By the age of 14, Arrif Ziaudeen began travelling from his home in Asia, first to study, later for work. That gave him an international outlook, but little did he know that an idea he came across in the United States and subsequently developed in Singapore, would become his bread and butter.
Having studied law at King’s College, London, Ziaudeen knew by the time he graduated that his future didn’t lie in the legal profession. He therefore joined strategy advisers Bain & Company in a role which took him around Asia and to San Francisco. “They liked my strong analytical thinking and management skills”, he says.
Life in the Bay Area meant change and, over time, Ziaudeen adapted. “It was really different and, initially, quite hard. I was used to socialising a lot, but I became healthier, appreciated being outdoors and started thinking about what to do next. I knew I could be a manager within four years.”
Aged 27, Ziaudeen had a good position and was already earning well, but he was reluctant to gauge his progress merely in terms of income and job titles. “In Asia, it’s about climbing the ladder, but San Francisco changed me,” he says.
Instead, he embarked on a full-time MBA at Stanford learning new skills like organisation and decision making and taking advantage of the chance to network. His classmates included merchandisers from retail chain Bloomingdales, teachers and even an employee from the Bill Gates Foundation. “I realised you can make money doing what you love, anywhere,” he says. “Studying gave me time to reflect.”
The Stanford environment favoured entrepreneurship and Ziaudeen knew of the university’s good relationship with Google. One classmate joined Foursquare, another started a successful gaming company, but he wanted to be back in Asia and, therefore, joined a private equity firm in Indonesia.
“In 2009, Asia also seemed like the only place to build a future,” he says, adding that, despite work commitments, one idea for a new business kept nagging away. “I wanted to start an online reservation site for restaurants. It bugged me that no one in Asia had done it yet.”
Begun as a spare-time project, Chope would become an online booking portal in Singapore and then Hong Kong. “I talked to friends in the industry and, despite the risk, I believed in it. Some restaurants were unsure, but I wasn’t.”
The starting point was to take the business model for similar companies in the US and adapt it for Singapore. Within two months, Ziaudeen had quit his job and began planning expansion into other markets, with Hong Kong seeming the logical next step. It took determination to persuade the more traditional thinkers in the food and beverage sector to welcome something new, with many restaurateurs conditioned to finding new locations and menu choices, but being less keen to try out new technology and make more use of computers.
“We trained [restaurant staff] in using online reservation management systems,” Ziaudeen says. “Customer service improved with computer based records and a quarter of our reservations are made between 10pm and 7am – out of hours. Now, the internet business model is understood. For some, it is an obvious choice to join Chope because the service is fast and easy to use.”
Ziaudeen credits his MBA for helping him see the idea through. “The programme isn’t just about hard skills like accounting, but also managing people and making decisions in weird situations. The group activities give you interpersonal skills and you learn how to handle matters in a team. There’s no right or wrong answer, ever.”
Ziaudeen is so determined to persuade the more traditional thinkers in the food and beverage sector to try his online business model.
Ziaudeen is grateful for the skills gained during the MBA and the greater understanding it gave of his own strengths and abilities. “I feel lucky in how Chope came together, but perseverance also counts and I always advise people not to give up. You can’t go into it alone, though. It is important to have a good support network of friends, family and mentors. I was lucky that I had people I could go to for advice.”