Digital Senior is privileged to feature Mr Wong Hoong An who co-founded Hungrygowhere, a popular food website in Singapore with approximately 1.1million users and is currently director of sales for Singtel Digital Media. In this article, Hoong An will take us through the journey of Hungrygowhere from its humble beginnings and share some of the strategies he used to grow Hungrygowhere. If you are considering whether entrepreneurship is your thing or struggling to find a good business idea, derive inspiration from Hoong An as he reveals why he chose to go this route and the thought process behind it. For budding entrepreneurs, read on to find out what is the best path to take to realize your dreams from someone who has been there done that.
Ted: Hungrygowhere started in 2006 and was acquired by Singtel in 2012, it took many years for Hungrygowhere to get to where it is today. How were those years like? Was it smooth sailing?
Hoong An: No, not at all. It took us two years to reach the tipping point. So the first two years was very tough. I wasn’t kidding when I said our first year revenue was 4k dollars, so it translates to about 2 bucks a day for the 3 founders. It’s really pathetic. And note that its revenue, not profit since we hired a staff as well.
I think this journey, especially the first 2 years of any entrepreneurship journey will teach you a lot about yourself . It will teach you about what you are really made of. It differentiates the starters from the quiters. We were not the first movers in the market, there were players before us and there were players after us. But we were the ones that just stuck it out longer. That’s the key difference.
Ted: How did you get started? Did you start by approaching users first or businesses?
Hoong An: You need to get traction, and users are the most important thing. If you have no users, you have no business. In the the first two years, we spent a lot of time in driving users and traffic.
Ted: There’s a lot of competition in the internet, and anyone can start a website. So how do you manage to get attention to hungrygowhere?
Hoong An: The one thing we did was a lot of media interviews. When we first came out, people thought that we were nuts to do this. That gave us the initial coverage but it didnt give us a lot of hits. Though they find it interesting, they forgot about it after putting down the newspaper. Having a bit of media coverage will help you for one or two weeks but if your product has no traction, it is pointless, so you have to wait for the tipping point and the tipping point is unfortunately the point that nobody knows. For every business, there’s a different tipping point. You don’t know where the tipping point is but if you are not there when the tipping point happens, then you will not succeed. So that’s why you keep trying, you try,try,try.. and hopefully one day you hit the tipping point. And once again, how long does the tipping point last? Whether its one year, two years, 3 years depends on the divine favour and chance.
Ted: Can you share with us specific strategies that you use in gaining traffic to your website?
Hoong An: There were 2 things. First, by looking like a sad case, people took pity on us, “okay lah let me check your products, let me try it.” The second thing is that we rewarded our users , we used to have this thing called the 100 dollar weekly prize which came out from our pocket. At that time we were broke, and we gave out willingly every single week to the best reviewers. Singaporeans love lucky draw. The most important thing is that they love to be profiled. Bloggers use this as a platform to promote their blog. This was in 2006/07 when there weren’t a million bloggers in Singapore yet.
The Miracle of Hungrygowhere
Ted: It took 2 years for you to reach the tipping point. What exactly happened that changed everything?
Hoong An: The tipping point occurred, when one day after 2 yrs, all the founders ran out of savings. And one of them wanted to get married which is a bad idea when you don’t have income. Not only do we have no income, we had negative income. We were still pumping in money and had no investors.
That day, we had an ultimatum . We call it project Armageddon. We have to make it work or go home. And at that point, we just sat down together and in 30 minutes, we came up with a new idea, a new strategy to promote and monetize the business. That was a crucial moment because the next day, we pitched the idea to F&B Clients and they all signed up right away. From that day onwards, we became profitable.
Ted: So it’s like a miracle.
Hoong An: Yeah, it’s like a miracle. Actually, if you look at the life of Hungrygowhere, everything is a miracle. In life, there are smart people and there are lucky people. You want to be the lucky person, you don’t want to be the smart guy. Intelligence will only get you to a certain point, but wisdom will bring you the rest of the way. And that part sometimes is hard to differentiate because intelligence will make you do the most logical thing, but wisdom will give you the right thing. So we can analyze, analyze and write a lot of business plans but when it comes to execution, sometime a bit of divine favor will always help to make a difference. That’s what I really believe.
Ted: Have you encountered failures?
Hoong An: All the time. I encounter failures everyday. Im in the sales line, Rejection is normal. I started my career as a door to door salesman when I was 17. that’s probably the toughest thing that I have ever done, even up to today. If you think doing a startup is tough, go and try doing door to door sales. The aunties slam the doors at you, threaten to call the police, and let the dogs out. You can see anything that you can see. I was the top performing door to door salesman in the team, not because I think that Im great at selling, but because its a numbers game. If I knock at 30 doors, 2 people will take mercy on me, 28 will spit at me, but there’s the two. When you are 17 and you get 3-4k a month, its pretty good money. So, thats how it all starts, you start by training your resilience.
Ted: You did the same for Hungrygowhere ?
Hoong An: Of course. I meet them(prospective clients) all the time. And there are people who said: why do you bother to meet with me? The reality is that, I never know. There might be an opportunity that I might close something there, I’ve closed deals with hawker stalls that have paid 8000 dollars marketing bills. You know how many plates of char kway teow they have to sell to break even?
End of day, you never try, you never know. People will say that this uncle can’t afford it and he doesn’t know social media, but if you don’t try, you don’t get anything. Zero
Ted: How do you then motivate yourself to keep going in spite of rejection?
