When I decided to leave my job in the civil service, I never had that baggage that many other people have where their family would tell them. It was more of like, "Yeah, if you think it's going to work, just go for it. Even if it doesn't work, what's the worst that could happen?" And that was also why I was thinking what is the worst that could happen. The way that I saw this opportunity cost was like thing and thinking, "Even if I start up and I fail, and I lose all my money, with the credentials and the track record that I have, I probably can get a job somewhere else." And I'm not picky. I could get a job maybe earning low three thousands, that kind of thing. And I'd still be okay. Something to survive, something to get by. -Joseph Ling
Since launching, Vouch has steadily garnered recognition for its work in catalysing digital transformation in the hospitality industry, receiving the Singapore Tourism Awards’ Best Business Innovation award in 2019, as well as being named one of PhocusWire’s “Hot 25 startups for 2021”. The company has also been shortlisted to participate in Facebook’s prestigious Startup Station Accelerator and the Amadeus Next Startup programme.
Jeremy Au (00:00):
Hey, Joseph. So happy to have you on the show.
Joseph Ling (00:02):
Hi, Jeremy. Really excited to be here as well. Thanks for having me here.
Jeremy Au (00:05):
Thanks for coming on because I'm really excited to share about not only your really intense journey as a founder and building a company from scratch to where you are today, but you're also tackling a very key problem, right, of really digitizing hotel operations in this really incredible and straightforward away from my perspective. So I'm really excited to hear your story. So for those who don't know you yet, how would you share and explain who you are?
Joseph Ling (00:36):
Well, my name is Joseph. I am the founder and CEO of Vouch. And at Vouch we work with hotels to build digital concierges that increase productivity, boost revenue and elevate the guest experience. I'm a 34- year-old father of three. It's been a really, really challenging journey starting up while juggling a relatively large family. In fact, work from home has been especially brutal. It's really brutal. I love playing football, although I haven't had much time to play football the last few years. But yeah, in a nutshell, that's me.
Jeremy Au (01:08):
When I first heard about you. I knew that you obviously first started out in the civil service. And that's where you first started your career. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you joined them in the early days? And then we'll go from there.
Joseph Ling (01:23):
Maybe how I can tell this story is that it revolves around my motivations. When I was back studying in university, I was actually really, really motivated by money. I mean, as I said, I was really motivated by money. Initially, in my early years I was thinking about, "Hey, you know what, why don't I try to go to become an investment banker because that's where the money is." And then later on in year three, year four I started to see it looks like there's this whole startup ecosystem that's coming up. People seem to be making money out of it. Why don't I go start up my own company. And so I did. I started thinking about how can I do that, how can I begin starting up?
Joseph Ling (02:01):
And there was a scholarship offer that came along from SPRING Singapore. Now it's called ESG where the tagline of it was, "Be your own boss." And the intention of the scholarship was really to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs, a new generation of people who can start up, who can run their own SMEs, which can eventually grow into MNCs. So when I saw that scholarship, I decided, "Hey, let me go for it. Let me take it up." And I applied for it, I got it. And then that's how I ended up at SPRING in the civil service. When I was at SPRING I think that motivation still remain. It was mainly about money. I wanted to start up so that I could make it big on lots of big bucks and all that.
Joseph Ling (02:43):
And I learned as much as I could over there. I was inside the innovation and startups group, so dealing directly with startups. Specifically I was dealing with startup financing, making sure that there's enough series A, B, C funding. And I learned a lot. And right on the dot, at the end of my scholarship, I actually left. And I remember when I left the HR came up to me and said, "Hey, Joe, you're actually inside a government organization called [CP 00:03:10]." I can't remember what it stands for. Basically they map out your potential. So they were telling me that, "Hey, your CP is really, really high. If you stay at SPRING you're probably going to go really, really far." But I made to them that, "Hey, I wanted to start up. This isn't really going to stop me."
Joseph Ling (03:26):
So I left after two years. I had this misconception about if I'm going to be a tech founder, I got to learn how to code. So then I started learning how to code. I spent 18-hour days stuck in a room learning how to code for six months, managed to pick up full stack engineering where I could build the infrastructure, deploy front end facing apps, and started to do projects for different players like [Marigold 00:03:51], building apps for them. And at some point I decided, "Okay, enough is enough. I think I've learned how to build tech products. Let me go start up." And so I started the company. I started Vouch at the point in time, 2016, February. And at that point in time we were really doing something completely different from what we do now. I was looking at how do we use big data to help retailers better target their customers through advertising?
Joseph Ling (04:18):
So the intention was to collect data from all these big retailers, put them together and if at a surface level, let's say, we see that 60% of people that shop in Nike also shop at Cotton On, next time some someone shops at Nike we can give them a vouch for Cotton On. So that's actually why we're called Vouch because we were using vouches as the vehicle through which we deliver value. But unfortunately, at the point in time being a first time entrepreneur, I had this impression that if you built something useful people will come. We built something that no one was willing to pay for. So the biggest mistake that we made over there was we built a platform that I thought was useful, hired a team to do it, got a government grant, hired a team, build something and turns out that none of the retailers were willing to pay for it.
