#edGY: RecomN.com: How to ask friends for recommendations without really asking

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TWO weeks after her wedding, Jes Min Lua found herself putting up notices all over Cheras to ask passers-by, “Have you seen this bag?”

The bag was not hers but it contained an item of extreme personal value: video footage of her entire wedding celebrations.

The videographer, whom she Googled and hired, had misplaced the bag and had not kept a backup copy in a separate location.

From that frustrating experience, she realised that there’s one thing everyone needs to know when choosing a service provider: there’s a difference between what he says he can do and what previous customers say he can.

“My mistake was that I could only find out the first part — there was no way to hear from previous customers,” laments Lua.

After leaving her consultancy job, Lua and her business partner Alex Tan decided to start an online platform that lists reliable service providers around Malaysia and allows peer reviews of them.

Their website, RecomN.com (pronounced, “recommend dotcom”), was Lua’s answer for anyone who had to search for good and reliable service professionals.

The service categories available on RecomN include “automotive”, “business”, “childcare”, “classes”, “transport” and “home”. Users can find anyone, from contractors to plumbers and electricians, photographers, mechanics and caterers.

RecomN is free to use and is currently available on the web. The mobile version for iOS and Android smartphones is scheduled for next year.

“In essence, we’re trying to digitise that age old problem of people asking friends and families, ‘Can you recommend someone?’ We bring it all in here. That’s why we call it RecomN,” explains Tan, a programmer-turned-marketer.

After many failed electrical repairs in his home, Tan realised that people should not have to deal with service providers they can’t trust, because there are many good ones out there — they just need to be separated from the bad. His mission is to provide the easiest, most efficient way for anyone to find good services when the need arises.

The RecomN platform was inspired by TripAdvisor, a website that provides user-generated reviews of travel-related content. Similarly, RecomN is driven by social media that provide recommendations generated by a user’s social network.

If you post on your Facebook, “Can anyone recommend a good electrician?”, Lua is confident you’re bound to get at least one or two reliable responses.

RecomN aims to do just this by connecting users with service providers their friends use, trust and recommend. (In short, your online-savvy friends are liable if they don’t recommend you a good contractor.) Users sign in via their Facebook accounts to access peer reviews by friends or other users who have posted on RecomN.

“What we have come up with is a system that lists photographers that are not just highly rated when you search ‘wedding photographer’, but [narrows it down to those] whom your social network have used and recommend,” explains Lua.  

Since launching the beta-version on the web in July, the service now has over 7,000 users between 24 and 40 years old. To date, RecomN generates 50,000 page views a month of which Lua claims more than half use the platform regularly.

Popular searches on the platform are for event services, bakers and home improvement, such as interior designers and renovation contractors.

Since RecomN started testing in June, the team has acquired interesting insights about Malaysians. One, is that they love to plan household chores during work.

“We expected the most activity on our site to happen on weekends but it turns out that people use the service most on Tuesday at 3pm,” Tan says.

And to their surprise, Malaysians love to share their experiences by writing reviews, contrary to the warnings Tan and Lua received that Malaysians don’t write.

“When we started, many people said that Malaysians won’t write reviews, and don’t have a culture of sharing experiences.  We didn’t believe this, and went ahead to design our system around reviews to test that hypothesis. We were so pleasantly surprised with what we found — good service providers have no problem getting their customers to review them,” Tan says.

What does RecomN mean for businesses?

Apart from serving consumers, RecomN is also helpful for service providers who want another avenue for new customers.

“We make it easy for existing customers of service providers to recommend them to their friends. We give them a pipeline of business leads of the expected quality, service and price range.”

There are over 1,000 businesses listed on RecomN, mostly based in the Klang Valley, with a few from Johor Baru and Penang. About 15% of these use the platform to actively promote their businesses online. Tan mentions that service providers who take an active role in promoting themselves on the platform are the ones that get noticed by users.

Businesses are free to list on the platform, set up their profile, upload photos, and ask customers to review them. At present, the RecomN team filters through each individual review, with the aim of encouraging user-generated content.  

“When we start to have 5,000 or 10,000 listed services, there’s no way we can curate all of them. The way forward is to filter by customer,” explains Lua. “It is much easier to scale when you have user-generated content.”

While a business listing on RecomN is free for now, Lua says they may charge service providers for sending them leads that have been validated. Lua and Tan are now focused on designing a system that is intuitive to use.

Growing the base

RecomN is self-funded. Lua and Tan invested at least RM30,000 to kickstart product development.

The start-up, however, is in a very competitive space. It has at least two competitors — kaodim.com and ServiceClicks — with the similar idea of helping consumers find reliable service providers on a digital platform. But each has a different approach and business model.

“With Kaodim, you tell them your requirements, they ask their selection of service providers for quotes, and you can choose which ones to contact,” explains Lua.

On the other hand, RecomN’s algorithm finds the service providers that people in your social network use and recommend.

Lua says the goal is to be the biggest service-matching business in Malaysia. She says the goal is to make “What is their RecomN rating?” the default question that anyone asks before choosing a service provider.

 “We plan to launch in two other Southeast Asian markets, and be the market leader in the region. Our big dream is to help improve the overall standard and quality of services, not just in Malaysia, but in Southeast Asia and the world.”

This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 10 - 16, 2014.