We talk to Sugar Co-founder Benjamin Lee about the app’s backstory and how it ties together with a naked model adorned with sushi
Sugar is out now for the populace of Singapore to check out. In case you missed the reporting we did a while ago, think of it as a hybrid between chat apps like Line and listing sites like GroupOn, while being its own unique location-based price-skimming thing.
To start off with a bang, the company held a launch party at bar-and-bistro Mariko’s (located in the renowned Keong Saik Street) where the highlight was a quick display of Nyotaimori, which is the art of eating sushi off a nude female model.
Risqué, yes, but it’s one way to turn heads and uncover the hidden gems of Singapore, according to Co-founder Benjamin Lee. “Nyotaimori wasn’t about sex, but more about art, just like the indie boutiques and stores we want to explore on our database,” he added.
We took the liberty to ask him many questions during the festive night.
On the idea
(My Co-founder Stephen Barling) and I met in London during our university years. We loved (staying at Notting Hill) because there’s always indie cafes to be found there; my friends and I don’t go to the same place twice.
I also hear a lot of Singaporeans (mostly my friends) complaining about the lack of new things to do and check out; this led to them being routine about their places to eat and hang out. The ones working at Shenton Way and the expats would just go to Club Street on a Friday night and Tanjong Beach Club on a Saturday night. And then they do nothing else.
There’s nothing wrong with going to food chains and being routine, but we knew that a lot of my friends are intrinsically curious, but also intrinsically passive. People don’t have the natural tendency to push the boundaries.
Why people here are receptive in going out
I saw a Discovery Channel showcase on Moroccan Cuisine this one time. Someone in Singapore might find that interesting, but what they don’t realise is that there’s a good Moroccan cuisine in our backyard. Even if they knew about it, they don’t want to try. If I were to ask my friends out for Moroccan couscous, they’ll be like ‘one day’. Not today, but ‘one day’.
Sometimes distance, price and social pressures become impediments. These are the problems we sought to fix with Sugar.
On how the in-house team operate
We’re more or less the gatekeepers. If you’re interested in being listed, we’ll put you in the database without any cost whatsoever. Just as long as you’re not an international conglomerate like McDonald’s or KFC, which everyone has heard of.
We have people in our team who scout around dining places; they obviously love their jobs. Whether you’re a hole in a wall or a Michelin star restaurant, as long as there’s an interesting aspect to them, we will want to feature you. We want to encourage people to try new things and help out local businesses; a cause that’s close to my heart.
On exceptions to the rule
We’re fine adding in local chains with an interesting entrepreneur start, like The Soup Spoon. It’s a unique Singaporean business, born and bred in the country, and despite copycats, it’s still standing.
On the biggest challenge in the Sugar rush
As with any business venture, the biggest challenge is always in building a strong and effective team. People with great CVs, who have worked for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, might not necessarily have the mindsets and attitudes that we need at Sugar. We had to go through a bit of turbulence with regard to the composition of our team. But we now have an excellent team of A-team players from very diverse backgrounds. I have been quite blessed on that front, it is not easy to get this right especially at such an early stage.
In terms of the product, one of the biggest challenges has been to drive user adoption. Many people mistakenly view us as ‘yet another deal app’ because that has been the incumbent model for the past few years. In truth we don’t consider Sugar to be a deal app at all. We are a discovery app and we want people to use Sugar to discover interesting new places that they had previously never heard about – not just to get discounts.
We place a lot of emphasis on user engagement and we are slowly getting there, but we need to accept that there will always be resistance whenever you are trying to convince people of something different from the entrenched status quo. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and even Jesus experienced this.
We are fortunate that in this day and age, we aren’t at risk of being crucified, at least not literally.
On non-restaurant partnerships
Strategic partnerships are also another way for Sugar to reach more users. We recently teamed up with I-S magazine. So if you see any promotions with the I-S brand next to it, you’ll know why.
On driving creator adoption
We want to go from static content to interactive content; gamification if you will. If you go to directory-based content similar to Yelp, you just get words. You go to TripAdvisor, you get reviews but no incentive to try it out.
Reviews and words should not be the core of the business; it’s from user word-of-mouth. The content shared is not from some faceless corporation, it’s from someone you know and trust. That is a lot more credible.
On the journey from then to now
I have had my fair share of successes and failures. But I seem to remember the failures more, only because there are so many lessons to be learnt from them. In 2011, I led an investment round into an online recruitment portal in Beijing. The concept looked great, and the outlook seemed very promising, but the company ended up folding before it was even launched.
I was not the founder, but I was quite actively involved as an investor and board member. We ended up losing millions.
I learnt that entrepreneurs cannot afford to be overly fixated on the ‘perfect product’ because perfection simply doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, we do what we do to build businesses. Businesses need users, customers, and traction in order to thrive.
On making money
We have private investors to handle that, though we wish not to disclose them at this point in time. Revenue is not our most important priority. What we want to do is get more users and adoption, in hopes to getting acquired. That’s the dream of any startup, right?
On how the startup scene can improve and grow
For the local scene to thrive, there is a need for mainstream investors to be slightly better educated on how tech businesses function. We will not see the scene take off until we have a critical mass of investors willing to back new ventures in this space. I am not talking about the various government-supported funds, they are not ‘mainstream’.
When you have ordinary people, the type who regularly invest in real estate and listed equities, starting to seriously consider allocating a portion of their portfolios to tech ventures despite being fully cognizant of the risks, then access to capital will be easier, and more good ideas will be able to come into fruition.
At the moment, the vast majority of investors balk when they learn that it is possible for a company to have no fixed assets, or even worse, no revenues. I think it will take time for the ecosystem to mature.
It’s the main keyword that drives our company. When we do grow and scale, we want to have enough listings in the app to ensure that no matter where you are, you’ll always be able to find an interesting place with a story and something special about it within walking distance.
On what’s next
We got plans to open in Hong Kong, probably in the new year in the first quarter of 2015. If we’re quick, we can do it this December.
It’s been growing reasonably fast and we’re getting more listings. Our item feeds at night are usually sold out, so that’s a good sign. We hope more users will be able to explore new places and change their minds about Singapore being a boring city. There are hundreds of amazing places which have partnered with us as merchants, and many more waiting to be discovered.
This article also features contributions by correspondent Shiwen Yap.