At the end of this month, Stevan Premutico will step away from Dimmi, the online restaurant booking platform he founded in early 2009. Under his leadership, Dimmi has withstood “well-funded” international competitors and wooed TripAdvisor, which acquired it for a reported $25m two years ago.
In conversation with Dynamic Business, the departing CEO reflected on his journey with the market-leading start-up that began life as an idea scrawled on a napkin.
DB: Why did you feel it was time to depart Dimmi?
Premutico: Honestly, I feel like I have done what I set out to do, which is make the restaurant industry better. I am so, so proud of what the team has achieved and where Dimmi is at that I feel comfortable handing over my baby [to current GM Jared Chapman] and moving on . The team I leave behind is one of the best in any small business in Australia.
DB: Can you paint a picture of the success you’ve had?
Premutico: You can look at success in a number of ways. Firstly, there’s the tangible stuff… we have partnered with 50% of all restaurants in Australia, including marquee brands such as Rockpool, Urban Purveyor Group and Merivale. Further, Dimmi accounts for 20% of all reservations generated in Australia and we have seated 40 million dinners – in fact, we’re now seating 1 million a month. We’ve been able to help our restaurant partners make money and win new customers. Consequently, we are the clear #1 player in our space.
The thing that I’m most proud of – and that I believe defines Dimmi’s success – is that we made it through the start-up years. For me, the company’s story is one of grit, resilience and true determination to make an industry better. We shouldn’t have made it through. On the one hand, the industry was old-school and reluctant to change. On the other, big international competitors threw everything they had at us…but we made it. We made it because of a small team of 50 who truly believed in what we were doing: making the industry, including the lives of our restaurateurs, better.
DB: Was it difficult launching Dimmi during the GFC?
Premutico: It made it almost impossible to raise funds but in hindsight it probably made it easier to change the industry. Restaurants were struggling and I knew they needed to change, to innovate, to embrace technology to survive.
DB: Was it ‘business as usual’ following the TripAdvisor buy-out?
Premutico: TripAdvisor, to their credit, have been a remarkable partner and have allowed Dimmi to be what it always was. By acquiring Dimmi, they gave the company the capital and support it needed to continue growing.
DB: What were the key challenges at the company’s helm?
Premutico: Wow, there were so, so many. To be honest, I am surprised we made it through the early days – it was pretty rough at times. As with any start-up, there were moments over the years where we almost didn’t make it. Five key challenges come to mind:
DB: What made you stick to your guns despite overseas threats?
Premutico: We’ve had four well-funded international players try to win our market. When the first one struck, in the early days, one of my team members broke down in tears, saying “we are small, they are big, they will crush us.” While you freak out at the time, the funny thing is that in hindsight you realise the big competitors just make you stronger, much more determined and more focused. When OpenTable arrived in 2015, it was with a big bang. They had lots of money and had carried out a huge acquisition of a local incumbent. Two years later, we have won the battle. We were two very different companies. We truly wanted to help make the industry better. It was never about the money for us. Restaurants were in our hearts, they were part of our DNA.
DB: What has been the secret to Dimmi’s longevity in the market?
Premutico: I would say it’s the things that have set us apart from our competitors including an understanding that ‘small and fast’ beats ‘big and slow’ plus the following:
DB: Is the restaurant booking industry still ripe for disruption?
Premutico: Every industry always is. I truly believe that technology will continue to turn this great industry on its head. In Australia, we have some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world but there are some big challenges we as an industry need to overcome – these included the highest labour rates in the world, ridiculously high rent costs and crazy new 457 visas rules that make our lives that much harder. The industry doesn’t just need answers, it needs solutions too and I think technology can play a big role. I feel Dimmi is best positioned to lead that disruption.
DB: You’ve said you’d like to launch another start-up…any ideas?
Premutico: I have a bunch of ideas but I am in no rush. My first move, post-Dimmi, is a three-month sabbatical so that I can breathe a little…after that, we’ll see. All I can say is it’s a great time to be in tech.