Joseph Ling (05:00):
They would always tell me, "Yeah, you add this feature, then I'll pay for it." And when we add a feature, they'll say, "No, you add this other thing and then I'll pay for it." And that was when I realized at some point that they were really never going to pay for it. We ran out of money. I had to let everybody go, a really painful experience. And then we had to pivot. So at this point in time my motivations were starting to change as well. I started to rather than going for the money, I was thinking, "Hey, you know what? I don't really care about the money. What I've been doing in the last six to eight months has been really meaningful. What I really want to do is create something that is of value to the people that use it."
Joseph Ling (05:35):
And that's when the motivations really started changing. So our first pivot was towards chatbots for social commerce, chatbots for people selling things on Facebook in Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam. They're actually quite a number. This was a number of years ago before Facebook came up with their marketplace and all that. And the problem that we're trying to solve was this, we realized that as with [Carousel 00:06:00], people ask stupid questions. You have the description over there, this thing has warranty under this date, people still ask, "Does this thing have warranty?" And these sellers on Facebook, they were running a business where their entire livelihood was based around Facebook selling. They were getting like 90 to 100 queries every single day. It was just unsustainable for them.
Joseph Ling (06:19):
So what we offered to them was this app where they press one button, it will deploy on their Facebook page, automatically parse what they were selling and answer these questions automatically. Sellers loved it, the buyers not so much, which we only realized later on. So we were able to get significant traction very quickly just by word of mouth. And these guys were paying for it. We wanted to make sure that we didn't make the same mistake. The first time around we started charging these guys right off the bat. Now the problem came, the second time round, came when we realized that the buyers weren't buying at the same rate that they were doing before our app was installed. And it turns out that social commerce is actually a pretty complicated animal. People will say, "If I buy A, B and C can you give me a discount?"
Joseph Ling (06:59):
And chatbots are horrible at negotiating on this sort of thing, right? So when that happened, in a sense, we realized that their revenue was dipping. They all started to churn. And we really couldn't stand the tide of their churn. Churning was like 90%, that really, really high number. We tried whatever we could do to salvage the situation, we realized that it really wasn't salvageable. And we ran out of money a second time. And that was when I had to let everybody go again, a horrible, horrible experience for the second time. And it was a really big turning point where... At this point my wife was pregnant with our third child, my third daughter, we had no money. I had really pumped in all my life savings into the company. I think we had like $3,000 back in our personal account, company had like 300.
Joseph Ling (07:43):
I'm explaining about the... All the threes, right, so nicely lined up. And I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue trying to figure something else out on my own because I had to let go of everyone, or was I going to start finding another job? I got a couple of job offers, really, really lucrative job offers, but I thought, "You know what, let me just give this one more shot and see where it takes us." So I started to look for opportunities where we could use the chatbot technology that we had created to service companies, service businesses, and were able to bring in a few deals. I was able to bring a few deals, generate a bit of revenue, use what we had built in a different manner, pivot a little bit, building chatbots for anyone and everyone.
Joseph Ling (08:24):
So we were able to bring in a little bit of revenue. I managed to convince a couple of angel investors to put in money to float the company a bit more. And that's where we started to bring in significant revenue. And then our real turning point actually came when we started working with hotels. The Singapore tourism board, they actually had this hotels innovation challenge where they invite the hotels to come to a conference, way back, pre-COVID, when there were still conferences, and see whether there were any technology solution providers that they were interested in adopting. And at this point we were able to bring in Andaz Singapore, which was under the Hyatt family. This GM that was a visionary and really, really brief, he said, "You know what? I think that chatbots can really help hotels. Can you come and develop one for me? I will pay you for it."
Joseph Ling (09:11):
And so we started working with Andaz Singapore and we built a chatbot to answer queries for their call center and for their front desk. Very quickly we realized that the ROI over that was really, really high. We were able to significantly reduce the number of queries that went to their front desk and to the call center. And one thing led to another. We actually use the data that we get to continue building new products. And we're here where we are now, where we now have more than 25% of the Singapore market. And we are deployed in 10 different countries around the world. And we're growing really, really fast. So that's the journey of the company. That's the journey as an entrepreneur that I experience. It was a really tough journey. I believe it'll still continue to be tough, but all these experiences have made me who I am today.
Jeremy Au (09:56):
Wow. Yeah. I mean, I knew the story, but it still shakes me even hearing it again now. So obviously we'll talk about a company where you're approaching on the second half of it, and I think it was very disruptive and honesty innovative. But let's also talk about what's going on for you. The thing I wanted to zoom in on is like, okay, there you are, and basically your boss at SPRING Singapore is basically saying, "Hey, you're doing a great job working about startups and our angel investor and our business partners and ecosystem." And basically they're saying you have a fast-track/promotion in the future, and you still say, "No, I want to build something. What was that like? How did you make the decision?
Joseph Ling (10:51):
So I think it's the classic question that all entrepreneurs need to grapple with. How do you weigh up your opportunity cost? But for myself, I think my decision was a lot easier. And it's a little bit because of my upbringing and also because of the way that I see this. So my parents have always been very, very supportive of everything that I do. Even though they put me through the good schools, made sure that I got good results, all the way my mom had always maintained, "You know what, you do what you want to do. You don't have to become a doctor. You don't have to become a lawyer. You don't have to earn big bucks. It doesn't matter. Just do something that you're happy doing." So when I decided to leave my job in the civil service, I never had that baggage that many other people have where their family would tell them, "Hey, are you sure this is going to work out? How long do you give yourself? What happens if it doesn't work out? What's going to happen to your family?"
