The digital revolution presents entrepreneurs with unlimited opportunities to solve a wide range of problems and thereby disrupt or create markets. With easier access to capital from private investors and support from government bodies that recognize the value of start-ups in fueling job creation, the cliché “the best time to start-up is now” seems truer than ever before.
However, as any start-up founder will tell you, success doesn’t come easy. Most founders flounder. For every success story, there are hundreds of start-ups that fold up within two years. Understanding the distinguishing features of successful start-ups and their founders, who manage to beat the odds stacked against them, is priceless for any entrepreneur.
Towards that end, we are thrilled to present two young and successful entrepreneurs from Singapore, Neeraj Sundarajoo and Keith Tan, who’ve not only given wings to their idea but gotten it to soar in just two years. The duo is a rare breed of startup founders who have been able to repeat their entrepreneurial success. Their second startup Zeemart, founded with a vision to transform and empower F&B businesses through smart technology and digitalization, is now recognized as one of the hottest startups from Asia.
Zeemart simplifies procurement for F&B businesses with a powerful and seamless order and invoice management platform that enables buyers and suppliers to connect and transact with one another in an easy and transparent manner. With an interface designed to facilitate ease of use (and remove potential barriers to change) and a powerful suite of features, Zeemart is enabling F&B businesses to manage their discovery, purchasing, invoice management and vendor collaboration from a smartphone.
Zeemart founders, Neeraj Sundarajoo and Keith Tan spoke exclusively to The Silicon Review. Below is an excerpt.
We homed in on the Horeca (Hotels, Restaurants & Catering) industry, specifically the B2B side, where a startling statistic caught our attention: 50% of restaurants shut shop within the first 3 years. We learnt that food costs account for about one-third of revenues, leading us to study the entire food supply chain deeply, right from sourcing and procurement. We discovered that a lot of the processes were very manual, opaque and offline which led to inefficiencies, wastage and higher costs. This was a fairly big problem to solve with the potential to make a huge impact with the right solution. Our quest to address this problem is the genesis of Zeemart.
What teething troubles did you encounter?
Like most startups, our initial roll out of the platform had a few hiccups. Our product is a critical part of a restaurant’s business operations and therefore we can ill-afford to fail. Helping business owners overcome any resistance to change was an important area of focus for us. There was an instance when our team went to collect barrels of beer for our restaurant customer as the supplier failed to deliver it in time for a long festive weekend. In hindsight, going the extra mile to serve our initial group of customers was immensely beneficial. They overlooked some of the early bugs and glitches in the system and stuck with us seeing our commitment to get things fixed quickly.
What makes you confident that Zeemart can succeed in such a dynamic and competitive marketplace?
In the highly competitive world of technology-driven startups, innovative thinking and having a great product are merely the bare minimum to survive and compete. What differentiates Zeemart is our organizational DNA- the company knows how to build businesses around strong principles of excellence, passion and hard work.
We have a strong founding team with deep domain knowledge and rich experience across both F&B and digital product development. The two of us ran an interactive digital agency for 15 years building solutions and marketing campaigns for global clients such as Unilever, P&G, Starbucks and Adidas. The other two co-founders are industry veterans who previously held senior management positions in the Horeca space and have also run successful companies.
The quality of the collective experience of the founding team, with the appetite and ability to take on calculated risks while navigating through obstacles, has been invaluable in scaling up our company at speed.
Attracting, grooming and retaining human talent are imperative for any successful start-up. Zeemart leverages on the rich networks of the co-founders, as well as their stellar track record, to build a strong and committed team. The strength of our team gives us the confidence to compete and succeed.
A startup may or may not function as originally envisaged. How do you respond to this need for change?
We’re living in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity) world, where ‘disruption’ is ubiquitous. Even seemingly change-proof businesses like supermarkets and taxi services are fighting for survival against online stores and on-demand transport services. No business is immune to the vagaries of change and anyone can be caught blindsided. We are no different. Startups are even more vulnerable being resource-strapped. What we do is to be extra sensitive to market change or demand and respond with agility. We have to work constantly at peak efficiency and can’t afford to be ‘stationary’ for too long. Alertness, agility and a healthy dose of paranoia help push us forward continuously.
A startup is defined by its core values. What are your company’s core values and how did they help you succeed?
Yes, core values are extremely important for a startup that is often subjected to enormous pressures from various angles. We’ve defined five core values that guide us in what we do and how we do things: from product development and customer service to recruitment and retention. These act as the glue that bonds the team to achieve our purpose.
Any company, big or small, must have the sense of authenticity and originality to succeed. What do you want to be, a leader or a follower?
The F&B industry has traditionally been manual and ‘conservative’ with respect to change. It has never been better primed for disruption, as operators seek to drive costs down and to maximise revenues whilst capturing the attention of an increasingly demanding new generation of diners. We see ourselves as market disruptors who want to drive the F&B industry towards modernizing their operations: from front-of-house innovation and back-kitchen productivity, to using robotics and analytics to drive workforce and supply chain efficiency. We see ourselves as a leader.
