Business Solutions

How four startups found new opportunities in the wake of the pandemic.

Tay Suan Chiang
Published Thu, Jul 16, 2020 · 09:50 PM

IT'S AN UNDERSTATEMENT to say that 2020 has been a tough year for businesses, big and small. But in every crisis there is opportunity, and as the pandemic throws up new challenges, it also brings with it a different set of needs. As a result, several start-ups have found a silver lining as more clients seek them out for solutions to help them deal with a post-Covid-19 reality.

From innovations in hotel check-in processes to co-sharing vehicles, these start-ups prove that when crisis throws a curve ball, you just have to be ready to catch it.

GNÔMADIC Finding a community via co-living

American Jonathan Schiff says real estate and hospitality are ingrained in his DNA. He grew up in Las Vegas, and his father built properties such Caesar's Palace and Circus Circus. The younger Mr Schiff also worked with large mixed-use developers and built his own company providing housing for hospitality workers in Macau.

"These past experiences have taught me that providing housing is a significant responsibility. In a way, people see us as the custodians of a critical component of their lives. It is also an area where the clients are very discerning," he says.

In January, he launched gnômadic, a co-living company in Singapore. During the circuit breaker when gnômadic's residents couldn't meet with their friends, they found support from fellow residents. "Our residents provided tremendous emotional support and care for their flatmates and they all conveyed gratitude to be living with individuals who helped them during the difficult period," says Mr Schiff.

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He adds, "It appears that co-living may actually be increasing in popularity as a result of the pandemic. While there's some hesitation about shared living, these seem to be outweighed by a desire for deeper connection and a desire for flexible living arrangements."

gnômadic currently two homes, in Orchard and River Valley. It recently completed a third, which is almost fully reserved. Prices start from S$2,500 monthly for a room, and residents have a choice of either deluxe rooms with shared bathroom facilities or ensuite rooms. Upcoming gnômadic rooms will also offer attached office spaces.

Prior to the Circuit Breaker, Mr Schiff says the most interest came from expatriates but during Circuit Breaker and after, there has been a significant increase in interest from locals. "The common theme amongst both locals and expats is a desire to be part of an inspirational community. This desire was magnified during circuit breaker," says Mr Schiff.

Its current residents are mostly from the technology, marketing, and finance industries, with a growing interest from those in the creative industries.

Many co-living spaces also offer their residents community programmes and gnômadic is no exception. During the Circuit Breaker, it hosted a virtual cooking class with Italian restaurant Amo for residents to learn pizza and pasta making.

It also conducted a rum tasting and cocktail class with EC Proof and yoga and mindfulness sessions.

Prior to setting up gnômadic, he spent a year staying in co-living places, meeting residents, and meeting co-living operators around the world.

"Through this it became apparent that co-living is representative of a seismic shift which is occurring in real estate. The relationship that people have with space is changing. It is no longer about just bricks and mortar, it is also about the experiences that people have when interacting with spaces and with each other. That makes co-living an exciting and worthwhile endeavour," he says.

GTRIIP Contactless entry made easy

As a frequent business traveller, Maxim Tint, founder and CEO of GTRIIP, an identity verification software provider, found it a hassle constantly having to fill up forms, be it for customs purposes or simply for checking into a hotel room. "Why were we still using pen and paper, when all these processes could be done digitally," he asked himself.

Fast forward to now, where the pandemic has rendered almost all aspects of life contactless, and Mr Tint's company is now enjoying three times as much business thanks to a software he created to reduce the need for physical form filling.

He originally started his company in 2014 primarily to "fix a personal problem", but now digital check-ins and the like have increasingly become the norm, especially with the current need for social distancing measures.

In the last six years, GTRIIP has completed installations for 14,000 hotel rooms and access points. Since February, when the coronavirus started to spread in cities around the world, that number has increased to 25,000. It's a far cry from his early days, when he first tried to market his product. "It was like selling WiFi technology to hotels in the 1990s!"

Now, nearly 80 per cent of his clients are hotels, which include Park Hotel Group, Amara Singapore, Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa, The Venetian Macao and The Parisian Macao. Pre-pandemic, it was mostly five-star hotels that used GTRIIP's software. Mr Tint says that three and four-star hotels are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Hotel guests do a pre-registration on the hotel's app before arrival, providing details such as an identity photo, contact details and a credit card number. At the hotel, they check in using fingerprint and facial recognition technology. Depending on the hotel, guests may receive a physical key, or a digital one to their rooms. In the latter, they totally skip the need to be in the lobby. Checking-out and payment are also done digitally.

Mr Tint says, "A 30-minute process can now be done in a minute or two."

With GTRIIP, some hotels even offer guests the option to control the lights and air conditioning in their rooms via smartphones. "What was once a cool feature for guests to have, is increasingly seen as necessary," he says.

GTRIIP does not store any private details as they are sent to the hotel's data management system, and the app uses the same level of encryption as that of banks. "It is difficult for the data to fall into the wrong hands," he says.

