愛評網 何吉弘

緊抓美食口碑商機
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2013 / 5月

文‧林奇伯 圖‧林格立


今年1月,日本NEC公司跨國投資美食網路平台「愛評網」500萬美元(約台幣1.5億元),這是近年來本土網路新創團隊獲得的最大一筆投資金額,消息震撼台灣創投界。

「愛評網」一詞,是從「評論」發想,利用台灣人愛分享的口碑力量,打造美食資訊平台,使用者隨時隨地都可以連上線搜尋好餐廳,像是擁有一本鉅細靡遺的「個人米其林指南」。目前站內商家數已超過20萬,消費評論近25萬篇,每個月流量超過1億次,被資策會評選為「影響網友休閒消費前決策」網站的第一名!

一開始,創辦人何吉弘只是單純想追求熱愛美食的老婆,而發想出這個使用介面,沒想到7年後,卻創造出最具前景的網路事業,可說是愛情力量真偉大,也是「人財兩得」的王子公主真實童話。


走進位於台北市羅斯福路的「愛評網」總部,大紅色的裝潢意象迎面襲來,門口櫃台擺著新春開工喜糖和金色鳳梨飾品,完全不像一般科技業熱愛的冷調時尚風,這家企業擺明了就是要幫客戶賺大錢,格外財氣逼人。

占地120坪的辦公室裡坐著64位員工,全公司平均年齡28歲;另外還設有中南部辦公室,二十多位業務員全台跑透透。

1979年次的執行長何吉弘,膚色黝黑,頭髮微微染黃,仍帶有大學生氣質。他笑說,「我今年34歲,不小心拉高了公司員工年齡的平均值!」

「口碑商機」的三力商業模式

在虛擬世界中,每個月拜訪這個120坪辦公室的人氣流量超過1億次,難怪何吉弘會說,「我們的客人真是絡繹不絕。」

想了解這家台灣第一大美食資訊平台獨特的商業模式,點進網站便可一目了然。

首頁上,圖文並茂的主題引人肚子開始咕咕叫。「極鮮鮭魚加爆漿魚卵太銷魂」是形容生魚片壽司,「烤棉花糖餅乾超香甜」推薦的是異國美食摩洛哥料理,「什麼?不放熱狗改夾土魠魚」則在提供創意台式早餐情報。

頁面最頂端的橫軸上,標示著幾個欄位,包括搜尋功能、排行榜、精選情報、精選特輯、口碑券、地圖快搜等,把「店家、消費者、評論人、愛評網」四個端點串起來。消費者利用這個美食資訊分享平台搜尋自己喜愛的餐廳或店家,並可加入會員,撰寫評論。

根據愛評網統計,影響消費者的購買決策因素,有二到五成是因為口碑,而熱愛美食的人又具有「上癮般的自發性分享衝動」。亦即,消費者依賴網路資訊做為參考指標,又反向回饋自己的經驗和心得。

於是,愛評網每天會有超過200篇圖文並茂的消費經驗分享文上傳,使用者平均停留在網站上的時間更長達20分鐘,黏著度極強。除了美食之外,現在平台資訊也包含到旅遊、電影、美妝等領域。

這等於是抓住「口碑商機」的三個力道:群創力、凝聚力、發散力。

經過愛評網策畫不同美食活動,誘發網友行動力強、喜歡冒險、愛嚐鮮的特質,將虛擬網路的情報落實成實體消費,然後網友再回來虛擬網路撰寫評論,形成「虛擬-網路-虛擬-網路」的循環,旋轉出一股群體創造的力道。

愛評網再將不同品牌和店家做客製化包裹套裝整合行銷,把異業通路串起來,將口碑凝聚到各個活動上;最後,再延伸到智慧型手機、臉書等載體上,使話題持續擴散,這種往外不斷發射的「發散力」,形成店家、網友和愛評網三贏的局面。

愛情力量,觸動美食分享之心

愛評網於2006年正式上線,發想起源竟是何吉弘想追求當時同在「Yahoo!奇摩」上班的女友葉卉婷。

「愛吃的人是她啦,我只是太愛她又不服輸,」何吉弘笑著說,葉卉婷從小在以小吃聞名的台北市虎林街長大,嘴巴被養得很刁,每次約會一定要吃到驚豔的美食才算盡興。

一開始何吉弘選的餐廳常被葉卉婷嫌棄,他只好翻遍雜誌、閱覽各種部落格尋找美食情報。在這種取悅女友的過程中,他突然發現,台灣網路上美食文章雖多,但大多只有圖文,沒有評論和店家詳細資訊;反觀,美國有「Yelp」,大陸有「大眾點評網」等實用平台,他開始思索創立台灣在地平台的可能性。

