Interview: Lin Dai, CEO of Hooch, the Game-changer Drinking App

December 06, 2017 3:00 PM

Hooch is here just in time for the holidays! The Hooch app is the first-of-its-kind, subscription-based drinking app, offering customers 30 free drinks a month for just 10 dollars. If you live in a city, or really anywhere, the value is quite clear as it becomes harder and harder to find a single quality cocktail for even $15 at most venues. The app is currently supported in 10 different markets, from New York City, to Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The app’s founding team is lead by Lin Dai who comes from a background in media entertainment, having worked in digital operations for companies like Alloy Entertainment, the producers behind TV favorites such as Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. Dai is joined by Aleksey Kernes, a hospitality veteran and originator of the idea, and Jared Christopherson, co-founder of Yellowhammer Media, where he lead tens of millions of user acquisitions for the advertising agency and it’s clients like Warby Parker and Living Social. With this powerhouse team, it’s no wonder Hooch has pioneered a new market opportunity. Moreover, the app has acquired competitors like Phoenix-based Tipsy and Flux in New York City, and forced surrender of the Hong Kong-based company Happy Owl.

Kernes idea of the “drink ticket” app came to life in November 2015 when Hooch began Beta testing in New York. Dai recalls being “forced out of Beta in a sense” when Time Out magazine wrote an article dubbing Hooch the best drinking app in New York. In January 2016, Hooch launched in LA and was lauded by the LA Times, pushing the team into a pop up at SXSW that year. The resultant attention lead the team to win the Anheuser-Busch InBev Startup Pitch competition, where Hooch was selected amongst a few hundred companies, garnering a great deal of support and interest by the alcohol industry. 

And if you consider the economics of bars, it’s safe to safe that Hooch isn’t going anywhere soon. Dai notes, “It usually costs a bar about a dollar to make a drink…[Hooch] brings bars good customers that usually stay for an hour or more, and will buy additional drinks.” TWELV sat down with Dai to get the full story of Hooch’s success and some of the exciting things to expect from “the Netflix of drinks.”

 

How did the concept behind the Hooch App come about?

One of our co-founders, Aleksey, came up with the original idea, which was to create a universal drink ticket app. If you go to a club or a bar, and you know the owner, manager, or even bouncer, they might give you a piece of paper– a Chuck E. Cheese-looking ticket– and you can exchange it for a free drink at the bar. I thought it’s a really interesting behavior, because it actually doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, everyone is always excited to get a drink ticket. It’s usually perceived as an aspirational experience. It feels like you’re getting taken care of, and it’s not really about the discount itself.

How have you navigated the app’s quick expansion across the United States?

We make a team-first decision on whether we can hire a really solid GM to run each of the markets. One example is when we were deciding to have Hong Kong as a market launch. One of my personal friends was head of marketing for Red Bull Hong Kong. We ran into each other at a wedding in New York and he was really blown away with what we were doing. He went back to Hong Kong and called me and said, “I’m going to go into my boss’s office today, and I’m going to quit my job because you are making me GM for Hong Kong.” We were not ready to expand internationally yet. I had no budget, no plan, but he was like– Don’t worry– and offered to work for free until Hong Kong became profitable. 

Hong Kong was your first international market. How’s it going?

We actually found that organic growth and virality was really high in Hong Kong, but we didn’t know why. People were sharing the app and getting other people to download it much faster than in other markets. We found out there was a cultural nuance working to our favor. In China, people like to brag about good deals they get. If I buy a new pair of Jordan Sneakers on Black Friday for 50% off, I would never go around telling people in the US that I got 50% off, I would just say I got new shoes. But in Hong Kong, the behavior was– even for the richest kids– when they get a discount they would brag about it. So, that was really to our advantage. 

What new cities can we expect to see on the app?

Probably Vegas and Chicago. Outside of the US, we are looking into a lot of European opportunities. And Hong Kong has us excited about Asian markets like Singapore or Japan. 

How many venues does Hooch support in New York City?

Around 100 now, but we will probably expand to about 200 venues.

Do you have any favorite bars in the city?

I live in Chelsea, but I was living in Midtown last year. One of my favorite places to go in Midtown is the Dream Hotel. They have three different bars. The lobby bar, The Rickey, makes this drink called the “Pomegranate Rickey” which has pomegranate seeds frozen in ice. It’s really amazing. I also like the “Cartel” which they serve, and it has coffee beans. Upstairs there is PHD, and they opened the fishbowl downstairs, which is really fun. It has a game room vibe. And they are all Hooch venues! 

How do you choose your participating venues?

We have a pretty strong philosophy. It’s really not about how expensive the bar is. We’re really about the quality of the product, what kind of product you offer, and how friendly your servers are. We have a lot of high end places like Ladurée Soho, and a lot of other nice restaurants, bars, and lounges. But there are also fun tequila bars, rooftop decks for the summer, or bars that just have a really great scene or atmosphere. We’re pretty selective about what bars we allow to be on the app. This is not Groupon. It’s more of a membership experience.

What’s the story behind the name of the app?

Hooch is a word they used in prohibition as the name for illegal whiskey. You might smuggle Hooch down from Canada, or you would go to a Speakeasy. You had to be in the know. So, even the name kind of encompasses our membership vibe. 

Do you envision Hooch expanding to involve more aspects of the hospitality industry? 

We’re about building a community and connecting people. Millennials really care about experiences in general. It’s really not just about a free drink. So expanding beyond that, we are going to be announcing a new tier of the membership which will encompass benefits like exclusive dining reservations, additional nightlife statuses, travel benefits like saving 50% on top hotels in the world, and access to exclusive events. We will probably start rolling that out in 2018.

Hooch for the holidays?

You can buy a Hooch membership for someone you love and basically give them 355 cocktails around the year! 

 

 

WRITTEN BY HOLLIS DE LANEY

 

PHOTO CREDIT: SEVENTH HOUSE PR. Photos taken from the recent Blue Scorpion Anniversary Party at the Mailroom, NYC. 

 

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