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abillionveg, the popular social platform for vegan food reviews and recommendations, is on a mission to help drive the plant-based movement for a sustainable planet and convert a billion people to a more eco lifestyle. The young startup is one of the most well-funded in the Asia impact scene, closing a pre-Series-A US$ 3 million round just this week and attracting high-profile investors like Room To Read’s John Wood. We got to chatting with founder & CEO Vikas Garg, the investor-turned-founder of the plant-based platform, about his journey that led up to creating the app and what’s happening in the vegan food industry. In the below interview Garg tells us about thinking like a nonprofit, why good business is good karma, the value of data to create change, why all restaurants need plant-based dishes, what’s next for the startup and why he won’t stop until he donates a billion dollars to charity.
GQ: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up founding abillionveg and the inspiration behind it?
VG: I’ve been raised vegetarian since birth. Around twelve years ago in 2008, I started on this path to be vegan. It wasn’t easy. Despite being vegetarian, cutting out the things I loved was hard, especially because it felt like I had far fewer options dining out. Before, I could go to most restaurants and could expect there to be almost always one vegetarian option, like a cheesy pasta dish. When I became vegan, it felt like a bit of a compromise and sacrifice in my lifestyle, but I knew it was important to me and I had to do it. I had this awakening of what I was doing to myself and my body, and the planet and animals.
Now, being vegan is something that is a huge part of my identity and is something that most inspires me in my life. Meanwhile, I spent most of my career working in Wall Street, finance, trading and hedge funds. I even worked for the U.S. government for a few years and helped them manage money. I had this whole career separately outside of my social values. It was this career that brought me to Singapore six years ago.
Then in my mid-30s, I decided that I was ready to start my own company and I felt there was an opportunity to align my own virtues and values and the things I care most about in my life with my work. I had this choice. I asked myself if staying in my current career, starting a hedge fund, if that’s what I wanted my legacy to be. I said no. I wanted to create something that helps animals because I love animals and have been a part of the animal rights movement since a young age. I wanted to help people close this gap from where being sustainable feels like a sacrifice to where being sustainable is just doing the right thing and the best thing. So three years ago, I began this journey and I haven’t looked back since.
GQ: How does abillionveg work? What’s the elevator pitch in a few lines?
VG: I often say that it’s as if Instagram and Yelp hooked up and had a vegan baby. It’s got that utility that helps you find things and there are reviews. What most people do is post reviews of vegan or plant-based dishes at restaurants, sustainable consumer products across fashion, packaged food, beauty and wellness. In a way, we’re like a consumer review platform but the user experience is designed to be very social.
At the end of the day, we believe this effort needs to be driven by a community supportive of each other. Half of our users today aren’t vegan or vegetarian, but are meat-eaters looking to reduce their meat consumption and that’s how they find us. There is an important social and community angle to the platform that supports people. So it’s part social media app, part consumer review platform.
GQ: Sometimes, review apps face the issue of reliable information. What mechanisms does abillionveg use to properly verify information?
VG: Absolutely. Content moderation or making sure that platform and the community is reliable is super important. We have a full time team of over 20 here in Singapore and we have another team of around 20 interns from leading universities all over the world, from Princeton, Yale and Harvard to NUS and SMU. Our team goes through all the reviews and they make sure that if someone posts a review of a vegan dish in a restaurant, that it is vegan. If someone is reviewing a product marked as ethical and cruelty-free, that in fact it is. We store a lot of this information in the background and we are constantly doing moderation to ensure the quality of the information members are posting. In addition, a big part of the policing and reliability effort falls back to the community, who are on the app everyday, who can report things if it’s inaccurate.
GQ: Your platform is now in 130 countries and counting. What have been some of the biggest challenges of growing abillionveg?
VG: Where do I get started! Not a lot of money in the bank, for example. You want to do things and grow. But what you learn is you’ve got the right amount of money for where you are. I’m getting a little philosophical here in the sense that whatever stage you are at, the market will recognise and reward you with the right amount of funding to get to the next step.
Of course, with funding, you want to spend more on marketing and growing your team and rolling out the product faster, but you’re also limited and constrained by the available talent. That’s been a big one this year in 2020. For us, trying to scale-up and hire people is a challenge and that is something that many startups face in terms of acquiring talent. I came from a very privileged career background. What I mean by that is that every place I worked at had a great brand and reputation. There were always amazing candidates at the door and the HR team would take care of recruiting. With big institutions, people flock to you and want association with the brand and it’s easier at that stage. So when I started this, it was a really humbling experience. Most of my friends thought I was crazy and leaving behind a successful career and here in Singapore, I couldn’t even get people to call me. In the first two years when we started up and things were really rudimentary and we were still in the product development phase, it was really difficult for me. No one cared what we were doing, we didn’t have a name and we only had reputation with people we knew.