猶豫之間,創辦「愛情公寓」網站的小學同學張家銘建議他,不要遲疑,一旦創業就什麼都會,何吉弘才認真規劃,並找來葉卉婷的雙胞胎姊姊葉卉卿、熟悉資訊工程的好友陳易成,四人共同創業。

他們開始租了一個位在天母的兩坪大鐵皮屋房間當辦公室,沒錢裝冷氣,夏天時怕機器過熱,電風扇還只能對著電腦吹,十分克難。好在4人都與父母同住,每天帶便當上班,每人每月5,000元生活費就已足夠。如此,1周上班7天,前兩年就撐過去了,而且苦慣了,連金融海嘯來襲都沒影響他們的心情。

何吉弘和葉卉婷都畢業自輔仁大學圖書資訊系,利用所學的背景,他們把愛評網架構成類似碩博士論文的檢索模式,運用「多重關鍵字」的技術,果然把龐雜的資訊做了很有層次的分類,馬上就在眾多網路美食平台中出線,流量獨占鰲頭。

但是,如何創造獲利?何吉弘和葉卉婷只好親自掃街拉業務。

第一天,他們選了新莊一條很多商店的街,一人走一邊,當天共掃了一百多間。最後碰頭時,兩人把成果拿出來,發現整天下來,兩人各自只找到一間餐廳願意填資料,而且還不願意付費,當場一起傻在街頭。

「說服店家付費加入資料庫是團隊遇過最大的挑戰,當時都是靠網路流量的增長來鼓舞自己堅持熱情,果不其然,在創業第三年最低潮時,Google就主動找上門希望能成為策略夥伴了。」何吉弘說,緊接著,「Yahoo!奇摩」也來洽談策略聯盟,國際創投公司CyberAgent Ventures、日本NEC等國際資金挹注,門一扇一扇打開,終於做到今天的規模。

兩種會員,加倍成長的營業額

不少人好奇,為什麼在眾多新創網路公司中,愛評網總是可以獨獲跨國企業和國際資金的青睞?

「資料庫是關鍵!」何吉弘簡潔有力地說,創投公司最關心的就是三個數字:店家資料數、每月不重複到訪人數、獲利模式和規模。

先從每月不重複到訪人數來看,2011年CyberAgent Ventures入股愛評網時,單月超過300萬人,100萬美元投資額已讓台灣網路業十分振奮。

2013年初日本NEC挹注時,單月不重複到訪人數翻了兩倍有餘,來到700萬人。所以此次投資額翻升到500萬美元,一點也不意外,也證明當初決心先衝流量和會員數的策略是對的。

而NEC在愛評網上看到最光明的前景是網路線上到線下的「O2O(Online To Offline)」新營銷模式。未來愛評網要幫助店家架設雲端客戶關係管理系統(CRM),當消費者從網路上被引導進店裡去消費後,店家還可以持續追蹤客戶的屬性,做餐點調整,或是利用愛評網發出新訊息、優惠券給客人,製造回流率。

愛評網也被業界視為台灣市場能否把「O2O」服務做得起來的風向球,而愛評網的會員制也是讓他們信心滿滿的原因。

「近來在台灣流行的免費吃透透部落客,餐廳中常見到一面吃一面做筆記的身影,這些試吃客許多都是愛評網會員,」美食寫手李小姐說,許多人都懷抱著成為美食作家的夢想。

愛評網有兩種會員,一為店家,全台超過20萬家;一為消費者,具活躍分享力的有24萬人。

店家只要付費,愛評網就會派出採訪員幫忙找出誘人的特色,然後對愛評網寫手發出免費兌換券邀請,這些寫手只要吃了就得寫評論,而這些評論則變成滲透力極強的無形廣告。

消費者會員則採具有等級制度的「虛擬貨幣」機制,寫手的手上最多只能有兩張兌換券額度,而且依照等級來決定是否能拿到較貴的餐廳和被選中的機率,因此要越積極寫評論才越有吃到免費餐點的機會。

爸媽支持,成功關鍵

「目前,愛評網的年營業額超過台幣4,000萬元,早已損益兩平了。我們是2010年起才開始向店家收費,第一年店家會員營業額才150萬元,但第二年飆升到550萬元,第三年更達到1,200萬元,都是呈倍數成長。」何吉弘說,除了會員,大品牌如可口可樂、達美樂等,則是另外一大收入來源;愛評網會幫他們做專頁廣告、辦客製化行銷活動等,營業額是會員部分的兩倍。

