Serkan Toso, co-founder of byFood tells us about food tourism.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Serkan Toso: I am fine, but at the same time, my parents and brothers, and sister are in Turkey, and the situation is not so good there, so it has been a little bit stressful. I have been worried about my family, but luckily, they are fine.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded byFood.
Serkan Toso: I’m from Turkey, and I came to Japan to study for my master’s degree in e-business management. After graduation, I worked for one and a half years at an e-commerce company as a marketer. I always wanted to start my own social business to help others through my work, so I created Tokyo by Food, a food experience booking platform that donated ten school lunch meals to children in need for every person who joined an experience. I called it the Food for Happiness Project.
Then, I met another social entrepreneur, Kaoru Joho, the founder of Tablecross Inc. She had a similar business model and was donating school meals for every person who made a reservation through her restaurant reservation app. In November 2018, we merged and started byFood.
How does byFood innovate?
Serkan Toso: We innovate by addressing difficulties our customers are facing in Japan. We know their motivation—70% of foreign tourists come to Japan for the food—we also know it is challenging and difficult to communicate with a language barrier. Based on their motivation and challenges, we are trying to find solutions to make their life easier.
In the past year, we launched a restaurant reservation service that uses a robot call system. Users can place the reservation through byFood in English, and the restaurant will receive an automated call to notify them of the reservation request in Japanese. After the restaurant accepts the reservation, the user will be notified in English.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Serkan Toso: There are no tourists at all, and our business is travel, so it affects us directly. We have been coping by focusing on our side businesses, though we are still preparing for next year when tourism is expected to resume. Even during the pandemic, we launched our restaurant reservation function, and we are still creating content and videos. At the same time, we create additional revenue through other sources like consulting services for restaurants, video production, and software services for other companies. We are still surviving through these additional revenue sources.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Serkan Toso: Due to the pandemic, we had to make the difficult decision to let go of some of our team members. If we hadn’t made this decision, we could have been out of cash, and the company would have been forced to close. While it was a difficult choice to make, we needed to do it for the business to survive and, for the first time in company history, we are actually making a profit. Even with a small team, we learned that if we work together, we are still able to achieve things by focusing not on quantity but quality. When you have the right team members, you can achieve great results.
We also learned we could adapt to a new style of communication. It has been difficult not seeing each other face to face in real life. We gave up our office and switched to a coworking space, but later we realized we don’t need a physical office; we can manage the job wherever we are. Our team members don’t even need to be in Japan — we can work with anyone anywhere in the world with this system, which gave us flexibility.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Serkan Toso: Google Hangouts is our friend. Google Drive also makes it easy to collaborate while working remotely. Upwork is another great tool that gives us the flexibility to hire anyone, whenever we want, for jobs like translation, design, editing, and software development. It’s great because we don’t need to hire full-time people for these occasional tasks.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Serkan Toso: Airbnb, GetYourGuide, Tripadvisor, and many big players. The big companies are global, and they are doing a lot of different things. Everyone seems to have food experiences or restaurant reservations, but food is our area of expertise, and we are based in Japan, so we can provide more variety than our competitors, from original experiences to YouTube videos and articles. An e-commerce service is also in the works.
Since we have local connections in Japan, we can create original content thanks to our network of hosts and restaurants, in addition to local government support. We’re striving to be the one place where you can find everything about Japanese food.
Your final thoughts?
Serkan Toso: Covid has affected us a lot, as we haven’t had any customers over the past year. We will probably face another year without customers, but we still believe that tourists will come back, and we will continue surviving and preparing until that moment. We are still innovating, creating new solutions, and creating new content, expecting that the food travel market will become huge. In the future, we’re planning to be the go-to food platform of the world.
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