Asian Food Channel founders hit on right recipe for TV

Friends saw appetite for Asian food channel and took a gamble that pays off big-time

Two good friends had an audacious goal in 2004. They loved food and wanted to start an Asian food television channel.

But Mr Hian Goh was an investment banker and Ms Maria Brown a BBC journalist - and neither had experience setting up a TV station.

British national Ms Brown, who was on sabbatical in Singapore, turned to her boss for help.

"I called him in London and asked him how to start a pay-TV channel. He laughed at me and put the phone down."

Undeterred, she wrote a business plan and after several iterations with Mr Goh, the Asian Food Channel was conceptualised as Asia's first pay-TV food channel.

Launched in 2005, it now reaches 130 million viewers in 12 markets including Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines. Last Monday, it was acquired by the New York Stock Exchange-listed Scripps Networks Interactive - an American TV network - for an undisclosed sum.

The two friends met while working in New York and kept in touch after Mr Goh returned to Singapore in 1999. When he came up with the idea of a food channel after spotting a gap in the market, he thought of working with Ms Brown because of her TV experience as a news reader and producer.

Ms Brown, 40, was shocked there was no Asian food channel. In a joint phone interview with Mr Goh, 38, she said: "I couldn't believe it because of the diversity of food in Singapore and in the region. I must have told Hian to check with our lawyers about 45 times, there must be someone who'd trademarked something about a food channel."

They pitched their idea to pay-TV networks and discovered a strong demand. Networks wanted programmes to be ready in six months and the two co-founders agreed to come up with the goods.

The reality of the task dawned only as they walked out of the meetings and "fainted" - because they had no content. But they had signed two clients who agreed to show the AFC: StarHub here and Hong Kong's PCCW.

Thus began a hectic period of attending industry events and "maxing out" credit cards to pay for travel and content. Their biggest expenditure was satellite bandwidth - which can cost up to $600,000 a year, said industry experts - needed to broadcast their content across Asia

Ms Brown said: "When we turned on the satellite, it was the river of no return.There was no guarantee any other pay-TV network would sign up with us. We had palpitations worrying about this."

They poured all their savings into AFC before starting to raise funds. Within two weeks, they had their first commitment. Said Mr Goh: "In the morning, we'd pitched to stockbroker Douglas Ooi. By 4.30pm, we received a text message saying he was in."

Ms Brown recalled: "We shared an office. Every time I heard heavy breathing and lots of sighing from Hian, I knew he was signing a big cheque."

Initially, content was bought from overseas as well as from Me-diaCorp for titles such as Meat And Greet and Singapore Flavours.

In 2009, a time of caution after the previous year's financial crisis, the AFC opened a studio-cum- store in Orchard Central.

It allowed fans to attend cooking classes and buy AFC-branded tea towels, coasters and mugs. Shows were also filmed there, for example, Great Dinners Of The World, a six-episode food travelogue.

It also created Big Break, in which 11 underprivileged young Asians fulfilled their dreams of becoming a chef. Celebrity chefs were hired and they held cooking demonstrations in the region.

The work to build the network did not go unnoticed. Prospective buyers were nosing around by 2007 but the firm's directors advised against selling too early as they wanted to build up value. Many people thought holding out for a higher price was unrealistic.

But the two co-founders focused on growing the company, which Scripps now wants to use to expand its presence in Asia.

Ms Brown said: "AFC staff are now part of a global company. AFC executives now have a better career path because they can work in Europe or the US."

AFC can also stand beside giants like Disney and Warner, proving that Asian companies can build great TV brands too, she said. Mr Goh told how the friendship stood the test of time as they built up the channel. "We have massive egos, we're opinionated and we tell each other in as strong a fashion as possible our opinions. It helped that we've the same gut instinct about most things. We know that one person's thought process, if not challenged, is not good. So we would argue and everything would come out in the open."

Being around food should have been bad for their waistlines. While Mr Goh had taken part in triathlons, Ms Brown said the hectic pace meant she burned whatever calories she consumed.

Both cook at home.

Ms Brown has a fondness for Italian food and traditional English roast dinners. Mr Goh loves Singapore food and misses it if it cannot be found abroad so he practises cooking dishes such as satay, laksa and chicken rice.

Both co-founders have now been appointed consultants to Scripps and plan to pass on their expertise to other start-ups.

Ms Brown said: "I would be most willing to share what I've learnt in building AFC - it cannot be found in any book."

The pair took great satisfaction from being able to multiply the returns on investments of those who had put their faith in them.

Initial investors included family members, friends and Vickers Venture Capital. Mr Jeffrey Chi, a partner there, recalled: "The region has a lot of languages and culture but food transcends culture. That's the value we saw."

AFC's staff of around 90, some of whom had an equity stake, have also reaped the benefits.

"We handed their share of the sale to them last week. To see their smiles, their hands shaking holding the cheques, that was a tremendous happiness for us," Ms Brown said.

The two co-founders have not ruled out starting another company together. Their eight-year journey as business partners began and ended with them as firm friends - a rare thing in the world of business in which friends can make the worst business partners.

chngkeg@sph.com.sg