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House of Dumplings: Taking on the world, one dumpling at a time

Learn how successful entrepreneur Vicky Ha grew her food business from scratch — and about the ups and downs since launching in 2012 at a Wellington food market.

Given you can find her products in markets, restaurants, supermarkets and cooking schools, it’s surprising House of Dumplings founder Vicky Ha never aimed to be in business.

“I started by making some dumplings for my chef friends, and they found them delicious. They convinced me I should turn commercial,” Ha says.

Ha’s market research entailed a 17-hour day making dumplings by hand, then setting up her bike-come-foodstall at Wellington’s harbourside markets the next day.

“I went to the markets and sold out within two hours. I was happy that anyone was buying anything,” she says.

Confident people would buy her products, Ha became a regular fixture at weekend markets while working full-time in hospitality.

“Eventually I left my job because I couldn’t bear it any more. I was working 17-18 hours a day and making dumplings at night — and that was wrong,” she says. “It came to a point where I couldn’t make everything by myself and I needed helpers. I started from there.

“It’s a very, very tough journey. I did it the safest way though — without taking on any debt or borrowing a single dollar. I work in a very sustainable way.”

"If you don't have a 'can-do' attitude, you may as well go and work for someone else — it's easier that way," says Vicky Ha.

"If you don't have a 'can-do' attitude, you may as well go and work for someone else — it's easier that way," says Vicky Ha.

The right mentality

“Business is really, really overwhelming, especially when you try to make a living from it and pay everyone and do the right thing. It’s very, very difficult,” she says.

“[You have to ask yourself] are you willing to clean the toilets, fix the website, pay the bills and get on the floor and scrub stuff, clean up stuff, deal with customers, deal with stress?

“The way I work is, if I see a problem I try to solve it. That’s the basics of running a business. We [business owners] are nothing amazing apart from the fact that we’re problem-solvers.

“Opening my first shop was a real learning experience. After three months I closed it down. The rent was too high. Sales were OK, but the rents were too high so I moved on and now I’ve got this shop, which is working better.”

Ha’s biggest issue isn’t finding customers, dealing with food safety permits or marketing. It’s finding and retaining good, reliable staff.

“For me, getting employees is just a supply and demand thing. I need help, so I get it,” she says.

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“Staff takes up 70% of my time. They’re human beings and individuals. Some don’t work out and leave, for whatever reason. When that happens you have to drop everything you’re doing, find someone else and train him or her. It stops everything.”

Being an employer is like being a psychologist, she says. “If they’re not doing well, you have to help them so the business can function well. If you can’t, you have to get rid of them.”

Employment agreements

One resource Ha has found useful is Business.govt.nz’s Employment Agreement Builder (external link)  tool.

“I don’t agree with going to lawyers to spend money on contracts. Employment Agreements are online, and they’re ready to go. You just build your contract, put your logo on it and print it out. It’s really, really easy,” she says.

“The online tool does a great job of showing what your rights are and what your employee’s rights are. Being a good employer and having agreements in place is about being an open book and everyone knowing what they’re dealing with.”

Having learned through trial and error, she now chooses employees by their personality type, not their skills.

“You can build on experience and skills, but personality and attitude is number one. To me, a CV means nothing in hospitality. You can have an amazing CV with great experience, but I need to see people in face-to-face settings to see if it’ll work out or not.”

Maturing the business

Another thing Ha says she’s learned to do is to concentrate on those aspects of her business she enjoys — and pay others to do the jobs she doesn’t like or isn’t good at.

"I enjoy coming up with new ideas and marketing and doing fun things. I’m a creative person. You need to figure out what kind of person you are, find your weaknesses and then try to work on them,” she says.

"I hate numbers and stuff, and I now pay for an online payroll service. They do everything for me. I'm not an accountant. I want people to do that for me without it costing too much.

"You pay for convenience, but some things are worth it...I'm slowly getting more people to flog off my jobs to. Paperwork is really boring to me."

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Ha’s advice to those about to start a business

Getting a mentor is invaluable, she says.

"I got a mentor from Business Mentors (external link) . There’s a membership fee you pay and then you get a mentor for the rest of your business life. I needed someone solid to look after me and my mentor is pretty much my psychiatrist...I needed to know my business was healthy and have someone to talk to," she says.

"Everyone should have a mentor. It’s just good to have somebody to look after you from a bigger angle," says Vicky Ha.

"Everyone should have a mentor. It’s just good to have somebody to look after you from a bigger angle," says Vicky Ha.