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“Zomato adds value to users and restaurant owners alike:” Pankaj Chaddah

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"There is no sincerer love than the love of food”, said the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and in a country where culinary palette changes every 100 meters, food plays an important part of life.

Zomato, the restaurant search app, which provides in-depth information for over a million restaurants across 22 countries, has helped many foodies to find the perfect place to match their taste buds.

In the last six months, Zomato has acquired local dominant restaurant search players in United States, New Zealand, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy.

 Indiantelevision.com’s Meghna Sharma speaks to co-founder and COO Pankaj Chaddah to get a behind-the-scene look into the app.

Excerpts

From IIT to working as a consultant to finally starting Zomato. How has the journey been?

I was working at a leading management consulting firm Bain and Company before we started Zomato (then Foodiebay) in 2008. We started Zomato like a little experiment for our colleagues at Bain to ease the process of going through menus during lunch time. Little did we know that our weekend hobby would in a few years turn out to be one of the most successful internet companies to come out of India.

Along the way we’ve had a few hiccups and quite honestly they’ve been great learning lessons for us. I think it’s good to make mistakes early on in one’s growth story than at a later stage when there is a lot more at stake. 

We’ve learnt that having the right team on board is by far one of the most important aspects of running a successful business. Since day one, as a collective, we’ve been focused on making Zomato the Google for food. For us, what’s most important is creating a product that will blow your mind. We made our first international move with the launch of our services in UAE in September, 2012 and are today present across 22 countries. Overall, the experience has been exhilarating, and I think our biggest win has been the fact that we have built an exemplary team and that we continue to retain the culture we set out to build.

How and when did the idea of Zomato come up?

While Deepinder and I were working at Bain, we noticed that a lot of people queued up for menu cards during lunch hour and a fair amount of time was wasted on a daily basis. The thought cropped up that wouldn't it be great if all these menus were up online. We mapped out an idea of an intranet website that would help our colleagues discover places to order from. We scanned menu cards and uploaded them online so that everyone could view it at one go. Soon after creating the intranet website for Bain employees, we noticed a significant number of hits and it quickly became clear that a viable business could be built out of it.

Since Zomato’s inception, for almost one-and-a-half years, we were with Bain collecting, scanning and uploading menu cards during the weekends. That is how the very early form of Zomato was born. Soon we went live with menus for 1,200 restaurants in Delhi NCR in July 2008, which expanded to 2,000 restaurants by the end of the year.

 How was the name decided?

We started in 2008 as Foodiebay. However, we wanted to create a brand that we could take international and also wanted to avoid any confusion with “ebay” the global shopping platform. We came up with the name Zomato - it was simply Tomato with a Z.

We had a few options but everybody unanimously loved Zomato. It is short, memorable, has a nice ring to it, and is now almost instantly associated with food. We rebranded from Foodiebay to Zomato in late 2010.

 How would you describe your company? How do you work?

We’re a transparent organisation - a place where if someone wants to know something, they can simply ask. That’s the kind of culture we’re building. We’re living in a world - online and offline where people have a different understanding of a sense of ownership and responsibility. For us, we’re most focused on instilling that sense of ownership.

There is a lot of flexibility in terms of roles and I think that’s what most people thrive on when they are shaping their careers.

At Zomato we don’t have fixed work stations, wherein our people can choose to sit where they want in order to get their work done. Communication is essential and no-one works in silos. One can reach out to anyone within the organisation, including the founders, with ease. I think it’s important to create a work environment where one would want to come every day. I’m not talking about having ping pong tables and gyms at the workspace but actually laying emphasis on the importance of a work environment where employees can thrive in and, grow and learn.

Today, we have some of the smartest people on board. We look for culture fits more than a glossy CV - for people who think ahead and have an attitude to hustle. Each person in the organisation has a fire in them to get things done. What we do differently is that we consider ourselves to be a global startup and that’s what helps us scale greater heights. For us, however much we achieve we’re 1 per cent done. Our destination is a moving target. This helps bring perspective to our work.

How has the journey for Zomato been so far? Financially, who backed the project? How easy or difficult it was to get clients on board?

A good business plan isn't enough to attract investors on board. Investors look for a product that is scalable and adds long-term value. Investors and merchants alike found value in our product because of its unique offering and the up-to-date content that we provide on an easily accessible platform. Our content base, combined with a scalable revenue model, and a fantastic team that never takes no for an answer, gave our investors the confidence to invest in us.

Initially it was difficult to find the right investors but eventually everything fell into place when we raised our first round of funding of $1 million in August 2010 from Info Edge (India) Ltd.

With respect to getting clients on board in the early days, we faced the chicken and egg conundrum. We needed to get clients on board to gain credibility in the restaurant community in a particular market while at the same time we weren’t particularly popular yet. We solved this problem by structuring our approach in a market and made sure we first established our user base before we started pushing to drive revenue. This approach made it easier to make restaurants understand the value that they would drive by being on our platform.

Over the years, how has the business been – challenges and high points?

In the early days we faced some hurdles while trying to raise funds and also finding the right team of people was a challenge. These initial challenges made us a lot smarter about how we were going to build our company.

