If you’d told me 15 years ago while I was in charge of Community Products at AOL — where homepages were part of my purview — that we’d still be trying the crack business of Website creation today I’d have discounted your prescience. Well, discount all you like, Web 1.0-era Rick, because you’d have been wrong.
You couldn’t blame me too much for the confidence, though, as we were making homepage creation pretty simple. At one point I pushed for the auto-creation of sites wherein new members who joined AOL would be handed a free, pre-formatted homepage tied to a keyword (their “screen name”) so they could tell friends, “find me at keyword JoesPizza.” This was before it was simple to create an external Website matched to a domain, and keywords were the currency of the time, so it made sense. Alas, the business behind it didn’t hold up and full execution never happened.
During the intervening years many site-builders have come and gone. Some went the path of offering incredibly rich, flash-based solutions that most normals had little use for. Others stripped everything down to text and imagery with a little functionality like message boards. Blogs were percolating at the edge of this cycle and many thought local businesses (restaurants for instance) and others would just use these easy publishing platforms for their sole digital existence. It was not to be, for the most part. Eventually restaurant owners found themselves with a multitude of options, from Facebook pages to micro-homes on the results pages of search sites and YP, not to mention Yelp, daily deals sites and others.
That brings us to Deap Ubhi, an entrepreneur taking a run at making destination creation easy and meaningful. Ubhi (who will present in the startup showcase at Street Fight Summit West on June 7th in San Francisco) has been focusing on the local space for over a decade, with his first startup burrp!, a local review platform becoming one of India’s most iconic Internet brands before it was acquired by Network 18. He then helped guide mobile payments company FreeCharge (as COO) early in their lifecycle to what would become the largest technology exit in India’s history: $450 million to SnapDeal. Ubhi next went on to spend two years at Amazon Web Services working in their startup team with early stage startups. Recently, with two friends from FreeCharge, Ubhi took $1 million in seed money and founded TableHero, a site builder and more for local restaurants with big designs on reinventing local technology.
I recently sat down virtually with Ubhi to find out why he’s targeting restaurants (there are over 600,000 in the U.S.) and what his larger intentions are with TableHero.
burrp! was sometimes referred to the Yelp! of India. How did that business come about?
It absolutely was; we have no qualms about that representation. In late 2005, Yelp was gaining cult status in the Bay Area, and we were inspired by its ability to really galvanize the foodie community. In terms of its feasibility in a greenfield market like India, well, that understanding came from a personal trip to India I took with some of my best friends in 2004.
Put plainly, outside of hotel concierges, we couldn’t find any centralized resource for local content, local data or recommendations. In fact, at that time, the most centralized source of local data was the physical Infomedia yellow pages. We just saw an opportunity, and we knew we’d be early to the market but there was a clear need for a more centralized, democratized source of local content. Classic concept arbitrage.
I’d say the key learning with a two-sided network like Yelp and burrp! is knowing from day one that you are serving two constituents
What core things did you learn about local with burrp!?
I’d say the key learning with a two-sided network like Yelp and burrp! is knowing from day one that you are serving two constituents. We certainly were later than we’d liked in realizing that, and I sense that perhaps for Yelp it was something that was tackled sequentially after getting the end-user adoption. Looking back at it, it’s so common-sense now but when you’re in the thick of things you forget that there is a whole cohort of small local business owners that are just extremely hard-working, smart people who also want technology to do amazing things for them.
I don’t buy that small local business owners aren’t savvy; they simply have their priorities extremely clear, and understand what they do and don’t have time for. While I agree that selling into small local business owners isn’t easy, we have a core belief that this is primarily because there have not been many compelling tools for them to buy; people aren’t really getting under the skin of a local business owner to understand her pain points, her needs.
How did your experience with burrp! in the Indian market translate to the U.S. market?
Well I was born and raised in Sausalito, and my family has owned a small chain of very popular restaurants for nearly 30 years, so I feel like I internalized and understood the plight of the small local business owner better than others simply via osmosis. burrp! being my first startup venture, a lot of what has translated and continues to translate to building a business here is my own personal growth as a founder — I’ve made enough mistakes, no doubt will make more, but am much more prepared for the ride.
In terms of learnings from small local business owners in India vs. the U.S., I feel like the challenges are identical: local business owners everywhere care most about providing their customers with a great experience; and a close second would be finding new ways to drive net new customers to their business.
Did the experience play a major role in why you chose local a business creating Websites for restaurants with Table Hero?
Small local business owners have largely been an ignored constituent when it comes to technological advances, in my opinion. For us, we realized that the truly foundational piece of technology that small local business owners need to invest in, need better tools for is their digital presence. Most of us cringe when we think about our local haunt’s Website, but is it really their fault? They do not have the time to invest in learning about design principles, Web standards, SEO, mobile optimization — they’re too busy running their business and servicing their customers!
