Steering Choppy Waters

When Esseplore, an AI-driven tech-enabled food and travel company, first launched, they could not have done so at a worse timing. The world was going into lockdown, and travel ground to a halt. However, executive director Poh Mui Hoon, was not going to give up, and Esseplore pivoted to new opportunities.

Adversity has never been a stranger to Poh Mui Hoon, co-founder and executive director of Esseplore, a AI-driven food and travel platform. In her long and distinguished career in a variety of fields, Poh is no stranger to steering a ship through choppy waters.

But perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles she’d had to face has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which has decimated industries and grinded the global economy to a halt. Even after having been in several high-profile roles over the years — including Group CEO of electronic payment service provider, NETS — Poh too, was caught off-guard by how bad the virus would impact the world.

It was made worse by the fact that Esseplore, which was founded in 2018 and took over a year to build from ground up, was supposed to launch in March.

But as infections soared across the world, travel plans were left in the dust; and this obviously did not bode well for Esseplore, whose target audience were business-leisure (or ‘bleisure’, a portmanteau of business and leisure) travellers looking for unique, hyper-local experiences in various countries, first in Singapore and then eventually, across the world.

Esseplore’s unique selling proposition, as it were, was about seeing a city through a local’s eyes. However, Covid-19 put paid to its potential even before it began. So when the reality of the pandemic hit hard and fast, Poh — together with co-founder Eddie Chau and founder Sin Boon Ann (who was also Tampines GRC MP) — realised the business had to pivot, and fast.

“We were like, “Okay, what do we do now?” Clearly we don’t know when travel would resume nor when the travellers will return. We could sit around doing nothing, which would mean we will lose our staff — so what could we do? What did we have?” says Poh.

What they did have, however, is a platform, and the technology core of that platform. “We also have an ecosystem, a network of home chefs in Singapore who are raring and ready to go. People who’d be passionate to cook you a delicious Peranakan meal. If you go to a restaurant, you wouldn’t know the chef, but we wanted to showcase our local home chefs.”

From targeting bleisure travellers, Esseplore quickly pivoted to focus on Singapore. “We decided that the only pillar of our business that would make sense for us at this time is the food pillar. We still have to eat, right?” she says, laughing.

As such, they decided to focus on the chefs, connecting chefs to diners right in their homes.

Every home chef is selected carefully, from their culinary expertise down to the strictest of hygiene standards. Each chef has to undergo hygiene certification, and Esseplore does this by partnering with the SHATEC Institute, a school of hospitality in Asia for aspiring Chefs and Hotel Professionals.

Currently, Esseplore has about 15 chefs in their network, all whom are carefully chosen and who offer a variety of unique local cuisine. Aside from the everyday diners looking for a gourmet experience, Esseplore also creates and caters special menus for hybrid virtual weddings, virtual corporate meetings, and special events.

It is this agility to quickly pivot and willingness to explore new opportunities that represents the greatest strength of any company, and especially a start-up.

one of the things I’ve learnt over time, I’ve learned about what it means to feel happy.”

“In start-ups, business ideas will always have to pivot or evolve according to the situation, because that’s just how it is. There will always be a need to raise capital, if not here then somewhere else, but it is the founding team plus the senior leadership is what makes or breaks the company, especially in this early stage.”

Truly, Poh, who spent 8 years at the helm at NETS, and then later at fibre optics operator SP Tel, relished the challenge of working at a start-up like Esseplore.

“My background has actually been more from building tech businesses. I have always been at the crossroads of tech and business; I love looking at business models and how you can use tech to change it to create a more disruptive force,” she says.

This, perhaps, is what keeps Poh going, even with the challenges of running a travel business while no travel is allowed. With her calibre, and experience, Poh could easily have stayed in a cushy, high-profile corporate job of delegating and signing papers, figuratively speaking — surely she did not need the sleepless nights and the pressure of building something from scratch?

“One of the things I’ve learnt over time, I’ve kind of learned about what it means to feel happy. About how to be authentic to your true self — true to what you’re about, who you are, and what makes you happy,” she says. “And signing papers doesn’t make me so happy,” she jokes.

In this stage of her life, she now has the choice to do what she truly loves. “I like to be able to build a business now that will make an impact on small businesses and operators.”

It is made all the better by the strength of the founding team, says Poh. “[Sin] Boon Ann is a great leader, and Chau is exceptionally experienced in what to do to scale up a business. I’ve learnt so much from him, he’s so good at taking something from zero to one, of scaling and building things.”

“It’s a space where we can amalgamate the energy and create something and that’s what I love about it; in creating something.”