He's also seeing more offices adopt the software, Besides hotels, offices make up an increasing number of clients, allowing for tenants and visitors to access offices digitally using photo ID recognition and biometric verification.

While it took a pandemic for companies to start investing in such technology, Mr Tint has always been convinced that this is the way of the future. There are plans to expand GTRIIP's customer base beyond Asia, while offering its products to other commercial spaces such as co-working spaces and membership clubs.

"Our vision is to create a world where document-less check-in and travel is the standard for optimized user experiences," he says.

QIQ POD Electric vehicle co-sharing

As a child, Justin Sim loved playing with toy cars. As a grownup, he's gone past playing with them to building them. Or rather, just one for now, which at first glance looks like a cartoonish toy car but is really an electric co-sharing vehicle.

Mr Sim is on a mission to improve city transportation by reimagining electric mobility. WIth most cars in Singapore being used by just one person, that points to "a huge inefficiency in urban transport today, " says the CEO of QIQ (say 'kick'), a mobility technology company.

The company is currently working on the electric car QIQ Pod - which fits a driver and one passenger- designed for covering short distances within the neighbourhood.

For example, commuters can travel from their home to an MRT station using the QIQ Pod, and do the same when they return home. This will be good news for those who have been working from home as their cars have pretty much been left unused. "If your intention is simply to get from point A to point B, there's no longer a need to have a personal car," says Mr Sim.

Logistic companies that have also shown interest in the QIQ Pod. "Delivery companies, be it food or otherwise can reduce their assets but increase their yield of deliveries by switching to the QIQ Pod," he says.

QIQ will showcase a prototype next month, and if all goes smoothly, Mr Sim, who has 10 years of experience in the electric vehicle industry, hopes to make "a sizable fleet" of these cars available to the public by the end of 2021.

"The strong interest especially from the logistic companies due to the increase in e-commerce sales from the last few months, has accelerated our plans to make QIQ Pod a reality," he says.

The compact QIQ Pod will be parked near MRT stations and residential areas, and they will be available for use 24 hours a day. Each car can travel 20km on a full charge which takes only seven minutes.

The magic of QIQ Pod is its autonomous function. The cars can be left curbside, and using its fleet management system proprietary communication technology, they will drive themselves to a multi-storey carpark to be parked, or to be moved to where they are needed most. Users only need to tap an app to "call" for the car.

In Singapore, BlueSG currently offers an electric car sharing programme, but users have to find its specific locations to use the cars.

"But when we introduce QIQ Pod to residential estates, anyone will be able to use them," says Mr Sim. As the vehicle doesn't travel above 45 km/hr, users do not need a driving licence.

He is aware that the idea of co-sharing may not sit well with consumers, but there will be a cleaning crew on hand, in addition to sanitising the cars using UVC light whenever they are empty.

Mr Sim believes that this is a more efficient way to move people around. "More trips can be made in the same amount of time, vehicle turnover will increase, and costs will be lowered for fleet operators, which means subscription plans to use the vehicles can be more affordable," he says.

STYLE DEGREE Organising your home better

Phoe Chuan An and Tan Sher Yun didn't start a home-based business during Circuit Breaker, but they might have played a role in helping you to organise your home.

"As cleaning and decluttering became one of the top stay-home activities, we were very busy during the Circuit Breaker period" says Ms Tan, co-founder of Style Degree, a homegrown brand that specialises in home organisation essentials.

Mr Phoe adds, "We saw our customers organise their pantry, declutter their closets and create a conducive work-from-home area with our desk essentials. Our food pantry containers, kitchen racks, fridge organiser, closet organisers, desk organisers became extremely popular during the stay-home period."

In fact, orders nearly doubled during the Circuit Breaker period, with web traffic jumping by about 50 per cent.

The couple started Style Degree in 2016, when they were still undergraduates, selling travel organisers. They expanded into the home and living sector when customers asked them to bring in home improvement items. "We realised there was a market potential in this sector, seeing that our friends were applying for BTOs and some of our family members were getting new homes," says Mr Phoe. "Being young entrepreneurs, we are more adaptable to change, more open to innovating, and using digital technologies to improve our processes."

Ms Tan says, "everyone loves the positive feeling of an organised home. We get satisfaction when we receive messages and social media tags from our customers, sharing with us how our home organisation essentials have helped them to maximise space and spruce up their home space."

The popularity of Marie Kondo and her 'spark joy' decluttering methods have also helped fuel interest in Style Degree's products. "She provided a great opportunity for us to showcase how our products can help in creating an organised home," says Ms Tan.

The couple who are in their 20s, say that being in a similar age group as their customers has also allowed them to understand their needs better, catering their product offerings to provide solutions to their problems.

"We know how it feels to be a first time homeowner, and the questions homeowners have when organising their homes," says Ms Tan, elaborating that the products offer smart solutions for tight spaces and busy schedules.


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