Joseph Ling (11:49):
I never had any of that. It was more of like, "Yeah, if you think it's going to work, just go for it. Even if it doesn't work, what's the worst that could happen?" And that was also why I was thinking what is the worst that could happen. So, to me, the way that I saw this opportunity cost was like this. I was looking at it and thinking, "Even if I start up and I fail, and I lose all my money, with the credentials and the track record that I have, I probably can get a job somewhere else." And I'm not picky. I could get a job maybe earning low three thousands, that kind of thing. And I'd still be okay. Something to survive, something to get by.
Joseph Ling (12:26):
So I never ever had that fear that, "Okay, what if I lose out?" I never ever thought about it the way that many people think about it, where I'm sure they think suddenly, "Okay, now I'm earning 6K, 10K a month. If I go at this for two years, how much am I losing?" It never ever occurred to me that way. So I've never seen money as something that is hard to come by or is something that will be difficult to earn.
I always lead a simple life. Even now I don't have a car. I live in an HDB flat. The only thing that I splurge a little bit on is maybe tech, like my iPad pro, my iMac... Other than that, really, I don't spend, I don't drink. I don't smoke. So all these vices, not there, I don't have to spend on it. So I lead a simple life. So money hasn't really ever been a problem. Yeah. It did motivate me when I was younger to make lots of money, but I never ever saw it as something that should hold me back from what I wanted to do.
Joseph Ling (13:26):
So the decision was really, really easy. And to me in the civil service, one of the things that struck me was that everything that I do there probably has a really long lead time before I start to see results. Whatever I do in the strategy and policy department, implementing new things, I probably can really see results five years, 10 years down the road. And I really wasn't happy with that. It wasn't instant gratification that I was looking for, but I wanted to make a difference right now. And so that was one of the big factors that pushed me to leave. So it was really an easy decision, even when the HR folks and my boss started telling me, "Hey, you have a bright future here. Why don't you stay on?" I never actually thought twice about it. It was like, it doesn't matter to me.
Jeremy Au (14:08):
That must have been quite an interesting experience because it was both a simple one for you, even though for most people that's the scariest one, right, which is leaving a full-time job to do a startup. But it feels like the next decision which is you build the first approach, a lot of people fail the first time they build something because they're not sure about what to build and what the demand is and so on and so forth. So the more adjusted decision actually is the second decision you made, right, which was to keep going. Because there you are, you're off cash, you put some money in as well. So that's actually the more interesting decision because now you know what entrepreneurship is.
Jeremy Au (14:49):
And now you know what it costs this because early for me it was like when you leave a job you don't know what's it like to let go of people. You don't know what's it like to build a company. And you don't know what's it like to let go and move on. So the second decision you had it made where you now know the opportunity cost has been made real, because you've spent that opportunity cost over what, two years? And then you also feel the real cost. So why did you decide to keep going?
Joseph Ling (15:18):
That's a really great question, Jeremy. And I can't really say for sure. I can't really say for sure whether it was pride, whether it was raw confidence or whether it was a crazy decision. But what I did know was that entrepreneurship, building something that really matters to people, is something that I want to do. To me, at that point in time I felt that I had options. If I gave it one last shot, even if I had like zero in the bank account, even I give it one last shot. I still had the family support. My family is by no means rich or wealthy, but I have three siblings and my parents.
Joseph Ling (16:10):
And in the worst case they will be able to help out for a while. So to me it was, yeah, just go for it and we'll deal with what happens later on. And there is a soft landing for me. There was a soft landing. It wouldn't be like a lot of money in my family that they can support me and all that. But I knew that my siblings, my parents, my wife would be there to support me no matter what. My wife was working at this point in time, so it wasn't that bad.
Jeremy Au (16:43):
So it feels like the first decision was relatively simple because you didn't know what was really at cost or at play. The second time you did it is still straightforward because you felt like you still could keep going, but the third time you make a decision to keep going was even tougher, right? Because now that you say you have another kid, a third kid, you're pregnant, you've done it twice now, so that would be enough to knock sense into anybody about what-
Joseph Ling (17:11): Sense.
Jeremy Au (17:16):... is actually the cost, right? I mean, it's tough, right?
Joseph Ling (17:20):
Yeah. So I think the way that I thought about it was maybe I didn't have common sense. But the way that I thought about it, "Hey, we've run out of money twice. I've learned these lessons along the way. It only gets easier." So, for example, the first time around I learned that you don't build something that nobody wants. Make sure that people are willing to pay for it. And that's something that we always do right now at Vouch. Whenever we launch new products, we make sure that we get customers to pay for it, sometimes even before we build anything. The second time around was more about product market fit where we need to make sure that the product really works well for them despite the different challenges that might come up. We need to find a way to get whatever we built to work for them. Even if they initially like it, it really has to work for their market, otherwise they're going to churn.
Joseph Ling (18:14):
So we also took that and we learned from it and we made sure that we didn't make the same mistakes. So when I was considering whether to try it one more time, how I rationalized it was yeah, I've learned all these lessons. I could choose to try it again sometime down the road, find a job first and then later on try again. Or I could try to go ahead again and see what comes out of it. And I remember one of the things I was thinking about is that, "Hey, I'm still young." At that point I think I was 30, 31. Yeah. And if I don't do this now, who knows, right? What if the fourth kid comes along, the fifth kid comes along? It's going to get harder and harder for me from a commitment point of view.