That’s also another big challenge. For me, I was making a shift from being an investor and a banker to being in tech. Even today, you’re building something and there’s always that voice inside your head about whether other people really care. You have to remind yourself that it’s working and spreading and growing. I am also never happy with growth – it’s never good enough. Growth is such an elusive target because it’s always moving.
GQ: Last year, abillionveg announced US$2 million in seed funding, which broke records as the largest seed round for a plant-based startup that year in Singapore. What does this say about how investors see plant-based movement and the business opportunities it presents?
VG: I think that there are a lot of different business opportunities and a lot of new initiatives that are very exciting and depending on where you see the world going and consumers going. There’s the plant-based space, then there’s the cell based space, then there’s a whole science side of it. The plant-based side is really interesting because you already have products on the market that consumers can taste, feel and use, and the cellular space doesn’t have products yet but it’s happening fast. It’s long-term in thinking, but it’s revolutionary when we get there. Then there are tons of opportunities after that, from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce, like ours.
We’re focused on building the world’s leading e-commerce destination for sustainability. That’s our goal for the next five to ten years and we simply started with building a community first. As an investor – and I’ve been doing this for 20 years prior to starting this company – I think the challenge is valuations, like with all emerging industries. There isn’t a lot of precedent for valuation, so companies in the industry tend to present valuations relative to other companies in the same space, which is now still a very small field. But I’d argue that if you’re talking about a frozen food startup, for example, you need to evaluate the opportunity for a plant-based frozen food company relative to traditional frozen food companies. There are so many opportunities and we look at them too and invest in a bunch, but at the same time we’re careful about who we get involved with.
GQ: Anything to add about your pre-Series A round that drew US$3 million just this week?
VG: In an extraordinary year for the planet and for people and businesses struggling to navigate the pandemic, I’m grateful to our members and investors supporting our work and impact. The new funds give us a lot of confidence to build a stronger foundation, hire great people and grow!
GQ: What are some of the main trends in the food industry you’ve seen over the years, in Asia and globally?
VG: I’ve been here in Asia for six years. Part of the reason why I started this app was out of my own frustration. I used to go on a lot of business trips to Tokyo with my old firm and my clients would take me to Indian restaurants because I’m Indian. I love Indian food, but I don’t want to have Indian food in Tokyo! So that got me thinking. It’s not that vegan options don’t exist, it’s just hard to find them. Over the past few years, I think overall, there are a lot more plant-based options available on restaurant menus. There’s also a lot more willingness from businesses to cater to customers – not just for vegetarians or vegans – but everything, from gluten-free to organic or refined sugar-free. It wasn’t like that a few years ago. Today, a lot of the restaurants I go to, the staff are trained and well-educated on dietary preferences, and are super flexible and willing to accommodate. That being said, I was once invited to someone’s home for dinner. And they called me up and said that they didn’t know what to feed me. So I think there is improvement but still a long way to go, obviously. There’s also the broader sustainability scene, and that’s changing and moving in the right direction, even here in Singapore, which is pretty much the land of plastic.
GQ: Do you believe that plant-based eating is going to be mainstream? You mentioned earlier your anecdote of someone inviting you over for dinner but not knowing what to cook for you. Do you think that one day, it’ll be so normal and everyone will understand what a vegan diet is?
VG: Absolutely. 100%. That’s something we’re working really hard to change. I didn’t just create this platform to be another online community or review site. I created it because I believe we can use data for good. I created this after the U.S. elections in 2016, when we were all blown away by the level of misinformation around social media and the divisiveness of these platforms. It felt like the world online was headed in the wrong direction. I’ve been an activist since a young age, so I thought about how to take door-to-door activism and transform it with technology.
I think one of the unique things about us is that we operate differently and we think like a nonprofit. Anytime a review is generated anywhere in the world, one of our team members spends five minutes figuring out the responsible people for that business. Once we find this and load up their contact information on our database, we automatically send these businesses valuable consumer insights and their own reviews. We send them educational information material about the plant-based movement. We’re even sending them the best vegan dishes from their competitors in their area. It’s all about informing these businesses with consumer information that helps them transform their menus, which then creates awareness. From that perspective, we’re serving a consumer advocacy function and as we scale, and I believe we are going to see change.
GQ: You just talked about one part of your business model, but another part of abillionveg is that it gives animal and planet charities $1 per review. How does it work and is this a sustainable financial model going forward?
