Dominic Ee, Toh Kian Khai, Kuan Chih Yuan and Ang Jun Han are avid football fans, but that’s not what keeps them up late at night. They are the team behind one of Singapore’s most promising startups gothere.sg, a location-based service provider whose map and directional search engine is steadily becoming the quintessential service for finding your way around Singapore.
I first came across gothere.sg when I saw them in a startup pitch at UnConference 2008, and they were one of few startups present that stood out in the crowd. I managed to finally grab hold of Toh Kian Khai, gothere.sg‘s Director for Business Development, at this year’s UnConference for this interview.
Kian Khai, an FC Barcelona fan, tells me that the team was initially inspired to start gothere.sg when they were looking around at the other online navigation websites available to help commuters in Singapore, and thought that they could make a better service. “We wanted to improve the whole user experience of locating services and traveling to destinations,” remembers Kian Khai, a graduate from the National University of Singapore with an honors degree in Economics.
He says that his partners have been instrumental in putting the gothere.sg‘s core services together. “(Director of Technology) Dominic developed the infrastructure and is responsible for conceptualizing new products and research of the latest technologies. (Director of Engineering) Chih Yuan handles the technical requirements of projects to deliver results to clients, while (Director of Products) Junhan looks at creating innovative products and overlooking the development of new products as well as the improvement of existing products and services.” In case you wanted to know, Dominic supports Italian Serie A team Inter Milan, Chih Yuan is a fan of English Premier League side Newcastle FC, while Junhan backs its rival Arsenal FC.
Learning From The Best
The gothere.sg team believes the site’s user interface is their best unique selling point (USP), and it’s obvious that the guys have learnt some lessons from Google. After all, one of the reasons for the search giant’s ascendence in its earlier days was the fact that its user-interface was clean and simple and thus user-friendly, compared to the clunky crowded home pages of its key competitors. It’s the same with gothere.sg.
“We love our user interface, and many of our users love it too. It’s the ease of use that keeps people coming back. We would of course like everyone living and visiting Singapore to use our services,” says Kian Khai.
The key challenge, he says, for any startup is to get its brand name out there, and in order to do that you need a good product and a good marketing plan. “Currently, we are targeting net-savvy people between 15 to 35 years old. I believe they will be our ambassadors to the rest of the population who do not use the Internet as much.”
Finding the right partners and building more content are key parts of their growth strategy. “Hungrygowhere.com is one of our partners who provide their content on our website, and we are looking for more partners to provide their content through us,” says Kian Khai. gothere.sg recently released its Gothere Maps APIs, which will allow developers to build other interesting applications on its maps. “We will be promoting both the free and paid version, over the next few months,” says Kian Khai. “We have always wanted to bring our services onto the mobile platform as we believe our services is even more useful for people on the go.”
“We will not forget our users, so we are also looking at further improvements to the site.”
However, Kian Khai laments that it’s increasingly difficult to get potential clients to spend during this current recession. “Even before the recession, we have been very careful about our operating costs.”
When asked about the lawsuit the Singapore Land Authority slapped on Streetdirectory.com in early 2008 for copyright infringement, Kian Khai assures me that it won’t happen to gothere.sg (they don’t build their services on SLA maps). “A lawsuit is always a potential risk for any business, it’s definitely detrimental to any company’s reputation and resources, but I do not see us getting involved in one.”
A Journey, Not Just A Destination
Kian Khai relates that their journey to date has been nothing short of exciting. “From the initial launch, to the redesign, launching our own maps, and getting ourselves mentioned in the Budget speech, these were major milestones for our company,” he says.
“Starting your own business is a lot of hard work. Passion, perseverance and diligence will bring you a long way on this path,” shares Kian Khai. “We took this road knowing the risks but we dream of having our own company, making useful products for people out there. We’re still very grateful to the people who (have helped make) it possible.”
gothere.sg‘s success to date is nothing short of amazing, considering the fact that they started out without any support from any of the local startup funding schemes offered by the local government (the founders have personally invested $80,000 into the business so far).
“(But) we’re in the process of applying for funding from some government agencies,” says Kian Khai. The four co-founders are running the show and have not hired any staff yet.
Someone in the industry shared an interesting story that emerged regarding that Budget speech. gothere.sg was apparently involved in talks with a government agency for months, but without any result. Soon after getting mentioned by Minister of Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam, gothere.sg received a call from the self-same agency inviting them back for immediate renegotiations.
Kian Khai sounded genuinely surprised when I tell him that many in the startup community consider them as hometown heroes. “Heroes, really? We’re pretty surprised to hear this but I think all startups deserve a pat on the back,” he answers sheepishly. “We have benefited from other startups’ advice and experience so we look forward to contributing back to the community some day.”
The truth is that gothere.sg has really done well despite all the odds against it, and it’s no wonder that the site has garnered the groundswell of support that it has gotten so far. In fact, I will argue that they help Singapore find its way around in more ways than one – they are a shining beacon, and a perfect example of how entrepreneurship in Singapore can be.