Exactly a decade ago, two old school mates met over a beer and decided to start a business together – building reservations management software in South Africa, for South Africa’s restaurants.
Today Dineplan – initially called Come Dine – is not only an electronic reservations book for businesses both locally and internationally, but also a mobile app and website for diners to conveniently book tables online.
Dineplan software now spans to Vouchers, Takeaways, Table-Side Ordering, Covid-19 Management, Digital Menus, Statistics, Detailed Reporting, Reviews, Marketing and more.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and the Dineplan team has enjoyed one ‘hellova’ rapid ride to the top. But with all businesses, there are ups and downs.
I asked Dineplan founders Greg Whitfield and Martin Rose to recount the best and worst bits of building SA’s leading restaurant reservations management software over the past 10 years.
MM: What was your career before starting Dineplan, and what drove you to dive in and take the risk of starting this venture?
GW: Investment banking. I wanted a change, and I wanted to be part of something that made a difference in peoples’ or business’ lives.
MR: Web developer. Working in London I gained valuable experience and saw an opportunity back home in South Africa.
MM: What was your first or worst challenge to date? And how did you tackle it?
GW: Our first major challenge in the early days was just to make some money to pay rent and feed ourselves. This took 2 years, so I rented out my car to pay my rent and drove a scooter.
MR: We actually started the business as Come Dine, modelling Top Table from the UK. We had some early success with the product but struggled to scale the solution and we quickly realised that we needed to build a reservation management system, which we then called Dineplan.
After that, acquiring customers became our biggest challenge. We had to gain trust and build a reputation. Our business model is such that we earn incremental income which took time to build up enough customers to be able to afford to pay our own salaries.
I clearly remember my first paycheck of R2000 in November 2013, more than 2 years after starting the business, and 1 month before my wedding. Fortunately I had my wife to help support me. I think she made a good investment!
MM: What were the first restaurants to use Dineplan software, and how did you get them onboard?
GW: The first restaurants we approached were the top fine dining restaurants. These were the restaurants that put the most importance on guest experience and service levels, and these were benefits that we could easily show that Dineplan could help with.
Once we convinced a few to use Dineplan, it immediately gave our product some credibility and it became easier to get others onto the platform.
There were a few chefs and operators such as Bertus Basson of Overture and Pete De Bruin and Franck Dangereux of The Foodbarn that went out of their way to support and spread the word about Dineplan amongst the industry players, which helped tremendously, and we were immensely grateful for.
MR: I’m on the software and IT side of the business but back then I was also involved in meeting with clients and getting them onboard. I remember setting up the first account and doing a demo for Cube Tasting Kitchen in Johannesburg while I was up there visiting family. They have since closed down.
MM: Best friends starting a business together could have ended badly! What makes it work for you two? What is the other person’s strengths that keep the wheels from falling off?
GW: I think the most important factor that has made it work, apart from getting along really well, is that our strengths and areas of expertise are very different.
Martin in charge of the tech and development of the product, and myself overseeing the sales, operations, finance and general business management.
This meant in the early days that we could cover the essential areas of starting a tech business between the two of us before we could afford to employ more staff, and we didn’t step on each other’s toes.
MR: I met Greg in Grade 8 in high school so by the time we started the business we knew each other well. There is also a certain kind of trust that is born out of attending a boarding school and being in the same boarding house together – you really get to know someone.
The skills we each bring to the business are complimentary which was crucial to the success of the business early on. While we get along very well, it is important to note there are times when we don’t always agree on certain things, but because we both understand that we want the best for the business we use this as a compass to guide our decisions.
MM: What is your funniest or fondest memory since starting Dineplan?
GW: In the early days, during big productions at the Artscape Theatre, Martin and I would spend our evenings placing ‘Will you have dinner with me?’ serviettes on all the cars in the Artscape Theatre parking lot while ducking behind cars to hide from the security guards and watching peoples’ reactions to the note on their windshield. Only after seeing the Come Dine logo and info on the back would they realise it was a marketing stunt!
MR: Wow there are so many fond memories. From riding my scooter after midnight around the city placing gorilla marketing ‘Tjips’ stickers, to hitting parking lots with what looked like handwritten ‘Will you have dinner with me?’ serviettes under people’s car windscreen wipers.
In the early days of the business, I had set up a meeting with Eat Out to pitch the idea of putting an online booking widget on each restaurant’s listing on their website. I got them onboard which helped to drive the success of Come Dine back then.
MM: If you can give anyone starting a new business one piece of advice, what would it be?
GW: We were definitely naive as to how difficult it would be and how long it would take. But we were too stubborn to give up. It was at the time of our lives when we could live cheaply so it worked out.
I would advise to set realistic expectations and be prepared for a lot of hard work, but it’ll all be worth it once you succeed!
MR: One piece of advice will never be sufficient. Identify a problem to solve that will help people or make their lives easier.
Find a mentor that has travelled this road before – they will have valuable advice but also remember that sometimes they can be wrong too.
Starting a business is not easy. Focus on getting an MVP (minimal viable product) out as fast as possible to prove your product works.
MM: When Stage 5 Lockdown was first announced last year, you immediately started working on releasing free platforms like Voucherplan.co.za to help support restaurants through the difficult time. Why do you feel it’s important to give back?
GW: During the Covid lockdowns we had the development resources to build something that could assist our clients and other businesses. A free-to-use voucher platform seemed like the best solution.
We never dreamed that it would result in over R6-million worth of vouchers sold. The gratitude that we received from our clients and other businesses was so rewarding during that tough period.
An indirect benefit was that it kept us really busy while all our clients were closed, and also earned us some great goodwill when things opened up again.
MR: When the lockdowns were sprung upon us we found ourselves in a position where we needed to adapt to the times to help our clients as best as we could. We created the voucher platform that allowed restaurants to earn revenue while they were forced to close.
And our takeaways ordering solution was conceived to empower restaurants to manage their own takeaways at a cost significantly below the fees that food delivery companies are charging.
MM: What’s next for Dineplan?
GW: We always have a list of exciting new functionalities that we are working on but can’t say too much about that. Other than new functionality, while South Africa will always be our priority, we would like to attempt to grow our clients internationally, including specifically African countries.
MR: We have a focus on international growth while also developing new products to offer to our existing clients. Locally we will continue to develop the Dineplan brand to be the go-to place for diners looking for restaurants in South Africa.