Coleman Matthew: Success with online health supplements

In the vitamin and supplement business for more than three years, Coleman Matthew thought he’d about heard it all until a customer telephoned to ask whether it would be all right for her to take the arthritis medicine, Dog Gone Pain, she’d bought from his company for her dog.

“It’s worked so well for Rover, I wonder if I could take it?” Matthew recalled the woman asking. The dog supplement was 100 percent herbs, but what was he to say? There was only one response.

Not only is he not qualified to disseminate medical advice, but considering that his online vitamin and supplement business offers more than 11,000 different products, he can hardly keep up with what they all treat.

“My market isn’t my neighborhood but the U.S. and other parts of the world,” said Matthew, CEO of San Francisco-based Fubao Health, which launched in 2003. The name was suggested to him by his business partner, “Misha” Huang, and is a Chinese word related to “good fortune,” Matthew said.

And while it’s true that Fubao ships to customers as far away as Taiwan and Great Britain, his latest business venture has brought him to San Francisco’s Van Ness corridor near Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. With the help of a leasing specialist from nonprofit business-assistance group Urban Solutions, Matthew opened a store at 1428 Polk St., dubbing it City of Zen.

City of Zen customers can drop in to pick up their online orders. Those without Internet access can order from a computer kiosk in the lobby. But, there’s no browsing the aisles like there is at General Nutrition Centers Inc. Fubao’s warehouse shipping model is still the backbone of the operation.

With more than 10,000 products, display space at City of Zen would be prohibitively expensive, Matthew said. His business model is based on low overhead and offers discounts of as much as 30 percent to 40 percent below retail.

In the last year to 14 months, Matthew has seen his business nearly double its staff, most of whom are part-time students he hired through local nonprofit Enterprise High School.

“They’re fantastic,” he said.

Not only is City of Zen a retail space, its also Fubao’s warehouse and sales office, now consolidated for the first time, Matthew said. All the changes have had their challenges, to be sure, but Matthew doesn’t hesitate to say he hopes the company keeps growing.

Business

Latest project: City of Zen, the retail outlet in San Francisco

Number of e-mails a day: 25

Number of voice mails a day: 5

Essential Web site: Craigslist

Best perk of job: Flexible schedule

Favorite gadgets: Laptop Compaq Presario

Education: Community College of San Francisco

Last conference attended: Natural food convention in Las Vegas, May

First job: Sanding the bottoms of sail boats on Cape Cod

Original aspiration: Be successful

Career objective: Be successful

Personal

Age: 41

Hometown: Marshfield, Mass.

Sports/hobbies: Sailing in San Francisco Bay

Most used transportation: Muni

Favorite restaurant: Nara Sushi Restaurant

Favorite brand of computer: Custom made

Favorite vacation spot: Paris, France

Favorite clothier: Neiman Marcus

Role Model: Warren Buffett

Recently read book: Health supplement trade magazines

Worst fear: Dying too young

Daily motivation: Yee-haw, it’s a new day

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