“When you see yourself as already a success, then you have less to fear and nothing to fail.”
Elisha Ong Yu Jie
Co-founder of Burpple
At 25 years old, Elisha Ong has had more experience in the technology start-up scene than most people of similar age. This is something you would not pick up at first meeting – with his spectacles, backpack and sunny disposition, Elisha is the typical boy-next-door, friendly, unassuming and remarkably pleasant.
Elisha’s love affair with technology started early. As a teen, he crafted and coded his own stadium and jersey designs for the football computer game FIFA, because “just playing the game got too boring”. His creation of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium got 9,000 downloads on the first day he put it up on a gaming forum, and Elisha has not looked back since. Educated at the NUS Business School, Elisha is one of the best designers in Singapore, and has worked for successful technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. Whilst pursuing his studies at Stanford University in the USA under the NUS Overseas College program, he was also the Lead Designer for Qik, a mobile video-sharing app that was soon acquired by Skype.
Upon his return to Singapore, Elisha then started Burpple, a social food journal that allows people to curate their own selection of food photos and memories, as well as browse through the selections of others. Released just last month for the iPhone, Burpple is available for free on the app store (http://www.burpple.com/getapp/). Despite his experience in the US, Burpple displays a distinct local flavour – you may have seen the adorable “kopi” infographic making its way around the Internet (check it out here: http://www.HelpKopiGoOverseas.com/). Within a few weeks of the app going live, Burpple was already featured amongst the top lifestyle apps in the Singapore App Store, and has garnered great reviews amongst its users.
Elisha gives me an exclusive, impromptu preview of Burpple, enthusiastically tapping through page after page of this stylish, well-crafted, hot pink app. He is evidently a firm believer in his product, and with good reason. Burpple is beautifully designed and incredibly addictive, filled with mouth-watering pictures of food and plenty of great food recommendations. It is a fun little app, but more importantly, it changes the way we do things – the way we connect with our friends, the way we experience food and the way we share these experiences with the world. It is more than just an app; it is a representation of the wonderful creativity of its creator, and his conviction that simple ideas can change the world.
What is Burpple about?
Burpple is a smart and beautiful way to remember, organize and explore food moments with your friends. Burpple empowers people to remember special dinner dates, share home-cooked creations, explore what’s good in places and organize these great finds. Best of all, you know its really good when your friends love it too. I’m not sure if you know Pinterest? Burpple is like a mobile Pinterest for food, with a Path user interface and Instagram experience. (laughs) I have a Japanese friend, Chatori, and with Burpple, I can actually see what he’s eating for dinner, real time, back in Tokyo. I can even see the addresses and maps of these food places in Tokyo, Japan. What’s even more amazing is that Burpple is able to revive my old food moments; so even if I took this picture some time ago, when I upload it onto Burpple, it will auto-magically suggest the place, date and even what meal I had.
That’s really cool.
It is! And Burpple can have multiple uses. A person can use it as their own food journal if they want to keep track of what they’re eating. It can also be a very interesting way to curate and follow other people’s food interests. We calculated: if everyone documents their meals each day – that’s like 5 times a day for Singaporeans – there are actually thousands of photo opportunities per year. I mean, we saw that people were already taking food pictures with their phones and cameras, but there wasn’t a place to hold all these pictures. Currently these photos are everywhere – people are sharing them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and most of the time the photos are left dormant on their phones. We wanted to create a place where people could smartly revive these memories.
What was the inspiration for this app, and why the affinity with food in particular?
Admittedly I am not a real big foodie, but the idea started in Silicon Valley, where we always had problems finding food. I personally take more than 10 minutes on average just to decide on what to eat. And very often, I ended up asking my friends what they are having and usually decide based on that. I guess eventually we want to answer the daily question of “What can I eat today?”. (laughs)
I guess a huge inspiration why I wanted to start Burpple really came up when I was working at Qik. I was actually from NUS Business School, but I applied for this programme called the NUS Overseas College. I got to spend a year in Silicon Valley, and to study in Stanford as well while working in a start-up called Qik.
When I first joined Qik I had some visual design skills, but I had never designed for a mobile product. This was in 2010, when the iPhone was still at the version 3GS, and there was no iPhone 4, no retina display. The smartphone penetration rate was not high, and thus the number of app developers and app designers were slightly fewer as compared to now. Qik is a mobile video-streaming company that does live broadcasts from your phone. So if you’re a video journalist, you can literally take your phone – not just smartphones, but any phone with 3G and video capabilities – and capture and broadcast anything live over the internet. That was the gist of the company, and then we moved on to things like video chat on your mobile phone.
I’m very thankful for that opportunity. I’m very grateful that the guys at Qik trusted me, the new guy on the block, this Asian nobody entering the Silicon Valley with no prior experience. The first project that I worked on was to design the user interface for video filters. We basically wanted to add filters to the videos, to make them black and white or sepia etc. I designed the user interface to allow users to slide and choose the filters easily, and then that project ended up as the number one paid app on the US App Store. We sold it for US$1.99, and we probably made more than a million in a month? So that was the first little milestone that really made me think that I could design something that had an impact. Sometimes when you’re working in a small company with less than ten people, you don’t feel like you’re working on something that could change the world. Even Instagram was done by three people for the longest time – but it reached 15 million people with just that amount of people working on it.
What’s so different about working in the Valley as compared to Singapore, and what did you learn from the experience?
I think the first thing is that over there it’s a very open culture, where there is a lot of trust. For example, when you’re an intern in the company, they don’t see you as an intern – they just give you a lead role so you can take it and run. Or you could be an accounts manager and they’ll be like, “Okay handle this 2 million dollars network.” There’s just this trust, and when they think you’re good enough, and I don’t see you as an intern or a “newbie”.
