Dixon Chan: Serving Enjoyment to the World
The team had been given the week off to exit the year, so Dixon Chan is the sole Burpper around in their crib today. “Our team’s average age is about twenty-six, twenty-seven, and they are hungry,” he tells me, no pun intended I assume. The weighing machine, which sits nearby, knows better. “Oh! Yeah that’s for them to weigh themselves!” he bellows. Burpple, a portmanteau for “Burp” and “People”, helps you decide where and what to eat, and has since become a pre-meal staple for many. He says four million people used its apps in 2015, double from two million in 2014. Now that it’s the pre-meal staple, it wants to progress down the funnel. “When they get to the restaurant, they’d need to order their food, they’d need to queue or wait, and they’d need to pay, and provide feedback,” he says. “We can launch services with partners along the entire dining experience.” To remain the trusty authority of where and what to eat means Burpple continually ensures the best recommendations are shown to users. One way it is doing that is through its tastemakers, an elite group of reviewers ‘promoted’ from its user ranks for their “domain knowledge and great reviews”. They function as thought leaders for the rest of us, instead of restaurants tooting their own horn. Burpple aims to have 50 to 100 tastemakers in each city it plans to roll out in. Unsurprisingly, a high percentage of photos are taken by females, and 70 per cent of its users are under the age of thirty-five. However, it is also making inroads into the above thirty-five demographic, people we assume are ‘too old’ to take food photos. The ‘too old’ people have grown by “five times”, Dixon tells me. In December, it raised US$6 million from investors including SPH Media Fund. “Obviously, partnering with the largest media company in Singapore is very helpful,” he says, as it offers the fledging firm inroads into print, events, radio stations, TV stations, as well as shopping malls. “The partnership extends quite deeply,” he adds. He quickly dismisses any notions of success. “After we raised our last round, a lot of people and friends started congratulating us,” he says. “The truth is this is difficult; don’t just believe nice, shiny articles you read.” He credits much of overcoming the difficulties to his team. “I’m very thankful I have a team that is super courageous and encouraging.” One of the key pivoting moments, he says, was finally discovering the true purpose of the company, which is to “help people enjoy their lives”, whether it’s helping you find a place for your first date, family reunion, anniversary, or business meeting, “Burpple is for you”.
YONG HUI YOW: How did Burpple come about?
DIXON CHAN: We launched our mobile app back in May 2012, but the initial ideation actually happened before that when I was in Silicon Valley with Elisha [Ong], who was my housemate there. I was there as part of the NUS Overseas College [NOC], and I took some classes at Stanford University. As a foreign student, I had two main problems: where and what to eat. I’m sure you experience this yourself when you dine out. The main question at the table is always, “What are you ordering?” We didn’t think the existing solutions were great. And being overseas, I also wanted to get a taste of home so I wanted to know where to get my Asian food!
YONG HUI: What did you do then?
DIXON: So we came up with the idea for Burpple. Elisha and I have a design background so while we were still in Silicon Valley, we went to pitch at the Plug and Play expo to some investors with a five-slide deck showcasing a mock-up. It wasn’t even a real app yet. Despite that, we got some early investor interest so we thought we might be on to something. When we came back to Singapore, we met Daniel [Hum], who was trying to solve a similar problem, and he became our Co-founder and CTO. Like a restaurant, you need the marketing person, the business person, and the chef. Daniel is our chef and he enables our technology. One month after our launch, we closed our seed round of around US$500,000 from Silicon Straits, Quest VC, and NRF. We don’t have big backgrounds; we just graduated, but what they saw was a team with the desire and passion. Right from the start, we made it very clear that we are a product company, and we focus on the value we can serve through our products. Our mission is to help people enjoy their lives – this is the essence of the company. Burpple helps you find a great place for your date, family reunion or anniversary.
YONG HUI: How is food discovery 3.0 different from 2.0?
DIXON: It has been almost ten years since the last innovation in the food reviews space, which was Yelp and HungryGoWhere, but no one has really innovated for the mobile, Instagram generation. Mobile technology has made photo-taking, writing, and sharing reviews so easier and prevalent. At the same time, accessing information on-demand has become the norm. Technology has also allowed us to make sense of all these data for our users to find the best places and recommendations easily. At Burpple, we're focused on building a trusted community, serving great recommendations, and making sure it's easy to use.
