Why chief of restaurant review site OpenRice has a lot on his plate
Alfred Tsoi is taking the wildly successful restaurant review website beyond its local origins and into new markets across Asia
Walk into any restaurant in Hong Kong and you're likely to spot someone snapping pictures of food with their smartphone.
Some of them may just share their pictures with friends on Facebook, but others will upload the shots, complete with comments, on OpenRice, the online restaurant guide that now covers 41,486 places to eat in Hong Kong and which gets 92.8 million page views a month - the equivalent of every Hongkonger taking nearly 14 looks.
"OpenRice must have something to do with the whole photo-taking trend," jokes Alfred Tsoi Po-tak, who took charge of the site at the end of last year.
But Tsoi, 59, can't just sit back and watch the comments roll in; there's no shortage of work to be done on the site, he says.
Unlike some websites, OpenRice is not open for anyone to add comments directly. Instead, its 618,863 food reviews have all been given the once over by the site's editors.
"When someone says a dish is salty, it's purely personal taste," Tsoi says. "But when he says there's a cockroach in there, it's something different. Such accusations can be very damaging if presented without proof."
It's not that OpenRice refuses to publish negative comments, rather that such comments must be backed up by evidence such as photographs, says Tsoi. Statements to the effect that a restaurant has closed down and other such "hard" information must also be verified before they are published.
"The media cannot report something factually wrong," says Tsoi. "When a TV station wrongly reported the death [of Jiang Zemin], it caused a big stir. When a website says something wrong, it loses credibility as well."
Tsoi has a long track record of working with websites and IT. One of his early jobs was as a sales representative for IBM, selling typewriters in the late 1970s, before he moved on to finding distributors for the first personal computers in Hong Kong.
He then took a job at software firm Lotus, helping it to establish its presence in Asia in the 1980s, and shifted to Australia for a while to work for a mobile data company.
He was later headhunted by Yahoo! Hong Kong, and moved back to the city, staying with the company for 13 years, ending up as its vice-president and managing director.
After Ray Chung started OpenRice in 1999, there came a point when Yahoo! Hong Kong wanted to buy it, Tsoi says.
"I met Ray for lunch," he recalls. "He told me I was late - he'd sold it to somebody else."
The buyer was digital media network JDB Holdings. Years later, when JDB approached Tsoi, he thought OpenRice was about to be put up for sale again. But he was wrong; JDB wanted him. He became its new chief executive.
Tsoi has always been drawn to the idea of selling novelty. But at first glance, OpenRice did not fit that description. It had been founded years earlier and was already well established in the city.
Yet for Tsoi, Hong Kong is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of OpenRice's wider market potential.
He says: "On the first day I walked into the office, I asked a question: Why doesn't OpenRice have a Taiwan version?"
At a speed that he says amazed him, the site's management got to work. A team was hired to lay the groundwork across the strait, scouting out restaurants and logging basic information. And now, after just six months, the Taiwanese version of OpenRice is preparing to launch.
OpenRice is also aiming to double its coverage in the mainland, from covering 14 cities to 30, and to increase the number of restaurants it covers in versions of the site for India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
"The Chinese hold dining in high regard. As gross domestic product grows, people are more likely to dine out," Tsoi says. "Our mid-term goal is to make OpenRice the most prestigious food guide for the Chinese-speaking audience."
The website nevertheless comes in different languages for each country. There are also pages that are market-specific - the Philippine version has a menu page, for instance, and the Hong Kong incarnation has a recipe section. But whichever version of the site users view, the "smiley" rating system remains the same - the more the smiles, the better the restaurant.
A revamped version of the Hong Kong site and a mobile phone app will soon be launched, with more graphics, more descriptions and location-based functions.
"A friend who is a medical professor recommends adding toilet conditions into the guide," says Tsoi. "Some patients of his won't go to a restaurant where the toilets are in poor shape."
But the biggest challenge facing OpenRice, like many other media and social networking sites, is not content, but how to turn page views into profits. And that has forced Tsoi to strike a delicate balance between maximising the site's utility as an information tool and making it an effective platform for advertisers.
That's a particularly difficult balance to achieve on the mobile version of the site, as pop-up ads can easily crowd out content on a cellphone's small screen.
"A solution would be to make ads less annoying," Tsoi says. "They should be easy to close."
It's hard to disagree; after all, there's only so much room on the screen of a phone for all those photos of food.
1979 graduated with a marketing degree from Chinese University
1979 Joined IBM as sales representative
1988 Joined Lotus which was later acquired by IBM
1999 Joined Yahoo! Hong Kong and became vice-president and managing director
2012 Joined JDB Holdings as chief executive officer