Saturday, June 13, 2009

BTO: Food central

Business Times - 13 Jun 2009

Food central

Singapore entrepreneurs are stepping on e-platforms to dish out global food ventures which hold as much business potential as they do delicious content. By Audrey Phoon

FOOD. If ever there was a tangible universal language, that would be it. From Henry Fielding's 18th-century ode to roast beef, to modern-day gastronomy festivals, food inspires and ignites passion the world over like no other life ingredient. No surprise then, that it has long been used as a platform by companies to build their business and consume global audiences in numbers that may never have been possible otherwise. Tyre brand Michelin was one of the first to do this when it launched its Red Guide in 1900, and other companies such as oil giant ExxonMobil later followed suit with similar publications.

Then came the age of mass air travel and the computer, and with it, cyberspace entrepreneurs who realised the potential of a similar review-style platform on the Internet with the addition of contributions from the man on the ground. 'The dramatic growth of new media has redefined how food enthusiasts access tasty content,' says Doug Collister, the executive president of Foodbuzz Inc, one of the World Wide Web's top food-and-dining websites and its third-largest. These days, there is a huge market for reality publishing internationally, he believes, and the Net allows his website to feed that demand by capturing the immediacy of diners' experiences, be it a memorable meal in a restaurant or a trip to a market.

Judging from Internet traffic measurement service Quantcast, Mr Collister's view is right on the money. In April, the service found that San Francisco-based Foodbuzz, which launched at the beginning of 2008 but only introduced a global platform in October, had doubled its number of food-blogging partners since going international. This boosted the website's reach to an average of 6.7 million people in more than 45 countries monthly, and subsequently helped it attract - at last count - over 1,600 publishing partners with the delivery of some 30 million advertisement views per month.

Hungry local entrepreneurs are beginning to ride on the same food truck too. Singapore-based Canadian Mario Hardy, for example, set up Map2Cafe three weeks ago with the intention of sharing information on coffee places around the world. It currently covers around 40 cafes in 10 countries.

Meanwhile, the founders of top local food-review website HungryGoWhere expanded their business into Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Melbourne last year. There are also plans to move into other 'major South-east Asian cities' such as Bangkok soon. 'We have shown that this is a viable model in Singapore and we would like to bring it to the countries around us,' says one of the website's three founders, Wong Hoong An.

The larger exposure - done via the use of freelancers, friends or foodie volunteers in the various countries with administrators in Singapore verifying content - increases audience numbers and thus boosts the potential of monetisation, say the websites. But it does not automatically equate to more revenue. For hits to be converted into dollars, the businesses have firstly to be active in generating user content, says Mr Hardy.

'As with any user-generated-content website, there's a risk because you may end up with no content if there are no users,' he says, adding that Map2Cafe has attracted about 3,000 people since it launched. 'It's all about the content, and until you've got significant content, you can't really start generating money.'

Then there's the issue of monetising the sites properly. Explains HungryGo-Where's Mr Wong: 'Basically, there are three methods to make money on the online market. One is subscription, which we don't believe in because the Internet is such a free world, and besides, that doesn't work all the time unless you have proprietary information. And there's online marketing and providing real-world services such as food delivery.'

The latter two methods are what HungryGoWhere employs to reach out to audiences. But it was a struggle at first as Internet advertising made up just one per cent of the local advertising pie when the site first launched. Wooing Chinese restaurants to advertise on HungryGo-Where proved especially difficult too, recalls Mr Wong. 'A lot of our early customers were Western restaurants and hotels; there were very few Chinese places because they did not understand the value of what we bring.'

Through sheer perserverance ('I liken us to a cockroach that refuses to get killed') and several strategic partnerships with telcos, credit card companies and search engines to promote the website, the company has managed to push up its revenue.

Even as such websites grow and gobble up whole regions in coverage, however, another platform seems to be making even greedier progress.

Rather than being Internet-based, buUuk is a free smartphone application (currently available to the iPhone and Android platforms) based in Singapore that launched at the end of last year and expanded into Indonesia and Malaysia in March as well as Hong Kong and Western Australia this week. It provides a location-based service that allows users to search for restaurants and bars based on where they are, plus upload reviews on the spot because it operates on real-time. But that's not the most significant offering the application is bringing to the table.

Says co-founder Jon Petersen: 'The way we see it, a number of things are changing. We are now in the age of the smartphone, the fastest-growing part of the mobile phone market, and people are with their phones 24/7 these days. Previously, there were guide books and the information provided was very good but it was provided with no intelligence, really. Now, using Internet technology, we can filter that information more usefully.'

This means consumers will no longer have to put up with the frustration of receiving messages that they do not need or want, he continues. 'With the enormous amounts of data that we get (the application has about 50,000 users already although not all of them are regular), we have the ability to send someone something when they are searching for it, and where they are searching for it.'

Although it's too early for the company to have generated any revenue 'worth mentioning', especially since it has expanded so quickly, buUuk's founders are confident their concept will work because 'the F&B industry suffers from a product that degrades over time'.

'We're here for the long haul,' says Mr Petersen, adding that his company aims to eventually get people to use buUuk 'as a habit'.

Taking things a step further


SEX toys are part of Rhonda Wong's family legacy. Her father, a trader of agar wood, started House of Condom, the first-ever sex shop in Singapore, so it seems only natural that his daughter would take it one luxurious step further. Prominently displayed in Rondavous, her new lingerie shop in Far East Plaza - the opening was attended by the likes of Taiwanese star Vanness Wu - are beautifully crafted sex toys in materials like platinum, gold and diamonds.

'Instead of giving his wife a diamond ring for their anniversary, he could give her one of these,' says the 24-year-old former financial trader in a matter-of-fact manner. The products can retail for up to $6,000. 'Paris Hilton has bought one of these,' she muses about a gold and diamond encrusted JimmyJane piece.

'I was inspired on a trip to Miami,' says Ms Wong. But it wasn't the bronzed hardbodies on South Beach that got her thinking.

'A lot of people here have stereoptypical perception of Miami, with all the beautiful actresses on TV shows,' says Ms Wong, who visited the city to attend a music festival. 'Actually, lots of old people who are around 50 to 70 years old, retired by the beach. A lot of couples lay out there naked or in bikinis, having a good time, just the two of them. I wanted to bring that culture here, couples who are in love and have been married for 20 years can still enjoy themselves.'

Ms Wong has the ideal background for her field, as sexual health and education was a key component to her upbringing. She says her sex education at school was 'not useful' and that she got her real education at home and during a stint at House of Condom when she was 21, which attuned her to the needs of couples.

'Being at House of Condom really helped, I really understand people who are 40 or 50,' she says. 'You wont believe how many stories I have heard about their problems in the bedroom and they ask how they can save their relationships. So we recommended products.'

Her father also encouraged communication and openness. She recounts a story when she was 12 and tearing up strips of condoms into individual packs; she 'didn't know what they were' but that it was a fun thing to do because the packs were 'colourful and cute.'

'My dad wants this whole lifestyle to be out in the open. A lot of stores are very hidden. That's where me and my dad are similar; we think that sex is part of everybody's life.'

However, she states that her father was highly conservative in the dating department, only allowing her and her sisters - who form the Hong Kong based Cantopop band 2R - to have boyfriends when they were 21. 'I think Singapore is a hub. We have a very diverse group of people in this country who are very open,' she says. 'Being sexy is not something you have to hide. Obviously a society must be run by rules, but how you live your own life, how you want to spend your time with your loved ones, that's up to you.'

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