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In the winter of 2010, Dixon Chan went through a common hardship most Singaporeans face on long-term travels - he missed local food. He was in San Francisco at the time, working at a startup in Silicon Valley and taking classes at Stanford University as part of the National University of Singapore's Overseas Colleges programme.
He was craving prata and kopi siew dai, so he tried hunting for a place to eat with his friends that would remind him of home. They could only find a Hawaiian-Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area with an overwhelming 50-dish menu. "We couldn't find the kind of place we wanted, and we didn't know what to eat at that restaurant - that's what made us start Burpple," he says.
He launched the food-sharing network Burpple with two co-founders in May 2012, aiming to solve these two problems. Since then, it has evolved into what he calls a "food discovery" app - which was just recently revamped - with 5.5 million people using it last year alone, and three million reviews of restaurants in Singapore.
What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when launching Burpple?
When we first started, we predicted it would be a challenge to get users to share reviews on a new platform, and without reviews, it wouldn't draw people who are looking for food. So we launched Burpple as a social food journal first, with tools to help users remember their meals.
It was a niche concept, so our growth was pretty flat in the first two years. But we were able to build up a community of users who shared high quality reviews. Once we reached a critical mass, we launched discovery features allowing users to find food on Burpple. This was a turning point as there was demand for a platform where one can validate opinions with other real customers and read authentic reviews.
What's it like being a first-time entrepreneur?
It's definitely not easy, especially at the start. You need to balance business prospects and personal needs. In our early years, the founders took home a few hundred dollars each month and there was another year we were fully off-salary. This is especially hard when you're fresh out of college with limited work experience. It's really easy to fall into a comparison game with your peers. I'm the only child of the family so the social pressure is even higher.
Having said that, I enjoy it and learned so much that I wouldn't trade this for another journey. I've also learned that starting-up is not a game and vanity metrics. You and your team need to know their purpose because ultimately this is what keeps everybody going, and the team is the most important part of a company. A good team leads to a solid product and business.
What do you like and dislike most about food apps you've used before?
When I travel, I like trying out different food discovery apps to get to the restaurants locals love. I enjoy the ability to read about the experiences of real customers and how they differ from person to person. I like what Tabelog is doing in Japan, and Yelp and Foursquare in the US.
What I dislike about some food apps is the lack of thought, which makes them feel mechanical. You fill up a boring form and they give you the same directory of results every time. Food is very emotional. What you decide can depend on your mood, a picture you just saw on the internet, or even the weather! At the same time, recommendations need to be relevant to where you're going, your budget, or the occasion. That's why Burpple tries its best to combine the needs of utility with the reality of emotions.
What did food mean to you growing up?
I was born in Hong Kong, and migrated to Singapore when I was seven years old. While in Hong Kong, I lived with my grandmother because my parents had to work. Every morning before school, my grandmother and uncle would take me to a dim sum place to eat, and my favourite dish was meen fa gai (which literally translates as "cotton chicken", because of how the chicken is coated in spongy fish maw). You can't find it here.
My dad is a wonderful cook, and he still cooks dinner every weekend. He does a very good steamed fish. When I was a boy, he taught me to eat the best parts like the cheeks, the part behind the head, and of course the tail.
What was your most memorable dining experience?
It was at Cheek By Jowl with chef Rishi Naleendra. My wife and I were celebrating her birthday one day. I had the chef's special menu and she had ordered some stuff off the regular menu. Her dinner was three dishes long, and mine was a lot longer. Chef Rishi didn't know me and I didn't know him, but he came over and said: "Hey, I don't want your wife to wait, so I'm also going to offer what you're having to your wife."
I was wowed! That's the kind of chef we need to support, because the restaurant business is not just about food, but the entire experience. They didn't charge me extra, but the main reason it impacted me wasn't the free food, it was that they didn't want my wife to have to wait. It was a gesture that didn't cost them much, but it meant a lot to us, and I've shared this story with so many people after that.