New mobile application IndulgeSmart aims to help Shanghailanders discover their next favorite restaurant, “where you are, where you want it”. Shanghaiist spoke to Stone Shi, founder of the 8-person startup (and a certified CrossFit trainer), to find out how IndulgeSmart came about and where they see themselves going next.
Hi there Stone, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. Can you first tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Mianyang, Sichuan, and grew up with four pandas in the local zoo and hitting hotpot once a week. I was considered a “bad” student in the Chinese educational system, where I was told to focus just on schoolwork and not go to the gym and or speak with girls. Even in college, the emphasis was all on rote learning instead of creativity.
In my junior year I got a chance to participate a highly competitive academic/cultural exchange program in Canada. It was a breath of fresh air, and I decided to put a hold on China for a while and start out a new chapter in the US, where I began my Master’s degree with Texas A&M University in 2000. After two scorching years in Texas I tried New York for a winter (too much snow), before relocating to California with its beautiful beaches and balanced weather.
I started my career with an early-stage company in Silicon Valley, where I learned first-hand how a startup should be run. I then joined a niche player in the semiconductor sector in Southern California to play a leadership role in product strategy. I earned my MBA from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, part of the Ivy League, in 2010.
Were you ever a hesitant haigui? Was coming back to China something you always wanted to do?
Starting 2007, I began getting restless when I heard all the news of China’s development. To test the waters I did a field trip to China during spring break in 2009, and followed up with a summer internship in Shanghai. One year later after I graduated from Dartmouth, a headhunter approached me with a job at a British company’s Greater China office. I seized the opportunity – I turned down offers from Google and a San Francisco startup to join it.
Of course like everyone else I had to make adjustments to people spitting in the street and go to survival mode during the metro rush-hour mania, but I knew what I was walking into — China’s economy is booming, I wanted to be in the middle of all this action, and I would not be distracted by anything else. In the day I managed $400M consumer-electronics products, and at night I indulged myself in Shanghai’s food scene. It’s been a great ride. I never looked back.
How did you come to start IndulgeSmart?
When I first arrived Shanghai four years ago, I was thrilled with the restaurants this city had to offer, but frustrated with the massive bombardment of ads and irrelevant info that made it so hard to find the great places to dine out. I started building the concept of intelligent restaurant referral service based on personal profiles and dining history. Around the same time, corporate politics and all the nonsense that goes along with it drained my desire to continue with any of those old, slow and dated organizations. I decided to bring this startup idea to reality – IndulgeSmart was right at the intersection of my professional interests: technology, consumers, and service, all of it linked together by one of my greatest passions, food.
What sets you guys apart from all the other restaurant listings out there?
DianPing lists everything out there for the price-sensitive average Joe, in Chinese. It tries to appeal low-mid Chinese mass with two main offerings – complete directory listing and massive discounts (tuangou). IndulgeSmart is dedicated to restaurants and bars, and aims to serve the dining needs of expats and educated locals in English.
SmartShanghai and CityWeekend are directories of everything for expats. SmartShanghai focus on editorial content that’s funny and party-centric. CityWeekend is the longest-running English-language directory and has a family appeal. They are about a group of insiders organizing information and writing professional content… They’re telling everyone what’s cool. IndulgeSmart is a restaurant discovery platform — we let our users tell each other what’s cool and interact around that. It’s not about what the critics and the professionals think about the food, it’s about what the rest of us think.
TripAdvisor serves most needs of tourists, but their restaurant reviews come from short-term tourists who have a few days’ knowledge of Shanghai. IndulgeSmart appeals to the adventurous travelers who want to go beyond the touristy spots and get into local restaurants, recommended by the locals.
What are your future plans for IndulgeSmart?
IndulgeSmart is about being specific and being intelligent.
For example, if you are vegan and rarely go to Pudong, why would you want to see a steakhouse promotion from Century Park? Instead of listing out all 356 Sichuan restaurants like DianPing does, IndulgeSmart aims to recommend three to five of the most relevant restaurants that fall into your personal price range and geographic radius, probably at the time of the day you need them.
DianPing tells you how 3,000 local Chinese people rate an Italian restaurant, whose tastes might be very different from yours. IndulgeSmart will tell you the best French restaurants loved by French, or if you are getting technical, American’s favorite Sichuan restaurants with a view.
IndulgeSmart will notify you when that Spanish restaurant on your Wishlist is running a 30% off exclusive promotion, and at the same time show you 15 other people nearby who also have this place on their Wishlist. As a power user, you can then initiate a group brunch invite and make friends from all over the world at your dream restaurant, and get a cashback reward based on your group’s total spending. You can then use your Indulge Cash to enjoy free meals at any partner restaurants on the IndulgeSmart network.
We plan to quickly establish ourselves in Shanghai before expanding to other first-tier Chinese cities. We also see ourselves in Greater China region in two years and quite possibly international markets at a future point.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had in setting up your own business in Shanghai?
