Ask most people if they know of a dotcom success story and they will laugh out loud. Unless, of course, they were investors, in which case they may burst into tears. But among the broken dreams, lost fortunes and ruined careers there are dotcoms that survived the meltdown of the Internet economy without incinerating the bank accounts of their beleaguered investors. Contrary to popular belief, more than a few people are making money online in Hong Kong. Ironically, the dotcoms still around are not always the ones that shot up as new economy stars in a blaze of media attention. Many are small, relatively modest operations that found a niche and worked hard at mastering it. Take William Chow's company for example. An entrepreneur who ran restaurants on the mainland, Mr Chow decided two years ago to sell traditional Chinese soup in Hong Kong. Faced with the challenge of how to advertise and sell his product, he turned to the Internet and created chinesesoup.com. 'We decided to sell soup first and then decided to use the Internet to promote our product and do sales afterwards. I think that is why we have been successful. We really are a very traditional business.' he said. From his small, storefront kitchen in Sheung Wan, Mr Chow ships 1,000 silver flasks filled with hot soup to offices around Hong Kong every day, creating revenue in excess of HK$200,000 a week. It is not a king's ransom, but Mr Chow said the company turned a profit. It has also done what few others have managed by successfully conducting sales online in Hong Kong. 'A lot of people think they want to sell things on the Internet, but they don't have unique things to sell so they fail,' Mr Chow said. Also key to chinesesoup.com's success is that customers are not required to pay online. The soup is cash-on-demand. Mr Chow does not trust the Internet enough to give out his own credit card information online, so he does not expect his customers to do so either. 'If I made people pay by credit card on the site I would lose 75 per cent of my business,' he said. Another company defying the odds is asiaxpat.com. Started in Hong Kong three years ago by Paul Luciw, a Canadian who came to Asia as a physical education teacher, the site caters to wealthy expatriates by offering information on living in Asia and property listings. Mr Luciw's brother John also plays a key part as business development manager of the firm. The company's main source of revenue is advertising, with blue-chip clients such as Cathay Pacific Airways, Sun Hung Kai Properties, the moving company Santa Fe Transport International and a sizeable share of the serviced apartments in the SAR. 'My original idea was to provide an alternative way of advertising for the property market. We were profitable in six months - it was shocking,' Paul Luciw said. The site gets 70,000 unique visitors a month, and half its 11,000 registered users earn more than US$100,000. It was not much of an audience in terms of numbers, but having the attention of a well-heeled demographic had drawn the interest of advertisers, Mr Luciw said. The company employs seven people - two of them in Canada, where Mr Luciw says he can hire better Web developers cheaper than in Hong Kong - and does not have a dedicated sales staff. Trying to run a content-oriented Web site with so few employees would have been unthinkable two years ago, when other portals were hiring dozens or even hundreds of people, but the low cost ended up saving asiaxpat.com when other sites floundered. 'We have a revenue target of US$1 million per annum within the next two years. Based on our current growth, I think this is a realistic goal,' Mr Luciw said. The Web site is hosted offshore, but its business offices remain in Hong Kong. After failing to find a local Web hosting company with support staff who could speak English, Mr Luciw gave up in frustration and hired a company in Singapore. He said the problem was a sad statement on Hong Kong's claim to be a world-class city. In many ways, both companies are anything but dotcoms in their approach to business. Mr Chow and Mr Luciw said they shunned the whole new-economy scene of high-flying technopreneurs and venture capitalists that emerged three years ago. Instead, they stayed small, used basic business sense and ignored most of what industry pundits had to say. 'This company was not started to ride the dotcom wave. We came out with a realistic business model, realistic revenue targets and we have worked hard to achieve our goals . . . I probably could have projected billions in revenue and raised all sorts of money but where would I be if I did? We'd be dead right now,' Mr Luciw said. 'We were told by the PR companies that we had to go and have a big launch party in Lan Kwai Fong and spend HK$150,000 here and HK$100,000 there on promotions. I've been to meetings in offices where they had basketball hoops and pinball machines and thought, 'all this is going to have to end'.' And end it did. Last year, research firm Gartner predicted 85 per cent of Asian dotcoms would go bankrupt or be taken over by 2004. SAR Government statistics show that an average of two technology companies failed every week last year, many of them dotcoms. Among the high-profile casualties were online retailers adMart and Chinese Books Cyberstore. Numerous other Web site operators slashed staff, including nextmedia.com, Tom.com, Hongkong .com and renren.com. In the last six months of 2000, about 1,500 people working for Internet companies lost their jobs. Some of the better-known Internet companies that survived the crash said they did so by not getting caught up in the dotcom frenzy in the first place. 'You never saw us advertising on a bus or with a big booth at a show and we were criticised at the time for not doing that. People thought we were being overtaken and outspent by our competitors and that we would be overrun,' Outblaze chief executive Yat Siu said. After starting out selling advertising on Web sites, Outblaze has branched out into offering technical and consulting services to other companies. Less than 1 per cent of the company's business comes from Hong Kong, with most being in the United States where there is a more established Internet economy - and more companies with enough revenue coming in to pay for help. Outblaze is privately held and does not officially comment on its financial performance, but well-placed sources said that it had been 'self sufficient' for some time and expected to be profitable in the coming months. At online investment firm Boom .com, managing director Mark Duff said that if his five-year-old company was not considered a success story then it should be, just based on its longevity. 'We shot out of the Internet revolution like a rocket, and we have survived the 1997 market crash, a realigning tech wreck in 2000, a global recession, and the US September 11th tragedy thus far. We don't want to stop now,' he said. Mr Duff said Boom (the company, like others, has considered dropping the .com from its name to escape the dotcom stigma) is the leading provider globally for international discount trading. After a painful round of cutbacks in December that was rumoured to have seen about half the company's 58 workers laid off, Mr Duff said Boom was financially healthy. He would not comment on whether that meant turning a profit, but said there would be no requirement for further investment from his financial backers. Meanwhile, even large 'bricks and mortar' companies such as financial institutions are still quietly developing their Internet operations. Hong Kong-based trade promotion firm Global Sources launched its Web site in late 1995, the same year Yahoo! went live. Chief operating officer Craig Pepples said even after seven years of business online, he expects the Internet to continue to grow in importance as a business tool. 'We recognise that no single medium can meet the information needs of every buyer all the time,' Mr Pepples said. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Internet companies in the wake of the crash is public relations. Outblaze, Boom, Global Sources and practically every other company with an Internet presence in Hong Kong has to endure the bad publicity of continuing death-watch discussions on community Web sites such as icered .com, where rumours of their pending demise are regular fare. Mr Siu said the continued hostile environment surrounding dotcoms was undeserved, given the Internet was growing in maturity and popularity. 'Even though the Internet economy has collapsed, there are more people than ever going online. All the people who say, 'ah, the Internet can go to hell', should consider where their lives would be without e-mail,' he said. And that, one would expect, would be nothing to laugh out loud about.