Aims to be a global community marketplace of locals helping travelers experience local food culture
Admits to loads of possible competitors but believes its edge is its niche play
A FRESH start-up in Malaysia is seeking the answer to a deceptively straightforward question: “Can a collaborative consumption model be applied Malaysia’s foodie scene and be profitable?”
For those wondering what a collaborative consumption model is, it is best personified by Airbnb, an online service that provides a platform for individuals to rent unoccupied living space and other short-term lodging to guests.
Since the start-up’s debut in 2008 and subsequent waves of publicity, there has been a steady stream of startups seeking to be the “Airbnb of [insert market here]”, and no shortage of interested investors willing to take a bet on the more promising ones.
In an interview with TechCrunch, TaskRabbit (Airbnb for services) founder Leah Busque said: “I think we are finally at a place in time where technology has become savvy enough to provide solutions to stale business models. People are getting more and more comfortable with sharing their space (instead of booking hotel rooms), sharing their cars (instead of purchasing their own), and utilizing people sharing their free time and skills (instead of hiring a personal assistant).”
However that is the situation in mature and developed markets such as Europe and the United States. What about in Asia, or specifically, Malaysia?
Enter HungryHippie, a global community marketplace project whose origins were inspired by a good deed done in real life.
In an interview with Digital News Asia (DNA), HungryHippie co-founder Kevin Hoong (pic) shared that he and fellow co-founder Lim Jun Yuen were having lunch one day at a fully occupied restaurant in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, when two Japanese foreigners asked to share a table with them.
When it came to ordering, the visitors had no clue what to order due to the language barrier.
“In the true spirit of Malaysian hospitality -- if there is such a thing -- we helped them to order and ended up stuffed to the brim with food, and in the process, got to know a little bit more about Japanese culture,” Hoong said.
As they reflected on this experience later on, they realized that there is only so much the Internet can do for you, especially if you’re in a completely foreign place.
“We figured that there can be no better way to explore local food than with a local person ... the only problem was, if you didn’t know anyone, it can be virtually impossible. So we decided to make it possible,” he added.
It’s one thing to want to make something possible, it’s another to come face to face with the realities of doing so.
HungryHippie is positioned as a global community marketplace made up of local people helping travelers experience local food culture, the way the locals do.
“The core problem that we seek to address is the traveler’s lack of access to information on where to get authentic local cuisine,” said Hoong.
Given that food is an effective social platform, the team believes that HungryHippie will also enhance the travel experience by providing travelers with opportunities to personally interact and potentially develop relationships with enthusiastic locals, ultimately leading to a better understanding of their culture.
However the team admits that the odds are stacked against them. A question on existing competition in the market brings forth a relatively long list. Some of the direct competitors the team has already identified include Food Tour Malaysia, Meetrip, Tripzaar, LetsPlayPlanet and Meetups.
“These are our competitors with a similar ‘marketplace’ concept. The closest model to HungryHippie is Tripzaar. On top of marketplace-based competitors, we have websites like Meetups organizing food meet-ups that could challenge the need for our web application.
“We have also identified several food tour agencies that offer similar services such as introducing travelers to local food and which have high credentials from Tripadvisor,” said Hoong.
In addition, the team has identified indirect competitors such as Internations, TripAdvisor, GogoBot, Wanderfly and TripBirds, food database websites that could render the HungryHippie model obsolete.
“If adequate resources and information are already available on these websites, travelers may not see the need to purchase our services,” Hoong said.
However, the team remains optimistic about its chances for success, driven by its committed niche of tapping only the local food market. With its indirect competitors, it sees potential opportunity to collaborate and provide greater exposure for the platform.
“For a start, HungryHippie is not merely an informational tool. On top of food travel tips and reviews, HungryHippie aspires to enhance the experience for travelers by enabling them to actually dine with a local person and perhaps even be friends,” said Hoong.
The team believes the key drivers to ensure the sustainability of this model are increasing the volume of hosting done, increasing both the number of ‘Food Ambassadors’ as well as travelers, and ensuring that the pool of Food Ambassadors consists of genuinely enthusiastic and knowledgeable locals.