What kind of responses have you received from your users? How have they motivated you to shape the company’s growth?
The feedback from our users has been enlightening and encouraging and benefited our product development immensely. In the last two years, we have enhanced our platform to address more of our users’ pain points based on their inputs. Unsurprisingly, this has accelerated the number of users on our platform. Every note of appreciation from our users is another mile that we’ll go further to make our platform experience better.
Our efforts have also been recognized with several awards in Singapore and overseas. The biggest recognition we got was from IMDA Singapore (Info-communications Media Development Authority) as they endorsed us to be the national procurement platform for F&B businesses in Singapore. Such recognition reinforces the belief in being able to achieve our goals.
What factors help your company to compete on a global platform?
We are driven by our vision to bring digitalization to the F&B industry. We have seen the positive impact and response from several markets for our product. The multiple-market validation tells us that we are on the right track.
Competing on a global platform requires us to offer a world-class product and an equally robust support structure behind that. This ambition and attitude to deliver a world-class solution is ingrained in our DNA. Continuous improvement and optimization of everything we do regularly is a mantra that we practice diligently at Zeemart.
Tell us about your product roadmap.
Based on requests from our buyer community for recommendations for new suppliers and contacts, we’ve recently built and rolled out Singapore’s first F&B-focused sourcing platform- Zeemart Zoom. This platform allows suppliers to list an unlimited number of their products online on our marketplace. We expect this platform to improve sourcing of new products and suppliers significantly for F&B operators, while suppliers have an effective channel to get their products in front of their target audience. The response to this platform has been great with interest from suppliers and buyers from Singapore and beyond.
Where do you see your company a couple of years from now?
Notwithstanding our rapid growth, we believe we have only scratched the surface of the opportunity to modernize the traditional F&B sector. Our journey began with digitizing procurement, which put us in a very good position to exploit numerous other opportunities leveraging the convergence of digital & data to unlock enormous value to both buyers and suppliers. We are already building and rolling out the next batch of features that will cover inventory management, payments, financing, logistics and last mile fulfilment.
We have commenced operations in Indonesia and expect to start in Vietnam within the next couple of months. We are running some trials in Malaysia, Thailand and India in collaboration with established restaurant chains. Philippines is another market that we are on the verge of entering. In the last 12 months, our team has doubled to be 65-member strong and this figure will change very quickly to support our expansion into various regional markets.
We have some exciting challenges and opportunities ahead.
A Word Of Advice From Neeraj And Keith To The Budding Entrepreneurs
Having an idea, building a great product and gaining traction are the essential activities of any startup. What makes a startup successful is the strength and ability of the team to deliver on the purpose of the business. So, the most important aspect is to assemble a solid team first. Get that right and your chances of success will be higher than most already.
Meet the Visionaries behind the Success
Acknowledged as one of Singapore’s top digital agency leaders, Neeraj embarked on his entrepreneurial journey in 2002, by co-founding Comwerks at 21. Within 3 years, eBay added the agency to its roster, making it one of the agency’s largest clients. In recognition of the early achievements of Comwerks, Neeraj was awarded the leading Youth Entrepreneur of the Year by DBS/SICCI in 2007. He then led the acquisition of Comwerks by WPP in 2010 and continued as CEO. He helped set up Zed Academy, with the support of EDB, to train young graduates from local universities on Digital and Mobile, increasing the available talent pool within the industry.
Neeraj then led the Group’s largest digital businesses such as Wunderman, Enfatico, AdPeople and Comwerks. He also helped to set up and established WPP’s Government and Public-Sector Practice and was part of the WPP faculty in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. In 2013, Neeraj was the overall winner of the DBS/SICCI Entrepreneur of the Year Award as well as the overall winner of the OCBC/ASME Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
In Dec 2016, Neeraj left WPP to fully devote himself to his next venture, Zeemart.
Keith co-founded Comwerks in 2002 with Neeraj Sundarajoo. He played a pivotal role in growing the business into one of Singapore’s top digital agencies, working with some of the world’s leading brands and corporations, NGOs and government organisations. Following the acquisition of Comwerks by Wunderman, part of WPP, the world’s largest marketing communications company, Keith rose to be the Executive Creative Director of Wunderman South East Asia.
As its creative leader, he was the driving force to expand their digital services offering which resulted in iconic account wins such as adidas, Starbucks, Energizer & Lego. One of Keith’s early successes that demonstrated his product development talent was the launch of a site called PetrolWatch which helped motorists share and receive tips on fuel pump prices. Developed as a side project with Neeraj in 2005, it attracted global media attention, including coverage by the Associated Press and the BBC, due to its rapid organic growth that saw over 25,000 drivers register in just 2 weeks. Keith is also regularly involved with students from his local alma mater, Temasek Polytechnic where he helps to groom and inspire budding entrepreneurs and designers to transition from academia to the industry.