Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry is among the worst-hit. According to the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), which represents over 500,000 restaurants across the country, over 20 lakh people directly employed in the restaurant industry may be rendered jobless.
“When the lockdown was announced, the restaurant industry was one of the worst-hit. A lot of chefs, waiters, and small businesses lost their job. Around 25 percent of restaurants listed on Zomato shut down during the lockdown itself, while 20-25 percent of dine-in restaurants were never going to start again even after the lockdowns were lifted,” Gaurav Padiyar, Founder and CEO of Bingage.
The only silver lining for the sector were cloud kitchens and self-operated online ordering platforms that operated even during the peak of the lockdown in March and April. As per RedSeer Management Consulting, the cloud kitchen (online ordering) market is projected to become a $2 billion industry in India by 2024, up from $400 million in 2019.
Meanwhile, as per a Gartner report, the overall customer management software (CRM) market in India stands at $462.7 million, with an annual growth rate of 20.5 percent.
Understanding the capabilities of both the markets, Gaurav decided to start Bingage, a B2B SaaS platform that provides restaurants and hotel owners with customer retention services. Based out of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, the startup’s AI-powered marketing suite is catering to over 600 restaurants across 18 cities in India. Until February 2020, it has delivered around 3.1 million personalised campaigns, with a team of 10 employees.
A story of trial and errors
Gaurav says the startup’s journey is filled with successes and failures. Bingage started as a small business that sold offline coupon books back in 2014. Upon realising that the business was not scalable in the future, Gaurav modified the business model to a food recommendation app in 2016.
Meanwhile, since the startup was bootstrapped, he found it hard to spend on marketing budgets for acquiring more active users.
“The hardest time for my team was between January 2016 and October 2017. I lost lakhs of rupees in this business. Many people advised me to shut down the business and take up a marketing job. However, I kept going,” Gaurav shares.
At the same time, he came across an opportunity that would give the startup the necessary boost.
“In January 2016, I called up the owner of Hotel Sensation, Amit Banke. I explained the benefits of Bingage app to him. He bought the idea and I managed to sell out 500 memberships (Rs 2,500 each) from his hotel. Then more contracts followed — Ozone Restaurants, Jal Restaurants, Regenta Resorts — all from Indore. We managed to break-even,” the founder adds.
Having learned from their previous mistakes, the team at Bingage started working on other scalable ideas apart from the business of selling hotel and food coupons on the startup’s app. It decided to build a customer retention platform for the hotel industry.
From coupons to food recommendations, Indore-based Bingage evolved to become an AI-powered marketing suite that helps hotels and restaurants retain their customers.
Since February 2018, Bingage has been providing a cutting-edge AI platform to restaurants to help drive new sales, increase customer retention, and run impactful campaigns. The platform is made easy-to-use for restaurant owners since many of them are not acquainted with the latest technology.
Besides that, Bingage provides a Wallet gateway — a single plug-in API to start a virtual wallet for any business. By using the e-wallet, restaurant owners can start their own cashback programme and lure more customers. According to Gaurav, the startup’s cashback programmes have increased the customer retention rate by two-fold for hotel owners.
In April 2018, Bingage raised a seed fund of Rs 250,000 from Walkover Web Solutions.
Impact of pandemic
“Until January 2020, Bingage achieved a 200 percent growth year on year. However, 200 percent isn’t a parameter because, in the second year of any business, you obviously do double than your previous year. So we focussed on some unique strategies and built strong domain expertise,” Gaurav explains.
Due to the pandemic, the startup is down to 150 percent for this financial year. The challenge for Bingage was to keep the business afloat while paying salaries, as well as keeping the team motivated at the same time.
Bingage started onboarding retail and supermarkets, which helped them to keep the sales going. In fact, in April 2020, there were zero sales in restaurants and retail verticals.
“It was due to the support from my team that we managed to keep new sales growth by 20 percent in May 2020 through retail and supermarkets. By July, we had reached 60 percent of the sales revenue of February 2020,” he says.
According to the founder this feat was achieved in a short period, thanks to the previous failures in the startup’s journey. “I now understand why those failures were so important. They taught me to modify and evolve with circumstances,” Gaurav adds.
Learnings from the pandemic
For Gaurav, the pandemic taught him three major lessons —
1. Market acceptance for online platforms: Due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns, many offline restaurants, hotels, and grocery vendors became open to digital platforms.
2. The need for personalised customer engagement: When a customer is not at the store, a personal touch with the customer is challenging. There’s a good chance now that customer engagement platforms will increase as more businesses go digital.
3. Outlook towards inbound sales: Earlier, especially in India, for companies who were offering solutions for offline businesses, it used to be mandatory to hire field sales teams to close the leads. But now the scenario has changed. Small businesses are also prepared to schedule an online meeting. Businesses can now go for inbound sales that save time, energy, and money.
Bingage is now determined to achieve 10x growth by April 2021. Post the lockdowns, many offline businesses are opening their online stores, and Bingage is pushing for its Wallet plug-in feature among such stores.
“We have tied-up with IT companies to integrate the Wallet plug-in in ecommerce stores that they develop for their clients. This has helped us manage a large portion of our losses since online ordering is the new norm,” shares Gaurav.