We continue our round of interviews with the 2014 Founders from StartupYard. Meet YourPlace, a young team from Kazakhstan working on a location-based customer acquisition and loyalty platform for bars, cafes, and restaurants. I sat down with founder and CEO Mark Okhman.
Mark, tell us about YourPlace in a few words.
YourPlace allows restaurants, cafes, or bars, to target customers, and keep them aware of bonuses or loyalty rewards from their favorite places. At the end of the day, it helps them to answer a simple question: “Where to go?”
What makes this app different from familiar platforms like Yelp, or Groupon, or the Czech service Slevomat?
To visualise our relationship to those players, I would say that we are at the intersection of Yelp and Groupon. YourPlace knows which places you, as a user, like. We’ve taken the following facts as given: when you’re loyal as a customer, you’re treated with love, and loyal customers spend more, and come more often. This is what YourPlace is all about.
We don’t allow reviews, but we learn customer purchasing behavior. For now, about 10 places are testing YourPlace’s features for merchants, which allow them to target different groups of their customers, track and digest results of loyalty campaigns, to grow loyal customers base.
Your team is the youngest at StartupYard. Most of you are still in University. Do you think your age is a barrier to making YourPlace a success?
Sometimes it feels like we are even too late. :laughs: Our university did a lot to give us an environment where we could achieve what we have now. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve met new people, exchanged experiences and through this we’ve grown. I very often hear the phrase: ‘your age is dependent on what you’ve learned, not on how many birth days you’ve celebrated.’ We have big aims: to help build relationships between merchants and their customers.
And your team also happens to be the only one from outside Europe. What advantages and disadvantages come with growing a new online business in Kazakhstan?
There is a big niche to grow ,and people in Central Asia are open to new things in online and mobile. Penetration of the mobile internet is now high enough to grow whole new businesses. A few years ago, as in Europe, our market experienced a boom in coupon services. It was an interesting time! People were inspired, while places were waiting for the influx of customers, which, actually, didn’t happen. As one of significant consequences – merchants lost their profit margin because of high discounts and customer flow when they stopped this “ coupon madness”.
Our company today helps such businesses as restaurants, bars or cafes, to make discounts and give bonuses without losses in customer flow. I want to emphasize that this market in Kazakhstan is not small – about 4000 food-merchants in two biggest cities (Almaty – 3 mln, Astana – 800 000) Loyalty management systems are the next logical level, after coupon services. In fact, the Kazakhstani market barely uses Passbook in customer-merchants relationships, while we teach people to use this easy and efficient technology in their daily life.
In a few months we will enable our system to work with iBeacons, which will cover off-line customer-merchant relations. There is so much to discover and implement! We feel like we are helping our web environment to be more qualitative. One of our goals is to make life easier and more interesting for people in Central Asia. We can do this!
Let’s talk about the app itself. What have been some of your major challenges in making the platform work? What issues do you still need to resolve?
You will not believe me if I tell you that YourPlace was first called MOSKIS, and it was nothing more than a search engine for places of any kind around you. Typical copy of Foursquare-like apps. After some time, we transformed it into a discount club, also called MOSKIS (the Russian equivalent of this abbreviature means “mobile discounts”). Now we are doing our best on the merchant side to attract the right people with interesting offers and continue doing this until they will become really loyal customers.We are a channel for building relationships.
On the tech side, we had some problems while preparing the platform for high loads. That was difficult, because we’ve never had to deal with it before. And again we are on the short list – we run YourPlace on high quality Amazon services, which is, in fact, the industry leading cloud service.
How do you plan to market YourPlace? What kind of market strategy do you think will bring you growth in the near term?
First of all, we want to build a society of customers relevant to merchants. We are doing this through attracting people at the point of sale. Restaurants and bars want to know more about their visitors, so they help us with this. We also plan to attract people through activities around merchants who work with us. For this we will use our blog and creative team, who will put on events and provide interesting reading material. This is how we want to attract people to go to those restaurants or cafes, showing how interesting this experience could be. We use localization as a key for maintaining the relevance of people inside of the platform to our client merchants.
Does your team plan to stay in Europe to develop YourPlace, or will you focus on your home market?
In the immediate future, we plan to go to Central Asia, especially to Kazakhstan, our home market. And it is a big market. As the product becomes tested and validated, we plan to grow to Central and Eastern Europe. We plan on that growth by around 2015.
How has your experience been here at StartupYard? Which of the mentors had the biggest impact on your personal and company development, and which parts of the program came the hardest for you and the team?
It has been amazing. 24/7 working on your project in the environment ever. And I’m not exaggerating! Our network grew incredibly. We learn something new every day and that’s what pushes us to work more; to be more efficient.
All three of us [Founders] had mentors that were our personal favorites. I was inspired by Damian Brhel [a StartupYard alum and Founder of Brand Embassy], even though the other mentors have imparted an incalculable amount of knowledge. Rauan loved mentoring with Zdenek Cendra [founder of cdn77.com], while Alibek liked Michal Illich [Founder of Wikidi and formerly of Seznam], because of his pragmatic vision.