OpenRice Founder : Ray Chung’s 5 Ingredients of Success

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As a world-class food paradise, Hong Kong is home to a wide variety of local and international culinary delights. It is so diverse that even locals sometimes find it a headache to decide; either that, or the lack of knowledge on restaurants in particular districts also make it difficult to choose. Insert OpenRice to save the day, or meal, really. How true indeed is that old saying, “Bread is the staff of life” as this dining online platform providing comprehensive search results with over 40,000 restaurants has gone viral among Hongkongers over the past one and a half decade. Even its mobile application is so popular that the number of downloads has reached 1 million! Sounds easy right? Well it sure isn’t as we explore the entrepreneurial journey of Ray Chung, the dining guide founder, whose ups and downs have sure proven to be worthy!

How did OpenRice stand out from the competition? Find out Chung’s 5 Ingredients of Success: OpenRice now,  brought to you by!

1) Be Passionate

Enthusiastic about computer programming since primary 6, Chung studied Computer Engineering in the U.S. and set his mind to starting an online business. Clear that the flow of capital would be the cornerstone of a new website, Chung was determined to save HK$100,000 to begin his venture. So, upon his return to Hong Kong from the U.S., and assuming the role of a financial reporter followed by a role within IT, nothing could stand in the way of his eagerness to build upon an online concept. Chung made his first startup attempt by setting up his own financial website. At that time, he managed everything as a one man band – from buying servers and renting offices to writing financial articles, programming and boosting advertising revenue. Unfortunately, he had to shut down his website within half a year due to inadequate revenue and a shortfall in funding. However, failure bred success. It was with great passion and conviction that Chung made a comeback with his second attempt to set up an online business – and OpenRice was born.

2) Maximize Progress

With strong belief that building a new website during the dot-com boom should be feasible, Chung officially established OpenRice in between 1999-2000. Inspired by book reviews, he came up with an idea to set up an online community to enable sharing dining experiences via writing restaurant reviews by food lovers alike, and at the time, this was new to Hong Kong. That’s how OpenRice gradually rose to prominence in the digital age, with improved access to the Internet and emergence of camera phones and digital cameras. However, the app. wasn’t without hiccups. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, significantly less dines went out and naturally, the app. was less used as compared to before.  The company held its ground though and maintained functioning as is – free of charge to users, although competitors started charging their users. With Chung’s insistence in continuing to keep the app. free to the public, Openrice only increased in popularity. No wonder it’s still around!

3) Persist in the Face of Turmoil

Getting a start-up off the ground, and gaining the trust of all stakeholders isn’t easy. Chung went into a phase that bottomed out to stakeholders and employees leaving one after the other, as the business model, although new in Hong Kong and very beneficial to users, it couldn’t at all turn a profit in early stages. Nevertheless, at that moment, Chung still had to pay his 5 employees, who had to visit various restaurants to build the database for the website. Within half a year later, they faced a financial plight with poor business performances. With the gradual departure, Chung had to run the business all by himself and nearly start from ground zero – looking for advertisers, operating the website, and attempting to build a team. At its toughest, the platform had to be sold. A few years ago, Chung sold OpenRice to another large scale firm. Some may wonder why he was willing to make OpenRice over to someone else, but he understood it was time to let go of it for the sake of its better development. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to let go, but may be the best move for a start up to be nourished with sufficient resources to get to the next stage.

4) Raise and Save Capital Wisely

So how was Openrice funded? With an extensive social network, Chung invited his friends to make an investment of more than 1 million dollars  in the website. By combining synergies with other organizations and business owners, this experienced entrepreneur also found ways to cut expenses. For instance, he collaborated with Maria Tsang, founder of a cooking school, to offer cooking tips on OpenRice. Also, he contacted Ricky Wong, who was planning to register a new collective website to be a listed company in the U.S., to seek for possible investment opportunities. OpenRice was included in Wong’s website, which in planning to go live at the time. It was pulled last minute under the dot-com bubble, and that’s also when shareholders started leaving OpenRice. As you may have guessed, Chung remained ever more determined and in a mass effort to keep the business going, he took on numerous part-time jobs within technology, food and beverage, being a writer, media, serving as a radio host and was also a computer teacher. He made use of his earnings to cover the operational cost of OpenRice. It was worth the effort as the website (and app. now!) is evidently most successful in Hong Kong!

5) Maintain Impartiality

Chung knew that Hongkongers were smart shoppers (we, as shoppers know that, don’t we?), and thus reviews on OpenRice should be fair, objective, and aim to present all participants opinion as frequently and equally as they intended. While everyone’s dining experience is unique and subjective, there was reasonable doubt that not all reviews were genuine and were possibly considered by users as advertising for restaurants. . That’s why Chung laid a few guidelines to enhance the credibility of OpenRice: 1) the reviews will be censored by the staff before publication; 2) reviews of the same restaurant made within 1 month are viewed by relevance only, so that the average rating scores of these restaurants will be more accurately calculated; 3) the users’ IP addresses, login frequency and other factors will be considered (helping to eliminate ghostwriters; 4) most grammatical errors or typos will be kept to preserve the local culture (how unique – gotta love HK!). Most importantly, the website only cooperates in advertising with clients industries outside of F&B, including but not limited to banks, airlines, credit-card issuing companies, travel agencies. The smiley faces (good rating), crying faces (poor rating) and “Okay” (mediocre rating) faces on OpenRice are now reliable indicators showing the best places to dine out!

Permeated the daily life of every Hongkonger, OpenRice is now the most popular sharing portal for dining experiences. After selling this website outright, Ray Chung remains as the website’s consultant. Letting go of a business with potential at the right moment was the right move for Chung, as it allowed OpenRIce to get to the next level. Nowadays, OpenRice is all the way in neighboring Macau & Shenzhen and with English readily available. Coming from someone who’s done it, Chung reminds every entrepreneur-in-the-making that the Internet is a winner-take-all space. What he means: once the key to success is found in a niche, or a need is filled, the business concept would be sustainable but only feasible to develop into reality at the right time and place, with the proper resources.  One of the most important lessons that Chung can share, is that losing money when starting a venture is almost unavoidable in early stages. . It is important to prepare a huge sum of capital at the starting point to fight through the hard times. The ultimate goal is to set towards becoming the market’s leader of any particular industry entered. This in turn attracts investment to support the business – bringing it to flourish and to stay.

Oh, it’s time to go grab some food. Have you “OpenRiced” yet?


Read more: “Danny Yeung, the Ultimate Serial Entrepreneur

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