Jessica Li of DahMakan on disrupting Southeast Asia’s food industry: Women in Tech

Jessica Li is the co-founder and COO of Malaysia-based food startup DahMakan.

As the ride-hailing industry takes off in Southeast Asia, food delivery is becoming more and more popular too, with many startups making their way into this field. One of those companies is DahMakan. Loosely translated as “Have you eaten yet?” in the Malay language, DahMakan was founded in 2015 by Jonathan Weins, Jessica Li, and Christian Edelman. It offers food prepared in cloud kitchens with no dine-in facilities, making delivery its sole purpose.

The Kuala Lumpur-based startup also landed in Bangkok in 2018 after acquiring local food delivery service Polpa. DahMakan has shown promising growth, with a total of 500,000 monthly active users in the two cities where it operates. In May, it raised USD 5 million, bringing its total funds raised to nearly USD 10 million. DahMakan was also one of a handful of Southeast Asian startups to make it into the Silicon Valley-based Y-Combinator accelerator in 2017.

For this week’s “Women in Tech,” we talked to Li about how DahMakan is disrupting Southeast Asia’s food and beverage industry.

Jessica Li, co-founder and COO of DahMakan

KrASIA (Kr): Where did you get the idea for DahMakan?

Jessica Li (L): My co-founder and I met when we working at Foodpanda. We saw that people really enjoyed the food delivery service due to its convenience. However, the frequency of orders wasn’t high, and people didn’t really use the service on a daily basis because it was actually more expensive than eating in the restaurant. So we’re using technology to disrupt the food delivery business model and change the way the supply chain is set up, so people are able to order food and have it delivered at a price that is more affordable than cooking or getting takeout from restaurants.

Kr: Why did you decide to begin in Malaysia?

L: I think Southeast Asia is a fast-growing region when it comes to the food delivery sector. And food delivery is the fastest-growing e-commerce vertical—it might even eclipse fashion and electronic verticals in the next five or ten years, which I find very interesting. We chose Malaysia as the first market because we think this country is a really great launching pad for startups in the region. It’s relatively convenient to set up a business here, especially because almost everyone speaks English.

Malaysia is an ideal place between developing markets like Indonesia and Thailand and a more mature market like Singapore. We learn about customer behavior quickly here and the lessons will be applicable to other markets. We think that if we launched in Singapore first and plan to expand into Thailand, the transition would be more difficult, and it would be similar the other way around.

Kr: What are DahMakan’s key features?

L: We apply AI and machine learning along the entire supply chain, including predictive analytics to forecast sales and in the food product development process. Our AI-powered operating system automates 80% of the workflow, in both food production and in delivery, eliminating the need for humans to make complex decisions in real time.

We’ve probably put the most work into our routing algorithms, which are normally incredibly difficult problems to solve. Our initial concern was about how we might deliver thousands of meals within a short time frame while working without manpower and cost constraints. So far, by collecting millions of real-time data points from our in-house delivery riders, the system continues to learn from a range of inputs—including weather, traffic, customer location, rider performance—to continuously learn and optimize the solution, ensuring efficient and on-time deliveries.

Kr: How do you handle the delivery process in both Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok? Do you collaborate with local ride-hailing or delivery platforms?

L: DahMakan delivers hundreds of thousands of meals monthly in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. In our current markets, we use a hybrid model of in-house delivery and operate on a few selected food delivery marketplaces. Currently, we have several hundred dedicated delivery riders in-house, and we have been able to consistently deliver within 30 minutes due to our proprietary routing algorithms.

DahMakan’s riders

Kr: Who are your customers?

L: Mostly, our customers are office workers and double income families—working moms and dads who don’t have time to prepare food for their kids after work. What we found endearing is that many customers use this platform to send food to other people. For example, we have customers who live overseas and order food for their parents in KL to make sure that they eat healthy food. Also, there are customers who regularly order food for their partners when they are away. It is quite touching to know that our services help to make customers’ lives a bit easier.

Kr: What are DahMakan’s plans after raising fresh investment last month?

L: We’ll hire more talent, especially for the IT department, so we can scale up the business more quickly. We’re also consistently improving our customer experience by accelerating product innovation.

We’ll also expand into two new markets, Jakarta and Singapore, before the end of this year. Both are busy cities with high population and unpredictable traffic, which fit our criteria.

Kr: How do you compete with the existing players in the new market, especially since Go-Jek and Grab are currently leading the food-delivery sector (particularly in Jakarta)?

L: We don’t think of them as competitors, actually. We would actually see Go-Jek and Grab as potential partners where DahMakan could leverage their delivery network We offer a different service from them; the way I think of it is that we are 18 months ahead of the competition in terms of the cloud kitchen model, and we use AI heavily for product development and automation in machinery, so we can offer better pricing for customers. In this sense, both Go-Jek and Grab can complement our business better, especially because they are widely recognized by consumers in these new markets.

Kr: As an entrepreneur, what is a fundamental lesson that you have gleaned from building DahMakan?

L: When we first started, we were looking for talent with deep experience in the industry. With ten to 15 years of experience, they sure looked great on paper, but when we put it in the context of working for fast-growing startups with an entirely different environment, they weren’t necessarily a great fit. So we learned that it is better to hire for a cultural fit. Now we’re looking for people who share the company’s spirit and core values, people who want to challenge themselves constantly and think creatively.

Kr: How do you relieve stress, which bogs down some entrepreneurs?

L: I meditate every morning to have a little time for myself. I think it is extremely important to always remember to take care of yourself and put your health first. Entrepreneurship is a long and tough journey; sometimes founders forget about maintaining their own physical and mental health. Having some sort of support network around is also important. For example, I try to always stay in touch with friends who have nothing to do with work to give me a perspective on life outside of the company. For entrepreneurs, the best thing you can do is maintain emotional health, not only for you but also for your team.

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast Asia’s tech startups.