When colleagues Deepinder Goyal and Pankaj Chaddah founded Zomato way back in 2008, little did they know of how phenomenally successful their online restaurant search site would be. Featuring real restaurant reviews from everyday foodies like you and me, Zomato currently spans over 23 countries and is aiming to take over the globe.
Zomato has taken the UAE foodie scene by storm. You are as likely to see the ‘Rate Me on Zomato’ sticker in fancy-shmancy restaurants as the humble ‘hole in the wall’ cafeterias, and the site currently has over 2,000 highly enthusiastic, food-reviewing ‘Zomans’ across the globe. What is the story behind Zomato’s unprecedented success? I had a chitchat with Zomato UAE’s Business Head Viraj Sawant.
In a very short period, Zomato has taken over the UAE foodie scene by storm! Can you please give us a brief history on Zomato, and the secret behind its phenomenal success?
The response to Zomato has so far, been incredible. We’ve had a very interesting start. When Deepinder and Pankaj were working at Bain & Co like most of their colleagues they would frequently order in at lunch. It was at Bain that Deepinder got the idea of scanning menus and putting them online on an office intranet, because they would waste a lot of time queueing up in the cafeteria to view a very limited number of menus. The response that they got from their peers on this intranet website was fantastic and that’s when they realized that a viable business could be built out of this. That is how Zomato, then known as Foodiebay was born.
I think the secret to our success has been the unwavering focus we’ve had as a team on our product. Going the extra mile and doing more than you’re required to, often on a very tight deadline, is something that comes naturally to everyone at Zomato. Our team is what has kept us going. It isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of patience to build a team that shares the same vision and passion as the founders.
How does the UAE foodie scene differ from the rest of the world? Did it have its own set of unique challenges for getting the Zomato word out there?
UAE’s dining scene is clearly burgeoning partly because of the influx of new restaurants, a huge eating out culture and a primarily expat population. It’s vibrant dining scene and its growing restaurant industry makes it stand out as one of the fastest growing restaurant ecosystems in the world. There is a high demand for global cuisines in the UAE and an open-mindedness to try out new cuisines and with an increase in the people with high disposable incomes, eating out is only becoming increasingly popular.
Every country has its own culture and it is difficult to replicate preferences across countries. When we launched in Dubai in 2012, it was our first international market entry and we knew that we had to ensure that we localised our product to the market and added local features basis user search behaviour. We created a product that was in-line with Dubai’s local realities and needs and it made it easier to spread the word out about our offerings.
When it comes to consumer facing portals the biggest apprehension is around the famous chicken and egg problem – customers find value only if we have the most exhaustive in-depth information on restaurants while restaurant owners find value only if we have enough customers. We solved this problem by providing a rock solid content platform which provided all possible information for more than 95% of restaurants across cities in the region. We made sure we constantly kept tweaking our product based on feedback from our user base and this helped us tremendously grow our brand – initially, our users spread the word about our product in their social circles and it grew from there.
The love of food is universal, and Zomato provides a platform for foodies to give their unbiased views on their dining experiences. What, in your opinion, is the major driving force behind getting people to write reviews on Zomato? Is it the competitive scoring structure?
Since we’ve had the functionality of sharing reviews [beginning 2010], we encourage everyone to share their dining experiences. The variety and number of different opinions, especially from within your own network, is what makes deciding where to eat easier. We’re a neutral platform, so we welcome all opinions from layman as well as from bloggers and critics that want to reach a wider audience. I think the biggest driving force for people to share their views, within their network on Zomato, is the passion for food. Our strong social layer on the website and app, allowing users to follow one another, share their dining experiences with pictures and reviews and this allows users to make informed dining decisions.
The Zomato leader board has now been split into 3 sections: Top Photographer, Top Blogger and Top Reviewer. What brought about this change?
Leaderboards on Zomato help identify the most prolific contributors in a city. We introduced leaderboards because we found there were distinct groups of people who preferred writing to taking photos, and those who were less wordy and more snap-happy, and the third set of people who had their own websites and blogs already. It was more a way to provide all these different kinds of people the opportunity to come up their respective leaderboards.
What does Zomato have in store for 2016?
Going into 2016, we’ve made our mission statement – Never Have a Bad Meal – our core focus. We are focused on making sure that everyone is empowered enough to have the best dining experience possible. We’ve been building the foundation to achieve this over the years – first, by providing all the information one needs to make a dining decision, and then by giving users and restaurants a way to share and receive feedback through reviews and now with the introduction of online ordering.
This year we will be focused on making Zomato abuse-free and doubling our efforts to ensure Zomato is clean and useful to everyone using it. We will also be focused on growing our traffic this year and are aiming for a 10% month on month increase (in traffic) across all our markets. Expansion is definitely on the menu and we plan to launch Zomato in new markets this year. We’re focused on building products that connect restaurants to consumers and we believe that a world-class cloud-based POS system is the first step towards building that platform. I think there is a lot of ground to cover in bridging the communication gap between consumers and restaurants and no other player is doing this. We are certain that with the newly introduced features such asonline ordering and table reservations, we’re going to change the way people dine.
Where do you see Zomato in the next 5 years?
As a tech company we need to constantly build further from where we started, otherwise you get left behind. In the next few years we want to be the definition of food-tech across the world. What we’re building now is 100x more complex from when we started. We have been consistently working on creating a seamless in-app dining experience for our users, and have a long-term vision of making dining experiences unthinkingly easy. As a product company, we want to be that go-to app for anyone looking to discover a place to eat at, book a table, or order food online.
What is your role at Zomato?
Currently, I look at the UAE business for Zomato.
What were you doing before Zomato, and has it helped with your current role?
I have an extremely varied work experience prior to Zomato. I started off with movie marketing for a production house in Mumbai, for a couple of years. Post that, for four and half years I was an entrepreneur working in the field of music, trying to promote indie music and artists in India. Worked closely with various embassies to promote this music in their countries and their music in India and conceptualised and executed music events. I had to eventually shut shop because of bad timing (slow down of the economy) and some bad decisions. Just before Zomato I had a brief stint with a consumer goods company in India to expand their television business within the country. Out of everything else, the four odd years of entrepreneurship prepared me for this position within Zomato. At Zomato it is not about the specific role, it is about aligning yourself to the company’s goals and making sure that we achieve everything that we set out to do on a daily basis. All of this helped me in understanding the way of working at Zomato very very quickly.
I know this is a tough one given you work for Zomato, but please give us your top 5 favorite places to dine at in the UAE.
UAE is a booming market, and it would be tremendously difficult to choose a set of 5 restaurants amongst over 16,000 restaurants in this country. Few areas are my go to for some good grub- Downtown Dubai has a host of restaurants, Karama in Old Dubai for some great cheap eats and JLT for so many of the hidden gems. With so many restaurants coming up every week in the UAE, I am finding it hard to catch up with my bookmarked list and hopefully this year I will be able to find my top 5 spots.
Tezzy is on Zomato!
Zomato is my go-to place online for researching new places to eat around the UAE. Apart from reviews and ratings, the site offers scanned copies of restaurant menus and location maps, making it an indispensable tool for a food blogger like me.
Talking about blogging, The Tezzy Files is now on Zomato!
The Tezzy Files is currently the #1 Ranked Blog in both Dubai and Sharjah. Do follow me: https://www.zomato.com/thetezzyfiles