Finding the right talent has been the biggest challenge. I am more of a thinker/doer than a talker. So instead of selling my idea all day hoping to find the right people to start the project with, I outsourced the initial software development and used the prototype to attract my founding team.
Stone Shi and the IndulgeSmart team.
To attract the right people, I decided early on that I would first be looking for the right personality – it takes about 30 years to develop traits such as perseverance and accountability. I then look for experience – it takes 3-7 years to fully understand a sector and establish the right connections. I value skills the last – a smart person can learn a new skill in the matter of a few weeks to a few months.
The IndulgeSmart team is now made up of eight full-timers and two part-timers from China, US, Australia and France, each of them all nice, driven, smart, and ready to make a difference while having fun along the way. The team is the reason we’re doing so well already – we never stop, we get things done and none of it feels like work. There’s a lot of laughter in the office, and we sometimes go out for massive, beer filled lunches and still delivered fully functioning mobile apps for iOS and Android, a slick PC web version and 5000+ restaurant network that our community loves writing about!
You have an MBA from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and a Master of Engineering degree from Texas A&M. With the benefit of hindsight, would you say MBAs are overrated?
I don’t mind being put on record – I am generally skeptical of fellow MBAs (especially consultants) starting businesses from the ground up. The best MBAs are good at strategy but you rarely see them getting down from the 30,000 feet level and being street-smart when it comes to execution – I respect those who do!
Another reason why you don’t see more MBA-entrepreneurs is the sizeable opportunity cost. If you are making millions at a Fortune 500 company just by doing PPT and financial modeling, you need a reason to get out of your comfort zone, and a really compelling vision to pursue your inner calling.
That being said, it makes a huge difference if you can find an MBA program that fits you — I am extremely thankful for my Tuck experience. I now look at the world though a different lens, and along the way I have received tremendous support from what is by far the world’s most loyal MBA alumni network. I am free to be creative in my own company, using a whole range of analytical tools I learned from this top-notch MBA program.
Is there anything you can tell us about the funding behind IndulgeSmart? What advice do you have for startups looking for funding in Shanghai?
I have been bootstrapping IndulgeSmart. We have had several offers for investment, but we want to make sure anyone who buys into IndulgeSmart is an asset to the company, not dumb money. One of the first questions people ask is “Have you got investment?” People get nervous for me when they hear my answer. The way I look at it, when you are still learning how to drive in the parking lot, it doesn’t help to have a fast car. But once you are ready and have located the highway entrance, it makes a difference to get into a Lamborghini with a full tank.
Startups are not much different. When you are trying to find product-market-fit, you need to be patient and be on your own as much as you can – any premature investment only dilutes you too early and creates unrealistic growth expectation when you are only experimenting. But once the market proof is there, you need to find the right investors to fuel the growth like a wild fire – this is where I see IndulgeSmart is at now.
Anything else you’d say to would-be entrepreneurs in China in general?
The most important quality of an entrepreneur is determination. Your faith is more important than everyone else’s — you need to identify your true north, act on it, and be agile. That’s the only way you can inspire your team when times get tough, and keep them down to earth when everything appears to be going well.
Another imperative is to find the right people to partner with – your founding team, your investors, your power users, and your customers. Your final product will always be different from what you started with, and the market changes faster than you expect, but the right people will help you adapt quickly, and to always be a few steps ahead of the curve.
One last thing – and I know many see it differently – I don’t believe any friendship can remain intact in the face of financial dispute, and there is no need to test it. So it’s important to start with the right terms so everyone can focus on the right stuff from day one.
When you do get a break, where do you like to eat?
My all-time favorite food is lamb skewers, Xinjiang style. The best one in town is called “Kerndax Xinjiang lamb skewers”.
Not surprisingly I am also a huge fan of Sichuan cuisine – check out Hong La Jiao and be sure to get a taste of their numbing Sichuan peppercorn.
I love meat and I can fix a pretty good filet mignon. I am also praised for my Memphis-Dry Baby Back Ribs. But starting a few years ago I have been paying more attention to salads, and recently I have been trying Paleo (when I am not eating greasy Sichuan food, that is).
We heard you’re a certified CrossFit trainer and that one of the perks of working at your company is free CrossFit training! Is that true?
It’s all true! In fact, if you practice CrossFit with us on your interview day, you get extra points! (shhhh~~)
The whole IndulgeSmart team is active – Kalo is an ex-rugby player and has been intensively practicing Brazilian Jiujitsu (when he is not drinking beer). Noah does everything from back flipping to biking to swimming to even occasional salsa dancing. Shelly is able to finish 50 burpees under four minutes, then get another 10 laps on the tracks. The tech team has pushups and squats included in their list of KPIs (!)
I have been doing fitness training for 22 years, including the last five in CrossFit. I won Shanghai’s first Reebok CrossFit Shake Down last year, after I got certified at San Diego about 18 months ago. Haven’t had the time to make any money off guest training yet. That might be my next startup! 😉
Download IndulgeSmart on the App Store or GooglePlay, or visit www.indulgesmart.com.