Startup acquisitions are a mixed bag: sometimes the acquired product soars, other times it sinks due to neglect, shuffling of talent, or a misalignment of cultures, personalities, or goals.
HungryGoWhere, which SingTel acquired last year for $9.4 million, could certainly see its fortunes fade. The three co-founders have taken a more hands-off role at the site, leaving the day-to-day stuff to Matt Whittingham, CEO of inSing and HungryGoWhere.
Further, competition in the online food discovery space has intensified in the past two years, with Yelp, Burpple, 8 Days, and a cornucopia of other food directories battling for eyeballs among Singapore’s tiny 5.3 million population.
But Whittingham says that HungryGoWhere — and inSing for that matter — are here to stay. In fact, both are seeing growth across their properties.
HungryGoWhere is far from being neglected
|Where are the founders?|
|Dennis Goh is working within SingTel’s Group Digital Life division and is running its Australian Local Life operation, which includes Eatability, a food portal it acquired shortly after HungryGoWhere.
Wong Hoong An is the director of sales within STDM, and he continues to be responsible for developing advertising and marketing solutions for food and beverage merchants on HungryGoWhere.
Tan Yung Yih has left HungryGoWhere to pursue an MBA. He retains an advisory and consultative role at STDM.
Indeed, the numbers indicate that HungryGoWhere is a prized possession for SingTel Digital Media (STDM), the SingTel (SGX:Z74) subsidiary that runs both HungryGoWhere and inSing.
The food portal, covering Singapore and Malaysia, now has 7.1 million monthly pageviews in August, up from three million when it was acquired in May 2012. Since the acquisition, the site has been focusing a lot more on editorial content to boost traffic. It is able to do this by relying on STDM’s editorial team.
Comparing HungryGoWhere’s traffic with inSing, the company’s lifestyle portal with a respectable five million pageviews following a 20 percent year-on-year growth between August 2012 to August 2013, it’s clear that the food site now has the lion’s share of the viewership despite coming in from behind when it was bought.
Beyond the main website, the HungryGoWhere mobile app now has 600,000 downloads with 100,000 monthly active users across all platforms. Leveraging on SingTel’s phone business, the app comes preinstalled on all Samsung phones sold by the telco.
STDM has also been focusing on TableDB, HungryGoWhere’s instant restaurant reservation service, which has seen a 20 percent month-on-month growth in bookings from January to August this year. It has recruited a sales team and partnered with Reserveit.sg to combine its inventory of restaurants, which now exceeds 500 in Singapore.
While declining to reveal figures, Whittingham says that HungryGoWhere is now a profitable venture, in contrast to where it was right after acquisition.
A lot of it has to do with cost-cutting and efficiency. HungryGoWhere and inSing share an editorial team and are unifying their technology stack. They’re also leveraging on SingTel’s sales and marketing muscle through its rewards program and SMS marketing.
They’ve also developed restaurant reservations into a significant revenue stream, along with the packages that they offer to food advertisers on HungryGoWhere for perks like prominent listings, video and photo uploads, and customer response tools. The site doesn’t do paid reviews for fear of damaging the credibility of crowdsourced reviews, says Whittingham. And of course, there are display ads.
The future of restaurant reservations
Another accusation that’s often leveled against acquirers is their lack of innovation. But SingTel Digital Media is somewhat removed from the main SingTel body. While it still needs to file reports and hit KPIs (“we’re hitting them,” Whittinham declares), the team operates quite independently, both in a practical and literal sense: their office is an obscure part of Singapore, along a discreet avenue called Chang Charn Road.
So in this rather secretive location, tucked in an upper floor of a car showroom, what does the company have in store for HungryGoWhere’s future?
The answer, it turns out, is found in neighboring Malaysia, specifically, HungryGoWhere’s Malaysia site. The company is currently testing out a recommendations engine that can create a personalized list of restaurants catered to each visitor’s tastes. The technology, dubbed a “Pandora for restaurants”, is licensed from Nara Logics, a startup from the United States.
But this is just the start. Whittingham hopes that HungryGoWhere will eventually incorporate a social element, which can help a group of friends reach a consensus about which restaurants to go to, for example. It’s about reducing friction in the entire restaurant patronage process, and that benefits both consumers and restaurants. He says:
Facebook could be a common denominator. From there, we can understand your past check-ins and bookings. We can then look at the availability of a group of friends, and instantly see which of the 500 restaurants are available at a certain time. We could bring all these data together into a list of recommendations that suit a group’s profile.
Of course, analysing past behavior has limitations. After all, a group may decide that they want to try something new. Here, a couple of qualifier questions would be necessary to incorporate suggestions that are relevant to the occasion.
But HungryGoWhere wants to go beyond recommendations, and into providing a “one-stop solution” for users. Down the line, it could integrate taxi booking into the app. Who knows, it could achieve that through a partnership with a taxi company or even Uber, a private driver booking service that is expanding rapidly across Asia.
HungryGoWhere could be just a seed for a bigger plan
Beyond food, STDM is currently involved in the lifestyle, fashion, travel and entertainment verticals through inSing. Through partners, it has begun dabbling in e-commerce as well. But these verticals are just a portion of a much larger playing field.
While property and cars are fundamental industries that will stay in vogue, STDM has no plans to invest in these areas due to the presence of established players. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t looking elsewhere, says Whittingham.
In fact, the TableDB platform, which includes the frontend as well as the table management system for restaurants, could apply for adjacent businesses, like spas for example. Clinics are another possibility, and DocDoc is already trying to do it in Asia.
When asked about the possibilities of getting into those verticals, Whittingham says that he “wouldn’t say that we won’t do it.” However, he qualifies:
Restaurant reservation is new here. OpenTable has been going for ten years. We’ve been going for a year. We want to focus on getting it right. There’s still a little way to go in getting it to a world-class experience. Once that is done, then we’ll look at adjacent businesses.
(Edited by Steven Millward and Paul Bischoff)