YONG HUI: How does one become a tastemaker on Burpple?
DIXON: Tastemakers are our elite users. These are ordinary people with a passion for food, and they recommend places to eat on Burpple. Most of them are not influencers in the usual sense, but after being on Burpple, many have built a following. What matters is: Do you write great reviews? Take great photos? Have domain knowledge? Write objective reviews? The best reviews are those which tell me why I should or should not be ordering a dish, and since we focus on the food itself, we get more objective opinions. We also have our own editors, but unlike a magazine, where editors dictate what people read, our editors are there to make sure our content and reviews best support our community’s needs. For magazines, people may also wonder if a review is paid or sponsored. On other platforms, usually, negative reviews are not regarding the food at all but on service, which skews the opinion. So what we do is bring together two ends of the spectrum – user reviews and curation to build a solid, trusted community for food discovery. But we are not just a publication putting out content; we are a technology company. To make sure we are always putting out the best recommendations and reviews, we use data. We are always looking to serve the most relevant results, and we have a data science team that helps us do that. Our product team is focused on the user experience and in making sure the app is super easy to use.
The enemy of this year is what worked last year – the last thing we want to do is to keep doing the same things.
YONG HUI: How many users do you have now?
DIXON: In total, four million people used Burpple in 2015, double from two million in 2014. We have about two million photo reviews, and every review has a photo, the location of the outlet, the title of the dish and a short description.
YONG HUI: How have you guys managed to market so effectively?
DIXON: We do not do paid marketing. What we focus on is actually helping people enjoy their lives. People are smart, especially in today’s world. When you see an advertisement on Facebook or a sponsored post, you hardly bother. But if you focus on the value you can add, what causes you champion, people will stick. One of the most effective ways we have done that is through our guides. Our editors curate guides on what people say into useful lists, for example, “16 value for money places to try” and so on – all based on what our users say. Our VP of marketing [Jayne] said we should put the entire guide in an email blast, and people just loved it. They resonate with the everyday Singaporean very well. They started screenshot-ing the email and now it’s a feature on our apps.
YONG HUI: Has appealing to Singapore’s local heritage helped in connecting?
DIXON: Yes, I think so. Burpple has always championed our local food heritage, and from our data, we see people sharing their favourite hawker fare. In fact, our official SG50 campaign was called Hawkerpedia, and we worked closely with local hawkers to share their stories, of which the top 50 were featured on burpple.com/hawkerpedia. Before we launched, we also made an infographic designed by an intern, Farkhan, called “How to order Kopi like a Pro” and it showcases the different styles of coffee in Singapore. It went viral and got picked up by Mr Brown and SGAG. It garnered about 10,000 likes, and we redirected the traffic to our pre-launch page. We had two thousand signups before we launched, and we didn’t plan for that; you cannot really plan for virality. I remember doing the press release myself, then we put them in pizza boxes, went to SPH [Singapore Press Holdings] and just started calling the journalists to come down. Some of them did.
I’m very thankful I have a team that is super courageous and encouraging.
YONG HUI: Are you concerned that reviews can be gamed by restaurants?
DIXON: If a user has an arrangement with a restaurant, I wouldn't know at all. That said, we have bloggers who use Burpple as one of their outreach channels because they know they are able to reach a bigger audience with us, which helps to grow their influence.
YONG HUI: Has SPH made a buyout offer yet?
DIXON: We remain focused on our mission, and we see our investors as partners. Obviously, partnering with the largest media company in Singapore is very helpful. SPH is not just strong in print, but they also have events, radio stations, TV stations, shopping malls, so the partnership extends quite deep.
YONG HUI: How’s working at Burpple like?
