Startup Grind APAC 2018: Grace Wong on building a double-sided marketplace from scratch

Another headline act for the upcoming Startup Grind APAC Conference, Grace Wong recently sat down with us to discuss her startup journey and how important her mother was in the process.

Picture this: you aim to lift 10 million people out of poverty so that your mum is proud. And your method is for vendors to believe in your product that has no customers. Good luck.

When brother-and-sister team William and Grace Wong decided to quit their law jobs to take a punt on a food rewards concept – they had one goal in mind: their mum’s pride.

“Our mum is from a poor part of China,” Grace Wong told The Pulse. “She’s always been passionate about making a difference in the community, to help others. She’s always wanted to do something on a global scale.

“So we have this massive purpose to make sure she’s the proudest mum in the world. To do that, we need to save 10 million people,” said Wong.

No pressure, then.

The pair created Liven, a food rewards business where customers get digital currency back from participating restaurants that they can forward onto charities.

Wong said the idea of a food app as a way to help people came from seeing several trends come together four years ago.

The pair saw China’s mobile payments rise, while Uber’s arrival in Australia meant that people were happily swiping on their phones to complete transactions.

READ: The QR code comeback and the rise of mobile payments

“Being a little startup, we had a vision of where we wanted to go. But you really do need to ride the wave – you need to have perfect timing,” said Wong.

Grace and Michael had the vision, an early build of the app, and a dream – users and participating vendors were next.

The app started without either one.

Grace soon discovered that building a double-sided marketplace from scratch was difficult, to say the least.


The double-sided conundrum


Liven is seen as the classic double-sided marketplace play.

It connects users with vendors – think Airbnb or Uber.

Without rooms or available cars, users aren’t likely to sign up. Without potential customers, the room or car providers aren’t likely to sign up.

“On weekends I went out and talked to restaurants. I realised nobody wanted to sign up. Even though I wasn’t charging them, they were saying ‘Grace, you have nobody on your platform. There’s nobody to promote our business to’,” said Wong.

“I was frustrated and saying ‘but you’re not paying anything!’”

But they were paying by way of their wasted time listening to a crazy app idea with no customers for them.

“They were saying, ‘when you have 10,000 or 100,000 customers, that’s when you come and talk to me’,” said Wong.

She went for a different approach.


Selling what they can see


With no working product brimming with customers, she needed to sell something else.

“All I had was a dream, and a passion to make it a reality. Basically, me,” she said.

She saw the best route was to focus on her and the founding team, not the product.

The first part of the pitch was to simply point to her and her brother’s change in career as proof of Liven being beyond a passing fancy. It was something they were serious about.

“I really wouldn’t have quit my really lucrative law job if it wasn’t something for all of us in the community as a way to save millions of people,” she said.

“I’m doing this not just because it’s a good business idea, but because I want to help people.”

Secondly, she tugged at their heartstrings.

“Can you not help this small, little girl who has this massive ambition? All I want is to put your business name on my platform,” said Wong.

“Yes, I played the sympathy card – I basically said ‘I’m not charging you anything – I really want you to just help me’. People want to help where they can.”

Finally, she pitched to those afraid of missing out on an emerging story.

“I just said, ‘Look, somebody’s going to join the first 10 or 20, and when I become a billionaire, you’re going to miss the chance to say that ‘I was the first merchant to help Grace become who she is today’,” said Wong.

“Don’t you want to be one of those people?”

By talking about herself rather than the product, Wong signed up the first 50 restaurants onto the app.

“When I started talking about my passion, inspiration, the dream … and a little bit of sympathy and a fear of missing out, it worked,” said Wong.

“It was about getting them to believe in me, not the product, because I didn’t have a product. I am the product to them.”

 

You can hear more from Grace Wong at the Startup Grind APAC Conference, being held in Melbourne on December 6-7. You can get your tickets here.