vegetarian's life easier is the key to persuading more people to take part in the lifestyle.

In its first six years, Suiis featured a free restaurant search service to fulfill that mission, but the model failed to generate revenues for the site.

That changed when Lin launched an online market for vegetarians and the guidebook in 2003, and a travel agency offering vegetarian tours in 2004.

As the company has evolved, so has interest. Page views have grown to over 3 million a month — nearly tripling the one million page views per month three years ago — and membership has grown to 120,000, double the 60,000 members in 2005 and 40 times the site's mere 3,000 members in 2003.

Another trend driving the soaring numbers is the growing interest among those who are not strict vegetarians. Five years ago, 70 percent of the Web site's members were vegans, but 70 percent of its current members are less strict in their habits, a change that Lin is happy about.

“Just a few years ago, some people would just flee when they heard the word 'vegetarian.' But now people have started to feel that being a vegetarian can benefit both their health and the environment,” Lin says.

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 Vegetarian entrepreneur succeeds with Web site, guidebook 
Lin Hung-jui, founder of the Web site Suiis, holds a poster of his Web site. Suiis provides a range of online services for vegetarians including an online market, travel agency and restaurant guidebook. (Courtesy of Suiis)

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