We started using everything from referrals, to our social networks to find the best people out there. What we did learn while growing our business was that the one important thing to take care of is that you need to find good people to work with, people who are as committed to the job as you.

Our growth over the past two years is definitely a high point for us. Before launching our first international operations in Dubai in September 2012, we were in 12 cities in India and never thought we’d grow as quickly as we have. We’re present in 22 countries as of today, with more on the way. Seeing the company and our people grow to build the Zomato you see today is definitely one of the best feelings.

What is the team strength – then and now?

Deepinder and I started out of a living room in 2008 and six years down the line we have over 1000 people across all our markets.

What is your core strength and why?

I for one am very curious and I think that’s something that’s helped me get where I am today. I’ve also been willing to adapt, listen to as well as consider new perspectives and ideas - I think it is important to keep this in mind to be successful in running a business.

Do you think you have got the respect in the market, you want and deserve?

Quite honestly, when we started Zomato in 2008 we didn’t think we’d get where we are today. It’s been a great run so far; we’re present in 22 countries today and there’s a lot more in the pipeline in terms of expansion and product innovation. It goes without saying, our product reaches out to millions of people across the world and adds value to their everyday lives.

We’ve always worked keeping in mind the fact that we’re 1 per cent done and that our destination is a moving target. Sure, our users love the product we’ve created but there’s always so much more to do.

Last six months have seen a number of acquisitions. Can you elaborate on the methodology behind it?

This past year, we have had a two-pronged approach – expansion across multiple geographies, and building vertical depth within the restaurant space. We made six acquisitions in the last six months. What’s changed in the way we think now is that inorganic growth is not ruled out for us. But that’s not the only way forward for us.

We’re still going to go into markets and build from grounds up. As far as our strategy on acquisitions is concerned, it's not really about build-versus-buy for us; it's about hitting the ground running with the right team. We have a labour-intensive model, and execution is very important for us. We enter markets as soon as we see a product-market fit and have a team that can make things happen quickly. Having said that these acquisitions will most definitely help us strengthen our market share across the various countries of their presence.

In countries where there is a gap in the market and no clear market leader, we will continue to built from scratch. We’ve been fortunate to have acquired market leaders with local insight and experience in countries like US, Italy, Poland among others, where we’ve always wanted to expand.

After acquiring Urbanspoon, you changed the logo again? Why?

It’s important to us that we don’t lose a lot of Urbanspoon users by giving them a new name, a new logo, and a new product. With that in mind, we’ve taken a call that’ll help ease the transition – making the first point of interaction with the product a familiar one, by modifying our logo to that of Urbanspoon’s Spoon logo.

We want to make sure that when we update the Urbanspoon app for millions of users, we don’t give them a new name and a new icon. Doing that could make it look like they installed the Zomato app by mistake, potentially leading to a large number of uninstalls.

How has Zomato's hyperlocal advertising model combined with the business app suite helped the brand?

Zomato is a highly targeted platform that connects restaurants with its existing and potential customer base. Every step of the way we work towards improving the consumer reach for merchants. Quite simply, Zomato adds value to users and restaurant owners alike - users have access to in-depth restaurant information and the restaurant owners have access to a highly filtered and targeted pool of potential customers.

While listing a restaurant on Zomato is absolutely free; with our hyperlocal advertising model, businesses have the option of displaying ads to hungry consumers looking for dining options in a specific area.

Globally, over 4500 restaurants advertise on Zomato, who have seen a marked, measurable growth in their business. Zomato for Business allows restaurants to get more out of their business with services that aim to simplify their daily operations.

Restaurant owners can connect and engage with their customers by being able to reply to their reviews within seconds. This also allows restaurateurs to upload in-line snippets and image tiles of their promotions directly, post discounts, specials or freebies, and special menus on their restaurant page, helping them keep their content relevant and updated. With Zomato for Business, Zomato aims to bridge the gap between customers and restaurant owners.

What is your view on the competition growing in the country? And where do you see the sector going in the next couple of years?

Our focus on restaurant discovery and providing a holistic dining experience gives us edge over our competition. Many of the players out there don’t cater to discovery, especially in the restaurant space. As we grow we’re driven more to constantly improve our product and dominate the competition within our space.

With greater internet penetration and growing smartphone use there will be a huge opportunity for web-based startups in the consumer space. India’s fascination with smartphones, laptops, and tablets has fuelled this growth in the food search and discovery segment. Quite rightly, communication, information and media are at the heart of this phase.

Where do you see the company and yourself in the next five years?

Over the next few years we’re focused on making an even bigger push on the product side and on taking our mobile app to the next level. Today, more than 50 per cent of Zomato's monthly visits come from our mobile apps across the globe, testimony to the fact that local search is moving to mobile very quickly. Mobile apps are the future. The great thing though is that we see Zomato as being the best service out there in the next five years. For us, it’s always been about taking the step-by-step approach.

Any advice to others who want to open something of their own?

There’s this understanding in India where people look at success as having a steady job and a family, although now people are a lot more open to taking risks and gaining experience at a startup and even pursuing their own entrepreneurial efforts. I’d say take risks and don’t be afraid of what could happen. Invest in people and relationships. Looking back, I attribute most of our growth over the past few years to the fact that we invested our time in people and on building a great product and service.

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