Joseph Ling (18:57):
And I think that I also didn't want to get sucked into the corporate lifestyle where people get sucked in, they start earning a certain amount of income. They start building a lifestyle that requires that level of income to sustain. So it really gets harder and harder. So the way that I rationalized was that I learned all these things, they're still fresh in my memory, before I become too heavily burdened with life's commitments, why not just give it another shot? And at that point in time I was thinking, "Okay, this is the last shot that I'm going to give it."
Joseph Ling (19:27):
But then, again, now that I reflect, the first time we made a decision, second time we made a decision I was also thinking the same thing. Let me just give it one last shot. So I'm not sure that would have been my last shot if we didn't find some success over there, but this was how I rationalized it. I felt that I had all these lessons fresh in my mind, before things get too heavy let me just try it again. And it was clear to me that I should try it again. I didn't really on that decision. Yeah. So it didn't get harder. There were more considerations, but it was still clear to me.
Jeremy Au (19:59):
Wow. I can't imagine how tough it was each time around. And I think you also said something which was very true, which is that you learn something each time around from that failure. And I think a lot of founder friends I know end up... They fail somewhere along the way. And they just walk out thinking they are a failure. And the interesting part is there's also something they learned. And if they have that self awareness, which I think most of them do, they actually can do a better shot in the second time around, the third time around.
Joseph Ling (20:35): Exactly.
Jeremy Au (20:36):
So in some ways you shouldn't quit too early, and you should play the second or third time more wisely compared to the first time you play it. And I think that's hard because I think a lot of founders do it the other way around, which is, "If I do it once I fail, that means I have no more tries at whatever it is. And all the stuff I learned is irrelevant." Which is, I think, a very pessimistic way of looking at it. And I think it's-
Joseph Ling (21:05):
But I also think that it's not for everyone. I was in a really fortunate solution because I had a soft landing. I had family that supported me. As much as I would love to seem like, "Hey, look, I made all these tough decisions. I'm a hero." It really wasn't like that. To me, it was an obvious decision. It wasn't really that much of a struggle. But, like I said, I don't think it's for everyone. In fact, many of the times when we have interns or when people ask me, "Hey, should I start up? I have this great idea." Sometimes I joke like, "No, don't. It's going to kill you. You're going to feel like shit for five years. You're going to not have a salary for three years." That kind of thing. I mean, I have jokingly said that. Part of me actually means it. I think it is really not for everyone. Yeah. So I think it can be tough for many, many people. But I was one of the lucky ones.
Jeremy Au (22:00):
Yeah. It is so true. And I too also make that joke because Harvard did this analysis and it was like, "If you take all the founders and you look at their earnings including the payouts, et cetera..." So it was a function of obviously founders who succeed versus founders who don't succeed. And obviously when founders succeed there's a small success and there's large success. So you sum all of that up and you look at their expected lifetime earnings, it's actually lower than that of you staying at a job in aggregate, right?
Joseph Ling (22:34): Exactly.
Jeremy Au (22:35):
So the average founder is going to make less than if you stayed at your job.
Joseph Ling (22:41):Exactly. And there's a survivorship bias, right? There's a survivorship bias. So people only remember the successes, but they really don't see the 99 other people that didn't didn't succeed.
Jeremy Au (22:53):
Exactly. And I think there's a crux of it which is that if you actually look at that analysis, the truth is becoming a founder is suboptimal if you're maximization is actually making money. So it's interesting because of two dimensions. The first dimension is that means people wanting to become founders and people who are founders are much more aware about this. And so we're much more like, "Whoa, don't become a founder if you want to make money because that's not the right way to think about it because you're not going to do it." Even though the press makes it seem like it's the easiest way to make money.
Jeremy Au (23:30):
And then secondly, I think you and I were discussing it and around it, is like the joy of being a founder is not the money per se because there isn't any for a long, long time, you don't pay anything yourself salary and should expect the pay at the future. But it's also whether you enjoy the problem, the team, the autonomy and freedom and control of leadership, right?
Joseph Ling (23:53): That's right.
Jeremy Au (23:54):And doing those things is what many people will pay money for in essence. So I think it's much larger than just financial outcome.
Joseph Ling (24:01):
Yeah. Actually one of the things that just came to mind was that I think maybe one of the more unique things about my entrepreneurship journey is that, I would say, it's more opportunistic. So if you asked me do I have a great passion for hospitality because we're in hospitality space. I can honestly tell you no. I'm not super passionate about hospitality. But if you asked me are you passionate about solving problems? Yes, I am. And I want to solve them with maximum efficiency. So if you look at our company journey, we went from retail, to social commerce, to hospitality and now we're in hospitality to stay in travel. I didn't know, and I could not have foreseen back when I started the company that we would end up here.
Joseph Ling (24:55):
I'm not sure about other founders, but because many founders always say that, "I had this dream, this vision, and this is how the world should be, and I'm going to work towards it." I actually am of the opposite view. For many people I don't think it happens like that. You stumble into it. You survive to the point where you find an opportunity that coincides with a larger vision, a larger goal, which is in my case solving problems, making things more efficient, and then you grab onto that opportunity and you hold on for dear life. So I think that founders really, really need a lot of grit. And they should be be a bit flexible about the industry that they're in or what is the exact problem that they are solving. Yeah. So just came to mind when you were talking just now.