回想創業歷程,何吉弘認為成功的關鍵在於父母的信任。

「老一輩的人不用網路,總覺得這個領域比較不踏實。」何吉弘說,但因父親年輕時也是自己創業開商業攝影公司,看到大家那麼拚,還會反過來安慰他,「創業學到的會比上班族多,即使虧了錢,人生也不會虧。」

時代的成功者總在於能抓住趨勢,並騎乘於上。愛評網緊抓台灣第二波網路創業潮崛起和美食風蔓延兩大浪潮,不只搶得先機,還創造了嶄新商業模式。

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EN

iPeen Culinary Review Site

Profits from “Word of Mouth”

Eric Lin /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Josh Aguiar and Phil Newell

When Japanese IT juggernaut NEC Corporation invested US$5 million this past January into iPeen, a Taiwanese online culinary review site, it sent a veritable shockwave through the world of Taiwanese venture capitalism. It was the first time in recent years that an Internet startup had attracted so large a sum.

The company’s Chinese name derives from the word “critique,” and the website’s purpose is none other than to provide a virtual space for the time-honored Taiwanese penchant for exchanging culinary opinions. At any time or any place, with just a click of a button, people can search for good restaurants, almost like having a Michelin Guide at one’s fingertips.

Although ­iPeen began as a way for founder Sky Ho to impress his foodie wife, seven years on it has matured into one of Taiwan’s most promising online enterprises. It’s a real-life fairy tale and testament to love’s power to motivate.


Walking into ­iPeen’s Roosevelt Road headquarters in Tai­pei, one is struck by the prominence given to the vibrant color red, in contrast to the aloof chic projected by most tech companies. Since to Chinese this is the color of happiness and wealth, the company exudes a welcoming confidence that seems to say, “We’re here to help you make you rich and happy!”

The company office occupies 400 square meters and is home to 64 employees whose average age is a mere 28 years old. CEO Sky Ho, who was born in 1979, with his swarthy features and slightly blonde-tinted hair, himself gives the impression of a fresh-faced college student. “I’m 34 this year, so I’m to blame for raising the average employee age!” he chuckles.

Word of mouth

This office receives over 100 million visits per month via cyber­space. Simply by visiting the site one can immediately gain an understanding of the business approach of this, Taiwan’s largest food review website.

The colorful images and taglines on the homepage are enough to make one drool in anticipation. “Better than sex: fresh salmon and succulent roe!” reads one tagline describing sashimi. “Super-sweet mouthwatering cotton candy!” runs another, recommending the exotic flavors of a Moroccan restaurant.

At the top of the homepage is a navigation bar with multiple tabs: search, hot picks, coupons, and maps, amongst others. Eateries, consumers, and reviewers are all brought together under the same tent. Consumers can let the experience of others point them towards quality dining; if they become members themselves, they can post their own reviews.

According to company statistics, a person’s decision to patronize an establishment is based 20–50% on consumer feedback. Moreover, true foodies have an insatiable need to share their dining experiences with others. Over 200 reviews consisting of both pictures and write-ups are uploaded to the ­iPeen site every day, and the duration of the average visit to the site is an impressive 20 minutes, all of which points to its addictive nature.

Their success at seizing this “word-of-mouth” profit opportunity is propelled by three forces: collective creativity, centripetal force, and centrifugal force.

The first is the power of collective creativity. Through a variety of different culinary activities, iPeen now has a network of users who are pro-active, adventurous, and novelty-craving. These people turn the “virtual” dining experiences of the website into real consumer behavior, then return to the Internet to post their reviews, creating a cycle of “virtual to real to virtual to real”—a spinning power generator driven by collective creativity.

iPeen then creates customized and integrated marketing for various brands and restaurants, linking up different business channels and focusing attention and commentary on specific activities. That’s the centripetal part. Finally, the centrifugal part is to disseminate “the word” via smartphones, Facebook, plurk and other media. The result is a win-win-win situation for restaurants, the company’s online audience, and iPeen.

The power of love

iPeen officially went online in 2006, initially just as a stunt on the part of founder Sky Ho to attract the attention of a young woman, Ye Hui­ting, who was then his coworker at Yahoo!Kimo.

Ho laughs as he recounts how growing up in the environs of Tai­pei’s Hu­lin Street, which has a mind-boggling array of fabulous foods for sale, had made Ye very picky about eating. Every date therefore had to include some kind of imaginative cuisine just to keep her interested.

While struggling to appease Ye’s epicurean cravings, it dawned on Ho that while Taiwan certainly had enough online food articles, they mostly just consisted of descriptions and pictures. There was not, however, a more practically oriented website dedicated to consumer reviews and detailed information like the American website Yelp or mainland China’s Da­zhong Dian­ping­wang. He began to ponder the possibility of creating a platform specifically for Taiwanese diners.