DIXON: We have a straight-shooting culture. If you think something is not good, just say it. We are also very realistic. We understand different people have different interests. We know people do get tired and have downtimes. Depending on the day or time, people have different levels of productivity. Designers for example, may have a productivity spurt only after 4pm. That’s their golden period – 4pm to 10pm. One of the things we have done is to make Mondays a “work from anywhere day” because we realised that people are sluggish on Mondays, and it takes a while for them to get going. They can choose to work from a client’s place, work with our users, or anywhere they wish. So I would say we are very open, and we value every person’s input. One thing I always remind them of is: the enemy of this year is what worked last year – the last thing we want to do is to keep doing the same things. I’m very thankful I have a team that is super courageous and encouraging. Our team’s average age is about 26, 27, and they are hungry. At Burpple, we have people who have come from a diverse range of places and industries – MNCs, law firms... our VP of Engineering [Akira] is from Japan who builds his own drones. We have Malaysians and Filipinos. We are a truly international team.
YONG HUI: Do they all love food?
DIXON: Yes. I will say that definitely helps, especially when you’re working in it!
YONG HUI: Are a big foodie yourself?
DIXON: Big foodie, yes, but I would not say I eat at fine dining restaurants. My favourite places are the ones I go back to with my family and friends, such as Imperial Treasure.
People previously thought taking photos of food is only for the young, but that's not true anymore.
YONG HUI: How does Burpple make money?
DIXON: Now that we have this demand from consumers, in the past year, we have seen rising interest from F&B businesses. F&B businesses are facing increasing competition, and the most painful things for them are rent and their workforce. They are looking for ways to market and reach more people at a lower cost as opposed to traditional advertising methods and giving out flyers. So the next natural thing for us to do is to connect businesses to our users. We launched a business product six months ago called Burpple for Business, and it allows them to showcase their views and the people who have visited their outlets. We want to help connect them. Burpple is also the start of the dining experience funnel. After they find a place to go to on Burpple, they may need to reserve a place. When they get to the restaurant, they’d need to order their food, queue or wait, pay, and finally provide feedback. We can launch services with partners along the entire dining experience.
YONG HUI: What other ways are you helping F&B outlets?
DIXON: Sometimes, when they ask, we give them a shout out on Facebook. We cover close to 99 per cent of all F&B outlets in Singapore, so people can surely find your business on Burpple. When someone says something great about you, we highlight them. Recently, we released our Top 100 for 2015, which we produced based on a bunch of parameters, and people found the list super useful.
YONG HUI: How has your personal life changed since Burpple got ‘serious’?
DIXON: It has not changed. When we raised our last round, a lot of people congratulated us. The truth is it is difficult. Don’t just believe nice, shiny articles about companies like Uber or Instagram. There are many companies that went through difficult patches before reaching somewhere. People only see the highs, but not the lows of the journey. I would credit us overcoming our lows to being mission-driven. It is not about our headcount or number of users. At the end of the day, it is about the value we are bringing to the table which drives us to stay focused.
At the start when you are small, the company does not need a CEO. You just need a team super-focused on the mission, launching great products, and knowing where to.
YONG HUI: What have you learned being CEO?
DIXON: Through this journey, I learned a lot, and am still learning. People say that if you want 20 years of experience in five years, do a start-up. At the start, there’s the euphoria, and then comes the question – how long are you going to do it for? Will you go anywhere? As you grow the team, will there be culture dilution? The one thing I learnt the most is building and leading a team. Without the team, the company would not exist. Behind the product, it’s a person, a family, a life. At the start when you are small, the company does not need a CEO. You just need a team super-focused on the mission, launching great products, and knowing where to go. As the company grows bigger, then there is a need. In fact, I did not use the title until earlier this year. The role is more for outsiders, as a point of contact, and for investor relations. My role is also to build a strong team, vision, and direction, and of course to execute towards that vision, meaning specifically, what features and products we’ll launch, what partners we work with, and what culture we have.
YONG HUI: Where is Burpple going in the next few years?
DIXON: We hope to be in five other cities, but before that, we will focus on Singapore and Malaysia first before going to the gourmet capitals in the region such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. Our model is very scalable; it’s like having four million writers instead of two or three.
YONG HUI: Why do you think that is the case?
DIXON: I think it’s because we have dominated the under 35 niche and it’s now spilling over to the other age groups. Usually, you find a niche first and once it reaches a certain level of adoption, it spills over. Eventually, they will show it to their colleagues and family, resulting in a wider and more diverse audience.
YONG HUI: Maybe they just don’t like [redacted] you think?
DIXON: [laughs] I think what’s most important is people like Burpple because we are doing something right.