Young Upstarts

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Wootfood – Having Your Food, And Sharing It Too

Wootfood is a location-based food finder and mobile application developed by Malaysia-based ideas incubator Alphapod – founded by TJ Tee, 31, Janice Tan, 30 and Clayton Narcis, 28 – that allows you to search, discover, recommend the best dishes to a “hungry” community.

The inspiration for the service struck during an innocuous commute in early 2009. Tee, who is Wootfood‘s co-founder, was driving home from work one day when he passed by a popular roadside burger stall (since he’s Malaysian, we reckon it might be the famous Ramly burger). He wondered if more people could discover it, besides traditional word-of-mouth. He then realized that there needed to be a way for people to find out more information on the place, such as its description, location, price, etc.

At that time, consumers only had various food blogs and restaurant review sites to refer for food recommendations. “Blogs were long and subjective, review sites were too generic,” Tee explains. “We realized that half the time, people would frequent a place because of its food, even though the quality of service or cleanliness was below par. There wasn’t anything that allowed people to rate food (apple to apple) – restaurants yes, but not food.”

“Also, the best people to ask about food were locals, so we decided to create something to crowdsource local food recommendations.” The founders then conceptualized Wootfood as the answer to “What’s good to eat?” or “Where to eat?” – a universal problem that they could solve three (meal) times a day.

Unexpected Competition

Wootfood was originally conceptualized back in 2009 as a website – the founders built 70-percent of the current app’s functionality in PHP and HTML5. They decided to pivot their idea as a mobile app when they applied for grant funding from Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), even though they’ve already spent months on developing the website.

In the first quarter of last year, and three months into development of their iPhone app, the Wootfood founders got a shock. A similar mobile food application, Foodspotting, made its debut on TechCrunch. Undaunted, they pressed on with their own development as they felt there were many ways they could differentiate themselves. “In fact, our next set of features will set Wootfood apart from Foodspotting,” Tee shares. “We plan to integrate key social and real-time elements into the app.”

Wootfood is currently available on iPhone and Android-based devices, and is only open to Malaysia- and Singapore-based users. The founders decided to limit it this way as a test, so as to monitor application downloads and usage so they could get an idea how to scale accordingly. “If we had opened the floodgates, our initial costs would’ve been too high,” Tee explains. “That said, we will open it worldwide with the release of our next version due May.”

As for their plans for growth, Tee says that their current focus is on working out partnerships with strategic local players to push awareness of Wootfood. Their also pushing to hit internal targets in terms of downloads, registered and active users, and content created. One interesting opportunity in its space Tee says, is the ability to get a clear picture of user behavior when it comes to food and eating – eating patterns, group behavior, taste preferences, spending power – which data can prove valuable for brands.

Starting Up – Food For Thought

Tee says that the startup scene in Malaysia, especially in the mobile space, is “still pretty much in its infancy”. “The main challenge is the lack of a mature ecosystem of angel investors and venture capitalists (VCs) – there are pockets here and there, but nothing encouraging,” explains Tee.  He adds that most VCs there don’t have an entrepreneurial background – they mostly come from the finance sector and are conservative with their investments. “They want to see a working revenue model before committing to anything – the paradox here is that if the business is making a healthy revenue, the startup won’t need VC funding,” Tee laughs.

“Entrepreneurs are also to blame. There is a lack of innovation, and that’s why we see a lot of clones. There hasn’t been any original, world-class product from Malaysia – and Singapore) in recent memory,” Tee muses. On the outset, it’s difficult to disagree with him.

Tee is grateful for their MDeC grant funding, which has allowed the company to focus on their product full-time without worrying – too much – about funding. “On the flipside, success rate for MDeC pre-seed applicants for commercialization is pretty low, but we’re determined to be one of the shining stars in the program,” Tee adds. Aside from the grant, Wootfood does not have any investors, but are actively seeking investment to assist in scaling headcount and operations.

Tee’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to start young and fail fast. “For every failure, you’re one step closer to something successful,” explains Tee. “Take calculated risks, dream big!” Tee adds that aspiring entrepreneurs should be prepared to juggle multiple jobs, i.e. having a full-time job as well as running a startup after hours.

You can watch a video interview of Wootfood’s Tee here.

Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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