Jeremy Au (25:39):
Through all these things how did you choose to be brave? Because each time around you chose to pick yourself up and do it again. Are there ways where you found balance? Was it in family? Was it in books? Was it in mentors that help you bring out the energy to keep going?
Joseph Ling (26:06):
So for me I think that the way that I run the company, the way that I operate would have been very, very different if I didn't have my three children. So in a way the three kids make things really difficult because there was a lot of energy and a lot of time needs to be dedicated to them. But they have also taught me patience, and they have also taught me... Sometimes I compare myself to a rubber band, a rubber band that can stretch almost infinitely because of the stress. And I think that without the kids helping me stretch a little bit more each time, training me to stretch a little bit more each time, I don't think I will be able to do what I do right now. I think that I will be a lot less patient in the way that I deal with my colleagues., and to the detriment of the company, I feel.
Joseph Ling (26:58):
So I think the kids give me a lot of balance. The kids give me the training that I need. It has helped me also find methods to cope with the stress. For example, one of the things that I've learned is that if I am really, really upset with one of the kids, I just forced myself to laugh. And that physical laughter actually switches me to think, "Hey, actually things aren't so bad. Let's just walk through this and make sure that we stop them from screaming their heads off rather than me losing my temper and shouting at them and going berserk on them."
Joseph Ling (27:35):
So that also helped me in the company. During really, really stressful periods sometimes I just force myself to laugh and then figure some other solution even if the problem seems intractable. So I think that the kids have really been a guiding light in the way that I run the company, in the way that I lead my life. And if you're talking about balance, they definitely balance me out. So more and more I find myself trying to spend a bit more time with them, dedicated them times where I put my phone on do not disturb mode and just spending time with them because it gives me what I need to continue dealing with the difficulties of running a company.
Jeremy Au (28:13):
So you said about the fact that becoming a parent has helped you become a better leader. And I think that's a big concern for a lot folks, right? Because there are so many founders who are saying a bunch of different things which are all fundamentally about a trade off between family and being a founder. So some people will say like, "Well, I'm going to become a parent. So I shouldn't set up a startup now." Right. And then other folks are like, "Oh, I'm a founder really, can I have children because I'm worried the investor's perception of me whether I'm committed to work." Or the other way of it would be, "I'm concerned that I won't be able to give time to the kids because then I won't be giving enough time to the start up." And then people who are currently parents raising kids and they're like, "Oh, can I ever be a founder? Because I'm a parent I have to run all these errands and do this stuff at home." So would you have any advice or thoughts about this?
Joseph Ling (29:21):
I think everyone's case is unique. For myself I have a wife who is very, very supportive. She doesn't really care if we live in riches or we live in a dump. Well, I probably shouldn't say that. I hope she doesn't see this, but yeah, she's very, very supportive. And I remember when we had to pivot the second time, when we run out of money the second time I did ask her, "Hey, will you hate me if I decide to just give it one more shot?" Then she just looked at me and she said, "Why would I stop you from doing what you want to do?" I think in her mind she also realized that if she were to say no at that point in time I would always have this thought at the back of my head where, "What if I had done this? What if I had succeeded this time around?" And I don't know whether that would eventually grow into resent. I don't know.
Joseph Ling (30:13):
So it's the way that we conduct our relationship. And so both of us we always give each other the space. Whatever you want to do go ahead, I support in whatever way possible. And I think I was very fortunate to have that solid relationship with my wife. Everyone's relationship is different. I don't think that there is a one size fits all thing. Families, it's always very, very complicated. For every founder, I think, it's going to be very unique to their case. And I don't think it would be fair for me to say whether someone should go ahead and do it or not.
Joseph Ling (30:47):
So I guess the only piece of advice that I can give is look at your family circumstances. Ultimately, for me, I think family always comes first. So if my wife had said at the point in time, "No, come on. Just stop already. I don't know how far you're going to go with this." I would have stopped. I really would have stopped. And that would have been it. Yeah, so it really depends on the person's priorities. And I guess they have to make that decision on their own.
Jeremy Au (31:11):
Yeah. I think this is a heavy truth, right? I mean, the truth is that, like you said, when it comes to family and career, the truth is if you have more resources the trade-offs are easier, right? If you have a better family, it's easier to do career. If you have a better career, it's easier to have family. So it is a bit of a self- reinforcing positive feedback cycle. And so I think the tricky part is just sometimes where it goes case by case is whether pushing on one side or pushing out the other side is... It's definitely a trade-off in the short term, right? And the question is that over the medium to longterm can you plan and structure your founder journey or your family journey in a way that makes it easier to do the other side of the feedback loop? So yeah, no easy answers, honestly.
Jeremy Au (32:02):
Well, so there you are, and you build out this product design just to take off, right? And the way I think about it, it feels like a no-brainer to me as well because basically there's this hotel room, you're inside it. And then every time I want to order something, I have to flip open a very lousy menu, and then I have to press a call button. And then sometimes it gets picked up by dining or sometimes it doesn't. Or if my wife wants more towels we hit housekeeping on a button. And sometimes it gets picked up and sometimes it doesn't. And so it's a bad user experience using the room. I mean, how many times have I also called the reception to set an alarm?
