Singapore startups embrace local culture

Ahead of Aug. 9 national day celebrations, ZDNet Asia speaks with five local startups which showcase Singapore's culture through their recent products.
Topic: Start-Ups
1 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

With celebrations for the country's Aug. 9 national day hitting full swing, ZDNet Asia highlights some local startups which have been proudly flying the Singapore flag and showcasing its culture in their products.
The five featured include e-commerce startup PayWhere, with its social commerce platform TackThis. The service has been used to power up the donations processing system for a charity campaign currenlty running in the lead up to the national day celebrations.

Another startup with a product under the event banner is Massive Infinity and its app, NDPOnTheGo. The application helps provide information related to the National Day Parade, and includes the use of augmented reality in one of its games as a way to engage users.

Leveraging Singapore culture, particularly coffee drinking, is one of the success stories behind yet another startup Burpple. It ran a project to educate users on how to order "kopi" or local coffee "like a pro", which went viral at home and overseas. It eventually caught the interest of the local tourism board, which borrowed the concept for its own promotional activities.

Kopi was also the ingredient for success for one-man outfit, Afzane. Its time-management game, where the player runs a coffeeshop in Singapore, hit the number one spot for games in the iTunes app store here as well as in Malaysia for about two weeks.
Tourists to Singapore can also look forward to getting around more easily with the services of the fifth featured startup, TouristPads, an iPad rental company dedicated to the tourism industry. The company believes with more tech-savvy and business travellers visiting the country, getting around with a mobile device instead of conventional maps will be a growing trend.

2 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

Team members of PayWhere: CEO Dickson Gregory (3rd from right), CFO Damian Chow (1st from right), CTO Vincent Lau (1st from left), Visual design director Gerard Ng (3rd from left)

A casual conversation in December 2009 between three friends from junior college over the hassle of collecting payments online, set in motion the setup of e-commerce startup PayWhere. Several conversations later, the concept for social commerce platform TackThis was born--with the aim to help individuals and business owners easily create their own e-stores on their own blogs or social networking sites.

The three initial co-founders Dickson Gregory, Damian Chow, and Vincent Lau were later joined by their friend Gerard Ng.

"They can simply start by signing up an account and after uploading the products to be sold, tack or embed the store, which is enhanced with social shopping features, to social networks to optimize traffic and sales," said Lau, the company's CTO.
The platform caught the eye of the organizing committee behind Singapore's National Day celebrations, which was keen to use it to power the system for collecting donations for its charity campaign, Building A Loving SG, across multiple platforms such as over Web sites, Facebook and mobile.
"That was how TackThis made it possible for visitors on the official National Day Parade Web site, Facebook page and even people at bus-stops via scanning of QR code on the bus stop posters, to be converted into donors," said Lau.

The CTO shared with ZDNet Asia more on his startup's role in the campaign.

What is the objective behind Building A Loving SG?
Lau: Building A Loving SG is one of the several campaigns that are held leading up to the actual NDP celebrations on Aug. 9. As this year's theme is about Loving Singapore, the Building A Loving SG campaign hopes to remind Singaporeans, through the use of LEGO mini-figures they contribute to fill the LEGO replica of the Marina Bay Floating Platform, everyone of us can play a part in building a loving and inclusive society.
The main beneficiary of this campaign is the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, which aids underprivileged children, the real building blocks of our nation's future.

The campaign ended two weeks ago with more than 3,400 unique online visitors to date. About 9 out of 50 visitors contributed to the campaign.

What are some of the highlights since starting the company, and what have you learnt?
Ever since the launch of TackThis in Sept 2011, we secured angel investments and recently closed a seed round with Red Dot Ventures.
In February this year, we secured an exclusive partnership with global blogging platform, LiveJournal, to power LJCheckout as a solution for blogshops. 

We know running a startup would not be easy. Through the whole process, we have learnt to become much better in communicating value to both customers and investors alike.

What's next in the pipeline?
We are currently collaborating with brands to bring across social shopping experiences to their customers on their social media channels. We are now preparing to scale our service across the region and aim to come out of beta by the end of September this year, exactly one year after we launched TackThis.

