NextWave interviewed Yuliya Seregina to understand more about her business and how the current situation has changed the landscape of a young startup that launched less than a year ago, in September 2019.
She is a Co-founder of Aplace, a restaurant discovery platform based on chefs’ recommendations, which she started with her co-founders after a fruitful career in large enterprises such as DBS, SAP, and Accenture. Not only does she share
the market trends, but she also gives advice to individuals and other founders on how to get through these times.
What has been the biggest impact of CoVID19 on Aplace?
Yuliya: As you know, we are an integral part of the Food &Beverage industry and it has been hit severely by COVID-19. Probably not as badly as the travel industry, but still many restaurants had to adapt the way they operate swiftly. Many of them decided to close for the lockdown period as it’s really hard to sustain profit margins in this new reality. And this situation affected Aplace too because our initial goal was to share trustworthy recommendations for places to dine out, but now we want our users to stay safe at home.
What new adaptions did you make to your product to address these new industry changes?
Yuliya: We had to adapt to stay valuable for our users and also to support the struggling industry. What we realized was that more than half of the restaurants listed on Aplace started delivering (around 350 in Singapore), and suddenly consumers had a significantly greater variety of options to choose from when they order food at home. So how would they choose - the question we addressed initially stays relevant. On Aplace, all recommendations come from top chefs only, be it for fine dining or street food. Chefs are experts, eat out a lot, and care about their reputation - so they will never recommend a mediocre place publicly. Same for delivery - their recommendations are most trustworthy. So we created a collection of great delivery options for our users based on chefs' favorites, and now they are able to quickly find a match for their budget and favorite cuisine and get food delivered to their doorstep. On top of that, we released personalized recommendations. Basically, you tell the app what places you liked, even before COVID-19 times, those you went to and really enjoyed, and our smart assistant will come up with recommendations that match your taste best, specifically for delivery.
From an industry perspective, it also helps. Some places have never done delivery before and it's a huge stress to adapt that fast, but they keep going to support their staff, boost morale and be in touch with their customers during hard times. They need to let their customers know that they deliver, but not all of them want to list on major aggregating platforms like Deliveroo, FoodPanda and Grab. Some started sending emails and WhatsApp texts, but how many can you really send, especially when you are swamped with operations changing? And this is where we play our part letting the world know about these places, which I call "delivery gems".
How are these restaurants, especially fine dining, adapting to the change and making the delivery experience the same as dining in?
Yuliya: Restaurants with no focus on delivery prior to the pandemic, especially fine dining places, are adjusting their menus, basically creating the new ones for delivery and take-away. Chefs come up with simpler versions of their dishes, no flamboyant presentation that you can expect when dining in, no dishes that won't survive delivery too. But they keep focusing on high-quality produce and chefs' talent and creativity are always there, so customers can still enjoy lots of wonderful things at home.
What has the process of adaptation looked like for your business and what challenges have you see as a startup?
Yuliya: We have actually been remote from day one so there has not been much change from the operational perspective. However, like all other startups in affected industries, we experience even more uncertainty about what the future holds. It's time when startups should be especially mindful about their spending, extend the runway as much as possible, be realistic about the worst-case scenario, and funding availability.
On top of that, it's crucial to focus on changing customer needs at the moment, especially when founders pick their next battle, meaning, next hypothesis to test or feature to build. It's a good time to revisit what one knows about her users. For example, when we did our initial user research for Aplace, we looked at how people choose restaurants to dine out, how they explore the city's food scene when they travel. But now they are at home, and their search patterns and priorities are different. Some of them resort to cooking, for others - food delivery is just a utility rather than experience. And many great places that we have on our platform are famous for their ambiance and presentation, so our value proposition has to change as well in this new reality. I believe that focus on customer discovery should be stronger than ever for startups, and it will help to grasp new opportunities, or even to survive in turbulent times.
What do you see are potential opportunities that might come from this crisis for the digital industry?
Yuliya: I see lots of them, it's a challenging but very interesting time for digital product makers. Most people were forced to work from home, so from a practice that was native for startups and creative professions, it turned into the new normal. Remote education and socializing were adopted quickly as well. Even the skeptics had no choice, but to participate - and all that brings a huge opportunity for startups and space in the market for the new ideas, even those considered crazy. Numbers of users of Zoom and the likes have skyrocketed, and new collaboration and communication tools appear almost daily. So much innovation happens in online education space! On top of the usual courses that you could always find on Coursera and similar platforms, many more skills are being taught online. Having more time and no onsite options available, people started learning new skills like dancing, drawing, cooking, playing music via Zoom. Clearly, the generic video-conferencing product was not built for a specific learning experience - and it creates a room for innovation, what about the next "Zoom" for dance classes with integrated musical playlists, notes for the students, rhythm counting? Just an example, and there are many more areas to research and tailor for a new world.
I’m sure once the pandemic is over, hopefully sooner rather than later, new habits and ways of doing things will stay, at least partially. People are reconsidering the way they’re working. Now they see that it’s not mandatory to be at the office and have a calendar flooded with meetings to collaborate effectively. Having more time for focused work, employees structure their ideas better before sharing in digital tools like Miro or Notion, and it increases the overall quality of results.
Within the startup community, there is so much buzz and many people are coming up with creative ideas, especially in the industries that can help humanity battle pandemic. I see the acceleration of product development cycles - some products are being born within several weeks, this sense of urgency and genuine desire to help unleashed lots of creative energy. And probably additional time to ponder at home helped as well
What would be your advice to individuals on how to get through this phase, especially those that may be stuck in a negative frame of mind?
Yuliya: I get really surprised when I hear people saying “I’m getting so bored at home, I need to go out!”, c'mon guys! I’m sure everyone has a huge dusty backlog of things they were dreaming of doing one fine day. That whole bunch of great books bought for Kindle, all those hobbies you never had time to start, dozens of online courses waiting to be opened. You wanted to play more with your kids and probably do their homework together but you were at the office so late. I understand there is anxiety creeping in, speculations in social media don't help at all and it might be challenging to find a private space at home these days, but it's a good time to learn and improve. You can walk out of this crisis with new skills and probably personal side projects that can grow into something inspiring. So structure your days with time-blocking technique, carve out hours for the things you dreamed of doing and self-reflection, join some learning and fitness challenges with friends and family, and just stick to it, that would be my anti-anxiety recipe!