Joseph Ling (32:48):
You mean you still do that?
Jeremy Au (32:50): I still do that. Yeah.
Joseph Ling (32:52):You're one of those old school-
Jeremy Au (32:53):
Yeah. I'm one of those old school ones. Because they try to give an alarm clock and everything, but then you're like... For work meetings you'd normally try to do both, right? You do both the alarm clock and you still get a call-
Joseph Ling (33:06):To be sure that you wake up.
Jeremy Au (33:06):
Yeah. To be double sure you set a phone alarm as well. And obviously I call operator, and the poor operator has to burn 30 seconds talking to a sleepy guy saying, "Sorry, did you mean 6:00 AM or 7:00 AM for the alarm?" So it feels like this is no brainer. You're digitizing every single function on that phone. And obviously it feels like it's a better experience for the guests because now you can do it in bed. You can do it in the bathroom. You can do it while you're traveling from your attraction to the hotel room.
Joseph Ling (33:43):All the way from the airport to the hotel, on your way there, getting ready, start your check-in.
Jeremy Au (33:48):
Yeah. You can really start that process. Exactly. So it's synchronous, it's better use experience, it obviously saves a ton of labor for the poor housekeeping, whatever, to pick up the phone. And it probably also improves the service rate. Because normally if you call housekeeping and you they pick up, then a guest gets pissed off a little bit. So it feels like it's a no brainer to me. So I'm just curious, how do you think about the benefits for what you're building?
Joseph Ling (34:13):
I think that now, in the middle of this pandemic, especially now that we're starting to recover, this is a really, really critical time for hotels to think about the digital experience and how they're going to change the way that they run moving forward. So with COVID-19 you see a case where hotels around the world have retrenched many of their staff. And suddenly when things start to recover, especially now that you're seeing in Europe where deciding to open up, when you speak to the CEOs of hotel chains over there, they're expecting higher than 100% occupancy over the summer. Suddenly everyone is hiring at the same time. Everyone is trying to hire the very same people that the other companies are all hiring. And many of these people have already found jobs, right?
Joseph Ling (34:59):
You can't expect them to go one year without finding a job, right? Almost everyone has found jobs. So there's a real labor crunch over there. In fact, many hotels also they can't understand, they don't know what to do because, say, I hire right now, am I so sure that six months down the road things are going to be as rosy as it looks like for the next month? It's really hard to say in the pandemic, right? Look at how APEC went from the shining light of recovery just three months ago to now everything seems to be going badly. And now in Europe was the opposite. They looked like they were suffering three months ago, now they're all recovering. It's summertime as well and travel and go out and have our holidays. Locked down is assigned to be eased up. Things change so fast.
Joseph Ling (35:38):
So it's a really interesting time for hoteliers right now. I would say it's an impossible time for them. And this is where I think the benefits really lie where they're looking at solutions like ours and they're saying, "Hey, this thing might be an infinitely scalable solution to our problem." I could maximally depend on four or five staff. And this four or five staff could handle 100% occupancy, 120% occupancy, no problem with the help of this solution. I no longer have to hire staff on very short notice to be able to secure the same level of service for my 100% occupancy in summer. So that's how I think how hotels should think about it.
Joseph Ling (36:21):
I think it's a great opportunity for hotels to change the way that they run, where in the past they've always thought, "I'm hospitality, right? I need that human touch. I need people there to speak to my guests." But what many of them didn't realize in the past was that not all interactions require the human touch. Where you want the human touch is where charisma, humor, creativity comes into play. Things like picking up the phone and calling the call center, "I need more towels, can you..." Or, "Can you wake me up at 6:00 AM?" All these things require none of that. All these things can and should be automated. And that's how I think hotels should start thinking about it. That's where the benefits come in. Remove the elements of interaction that really human touch doesn't give that extra benefit and start letting your staff focus on where it does benefit. Things like maybe a guest wants to... They lost their luggage. And I need someone to help me find that luggage. Now that stuff can actually be the ones who say, "Hey, let me make a few phone calls for you."
Joseph Ling (37:20):
Or if the guest is a regular and hotel staff knows them, they know that, "Hey, you like Japanese food, why don't you go to this new Japanese restaurant that opened up recently." That's where they can actually spend their time and their effort and their energies on making that guest journey and the guest experience special rather than picking up the phone and asking for towels. Yeah, I think hoteliers need to understand and to recognize that this is where things are headed. This is where the important side of hospitality is, and they should focus on this. All the rest of it, leave it to technology.
Joseph Ling (37:53):
And it's also what guests expect, right? Even before COVID, guests are already expecting self-service solutions for things like getting water bottles, but hoteliers weren't responding to it. In the surveys that we were looking at, 75%, 80% of guests were really asking for these things. But human touch always came to the. I know I still want somebody to pick up the phone and answer these things. So guests have been asking for it. In the COVID pandemic it's become even more important. Guests now demand these things because I want to feel safe. I want contactless solutions. I want to make sure that if I don't have to deal with a human to risk catching COVID, I don't want to do that. And so it becomes so much more poignant for hoteliers to start to deal with this in a scalable way right now. So that's how I think our product and products like ours give benefits to hotels. And they really should start looking at it this way.
