“It all started with a frantic phone call to my childhood friend and now co-founder, Sahil Jain, says Ankit Mehrotra, CEO and co-founder of Dineout while explaining the genesis of the table reservation startup.
Ankit was living the life of an investment banker in the UK then while Sahil was living in the US.
“Whenever we visited India, we found it exasperating to find restaurants to hangout at, with our friends and family. Being familiar and sensitive to this issue, we decided to pull the trigger, quit our successful jobs and return to India to establish our venture Dineout in 2011,” Ankit says.
The duo’s childhood friends, Vivek and Nikhil, came on board soon. “Together, the wolf pack was formed to reimagine and reinvent the dining out culture in India,” he adds.
Ankit Merhotra retraces his journey in an up and close interview with The Passage.
TP: How did your UK stint help shape your business outlook?
AM: Studying and then working in the UK was one of the best experiences of my life and a complete eye-opener in terms of the global perspective I gained. The most important think I learnt from living in the UK was the obsession and focus on the aspect of customer service. After having moved back to India to start Dineout, I took it upon myself to ensure that the customer service we provide was the best in the industry. This was especially very important for our business as we were and still are driving a cultural and behavioural change in the way people dine out.
TP: What are the challenges you have faced while scaling?
AM: Though launching a startup is no small task, working in a startup makes you feel like ‘Superman’.
In 2011, the consumers weren’t as savvy with the online world in India as they are now. Nobody would reserve tables online. The biggest bump was to change the perception of people. Now, the smarter diners are embracing our services over the app, the website or the concierge service.
Even the restaurants weren’t as tech-savvy as they are today. Also, popular restaurants didn’t sense the need, as they already had people walking in through their doors. On the other hand, newer restaurants felt they wanted to explore the solution only when they became financially strong. However, we continuously invested time and effort in enabling the restaurants to be more agile, consumer-focused and experiential and through our tech solutions continued to focus on improving their efficiency and ROI.
The company's ambition from the start has always been to deliver the best experience possible to the diner and make life easier for the restaurant owners.
TP: What changed after Times Internet acquired your startup?
AM: Dineout was acquired by Times Internet in 2014. Times Internet being the digital arm of the Times Group, the largest media conglomerate in India, has contributed to the growth of Dineout, both in terms of scale and resources. We have made three acquisitions till now, mainly inResto in 2015 and Gourmet Passport and Torqus in 2018. Over the last three years, we have evolved from a Table Reservation company into a full stack.
Tapping into all instances of a diner’s dining out journey, we help in discovery, table reservations, amazing discounts, bill payments and cashbacks (via Dineout Pay) and also have Gourmet Passport and Dineout Plus as membership programs for the premium segment.
TP: Who are your major competitors? What makes Dineout stand out, say, from Zomato?
AM: I personally live by the motto- keep your friends close and your competitors closer. Today, the competition is so fierce that if you aren’t nimble or if you lack the capacity to respond quickly, you will lose your audience. Our initial idea was very different from where we are today. Instead of exploring different apps for reservations, discounts and cashbacks, Dineout helps answer all these requirements of an urban diner at one destination.
As a product, we believe we have got a very strong and unique proposition, which not only helps the customers dine out but also helps restaurants grow their businesses in the way they want to. We are putting a lot of time, effort and resources into reaching out to the vast network of restaurants and consulting them as growth partners. Our technology solutions help restaurants in completely automating and personalising the dining experience at the restaurant.
I think what Zomato has done really well is expand the market and make more people aware about such services. And while there is a lot to learn from them, we really don’t see them as competition.
TP: What's your revenue model like?
AM: We have multiple revenue models in place. We have a few products for which we charge an annual subscription price from our restaurant partners as well as our consumers. We also have a performance-driven transactional model where we make money on every transaction done through the platform which varies as per restaurant and city. Our organisation structure backs up the growth strategy. We have a dedicated team and their function heads for each revenue stream. Also, we have decentralised operations across all the cities we are in. This helps in faster decision making and helps us scale up.
TP: What do you think about the investment climate in India?
AM: The world was far less connected when Dineout was launched in 2012. In India, the growth in the sheer number of people with access to digital options in every aspect of their lives far outstrips most of the rest of the world. This shift presents huge opportunities to the food technology industry.
As a country of over a billion people, India has only approximately one hundred thousand affiliated organised restaurants, whereas UK, with less than 10% population of India, has more than 75,000 such restaurants.
India is huge and its demographics and cuisines vary widely. While this provides ample room for Dineout to grow, the company also has to contend with how the social structure continues to evolve.
People have more disposable income but less time to go out to eat has become the norm. It is a recreational pursuit fueled by a desire to discover new cuisines and explore new cultures. Overall the economy is in a growth stage, the workforce is young and the disposable income is increasing. New businesses and new opportunities are coming up every day. India is becoming a startup hub and there is a lot of venture money flowing into India. I believe that the future is bright and the next 5 years will see a lot of new ventures as well as a lot of consolidation happening in the Indian startup ecosystem.
TP: Tell us about your expansion plans
AM: Currently, we are present in 11 cities. These 11 cities have an ever increasing scope of getting the best restaurants on board. We will continue to capture the ever expanding F&B landscape to help diners discover the best restaurants in their city. By the end of the year we will expand to 20 cities in India.
Additionally, we are present in more than 250 restaurants in 12 different countries. We will be opening our first office outside India this year in the Middle East. We have built inherent defensibility in the business with inResto, as once deployed within a restaurant, it is nearly impossible to replace as we are building stickiness into the product.
TP: What is inResto? How does it work into your operations?
AM: Along with inResto, we also offer Torqus and together they form our Restaurant Tech Platform.
inResto is our restaurant management software which allows restaurants to Acquire, Engage and Retain customers. It is an open platform which connects the restaurant with various services across the restaurant ecosystem and provides one dashboard to manage everything from table reservations, home delivery, takeaways, customer feedback, mobile payments, and loyalty programs. inResto is a suite of eight technology products that come together to provide a complete Restaurant Operating System. Currently, more than 5 million diners are being processed through inResto every month.
Torqus is our Cloud Based POS system for the restaurant industry deployed at more than 3,500 outlets. Its all-inclusive cloud-based restaurant software system helps restaurateurs manages all their back end activities, ranging from procurement to billing to taking feedbacks from end customers post the meal. Torqus boasts a client lists that includes Freshmenu, Theobroma, The Bowl Company, Curefit, Coffee by Di Bella, Swensen's, Barshala, Baker’s Basket, Malaka Spice, InnerChef and many more. Torqus processes more than Rs 200 crore worth of transactions a month making it one of the largest POS systems in India.
inResto and Torqus together act as the complete restaurant operating system, and we are all set to expand our presence rapidly in 2019.