3 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

Massive Infinity's Zhao Jin, Android programmer (left) and David Narzaree, Android programmer (right) 
testing the app

Massive Infinity
In line with 2012's National Day celebrations, startup Massive Infinity launched an app, NDPOnTheGo, to engage Singaporeans under this year's theme "Loving Singapore". The app aims to not only relay information about this year's event, but keep users entertained.

Massive Infinity began as a joint venture in 2011 between two local companies involved in media production and Web systems. The founders saw an opening in Southeast Asia for mobile apps designed for business, integrating backend database systems with frontend mobile devices.

The company aims to "create bespoke Apps" for businesses to help customers to do their jobs better or easier.

"We love pushing the boundaries and trying new cool technologies," said Kris Heslop, the manager and lead iOS programmer of the eight-man team. He added that one example was the incorporation of augmented reality (AR) features in the treasure style game in NDPOnTheGo app.

What did you decide was important to have in order for NDPOnTheGo to be successful?
Heslop: We wanted to create an app that not only relayed information about this year's NDP, but also engaged users in a fun and interactive way while still staying true to the overall theme of "Loving Singapore". The app contains features such as news, social media, live streaming of the NDP parade and an events schedule.    

One of the more cool features in the app is the "LovingSG Trail" which makes use of smartphone features such as augmented reality, location services and the internal compass and accelerometer. In the game, there are four trails based around four different themes Heritage, Urban, Green and Food.  Each trail has been released over a schedule of weeks starting from early May. The game is a treasure hunt style game which engages users to go out and explore Singapore and remember what they love about the island.  

To play the game, the user selects a location in the trail and is presented with a question and a location on the map. The user must then navigate to this location and find the place of interest. Once the user has found the place of interest, the location service on the app will detect that the user has reached the location and an AR object will appear near the place of interest. The user must take a picture with the AR object and share it on their Facebook to complete it, after which that location will disappear from the grid and be no longer selectable. 

As the game is now coming to an end, the trail has proved to be popular with users hitting the 1,000s and a lot of positive feedback from the participants.

How many downloads has it managed to achieve so far?
The app had around 15,000+ downloads, with 7,000 in the first week hitting number three in the iTunes AppStore Singapore chart.

The main success for us was that LovingSG trail was played and enjoyed by over 2,000 users during the course of the four trails. A lot of people won prizes for their participation and we had good feedback from the public. We set out to engage with users and help them to remember the thing they love about Singapore and we feel we achieved that


20120808 Massive Infinity NDPOntheGo
NDPOntheGo app

4 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

(From left): Team members Liyana Sulaiman, Farkhan Salleh, co-founders Elisha Ong, and Dixon Chan

The idea for Burpple was hatched in late-2010 in Silicon Valley, where Singaporean co-founders Elisha Ong and Dixon Chan were roommates. Ong was then the lead designer at mobile video-sharing services company Qik, while Chan was leading the ad operations at another startup, social media IT solutions provier Gigya.

Almost everyday, they experienced a challenging time deciding on what to eat. They could vaguely remember the food photos their friends shared on Facebook and Twitter, and very often ended up calling a particular friend and took her recommendation.

At that point, they thought there must be an effortless solution to remember and share food moments with friends, and at the same time get trusted opinions available anytime, everywhere.

In 2011, they returned to Singapore to continue developing the idea, which led to the creation of a social foodjournal. They aim for it to empower users to remember special dinner dates, share home-cooked creations, explore good features in places and organize their "food moments". Their third co-founder, Daniel Hum, a former software engineer from Microsoft, later joined the team.
Ong's former colleagues from Qik also came on board, kickstarting several social media creative projects. Among these was the "How to Order Kopi Like a Pro" infographic which went viral over the Internet early this year--featuring Singapore's coffee-drinking culture.
ZDNet Asia spoke with Ong to find out more about the company's projects.