Jeremy Au (38:46):
Yeah. And I think that's the dream, right? Which is that everyday hotels ought to create that best experience. And it doesn't matter how it's done, but the fact that it is done. And I think that's the reinvention of so many things. Like look at McDonald's. They obviously thought that there's a human touch for the cashier, et cetera. But it turns out that when you start those self-order kiosks actually sales went up, right, because people felt like, "Okay, I can ask for more staff, more toppings, I can make a decision." And so labor costs went down and revenues went up. And so everyone's like, "Wow. Cost goes down, revenues go up." And McDonald's suddenly is like, "Okay, we've got to roll this out everywhere." But it's also the same thing for so many things like airplane self-checkout and check in, same things for supermarket checkout. I think so much stuff is just reducing these very transactional jobs and allow humans to focus more on the relational stuff.
Joseph Ling (40:02):
I think the McDonald's example was really great. In fact now you see the case where even if there is a cashier standing there, people will go to the self-service kiosk to key in their order. So it's a really, really interesting phenomenon that we are observing where you could go to the cashier, you could just tell them what you want right there, but people still go to the self-service kiosk and take their time to select. I think there isn't that human pressure where subconsciously you might think, "I need to be polite to the cashier. I don't want to wait too long. I haven't decided what I wanted yet. So I want to take my time to decide." There are all these subconscious thoughts that run through their mind. And that's why I think that the trend is towards self-service, people prefer things like that.
Jeremy Au (40:42):
Yeah. Which is so true because if I have a very unique order, I don't really want to tell that to a person because I'm worried that they don't catch it all, and I don't want to waste their time in that sense. And also I think there's a huge discovery component, right? Because as you play around the visual menu in McDonald's you get to discover promotions, you get to discover... It's a fun experience fundamentally to craft the exact meal you want to have. And it's also visual, right? Versus, when you talk to someone, it's just a voice conversation, right? And even more so in a hotel, which is you're dialing in. So I think one interesting thing as well is that you've also been able to grow. Right. When you talk about success, you've been able to grow from zero to 1%, to 2%, to 4%, to 8%, to 16 and now to 25% for the Singapore market share by hotel rooms. So what do you think has allowed you to get from zero to 25%?
Joseph Ling (41:44):
I think this relates to one of the other questions, right? As in how have we been brief? So one of the really great decisions that we made was when COVID first hit. I was thinking," Is this adverse? Are we going to die during this period?" Because all the hotels have been hit so badly, why would they be able to find the money to pay us for our services? Our revenue is probably going to drop to zero." And in my mind I was thinking, "Okay, we have a few options. Should we pivot? Should we find other industries to go into?" And then I also realized that that's probably what everyone is thinking, right? Everyone in the space is probably thinking about doing, "Let's go find another industry that has money outside of the travel industry."
Joseph Ling (42:32):
So then I decided, "Hey, why not? Let's do something else. Let's double down in this space. Let's see how we can help hoteliers during this period and use this opportunity to build that relationship with them that we can then convert into paying customers in the future." And that's exactly what we did. So we took out our [FMB 00:42:49] module, which was previously used for in-room dining, and we modified it to allow for delivery and take away. We gave it out for free to all the hotels in Singapore. And that proved to be a really, really great decision because by the end of the year, last year, we were able to convert all of them into paying customers. And because everyone leaving the market left it wide open, we were basically able to just walk in and take everything that we could get, which was really, really wonderful.
Joseph Ling (43:16):
And now moving forward this year we're actually doubling down further on it. And what we really want to do. And what differentiates ourselves from the rest of the competition is that we are trying to create a new category of software for hotels, guest experience platform, or guest experience OS, however you want to call it. Because when you set up a hotel, what you're thinking about is, "Okay, first thing I need to buy is my PMS, my reservation engine... PMS is property management system. My reservation engine, maybe my housekeeping software, these are the things that I need to run operationally. And what we're trying to do is we're trying to introduce a new element inside there, where it's guest experience OS, guest experience platform, where they also have to think, "Hey, now as my guests demand a digital experience as well, how do I give it to them?"
Joseph Ling (44:03):
And that's why when you look at the way that we've been developing products, we started off with FAQs and then we went to room requests, facilities, booking, FMB, now we're going into mobile check in, and we're going to a reservations concierge to service the guests even before they make the booking at the hotel in the pre-stay phase. We're looking in the future, how do we help in the post-day phase to get them to come back and do surveys, things like that. We're really building a guest experience platform, a guest experience layer that a hotel can come to us and with one partner, they can take care of the entire journey.
Joseph Ling (44:35):
And I think that's what really separates us from the rest of the competition. And that's what we're working towards in the future. No one else is able to do this. No one else has the same vision that we have to get out there and do this end-to-end guest experience platform. Yeah. So this is how we see the market. And this also relates to both the brave question that you asked and how we see the benefits for the hotels, where it comes out.
Jeremy Au (44:57):
Yeah. I think this is a no brainer, right? Because at the end of the day it's just becoming that communications between hospitality and customers, right? And because this intermediating between both the bot approach and life support approach, right? And having that graceful switch between both contexts in the modality way, but also across the different stages of the customer experience. So it's a very organic growth process to do that. So I think what's interesting, one last question I have for you before we wrap things up here, is at the end of the day for someone who is evaluating your product versus all the other products in the market, A or B or C or whatever it is, what would you want them to take away as they say, "This is where Joseph and a team at Vouch are really 10X better than everybody else on"?
