Qraved’s Steven Kim talks Asian-american identity, how his leadership style has grown, and the legacy he hopes to leave with his company
“I think of food as an enabler. It helps people connect and build relationships.”
Or so says Steven Kim, Co-founder and CEO of food curation platform Qraved, as we chatted in the main meeting room of the company’s Jakarta headquarters (a new 1,000 square metre space the company moved into early in the year).
After getting its start in a spare 30 square metre office (about the size of a standard studio apartment) in Menteng three years ago, Qraved has grown from a team of 14 to a staff of 130 people, growing what was once a passion project to one of the leading local food tech companies in Indonesia.
The company continues to maintain its leadership position ahead of local competitors, engaging more than 1.3 million monthly unique visitors and generating over six million monthly page views. The number of restaurant reservations booked through the platform is also growing at a healthy rate of 36 per cent quarter-over-quarter.
Born in South Korea, raised by an entrepreneur, Kim saw himself following in the footsteps of his father.
“My father was an entrepreneur. He was in the investments field, both in private and public markets. Because that was his line of business, we were exposed to different series of events. Good times when the family was wealthy, bad times when we had no cash… We had exposure to the Korean financial crisis in 1997 and subprime crisis in 2008. I lived through those moments and basically grew up with that volatility,” he says.
This mindset sticks with Kim as he embarks on the journey of life, because adventure does not come without hardship. Young Kim found himself lacking an identity, having been born in a strong-rooted Korean family but growing up in the US, he felt a sense of misplacement.
“When in Korea, I felt like a foreigner… but when in the US, I felt like a Korean. In Korea, basically the usual route is you go to school, you graduate and you work for a large Korean conglomerate afterwards. At the time, I was being compared to my Korean peers in that context. There were things I felt I was weak at… some things I did not know. There was this kind of emptiness — and a lot of soul searching,” he says.
Then his father dared Kim to move to Paris for six months after graduation, knowing his 24-year-old son spoke zero French and had never been to Europe. Kim accepted the challenge.
“Language had never been an issue for me, being bilingual myself. However, in Paris it was tough because I did not know anyone and I did not speak the local language. I just had no one to communicate with… it was hard to find someone who could speak good English,” Kim explains.
“Over six months I ended up learning French most effectively by talking to middle-aged retired men at brasseries. They were the only ones who would wait for my slow response in French and at the same time, all they wanted to do was to talk,” he adds.
People are often unaware of how influence affects them because it happens subconsciously or beyond our awareness.
Kim explains it was not until the end of the France trip that he finally realised that he had finally found and acknowledged his strengths.
Looking back, Kim gained an ability to deal with difficulties, an ability to adapt to different environments and a hunger to stay curious. These traits are what kept him going all along, until today.
Knowing, accepting and understanding his weaknesses and strengths have equipped Kim throughout his career path and ultimately, as he thrives when working to take Qraved up a notch.
The calling to become an entrepreneur grew louder over time. After spending almost two years working in the Global Strategy and Planning Group at Mirae Asset Securities in Korea, where Kim was assisting the Group’s expansion and investments around the world, he decided to switch career paths.
With ample experience and a strong interest in culture and diversity, Kim pursued his MBA at INSEAD, where he received “practically a one-year crash course not only in business but also in learning about various cultures and mentalities and how to deal with them”.
Change may not come easy for everyone, but for three-in-one entrepreneur/foodie/cook Kim, change is enjoyable.
“Adaptability is one of my biggest strengths”, he says.
Post-INSEAD, Kim took up several roles at Rocket Internet, from heading Asia Pacific operations at travel accommodation platform Wimdu, to building and managing operations at Zalora Singapore.
The launch and growth of Qraved
During his tenure at Rocket Internet, Kim met Qraved co-founders Adrian Li (now Managing Partner of Convergence Ventures) and Sean Liao (now CEO of Imaginato).
“Adrian and Sean have different skill sets that are complementary to mine. I remember us jamming through different business models and verticals over one weekend. While we took a structured approach in researching what company to build, reviewing different verticals and industries, it turned out that food is our common passion and this drove the decision to start Qraved,” Kim explains.
Kim, Adrian and Sean launched Qraved in August 2013, on the back of this shared passion and optimism for the industry as the three saw huge potential in the restaurant and food discovery market.
They seem to have been proven correct.
Fast forward to today, as of Q1 2016, turnover of F&B industry in Indonesia was US$30 billion, an increase of almost eight per cent compared to same period last year. In addition, on average 10 to 20 new restaurants are founded on a monthly basis.
The Indonesian Food and Beverage Association (GAPMMI) is expecting growth in the sector — particularly supported by rising sales volumes.
When asked personally, why Indonesia? Kim’s answer is firm and confident:
“Initially, curiosity. Indonesia was that one country I did not quite understand at that time. But now and most importantly, because I love making an impact and Indonesia as the largest country in Southeast Asia is where I feel I can have the most impact”.
“I have always been intrigued by consumer-facing products. I also saw the quick shift and progress of Blackberry and Blackberry Messenger back in 2012. The market is fast and receptive. That’s when I started thinking about building something here,” he continues.
