Singapore art student turns technopreneur

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By Melissa Law

When Elisha Ong was just 15, he crafted and coded his own stadium and jersey designs for the football computer game FIFA because he got tired of just playing the game. His design for Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium received 9,000 downloads on the very first day that he uploaded it onto a gaming forum, kickstarting a career that would lead him to spend a year in Silicon Valley and eventually co-found technology startup Burpple.

Yahoo! Singapore spoke to the National University of Singapore business school graduate over a cup of coffee at Fusionopolis recently to find out more about his experience at Silicon Valley and Burpple.

25-year-old Burpple co-founder Elisha Ong always believed that he would be an artist or a filmmaker.

An art elective programme student for six years after his Chinese High days, planned to enter Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media. He changed his mind, applied to the NUS entertainment technology course, but was accepted into the business school instead.

Introduced to the NUS Overseas College (NOC) programme by a friend, Ong went to the interview completely unprepared with no clue as to what Silicon Valley was. Surprisingly, he breezed through the interview and was offered a place in the programme along with 10 other students.

Getting accepted into the programme was a much-needed turning point for the passionate designer who felt that he was underperforming in school.

“In NUS, I had reached a point where I almost lost sight of what I was doing. I was not doing well grades-wise and everyone was very competitive,” he said. “I was on the brink of giving up.”

Having never lived overseas before, Ong packed his bags and prepared to spend a year away, not knowing what to expect.

Life in the Valley

In Silicon Valley, the National Junior College alum studied at Stanford University. As part of the NOC programme, he was hired by mobile video communication startup, Qik (now Skype), as a designer.

He started out making minor changes on banners and logos, but true to his nature, Ong started to get bored and approached his supervisor to ask if he could work on more “exciting or challenging” tasks.

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He was slowly entrusted with more and more projects, and by the middle of the year, Ong became Qik’s lead designer.

He was tasked to work on the user interface (UI) of their biggest project – Video Chat – an Android mobile app similar to Apple’s FaceTime which streams videos live on the Web as it is recorded.

One month later, Apple launched FaceTime. The passionate designer could not believe his eyes when he realised that 90 per cent of the app’s UI was similar to his.

The culture of Silicon Valley and his experience at Qik broadened his mindset and still awes him till today.

“The whole experience is more than what money can buy. You feel so privileged to be a part of it. Sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself… you feel honoured, you feel humbled that they trust you enough,” he said, as he reminisced about the past with fondness.

Doing things differently

The designer’s achievements at Qik were not his only takeaways from the programme. Being at the centre of innovation and enterprise, Ong and Dixon Chan, his roommate, were inspired to start their own business.

The idea for Burpple came to them one day while they were out for a meal.

“I always take 10 minutes to decide what to eat. I always end up calling a friend or asking the waiter. So we thought, why not have a way where people can remember what they’ve eaten and see what friends have tried? In that way, it becomes a form of social recommendation,” said Ong, whose favourite dessert is mango shaved ice from ABC market in Bukit Merah.

So why didn’t they stay in Silicon Valley to start Burpple?

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Comparing the business environment in Silicon Valley to Singapore’s, Ong admits that he was initially reluctant to return to Singapore, but decided to do so in the end because of the wealth of opportunities in Asia and the city-state.

“We did think of that and were in fact trying to find ways not to come back to Singapore,” he joked. “But for us, we just thought that we’ve tasted a bit of the SV culture, why not come back and fuse it with the East?”

“If you can have a success story here, if you can start something new here, you’ll make people see that it’s not always about going overseas. In terms of talent and skill set, we’re not far behind. In terms of our ability to think as well. All we need is a better ecosystem – more people to come together and congregate ideas with the willingness to share and help,” said the entrepreneur who possesses business acumen beyond his age.

Chan and Ong returned to Singapore for their last semester of school in 2010. Through a friend’s recommendation, they met software engineer Daniel Hum.

Armed with the same passion and vision, the Burpple team was formed.

Describing Burpple’s culture as “fun” and “relaxed”, Ong said that the three founders wanted to run Burpple in a “very different” way.

“We crap a lot (Singaporean slang for cracking jokes). We crap a lot about things I probably shouldn’t tell you,” joked the jovial man, as he burst into laughter.

Turning serious, he then continued, “Honestly, we’re quite stress-free. We take things very easy but we’re not slack (slang for lax). We just trust that all things will work out.”

Released in May this year, the beautifully designed Burpple app quickly gained traction among food lovers all around the world.

Within a few weeks of going live, the app that has been deemed the ‘Instagram for foodies’ was featured among the Top Food and Drink apps in Apple’s App Store. To date, Burpple has food documented in close to 3,000 cities and more than 100 countries.

Having only incorporated the company less than a year ago, Ong admits that Burpple is still nascent and is in fact going through a defining period as the team tries to find the “product-market fit”.

“The app is only a few months old and the company is less than a year old. If we want to make any changes, now’s the right time to do it,” he said. “We’re still trying to find out what’s the value that we add to people’s lives.”

“We want to move away from being just a food photo journal. Burpple is more than just that,” said the designer.

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