Hoong An: A salesperson must always live in a world of their own, they cannot see the circumstances. The moment they listen to rejections, it will hit them mentally. Im a human being, I have emotions. I may seem like I have a lot of confidence now, but every day, I get rejected. It doesn’t mean that if you are the founder of Hungrygowhere, people will just write cheques to you. I still get loads of rejection, customers still yell at me. it hasn’t changed.
But you must snap out of it really quickly. That’s the other thing that I realize about really successful people, which is that they have a very short term memory, very short term. So they don’t remember their last failure, they don’t remember their last mistake, they only remember what they are going to do today. “Today im going to hit 4 customers, and im gonna try to close one” thats all they remember. They never laud on their success. When they close a deal, they feel the euphoria and use it to fuel the next day, it just keeps going.
Why Entrepreneurship and Why Hungrygowhere ?
Ted: Before hungrygowhere you were the head of strategy of a listed company with a comfortable salary, why did you go into entrepreneurship ?
Hoong An: Since I was young, 9 years old, I wanted to join the bank, because I thought that the bank pays the most money. Im driven by a huge dollar sign , its no secret.
I want to be a banker but I never made it because I can’t study. Unfortunately, I don’t have the smart genes, I failed my CFA three times. So no banks will hire someone without education. The only available work for me was in I.T. Fortunately I was able to find a home for 5 years. Subsequently I was told that the real people who really makes money are those who start their companies, and I thought thats true. Bankers make money because they take 1percent or 2 percent of the successful IPO, whereas if you start a company and you do well, you take 60 percent , 70 percent of equity, so it’s a whole lot better. So I thought why not? I have nothing to lose, and the worst case scenario is that I just go back to work. I have a strong resume, I can always go back to work.
Ted: Then why do hungrygowhere were not something else?
Hoong An: Okay the original plan was one of those crazy ideas, where we quit our jobs, move to Bangkok and write a guide book there and live a crazy party lifestyle. One of them got married and that was the end of that, it didn’t happen. So the next thing that we talked about, given that we have smart guys in the team, is that we start a tuition center, which is highly lucrative. But the problem with tuition center business is that it is capital intensive. You need the rental fees, marketing expenses and tutors’ salaries. After we pulled our limited capital together , we felt that we don’t have enough money. So what’s the cheapest thing we can do and have a good time? Food website. It costed me 50 dollars to register a domain name and build it from scratch. The first Hungrygowhere model came out from a 6k dollars investment. None of the founders can program, if not it would be even cheaper for me to start a website.
Advice for University Students
Ted: You had people from Jobs factory, Singaporebrides advising you. Was it important for your success, and how do you recommend people go about finding mentors?
Hoong An: Okay, Im fortunate because one was my classmate in university. The other just found me randomly he called me one day and said, “hey lets meet for coffee.” What’s the odds of that happening ? These are random chance encounters.
But one thing I learned in life is that if you don’t ask, you will never get. I think Singaporeans tend to be more reserved and not so aggressive, we don’t ask much. But we should just go out there and ask, there are people out there who are willing to mentor, though some require equity, some are more altruistic. There are a lot of startup environments and mentors and people that you can ask for advice, and people are generally willing to help.
Ted: As for students, do you recommend to that they go for entrepreneurship right after graduation, or look for a job first?
Hoong An: Look for a job first. Always. Using an athletics example. In basketball arena, if you look at players that came out from high school and those players who went to college, you find that those players who came out from college have a higher chance of success. Michael Jordan came out from College. But if he came out right after high school, he would not be as successful as who he is, and the reason for that is the coaching , the rigor, the academics and the balancing act in college helps you mature as a person.
Some people make fun of national service. Actually national service is the time for people to build a network and grow as a man, which are very important elements for success. To me, coming out from college and starting a business is not advisable unless you hail from a very rich family . No.1, you don’t have capital, the 2nd thing is that you lack connections. So you will be left struggling, and this is very tough.
Ted: For budding entrepreneurs who are still studying, what can they do now to realize their dreams?
Hoong An: Go for internships, and you will be able to learn quickly. Find good internships with people willing to mentor you, but go for longer term internships, not those that last for one or two months only. Go and experience startup life and see if that is something for you or not.
Ted: Suppose that today, you start from zero with no resources and people don’t know you. What would you do?
Hoong An: The capital cost that requires you to build an online business is actually a hundred thousand. That should be the minimum amount in your bank to start a business so that you don’t die before you make it. The worst thing about business is that during the darkest moment before the sun rises, you didnt have enough capital to pull through. That’s why you raise funds. Our capital is a very important and understated part of business that many people don’t realize. You need to hire talent, you need to do marketing, it all costs money, no one does it for free.
But if you start from ground zero and have no capital, go get a job. Take up a job in an area where you wanna be in. If you want to do a start up in F&B . learn from the best, from the people that made it. See what they are doing. Even if they fail, we learn what not to do. At least we learn something. There’s two ways to learn: One is that you pay your tuition fees from your own pocket. The other is that you learn something while you earn. You decide which one is better. And people always say I wanna start young, but we are going to live up till 100 years old, even if you start at 50, you are only half-way there. You can still do very well. Its never too late.
Finding a fulfilling and rewarding job that allows you to learn from the best and get prepared for your own big thing is not an easy job, read next interview with Mr Lee jin Hwui, award winning HR manager on how to stand out in the eyes of the recruiters and land a good job in the competitive marketplace.