“There are more travelfocused competitors out there, such as Tripzaar and PlayPlanet, but we believe that our focus on food offers a unique platform through which travelers can explore a foreign city or country. We see food as the best catalyst to know someone better ... so bring on the hungry people!” he added.
Devil’s in the details
But the challenges don’t stop there. Even Airbnb, considered the most successful deployment of such collaborative business models, has had its own fair share of issues.
On the issue of quality control, Hoong said they have only been recruiting hosts on the basis of recommendations by peers, labeling them ‘Food Ambassadors.’
“We select hosts through our personal network of people from around the region, or friends they know. This will allow us to build the foundation of food hosts in the selected cities, to kick start hosting activities over the next three months,” he said.
The marketplace also leverages on the existing network of food enthusiasts such as food bloggers to become HungryHippie local food hosts. “This will help us screen, to a certain extent, the genuine hosts from the bad apples.”
Moving forward, HungryHippie plans to put in place more comprehensive guidelines for locals wanting to be hosts, which could be done either by way of social media verification or recommendations by existing hosts.
Like Airbnb, the HungryHippie team also faces a similar conundrum of whether to build the food hosts community or to attract the interest of travelers first.
“The easier option would be the former, because we would have better control of the Food Ambassadors we recruit, working with the selected few to slowly build traction over time.
“When the concept becomes more familiar and developed, we will open the application to other local hosts to widen the range of ‘hosts’ in the HungryHippie marketplace,” Hoong said.
With regards to how it plans to generate revenue, he said that the team plans to attribute 15% of the transaction value or a minimum of US$2 hosting fees (whichever is higher) as profits for HungryHippie.
“We are setting a minimum fee per traveler because we believe that HungryHippie’s organized ‘food experiences’ should be priced to include a fair margin to adequately compensate our Food Ambassadors for the time and services they offer,” he said.
The HungryHippie team currently comprises four people: Hoong, who has an economics background; Lim (pic), whose expertise lies in design along with accounting; finance graduate Lee Zhi Wei; and Kathleen Kok, whose experience includes public relations and research.
The outfit is fully self-funded with 100% equity being held by the founders Hoong and Lim.
Hoong admitted that on the technical front, it has been tough to look for a programmer to help with the coding work.
“One of us has had to learn programming from scratch just to get things going - and he found out that it’s a pretty steep learning curve,” he said.
“We believe that the start-up ecosystem in Malaysia is also only at a nascent stage, so finding adequate support has been quite challenging as well,” he added.
Hoong also shared that the sheer idea of not following a traditional career path can sometimes take its toll.
“It makes us question ourselves each day you know, whether the juice is worth the squeeze,” he said.
The main focus right now for the HungryHippie team is the market validation of its value proposition. Immediately after determining the value proposition, a quick ‘mock’ website was released in early January this year to test the idea, followed by a beta website in early March.
“The purpose of the landing page was solely to learn from our potential customers, which helped us to inform our product development in the following stages,” Hoong said.
The team remains ambitious about its project, seeking to build relationships with hostels and launch the product where there is the largest traffic of its target market, within the next three months.
The plan further ahead is to replicate a successful experiment in other cities and be serving travelers in 50 different cities by the end of this year, targeting 10 Food Ambassadors in each city.
Before that though, in the midst of pitting its idea against the uncertain waters of an open market, HungryHippie will soon be coming under the scrutiny of potential investors.
The startup has been shortlisted to pitch at the Echelon Malaysia Satellite event, taking place in Kuala Lumpur on April 17.
“It’ll be an awesome learning experience. Echelon will be a pretty big platform, so we think it’s a great opportunity to get our idea out there, and challenge our business model by way of seeking out constructive criticism from the judges and the audience,” said Hoong.
He acknowledged that HungryHippie remains a not-yet-validated start-up, which means that what the team will be able to share during its pitch may be limited in certain areas.
“However, we have a few things up our sleeves – for example, how we have consistently grounded ourselves in our work philosophy in validated learning and scientific experimentation, as we move from conceptualizing ideas and making them happen,” he said.
“It’s pretty ambitious but we’re confident with our vision of making HungryHippie a household name in the community of travellers and food enthusiasts.
“People aren’t going to stop traveling or eating anytime soon, and who doesn’t want to do that with the help of an enthusiastic local?” he added.
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