What was the inspiration and aim behind the "Kopi" campaign?
Ong: While developing the Burpple iPhone app, we started making a splash into the social media and food community by launching several creative projects--one of which is "How to Order Kopi Like a Pro" infographic. This was the the brainchild of our communications designer Farkhan Salleh, who wanted to create something that could strike a chord with Singaporeans and foreigners alike--educating people on the different and somewhat confusing combinations of local coffee and making them into a useful, fun and cute infographic.
How much success has the project received, and how has it evolved?
Honestly, the campaign caught us by surprise. When we first released it on our blog, which only had a very small readership then, we saw a few hundred Likes in the first few days. When we started sharing it on Burpple's Facebook page, that was when we experienced first-hand the organic viral social network effects.

Over the next few weeks, we saw more than 20,000 interactions with people liking, sharing and commenting and over 2 million views of the infographic. That's an overwhelming 1 in 4 Singaporeans loving the Kopi infographic! It was also trending on popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, and made it to popular meme and humor site, 9GAG, almost nine months later and caused another online sensation.

It is just amazing is to see how a simple infographic like this could transcend geographic boundaries and time.

Burpple was also approached by the Singapore Tourism Board to use the poster in its promotional activities in Melbourne, Australia. It was displayed as a giant billboard poster to educate people on the types of local Singapore coffee.

We also launched a "Help Kopi Go Overseas" Web site, a social media campaign to promote Southeast Asian coffee and food culture to people around the world through new media communications. It included a humorous personalization of Kopi and his family, a video of Kopi aunties, and the infographic itself.

Following the success of its previous infographic, Burpple released a brand new one called "How to order Other Singaporean Drinks Like a Pro".

Perhaps one day we might evolve into a Burpple coffee or kopi chain...you never know!

What are some of the highlights since starting the company, and what have you learnt?
Honestly, we are humbled and have learnt so much since formally starting up the company seven months ago.

Besides the success of the Kopi infographic, many have also placed the Burpple iPhone app with some of the best of Silicon Valley, such as Instagram, Path and Pinterest. More recently, Burpple was also featured by Apple on 12 App Stores under the New and Noteworthy category and among the Top Lifestyle and Food and Drink apps.

We launched the Burpple iPhone app to the world while working out of a makeshift meeting room at the Plug-in@Blk 71 co-working space, managed by NUS Enterprise. Just last week, we are thankful to have moved into our own little space which will allow us to better grow the team and focus on bringing the best to our users and community.

What are you serving up next?
Having localized for China last month with a partnership with Sina Weibo, Burpple is looking at integrating more services such as Renren and Instagram. People can also look forward to using Burpple while making reservations, as well as many other exciting releases coming soon.
Burpple is currently growing rapidly in countries such as Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the United States, and users have journaled food moments in over 100 countries and 2,000 cities.

Kopi Infographic

Kopi infographic featuring different types of coffee orders in Singapore

5 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

Afzane founder Afzainizam Zahari, with students during his Japan teaching stint in 2010

Afzane started as a business proper last year  with a simple idea: to educate and put a smile on the faces of as many people as founder Afzainizam Zahari could possibly reach.

The company had its roots as a personal Web site, which Zahari started in 2002 after graduating. The site was used mainly for putting his personal digital artwork and mini Flash games he created.

"Back then the most popular mobile device was the PocketPC, and I had a lot of fun creating games for that. It was only in August 2010 when I seriously considered to take this business off the ground," said Zahari, who currently runs the one-man setup.
One of his more successful games has been Kopi Tiam, a time-management game where the player runs a coffeeshop in Singapore.

Zahari shares with ZDNet Asia the details on how it all started for him.
What motivated you to start the company?
Zahari: Prior to this I spent a good number of years in the education industry in Singapore and Japan. After winning some awards in Web design and Flash Lite game design competitions many years ago, I decided it was time to pursue my interests in digital arts and game development in earnest.

My business started in January 2011 with a simple idea: to educate and put a smile on the faces of as many people as I can possibly reach. I know this vision is on track after receiving many happy e-mail messages from people who enjoyed using my apps with their children or grandchildren. The most recent ones come from the many people who have played Kopi Tiam. You can read some of their comments that they posted on Kopi Tiam game's official Facebook page.