I did a few internships in Singapore prior to that, and they really don’t put you in key roles. It’s not about the fame, the responsibility or the money, it’s really about whether these people actually trust you to have the potential to do it. Most of the time, younger people tend to have bigger, better ideas. And I think Silicon Valley’s culture encourages that. That’s why you see people like Mark Zuckerberg – he’s only 28 this year. He founded Facebook when he was 20, and he conquered a lot of giants…his previous competitors were probably like 30 to 40 years old. So it shows one thing: in the valley, there’s almost no such thing as “respect for the status quo”. That means it doesn’t matter whether you’re new or young or doing something no one has ever thought of before. You could still end up being one of the best out there as long as you’re doing things right and people like what you’re doing. They give a lot of allowance for that, and even encourage that.
Imagine if you’re a student and you have people backed with money saying, “I want to support your idea, form a team and I’ll help you make it come to fruition and make this a billion dollar company”. Everyone in the entrepreneurship scene, from young to old, thinks that they’re going to change the world. Everyone thinks they’re the next Steve Jobs. It’s the whole American mindset, the daring to dream. And the influx of foreigners has helped to make a really good ecosystem there. There have been a lot of Singaporeans going there as well, and becoming very successful. These people say that they felt they did something really meaningful there. I think Singapore needs to encourage more of that, especially for the younger companies. I think more established companies also need to renew and be more accepting of new ideas from younger people.
It’s not about the fame, the responsibility or the money, it’s really about whether these people actually trust you to have the potential to do it.
If it was so great there, why did you choose to stay here?
That’s a good question, it’s a tough question actually. I’ve definitely had opportunities to go back. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I was really honored to design the world’s first video chat interface for smartphones – on the HTC Evo 4G Android phone . This was about one month before Apple released FaceTime on the iPhone 4, which had a very similar user interface. (laughs) The camera switch button was on the bottom right, the end chat button was in the middle, the mute button was on the left, and they had a little thumbnail of your own picture… the overall user interface concept was there. I don’t think Apple copied me per se, to me it was an affirmation that my design thinking was similar to that of the Apple designers. And what they took a few months to design, I actually took only a few days to do… (laughs)
But anyway, after Qik’s acquisition by Skype, many people wrote to me trying to get me to join their companies. At that time I was already back in Singapore. It was very tempting, but even though I rejected them I don’t see these job offers as lost opportunities. I see it as a privilege just to be connected with these people, and have the opportunity to get to know them. After coming back to Singapore, you just feel that there has to be something that can be done here. And I realised one thing in the Valley – Singaporeans and Asians like us are as good as the Americans, and sometimes even better than them. That is something I want to bring back here. I want to show the world that there’s something that Singaporeans are pretty good at, and there is nothing to be afraid of.
Furthermore, Burpple’s market is in Asia. Singapore itself is a food home ground. The density of food bloggers and people who enjoy taking photos of food is so high here. I think in the States, with so many similar apps coming in everyday, the market is much more saturated. So from a business angle, there is a reason for staying in Singapore. From a non-business angle, my home is here. I’m more familiar with the culture and the things here, and the government is trying to be supportive with funding schemes and grants. There’s a whole community here, so why not give it a try?
What’s it like moving from working for others to starting your own business?
I am someone who gives my 100 percent when I believe in something. If I believe that this product can change the world, I don’t really care what position I’m in. Even if I’m just a designer, I want to design the best and most cutting edge user interface out there.
That said, the difference is when you’re running your own company, you need to be disciplined with your own schedule. Sometimes you get caught up with doing things you’re so passionate about that you don’t look at the overall picture. When you’re working for a company, someone else is doing that. They’re looking at deadlines, and making sure you keep to them. I think I’m starting to learn that now, which isn’t a bad thing.
So I think the fundamental difference is that now I’ve got to be slightly more disciplined and critical about the way I do things. Every move that I make can go both ways – it can bring the company to the next level or it can be extremely costly. You start to plan to ahead, you start to care more for other people. When you’re working for someone else you just care for yourself and your well-being. You’re not the one controlling the payroll, who to hire and who to fire. You can trust your team to fulfil the milestones that you’ve set, but you’ve got to think for and with them in order to be a responsible leader of the company. And of course the stuff that you don’t want to do, and have to do, is all the administrative stuff. (laughs) How to file for taxes, CPF, things that I feel are very distracting. What entrepreneurs like to do is run with the product, meet people, build the team and build the product. Not the other things that are legal and administrative hindrances. (laughs)
In recent years, there has been a shift in the younger generation regarding choice of career – more people are now willing to take chances and start something on their own, instead of picking the “safer” options. Why do you think there has been this shift?
I think more people are willing to try new things now because quite frankly we’re blessed. Most of us are born into families that are financially sound. Our parents’ generation didn’t have the same opportunities; and although I’m not saying that our generation does not have these problems, we definitely face them on a lesser scale. Thus we have a generation that sees success as something more than just monetary. We’re not working because of the money anymore, we’re working because of the value, the passion and the interest. Now people generally make their own choices, parents are a lot more relaxed… and I think that the more open people are to try and follow their dreams, the lesser the stigma towards failure.
What does success mean to you, then?
At Burpple, we see success from a different angle. We see ourselves as already successful. It’s not arrogance, but a kind of security. From day one we told ourselves that even if no one uses this app that we’ve built up, we’ve already gained so much from this whole journey that it’s a personal success. A lot of people see entrepreneurship as a kind of fearful risk, they ask themselves what they are risking instead of what they are gaining. They have a lot of insecurities, a lot of fears…and sometimes the best way is just to know that you’re already a success. When you see yourself as already a success, then you have less to fear and nothing to fail.
– Profiled by Natalee Ho