Joseph Ling (45:56):
First of all, we've provided end-to-end guest experience. We're the only company that can give them everything in one shot. When you go to a tactical level, we're really the only company that pays as much attention to UI and UX. And this is really, really important. You look at how we deploy our products. In the past, hotels still... They already had self-service solutions, "Download my app and you could make room request from my app." Where we did things differently was we said, "Hey, if I'm a guest at a hotel and I am going to stay there for two nights, there is no way in hell I'm going to download an app, create an account, link on my stay to make a request for a bottle of water. No way. There is no way." So immediately we looked at it and we said, "You know what? Let's lower the barrier to entry. We're going to make it such that they scan a QR code. There is no app download needed. They can already start asking questions, make room request without creating an account, linking up their stay... It doesn't matter. Let's do that.
Joseph Ling (46:52):
And because of that we were able to get really high use rates, inside our products. In the hotels that we work with we power between 70% to 90% of all the transactions that happen in the hotel. So it boils down to... We go even deeper, right? When we're looking at the flaws of the product, if we started off with five steps to get to the end of the room request we then think to ourselves, "Hey, can we cut this down to three steps, to two steps, to one step? Can we cut it down as much as possible so that we really remove all friction in a product to get them to what they need?" And because of the religious attention that we pay to this whole thing, we are able to create products that people actually want to use.
Joseph Ling (47:37):
For example, when a guest uses it for the first time, we have data to show that they're going to come back to use it again for something else or even the same thing. They come in, they immediately see that, "Hey, I'm using this for room requests. I look at the buttons below, in the product, and I know I can order room service from here. I can order food from here. I can book facilities. I can book a taxi from here." It's so obvious to them. And because of the good experience they have using it for the first time, whether it's any of these services, they will come back and they will continue using it. Most companies, what they do is firstly they deploy one thing only. It could be mobile check-in, just one thing, or room request, just one thing.
Joseph Ling (48:12):
And they do it in a way that is really clunky. People use it once they're never going to come back again to do the same thing, let alone other things. And because of that, you have products that are launched that maybe on paper fulfill a certain purpose, but in practicality doesn't really move the needle for the hotel. They deploy a product like that on a wall. It looks great, again, on the media, but does it deliver value? No, it doesn't. And you look at us where we deploy one hotel, two hotels in a group, suddenly the whole group looks at it and say, "Hey, how is this hotel doing so well? Why is this hotel able to generate the results that other hotels are struggling to?" And then they realize, "Hey, it's because of the Vouch solution, let's roll it out across the rest of our hotels."
Joseph Ling (48:50):
We are able to continuously and repeatably do this going from one hotel, two hotels, from a group to the whole group. And it's down to the attention that we pay to the products that we built, the UI, the UX and lowering the barrier to entry. So hoteliers out there, what I would say is not all digital concierge products are created equal. Look at the results that they're able to drive. Look at what the company is really trying to do with their products. Are they trying to make this on paper useful to the hotel, or are they focused on what guests really want and how to drive the number of guests transactions? Which is what we focus on.
Joseph Ling (49:24):
When we build products, we prioritize what guests want versus what the hotels want. Hotels may say, "Hey, I want this thing inside the digital concierge." We look at the data and we tell them, "No, your guests aren't asking for this. Even if we build this, they're not going to use it. So don't do this. Do this other thing instead." And because of this information that we give them, they start to build their trust in us, they start to realize that, "Hey, Vouch knows what they're doing. They are focusing on the right things. They're able to build products that deliver real value to my hotel." I'm sorry, I went on this diatribe, Jeremy, but that's really how we think about things. We prioritize what guests want versus what the hotels want.
Jeremy Au (49:57):
Amazing. Well, that's a great way to wrap things up. And I love, love, love, love this product so much. And I think that's why I really have endorsed, I think, the way that you think about things. And I think that three things that have really stood out for me in this conversation, from my notes, I think the first one is I think your no BS, authentic reality about what it means to be a founder both in foolishly and naively leaving a cushy job of a potential to being a first time founder, but actually the real stuff of deciding to be a second time founder, decision to become a third time founder. So I think that's a huge set of decisions that had to be made. And I really appreciate that honesty and reality because it's going to be so important for so many other founders making that set of decisions about whether to keep going in the midst of failure.
Jeremy Au (50:55):
And the second thing, of course, I really appreciated was I think your advice on how to grow as a leader, for yourself in the context of being a parent and how that's helped you become a better leader, but also in a context of how parents should think about becoming a founder and how founders should think about becoming a parent. So a lot of real truth there. And lastly, of course, is, and I love, you call it a diatribe but I call it your passion for solving this insane problem called why is everything in the hotel taking so long and all of it getting botched. And why is such a pain in the ass to get it solved, off versus, Hey, welcome to the real world of the 21st century, which is like, we can do this on our own and self approach. And I love the approach of how you've unlocked not just a 10X solution, but also a 10X go to market. So honestly, Joseph, I'm so inspired by you, and I'm so happy that I got to know who you are.
Joseph Ling (51:56):Thank you. Thanks Jeremy. Thanks for the time. And thanks for having me on your show.