Some of my games have also been featured by Apple on the iTunes US app store. Another of my favorite app, called Cataline HD, has been featured as a "staff favorite" in appstores in many different countries for quite a number of times.
What was the inspiration behind the Kopi Tiam game?
The inspiration came from my fascination with time-management games. I have played a lot of games from this genre but I found none in the market that specifically feature things that are unique to this part of the world. I thought it would be wonderful to feature popular local cuisine in a game and then showcase that to the world.

It has been a tremendous success for me personally. The game is very popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It stayed at the number one spot for games in the iTunes app store in Singapore and Malaysia for about two weeks. 

The most interest coming from outside the region is China and Hong Kong. I did not do any marketing for this app. It was simply through word of mouth when I first gave a copy of the game to a friend of mine. She then told her colleagues as well as friends from the console game industry to test it out. The game got a major traction after I released a free version of it called Kopi Tiam Mini.
What's brewing in the pipeline?
My next project is another time-management game but this time it will not be dealing with food. I am also warming up to adventure games. I am currently studying this particular genre and I do have a rough story line planned out. It is just waiting to be executed.

With all these projects planned, I am thinking of expanding this business and I am currently looking for good game developers who share the same vision to come on board.

Afzane Kopi Tiam
Screenshot of Kopi Tiam app
20120808 Afzane Kop Tiam 2
Screenshot of gameplay in Kopi Tiam

6 of 6 Ryan Huang/ZDNet

(From left): TouristPads team members Caleb Wong, Abigail Khor, Joshua Wong

Helping tourists get around Singapore is the main idea behind an iPad rental company dedicated to the tourism industry. Interested users can reserve one for S$30 (US$24) day, with delivery and collection services thrown in for free.

The company behind the service, TouristPads, began around the start of this year when brothers Caleb and Joshua Wong teamed up with third co-founder Abigail Khor soon after they graduated from university. After tossing through several ideas, they decided to fuse their interest in technology and travel.

Co-founder Joshua Wong tells ZDNet Asia why he believes there is a market for his service.

Why do you think your business idea would work?
Wong: Imagine yourself on a trip to another country, for instance, Vienna. The first thing you do when you arrive is to get to the bookstore and buy a map, perhaps a mobile SIM card, and maybe look around for some tourist brochures to see what are some of the things you've missed out.

As a savvy traveler, you know the importance of local guides and knowledge, and you do not want to just visit the "common" attractions or worst, get lured into tourist traps. With our service, the moment you touch down at the airport, we will deliver our TouristPad to you, which will replace your map, your mobile SIM card which allows you to Skype home for free, and offer access to a wealth of inside information and guides from local apps, blogs, and magazines.

At the end of your stay, our couriers pay you a visit to personally collect the TouristPad. There is absolutely no fuss with our service, just lots of goodness and value. We work hard to satisfy all our customers, and our apps and content is curated to bring the best to them.

There were many challenges along the way to getting the business up and running, from getting merchant accounts with the banks for credit-card processing, to getting various marketing channels up and running ready for our launch, to coding and designing our entire Web site. As this was the first time all of us  were starting a business, we had to learn the ropes on-the-go but in all, we are proud of successfully bringing this service to all visitors to our marvelous sunny island.

How has the takeup met your expectations?
One definition of entrepreneurship by HBS professor Howard Stevenson is: "Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

As a self-funded business, and having launched our service on Jul. 18, 2012, we have had to be resourceful to overcome various challenges in bringing our service to customers in all areas of the business. 

We have had much fun learning while conducting all aspects of our business, including marketing, graphics design, legal, finance, accounting and business strategy. Balancing all of these has not been easy, but we believe our service is of great value to travellers and having a focus on delivering the best value to our customers has been our key priority from day one.

As we have just launched and are only getting started, we can't really comment on the takeup rate. Of those who have used our service, they have been very pleased. One customer commented that having the ability alone to Skype home has made our service entirely value for money!

How do you hope to grow the business?
Depending on how well the business does, we will wish to slowly expand our business beyond Singapore's shores, as we believe our service brings additional value to travellers all over the world.

We look forward to the day where TouristPads will be the premier technology rental service in major tourist destinations globally. In the meantime, we are focusing our efforts on building the TouristPads brand by providing the best service to tourists coming to Singapore. Our main goal is to delight our customers and enhance their stay in Singapore.

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