[Executive Edge] Booky: The mobile app for foodies

Ben Wintle got the idea for his app, Booky, based on a problem he experienced with his girlfriend, the actress Iza Calzado.

“As we eat out a lot, we were always hitting our heads against a wall when we Googled a restaurant's phone number on our smartphones as 3G connections are terrible and basic restaurant information is often hidden on some web pages,” Wintle said.

Wintle and his team developed Booky with these problems in mind. “We built Booky so we could quickly access restaurant information without needing to be online and subdue our groaning stomachs,” Wintle said.

So what is Booky exactly? Ben Wintle gave his elevator pitch for it: “It’s a free app for food lovers who agree with me that our Internet sucks. People use Booky to instantly find the contact details for over 11,000 restaurants in Metro Manila and check out their menus.”

From karaoke to foodie app

Booky is not Wintle’s first foray into app development. The Hong Kong native, who is half Filipino and half British, moved to Manila 3 years ago to “create an app that we could build a scalable business around.”

Their very first app was targeted to the particular tastes of the Filipino market. “Our first app, ‘Duets,’ a turn-based karaoke app, was a lot of fun to build and use, particularly in a musical country like the Philippines, but that’s been sidelined while we try to streamline our license agreements with publishers like Sony and Universal,” he said.

To Wintle, Booky represents an app that should be easier to scale, given that Filipinos love eating out and most restaurants – at least one would assume – would want their menus to be accessible to more people online. From a purely technical perspective, Booky seems pretty impressive.

“Because we love new restaurants in Manila, we designed the app so the restaurant directory automatically updates in the background when it detects an Internet connection,” Wintle said. “This ensures that users always find the newest restaurants on Booky.”

Achieving this feature was not easy for Wintle and his team. “Getting the background updates to trigger at the correct time and execute without error took us a few dozen hours of trial and error to get [them] right,” he said.

Wintle feels that this obstacle is one that every entrepreneur in the Philippines goes through. “Most entrepreneurs know there’s often no reference points for building new stuff so trial and error coupled with tracking analytics is the only guiding light we have to move forward,” he said. “My girlfriend prays a lot for us, too.”

Getting hooked on Booky

Wintle feels that the biggest challenge is getting Booky onto people’s radar. “I think our bigger challenge is to get people to first learn about Booky as we’ve seen that many people who start using Booky continue to use it,” he said.

Wintle thinks that their target demographic should be prepaid mobile subscribers. “We’re thinking it’s naturally appealing to prepaid subscribers as Booky doesn’t eat up load to be online, like how WhatsApp became a free alternative to SMS for people on post-paid plans,” Wintle said.

To appeal to this demographic, an application has to have fast loading times when you turn it on, as well as when you navigate its various pages. “If a new app takes more than 7 seconds to load … then a user may leave the app and forget about it forever,” Wintle said. “We encountered this issue on our other apps, but it’s obviously not an issue for Booky.”

Wintle thinks that one of his company’s competitive advantages is that Booky is specifically geared toward a Philippine audience. “It’s also helped that Booky is a local app solving a local problem as opposed to launching a global app where it’s harder to target to our marketing efforts,” he said.

In pushing to acquire more users for Booky, Wintle is guided by his vision of being the market leader for this space. “We believe Booky can become the offline yellow pages for all countries with connectivity issues or high bias for prepaid internet usage,” he said, adding that this will mean that Booky will need to grow aggressively. “This entails expanding into other business categories after restaurants.” 

Booky’s future – at least based on user engagement – is promising. “Our engagement couldn’t be better,” Wintle said. “Our average user is opening up the app every day. Now we’re starting to focus on driving download volume.”

Despite the strong traction, Wintle remains realistic, if not cautious. “We’re working on a top secret feature that we’re expecting to be all over social media very soon,” he said. “In the longer term, we’d like to enable online reservations with restaurants but I have a feeling it will take at least a few years for the infrastructure and mentality to be ready for this.” – Rappler.com