The approach by legacy technology serving small local businesses has largely ignored this simple fact. Most, if not all technology in that space still has an expectation that the business owner will invest considerable time to not only educate herself about these tools, but also implement it, train their staff. No way! Shouldn’t technology be invisible for small local business owners? Shouldn’t onboarding take minutes vs. weeks? Of course it should! Have you ever tried implementing OpenTable, or Micros or tried building a website even on great CMS-oriented tools like SquareSpace? Even for technocrats like us, it takes time, and it can be daunting.
There’s an entire layer of mission critical technology that small local business owners know they need, but absolutely abhor their current relationship with technology. And at the foundation of that is digital presence, their Websites. It’s the foundation on which a lot of really cool tools can and will be built. That’s why we’re starting our journey here.
Local businesses such as restaurants have many avenues for marketing. Take Google “My Business” … Do you plan to try and upset that space or is that a launching pad to restaurants’ TableHero pages?
Right. Yelp has certain digital presence management aspects to their pages, as does Google. I think the key difference is that we’re essentially empowering restaurants to leverage their own websites, their own space to tell their story, to talk to customers.
Google and Yelp, at the end of the day, will always be democratized platforms; end users can always go to those platforms, rate restaurants how they want to, review them how they want to. That’s not our goal: we have one key customer and that is the business owner, and we think it’s very important to give them all the control when it comes to digital presences they own. A Google page, a Yelp page, at the end of the day, will always belong to Yelp and Google. We are simply building an enablement framework that puts all the power back into the hands of the local business owner.
It seems customization of the pages is not allowed at the moment. Will that change and in what way?
Absolutely. We actually just went live with some lightweight customization tools — so although we’ve got some basic AI that tries to suggest the best Website template for a restaurant based on the vibe of a restaurant, business owners can still choose from a variety of Website templates, and can make those changes in real time with a single click.
They can also change their business name, edit their tagline, change their logo file, and change the Website color palette. Importantly, even though we automatically ingest full-blown menus and prices for many restaurants, we’re still enabling restaurants to upload, email or text us images/files of their menus, so that our system can do diff checks and keep it 100% accurate.
Going forward, much like Instagram and their perpetual launching of photo filters, we’ll continue to churn out Website templates to give restaurants more choice when it comes to look and feel. Who knows, perhaps some day open that up into a marketplace for other designers as well. One of our key value proposition for any tools that we launch is painless onboarding through automation. We don’t want the business owner to feel like they have to manage these pages — that’s the whole point. So we’ll continue to focus on lightweight customization and editing capabilities.
We’re also launching a really cool SMS/text bot that will understand commands from a registered TableHero mobile number and make changes to their digital presences on the fly (i.e. a restaurant owner could text “please change the price of my tomato soup to $8.95” and we would understand that and immediately make the change). We noticed in a lot of our interactions with business owners that they conduct a lot of business communication on text.
Currently you’re only in Portland, Oregon. When do you plan to expand … and how many restaurants are on the platform?
Very very soon. We’re launching Seattle and the Bay Area at the end of this month; and if all goes well with those launches, we’ll be looking at a pan-US launch by the end of May.
[We have] a little less than a 100. We’ve not actively done any customer acquisition at all, and we’re still rounding out some core features that we think make the service more compelling.
Explain the integration of services like OpenTable. Can consumers access that and other services from the restaurant’s TableHero page?
Absolutely. When TableHero initially goes out to fetch everything it knows about a local business, part of that ingestion also includes all 3rd-party integrations, so whether that be an OpenTable widget or a GrubHub ordering capability, your TableHero Website will come readily equipped with that. You don’t lose a beat and there’s nothing extra you have to do at all.
What is the pitch to restaurant owners who have already put time into building a site?
That we understand the notion of sunk costs, and we understand how that feels. But that at some point in time, they will have to get serious about what today’s diner is seeking: they are looking for you on mobile, on search engines; that TableHero will turn something that restaurant owners have otherwise seen as management chore, something they self-admittedly know little about, into a true agent for their business.
For the rest of business constituency, Websites and digital presences have turned into powerful tools to help educate, to capture customer leads, and to eventually drive revenue. Why can’t it be the same for small local business owners?
What’s the bigger picture for TableHero? I’ve seen the following attributed to or about the company: “TableHero, which is aiming to reinvent the small local business technology stack” and similarly when a publication described your service as “an intelligent Operating System for small local businesses.”
It’s day one for us. These statements are alluding to our vision of one day being able to provide restaurants and other small local businesses with a tech stack that manages all of their mission critical operations. Today, we’re taking on what we consider the foundational piece — the digital presence. We are already launching several value-added features within the digital presence, enabling online takeout ordering, custom announcements that can be set up via text message (i.e. “Live music tonight: come on by!), and more. As we travel further “up the stack,” we’re looking at an end-to-end bookings/appointments/reservations platform that will be plug-and-play with your TableHero Website. And ultimately, we’d like to really shake things up with payments.
Hear more from Deap Ubhi at our upcoming conference on June 7th in San Francisco. Click on the icon below for tickets!