It was his fond experiences of a typical Italian family gathering – the table laden with food and wine, the laughter, the storytelling – that planted the seed for Stevan Premutico to create restaurant booking platform Dimmi. But it was his determination to create a legacy that transformed the first real glint of an idea from the metaphorical scribble on the back of a napkin to a AU$32 million acquisition from Trip Advisor. “Certain things happen in your life that keep pulling you back to the same idea,” says Stevan, musing about years of long Sunday lunches spent with his extended family and friends. “We believe the best moments in life happen around a dinner table; whether it’s an anniversary, a birthday, a celebration. We wanted to be the guys in the place, the engine, that makes those recommendations.” Today, Dimmi allows customers to quickly book a table online at one of more than 3000 restaurants across Australia with just a few clicks.
Stevan graduated in 1998 with an advanced diploma in marketing and PR from APM College of Business and Communication, which now offers courses through Torrens University Australia, then spent his early twenties working in the hotel business in the marketing sphere, quickly working his way up to regional marketing director for the Hilton chain in the UK. But after six years in the hotel game, and witnessing the transformation of hospitality, he was on the lookout for a new challenge. “I was seeing the disruption that was happening in the hotel room [industry], where third-party review channels and distribution channels like Expedia, Wotif and TripAdvisor were fundamentally changing the landscape of the hotel game,” says Stevan, who surprised himself when a routine performance review ended with Stevan handing over his resignation.
With an affinity for the restaurant industry, and having watched his parents pour their hearts into their own small businesses, Stevan decided to take his new hospitality model and transfer it to the restaurant game. “It’s a very beautiful industry and it’s very special, but it’s highly fragmented. It’s lots of small business operators and it’s an industry that’s hugely analogue in a digital world, so I felt like there was an opportunity to make a dent.” Living in a friend’s attic in London in 2008 while working 20 hours a day and trying to raise funding, he leaned heavily on his insatiable appetite for new experiences. This was ingrained early by Stevan’s mother, who would wake him and his brother at sunrise, throwing open the curtains and declaring, “Whilst you are sleeping, the world is moving”.
“These things, you never forget. Perhaps it was born in the fear of living an ordinary life,” he says. “Without this hunger, I doubt I could have made it through the start-up years.” During that bleak first year, the start-up world received a beating from the financial crisis, and Stevan was knocked back by more than 30 potential investors. He drew strength from his hero; his grandfather, an immigrant who left his family behind in Italy to drive semi-trailers in Australia. “During many of the dark days at Dimmi (and there were a lot), I would take strength in knowing that my biggest challenges were so pale in comparison,” he shares. But still, it took everything he had to turn down a dream job with Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic and return to Australia to give Dimmi a real crack. “It’s in moments like this, when everything and everyone around you is telling you to throw it in and just get a job, you need to look deep inside and find the self-belief to keep going. It made me more determined and more driven than ever before.”
After placing a three-month limit on getting his idea off the ground, Stevan was fortunate to receive AU$300,000 of funding from a family friend. He then began pitching the Dimmi concept to restaurants, with nothing more than a couple of PowerPoint slides. “I went, folder in hand, to hundreds of the top restaurants across Australia and was successfully able to contract them, because I felt that they wanted to be online, they wanted to be digital, they wanted to be better connected to their consumers,” he says.
Despite not having a ‘product’, website or prototype, he managed to sign 100 restaurants to the platform – with some from the top-tier ARIA group. This produced the capital to build the first prototype and bring on a passionate sales team and later, an exceptional board of directors (Facebook and LinkedIn Australia bosses no less) who were eager to take on their chicken-and-egg challenge. “It was really an ongoing battle to ensure the best restaurants in Australia were on the program,” he says. “If you had that, then you had a great consumer experience, and you had this ecosystem that just continued to build and build and build.”
As Stevan developed relationships with Australian restauranteurs, he often returned to his learnings from university. “During my studies, what stood out most was that the ‘customer is king’ and that continued innovation is critical to survival. This always resonated with me, but then my first few jobs were with bigger corporates that didn’t necessarily apply this philosophy and I really struggled with it.”
From the get-go Stevan applied this mantra at Dimmi, advocating for restaurant owners, who often get by with little money and a lot of passion: “Our goal is trying to make the industry slightly better than the way it was a day before.”By 2014, just two years into the business Stevan and the team began receiving acquisition offers, turning them all down. But when a few came in quick succession, Stevan started to consider opening the door. “All of a sudden there was one, two, then three knocks at the door all at the same time, and it was pretty clear that there was a bit of global consolidation that was taking [place].”
TripAdvisor and its chief executive, Stephen Kaufer, stood out from the crowd. “There was an alignment of DNA… and it felt like they really gave a sh*t about the restaurants and that was super important to us. We thought it was a great opportunity for the Dimmi team to be a part of something bigger,” Stevan says. Recalling the two Skype dates that nailed the deal, he continues: “I certainly felt like I was going to an unknown place. It felt very foreign, certainly uncomfortable. It felt like another man walking your daughter down the aisle.” A year in, with Stevan remaining on board as CEO and overseeing a team of 45 staff, 40 per cent of all Australian restaurants are part of the Dimmi program. The business now turns over more than AU$10 million annually and has grown 160 per cent year-on-year, according to last year’s stats.
By all accounts the TripAdvisor deal has accelerated Dimmi to the position of market leader in the restaurant reservations sector, both locally and globally. “It was absolutely the smartest decision that Dimmi has made,” he says. “We’ve gone from first date to marriage within a very short period. We’ve got similar values, we’re aligned, both pushing and striving towards the same thing.” Looking back, Stevan says the skills and confidence he gained at APM served as a critical foundation to the runaway success of Dimmi. “I always felt that my career would have a ‘ceiling’ if it wasn’t supported by a great education. The balance of theory plus real world experience is critical and they go hand in hand to build a career without limitations.”
So what’s next for the newly crowned bookings king? It’s a simple vision: you’ll find Stevan busy making Dimmi a household brand from his yoga mat. In fact, after starting the practice two years ago, the entrepreneur admits he’s become an addict. “As a start-up guy, when you’re putting everything on the line, I found yoga to be a bit of a personal saviour; just you, your mat and a bit of clarity. Some thoughts I’ve had at yoga have been instrumental in the Dimmi journey over the past couple of years.” And who knows what Stevan will come up with next while in a downward dog.