At thirty-six-years old Kim is friendly, affable, yet composed. Sporting almost always a casual polo shirt and donning round eyeglasses, he is not your type of corporate office-corner CEO. Forget a luxury office room; he prefers to sit anywhere he would like and be close to his team.
“We consciously put effort in growing together as a team and avoid anyone being isolated,” says Kim, while finishing up his second cup of daily Venti ice-black coffee.
Under Kim’s leadership, Qraved has undergone upward shifts: the platform now offers not only reservation bookings but also reviews and quality content of the dynamic F&B scene in Jakarta, Bandung, and Bali.
At the end of 2015, Qraved successfully closed a US$8 million Series B round of funding received from investors including US-based Richmond Global Ventures and Shanghai-based Gobi Ventures. Previous investors in Jakarta-based Convergence Ventures, 500 Startups, Toivo Annus (co-founder of Skype), and M&Y Partners also participated.
Asked what kind of leader he is, Kim mentioned that his leadership style has actually changed over the course of Qraved’s growth.
“In the earlier days of Qraved, it was all about hard-core top-down management. We set key goals and kept everyone focused on specific things that they should be working on. During Qraved’s early stage at the time, we couldn’t hire a lot of thought leaders in our organisation,” he explains.
“You want ambitious, hungry young people. You give them the right tools, right mindset and right practice to grow and execute on things. It was a fairly structured approach, however, we were still doing data-driven experiments. In fact, the decision to go drive content creation was actually a project I ran with an intern,” says Kim.
So, what is different now?
“After [the] Series B investment round, our focus now is bringing in the right people to scale and with a strong focus on building the executive management team”.
“With this in mind, we are bringing in a lot of smart, experienced people. Now, with that, I had to change my leadership style. I am now putting a lot more trust in the team, and am going through that phase of letting go and empowering. It’s a weird feeling, honestly, but it is exciting,’ he says.
Kim concedes that retention and revenue generation are two aspects the company is concentrating on at this stage.
“Previously, our main challenge was how to get people to know about us. How do we get the users to know us and assess whether or not we offer any value proposition for them?” he says.
With passion and grit, he prevailed, which meant big hairy audacious goals come marching into the management’s lexicon.
“What I envision,” says Kim, “is Qraved to be a platform that connects users and restaurants depending on their individual interests, price levels, and so on and so forth. And that’s why our platform is personalised.”
“Everybody eats for a different reason at different times. Some people are just literally filling their stomachs, some people are entertaining clients, some people are enjoying the experience. I would like Qraved to be the platform that can impact daily lives. My team and I are relentlessly going to incredible lengths to ensure we are introducing more and more services to enrich the user experience.”
When asked a rather cliché question about what skills a modern entrepreneur must have, Kim explains,
“Resilience is a must. You have to accept the fact that things will go wrong and you will be rejected. Along the way, communication and people management skills are very important.”
“Even though you feel like your head is about to explode, you still have to keep the momentum going and help everyone understand what the vision is. Tracking progress using metrics and honing practical skills are also crucial,” says Kim.
Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo this year declared a mandate for e-commerce as the official strategy to enable SME growth, under the government’s initiative Indonesia: The Digital Energy of Asia. Undoubtedly, Indonesia is seeing increasing government support to actively build the startup ecosystem in the country.
At the same time, there has been continued traction and attention from tech investments in the nation, seen through two examples: Tokopedia’s and Gojek’s successful fundraising of US$147 millionand US$550 million respectively. So, is Kim bullish in the country’s tech landscape?
“Absolutely. I have zero doubt that big companies and big verticals will be formed… and they are being built right now. This is a good thing. I have seen the trend multiple times myself, organically from my side through past experiences. Look at the case of Korea and how fast it has grown,“ he says.
Kim is, however, skeptical of whether there will be such a thing as a ‘perfect ecosystem’ to nourish an industry.
In order to lift up the system, quality will matter more over quantity, and Kim believes that the goal should not just be a matter of investing in a certain ‘thousands’ number of startups.
“Being able to build successful businesses and creating an ecosystem surrounding them are two different topics. I am a firm believer of producing talents. I don’t think good talents are generated by schools or programmes. I think good talents are generated by companies that have good intention, have the right capital, serve the needs, can execute well and grow,” says Kim.
“You basically just work and you get trained. Over time you’ll do a lot and you’ll eventually deal with more challenges.”
This is where Kim sees Qraved as more than just a revenue-generating company.
With characteristic modesty, Kim addresses the strong objectives to his work.
“My personal mission is for Qraved to become one of those companies that generates a ton of good talents. If you think about computer industries, in this case, or Silicon Valley, you will notice how it all started with a few core companies… and the great talent that was produced at those companies seeded other startups.”
“For example, that era of AOL, Yahoo, Netscape… these companies are the ones that generated talents and then these guys went on to founding Paypal, for example. It would be great to look at this in Indonesia as well. Hopefully one day there can be a Qraved mafia!” he laughs.
Kim appears to be half joking, but there exists a definite tinge of seriousness.
By Clairine Runtung for Tech In Asia – 19 Aug, 2016