He was initially reluctant to follow through on his idea, but his elementary-school classmate Zhang Jia­ming, founder of the ­iPart dating site, inspired Ho with a version of the “if you build it, they will come” speech. Ho thus began drawing up his plans for the site, assisted by Hui­ting, her twin sister Hui­qing, and an IT savvy friend, Chen Yi­cheng.

In the beginning they rented a tiny office space in a sheet-metal building in ­Tianmu. With no money for air conditioning, they used electric fans to keep the computers from overheating. It was rough going at first, but fortunately all four partners were still living at home with their parents and they were all in the habit of bringing their own lunches from home, enabling them to subsist on a meager NT$5000 per month.

Both Ho and Ye, who is now his wife, graduated from the Department of Library and Information Science at Fu Jen Catholic University. Putting their academic training to use, they set up searches on ­iPeen based on the “multiple key words” technique used for searching master’s and doctoral theses. They were thus able to structure and categorize what had been an undifferentiated mass of information, which quickly set iPeen apart from other dining websites and drew virtually all the traffic their way.

But how could they make a profit? Ho and Ye had no choice but to hit the pavement and go old-school on sales.

The first day, they chose a street in Xin­zhuang (a district of New Tai­pei City) with many restaurants and shops and, taking a side of the street each, hit more than 100 storefronts before calling it quits. After an exhausting day, between them they had found only a single eatery willing to provide data for their website.

“We started out thinking we’d get data from restaurants, and they’d also pay us to provide extra services for them through the website. But we found it a real challenge just to get information, much less persuade owners to pay any fee. The only thing that kept us going in those days was that at least our Internet traffic was increasing over time. Then in the third year, when we had almost lost hope, Google came to us out of nowhere and said they wanted to form a strategic partnership,” says Ho. Yahoo!Kimo was not far behind with the same request. Then came investments from CyberAgent Ventures and NEC, and doors began to open one after another, culminating in the scale of operations we see today.

Snowballing revenues

Many people wonder how, out of all the vast number of new Internet ventures created over the years, ­iPeen was able to attract the attention of international investors.

“It’s the database!” says Ho, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. Venture capital companies care about three numbers: the number of restaurants in the database, the monthly number of unique visitors, and the profit potential.

In terms of unique visitors, when Cyber­Agent Ventures invested in ­iPeen back in 2011, the figure was a bit over 3 million per month, prompting Cyber­Agent’s then-astonishing investment of US$1 million. By the time NEC invested in 2013, the number of unique visitors per month had more than doubled, reaching 7 million. This proves that the company’s original decision to put all their effort into traffic flow and number of members was the correct one.

NEC saw that ­iPeen’s greatest potential lay in the novel marketing model of O2O (“online to offline”). In the future ­iPeen will help restaurants to construct cloud systems for “consumer relationship management” (CRM), so that after consumers are attracted via the Internet to go into the actual eatery and spend money, the restaurant will be able to follow up on those consumers’ characteristics and adjust their menus accordingly.

iPeen has two types of members. One is restaurant owners or representatives, more than 200,000 of whom are now ­iPeen members islandwide, and some of whom are fee-paying members. The other is consumers, of whom there are 240,000 (a consumer membership is free of charge). What an eatery gets if it is a fee-paying member is that iPeen will send out a staff member to help the restaurant figure out and highlight those features that will give the place cachet and appeal. Then iPeen gives free gift certificates to review writers, who dine there and write their reviews, which in turn start generating buzz about the spot.

Credit the parents

“Right now iPeen’s annual operating revenues are in excess of NT$40 million, and we have been in the black for a long time," says Ho. “We began to collect fees from restaurant members only in 2010, and though revenues from this source in the first year were only NT$1.5 million, in the second year they skyrocketed to NT$5.5 million and then all the way up to NT$12 million in the third year.”

An even more important source of income is food brands like Coca-Cola and Domino’s. iPeen does special ad pages and tailor-made marketing activities for them, with revenues from this source being double those from members.

Thinking back on the course of their entrepreneurial adventure, Ho says the real key to success has been his parents’ trust.

“People of the older generation don’t use the Internet, and so to them it seems like something impractical and kind of illusory,” says Ho. But because his father was himself an entrepreneur in his youth—founding a commercial photography studio—Ho’s Dad not only did not criticize them, he actually offered them encouragement when he saw how hard they were working. “People who start their own businesses always learn more than people who just get office jobs, and even if they lose money, they won’t lose in terms of life.”

The successful people in any era are those who can identify major trends and ride them. The folks at iPeen identified two—the second wave of Internet entrepreneurship and the spread of interest among foodies for hunting down and trying new or noteworthy dishes—and not only got out on the crest of both, but even created an entirely new business model.

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