VG: Most startups have an addiction to spending on marketing and advertising on Facebook. I have an addiction to donating money. We’re an early-stage startup and we need people to come onto our platform and we need them to stick. We also need them to create content. So I felt like, you know what? We are going to raise a bunch of capital from investors. Every year we will donate a million dollars, and as we scale we will make this number bigger. This year was the first year we donated a million dollars to animal sanctuaries, environmental and marine life conservation organisations and groups promoting nutrition and education. We want to help our members make that connection between what they’re eating and buying and the life that it impacts. It’s been a really great strategy for us as far as it goes to build up a core base of passionate supporters and members. Financially, I think it makes a lot of sense too.
I believe in karma and I believe we’re doing a lot of good and we’re growing the right way. It comes back to an investment in our own growth and I’m super excited about it. If we can create this impact around the world – especially in a year like this of struggle – then the world will do right by us. That’s been the pitch for me and for our investors, and they love getting involved with it. We’re going to scale it and one day it’s hopefully not going to be a million dollars but a billion dollars being donated.
GQ: Many restaurants have faced closures during the pandemic and it looks like cooking at home is becoming the new normal as the crisis lingers. How does this impact the way abillionveg works? Is it becoming a review app centred on vegan grocery shopping?
VG: It’s becoming a big part of it, actually. It’s really interesting. When we kicked off in 2017, one of the biggest challenges people had was finding plant-based food in restaurants, so we created a meritocracy of vegan food. I wanted to show restaurants it was worthwhile to add vegan menu items. What then started happening was a lot of our members were actually reviewing products in Whole Foods or Target, and marking the retailer as the restaurant. So there was a bit of a “hack” by our users.
Product reviews was actually something we wanted to do all along, but we rolled it out sooner than planned because of our users. We raced to build it and we launched product reviews last year. Then by the end of last year, around 80% of our reviews were vegan dishes at restaurants and 20% were consumer products. When Covid struck, that number just flipped. Then people started posting recipes too. We’re learning so much from our users. It’s been really nice to see the consumer products side of it seeing a huge boost. The period since Covid – Q2 to Q3 this year – has been our best on record. March was a record month, July was a record month for user growth, August was a record for content growth. The entire period from April through June, the consumer product review side really helped keep our platform growing. If you look at traditional restaurant or hotel review platforms, I’d imagine these platforms went down to zero during the pandemic. And we managed to grow.
GQ: Speaking of data, you recently released a report full of data gathered from your users. Are data reports something you will do more of?
VG: It’s not just data reports, it’s completely open-sourcing and making all of our data publicly available. Not private user related data, but all the underlying data on trends and what consumers are doing and what kinds of product categories are trending. We ultimately believe data is empowering if used the right way. We will do a lot of things with this data to help business and people transform the right way, but we think a lot of different businesses, banks, media houses and organisations should be able to use this data.
We’re going public with this. We just launched our data initiative and we have our dedicated data science team working on it. Data for us is all about empowering our users. So what does data mean for Instagram, for example? The reason why we enjoy our Instagram feed so much is because it’s delivering a personalised experience with content you find beautiful. You don’t see the other stuff because the app is so good at showing you the things you connect with. Data drives all of that. Same thing for us. As we think about making our platform more personalised and curated, we’re investing in data. So a big part of that initiative is publishing reports that the industry can use, and at the same time, telling others that they can request information and we can produce that for you.
GQ: What’s in store in the future for the app? Will there be new features and expansions?
VG: I remember when my dad would drive us around the U.S. in the 1980s when I was a kid. You’d go into a hotel and they would have all these awards from different groups or organisations. It’s reviewed by some guy who comes in once a year and he has his checkerboard and he’s a critic. When TripAdvisor launched, it disrupted that entire business and created a global certification standard built around user and ember submitted reviews. The idea that you should be given an award by your own customers, not some food or hotel critic is saying who is getting paid for it. Where I’m going with this is that today, for the whole vegan and sustainability space, there isn’t a global standard of excellence. That’s what we are building over the next five to ten years. We want to become that standard and we are doing it on the back of all these reviews and content that customers are posting.
It’s exciting because it gives brands a reference point for how they’re doing and it allows them to get better. That’s why we have our Awards page, where we publish different awards, such as the top plant-based burgers in the world or the best vegan dishes in Singapore. It’s been really an honour to see all the restaurants who won, we had given them a framed certificate and even if they’re not exclusively vegan restaurants, they’re proud to display it. We are seeing how this is a form of elevating this conversation, convincing people when they walk in the door that they should order the vegan option because it won an award. So we’re going to be doing a lot more there and really building that up as well.
GQ: Final question: team rice or team noodles?
VG: Oh this is such a hard question! Depends on what noodles and what rice. This is actually super difficult. I’ll go with rice.
Lead image courtesy of Vikas Garg.