When Esseplore — an AI-driven, tech-enabled food and travel company — first launched, they could not have done so at a worse timing. The world was going into lockdown, and travel ground to a halt. However, they did not let adversity drag them down, and decided to pivot to focus on helping local chefs find a platform to showcase their talents.
Poh Mui Hoon, co-founder and executive director of Esseplore — a AI-driven food and travel platform — knows all about adversity. In her long and distinguished career in a variety of fields, including being at the forefront where technology meets business, Poh is no stranger to steering a ship through choppy waters.
But perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles she had to face has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which has decimated industries and grinded the global economy to a halt. Even after having been in several high-profile roles over the years — including Group CEO of electronic payment service provider NETS — Poh too, was caught off-guard by how bad the virus would impact the world.
It was made worse by the fact that Esseplore, which was founded in 2018 and took over a year to build from ground up, was supposed to launch in March.
But as infections soared across the world, travel plans were left in the dust; and this obviously did not bode well for Esseplore, whose target audience were business-leisure (or ‘bleisure’, a portmanteau of business and leisure) travellers looking for unique, hyper-local experiences in various countries, first in Singapore and then eventually, across the world.
Their AI-driven technology would essentially curate and organise non-touristy experiences for the discerning and time-strapped ‘bleisure’ traveller, allowing them to explore the country like a local.
“We thought, with the data that is available today and AI capabilities, this is a way to cater to the bleisure travellers. Frankly, this group of travellers don’t like to be packed onto tour buses,” says Poh, who is also a Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) regional board member.
“So we thought, we’ll put together this platform that will, based on your input and preferences, quickly determine what’s going to be interesting for you in the location you’re in.” Esseplore’s unique selling proposition, as it were, was about seeing a city through a local’s eyes.
“Say, if you have three hours to spare between meetings, the AI will suggest an itinerary for you and something you can do. And, if you’d like to have a meal but don’t really want to go to a restaurant based on a TripAdvisor rating, well, we can suggest home chefs who will present the best of our local cuisine for you; kind of like the Airbnb of chefs,” she says. “After all, if you were going to a new city, you’d want to sit amongst the locals and experience the home of a chef, whose food has been passed down from generation to generation,” she adds.
“You wouldn’t want to go to a typical tourist destination.”
When the reality of the pandemic hit hard and fast, Poh — together with co-founder Eddie Chau and founder Sin Boon Ann (who was also Tampines GRC MP) — realised the business had to pivot, and fast. “We were like, “Okay, what do we do now?” Clearly we don’t know when travel would resume nor when the travellers will return. We could sit around doing nothing, which would mean we will lose our staff — so what could we do? What did we have?” she says.
Pivot and change
What they did have, however, is a platform, and the technology core of that platform. “We also have an ecosystem, a network of home chefs in Singapore who are raring and ready to go. People who’d be passionate to cook you a delicious Peranakan meal. If you go to a restaurant, you wouldn’t know the chef, but we wanted to showcase our local home chefs.”
From targeting ‘bleisure’ travellers, Esseplore quickly pivoted to focus on Singapore. “We decided that the only pillar of our business that would make sense for us at this time is the foodpillar. We still have to eat, right?” she says, laughing.
As such, they decided to focus on the chefs, connecting chefs to diners right in their homes. Every home chef is selected carefully, from their culinary expertise down to the strictest of hygiene standards. Each chef has to undergo hygiene certification, and Esseplore does this by partnering with the SHATEC Institute, a school of hospitality in Asia for aspiring chefs and hotel professionals.
Esseplore also has Chef Yeo Kian Tiong on board as executive chef, and it is he who will provide mentorship for the home chefs in Esseplores’s network, helping them develop their menus, balance costs, and most importantly, help home chefs get their name out there and build their own gourmet culinary business.
“For example, one of our chefs, Latha Chandrasekaran, is a stay-at-home mom and she wanted to run her own business. But think about how much it takes to set up a business today, it can take up to $200,000 just to get a kitchen done,” says Poh.
Currently, Esseplore has about 15 chefs in their network, all of whom are carefully chosen and who offer a variety of unique local cuisine. Aside from the everyday diners looking for a gourmet experience, Esseplore also creates and caters special menus for hybrid virtual weddings, virtual corporate meetings, and special events. It is something Poh says is a result of working closely together with the co-founding team, and the willingness to pivot and transform when the need arises.
Truthfully, says Poh, one of the things that anyone in the start-up world will tell you, is that the founding team will make or break a start-up. “In start-ups, business ideas will always have to pivot or evolve according to the situation, because that’s just how it is. There will always be a need to raise capital, if not here then somewhere else, but it is the founding team plus the senior leadership is what makes or breaks the company, especially in this early stage.”
She laughs as she says there were endless intense discussions between herself, Chau and Sin about what to do when the pandemic pretty much crushed their core business.
“I’ll say we’re lucky — over the past 24 months we’ve had to pivot, raise money and so much more, and we have a great team, we have a strong team to take this forward. We have an amazing team of chefs who are committed and passionate to working with us too.”
Truly, Poh, who spent eight years at the helm at NETS, and then later at fibre optics operator SP Tel, relished the challenge of working at a start-up like Esseplore.
“My background has actually been more from building tech businesses. I have always been at the crossroads of tech and business; I love looking at business models and how you can use tech to change it to create a more disruptive force,” she says.
It is, however, certainly a very different set of challenges that present themselves when working for a startup, versus a big corporate like NETS. “First of all, all of the huge corporate resources are not available to you,” she says, laughing.
“So it takes quite a lot of mindset change for someone who’s transiting from the corporate setting — it’s like, “what, you mean I have to do all this myself? Set up an accounting system by myself?” You don’t have to think about things like this when you’re a part of a big corporation.”
But frankly, says Poh, this is a startup’s greatest strength: Its agility. “Think about [Esseplore’s] pivot. How fast was that? From March until now, we have another business running. Had this been in a large corporation, how long would it have taken? For something to switch paths like this, how many approvals will you need to secure and how many of those approvers are as closely related and invested in the business as we are?” she says.
This, perhaps, is what keeps Poh going, even with the challenges of running a travel business while no travel is allowed. With her calibre and experience, Poh could easily have stayed in a cushy, high-profile corporate job of delegating and signing papers, figuratively speaking — surely she did not need the sleepless nights and the pressure of building something from scratch?
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“One of the things I’ve learnt over time, I’ve kind of learned about what it means to feel happy. About how to be authentic to your true self — true to what you’re about, who you are, and what makes you happy,” she says.
“And signing papers doesn’t make me so happy,” she jokes.
In this stage of her life, she now has the choice to do what she truly loves. “I like to be able to build a business now that will make an impact on small businesses and operators.”
It is made all the better by the strength of the founding team, says Poh. “[Sin] Boon Ann is a great leader, and Chau is exceptionally experienced in what to do to scale up a business. I’ve learnt so much from him, he’s so good at taking something from zero to one, of scaling and building things.”
“It’s a space where we can amalgamate the energy and create something and that’s what I love about it; in creating something.”
While travel remains mostly closed till today, almost a year on, Poh is still not deterred. For now, Esseplore will continue to build on their network of chefs and bring more varied gourmet dining experiences to their customers.