Around a month ago, a post on Facebook that went viral was brought to my attention. Written in Chinese, the post detailed how the poster had rented a lady for two hours and went out for a run with her.
The poster went on to share about their hangout and how he had rented out the woman through an app called Ribbon.
Like many other Malaysians, when I first heard about Ribbon, I had my suspicions.
Described as an app that promotes social and cultural experiences, it was somewhat marketed as an app where you can pay locals of an area to meet up and befriend them.
Some netizens even compared it to “Rent-A-Girlfriend”, a Japanese manga series about… well, renting a girlfriend.
Naturally, I downloaded the app and reached out to the founder, who turns out to be the same man who had made the original post.
I went into the conversation sceptical. I wasn’t sure if the founder would even be up for an interview, especially if I were to bring up the negative connotations people had associated with the app.
But my assumptions ended up being wrong. Mumu Ngui was nothing but friendly, even whilst being adamant that Ribbon is definitely, definitely, definitely not a dating app.
It’s an innocent attempt to foster friendships
Hailing from Tawau, Sabah, Mumu is no stranger to being a stranger in a new city.
“When I first came to KL to study interior design at the age of 18, I discovered the differences between East and West Malaysia in terms of cultural differences, way of speaking, tone of voice, food, and more,” Mumu shared.
Being a social butterfly who likes to make friends across different races and cultures, Mumu found these nuances to be interesting.
But what really triggered the creation of Ribbon was Mumu’s experience at his previous job as an agent for YouTubers and livestreamers.
He often had to fly to Japan and Taiwan for work, and each time he was abroad, the people who brought the deepest memories were the locals rather than the famous attractions, which don’t really give him a good idea of the local culture.
Thus, he believes the best and most direct way to immerse yourself in the local culture is by getting to know the locals themselves.
For example, every time Mumu visits Taiwan, his local friends there will bring him to lesser-known places such as a braised pork rice restaurant that uses a 50-year-old ancestral recipe.
After eating, he would visit neighbouring areas to experience the environment and observe the lifestyle. Oftentimes, store owners will end up sharing their backstories and the history of their businesses, which brings Mumu a type of satisfaction that attractions can’t.
“That’s why I had this crazy idea,” he shared. “Can there be an app that provides such a service in this world? One that lets us safely and legally rent out local people to befriend so that we can understand their lifestyles, while helping them make a profit?”
Mumu decided to embark on a journey to answer that question himself, which led to the start of Ribbon.
Any publicity is good publicity
While the idea first came in October 2019, the pandemic and resulting MCO halted his progress. Hanging out with strangers was definitely not a welcomed idea at the time.
“On a scale of one to ten, I could say we were at zero—a completely dead industry,” he described the situation then.
To keep themselves motivated, Mumu and his team would tell themselves that Ribbon would be launched “next month”. But “next month” only came three years later when the team found an angel investor.
So, Ribbon finally had its soft launch in April 2022 this year. At that point, Mumu had already experienced his fair share of dissenting voices, having been turned down by what he believes to be more than a hundred investors.
But when the app was released, Ribbon went on to face further scrutiny. Of course, Mumu expected this.
“New things will inevitably lead to different opinions, especially on the internet.” he said. “But we don’t care about what other people say. After all, I can’t control what others say, and I am a little famous myself. I’m often the object of discussion, so I’m very used to it.”
While Mumu is alright with a few jabs his way, there is one thing he’ll speak out about when prompted—the fact that Ribbon is not an online dating app.
“If we create a free app where people can meet up for free, Ribbon will just be an ordinary dating app,” he argued.
“Paying to rent out other people’s time and value is a new ecological way of socialising,” Mumu added. On top of cultural exchange, he also shared how it works as a networking opportunity.
At the end of the day, the founder believes that “time will tell”, and that all he can do is continue to work so Ribbon can provide a good service.
Precautionary measures for hosts and users
Joining Ribbon as a user wasn’t very hard at all. All I had to do was select some hobbies and personality traits (I distinctly remember choosing “lazy” to be one of them), put up some photos, and take a selfie with my IC for authentication purposes. Moments later, I was approved.
The only challenge I had was that the app isn’t actually available on the iOS App Store yet.
“The reason iOS rejected us at the beginning was that we were suspected of promoting pornography,” Mumu shared. “No matter how much we tried to prove otherwise, it wouldn’t let our platform pass.”
Still, the Ribbon team is trying to appeal the decision, and Mumu believes it won’t be long before Ribbon is put on the Apple App Store. Plus, the team is developing a web app function so users can use Ribbon via browsers without even having to download the app.
While my experience of joining the app as a user was straightforward, becoming a host is a little harder.
According to Mumu, hosts on Ribbon typically belong to an agency and an agent, who will issue the host a training kit to instruct them on the SOPs.
If any users or the host have issues, they can contact the admin through Ribbon, where there’s a helper who can answer questions and deal with various issues.
Hosts also have to go through series of verifications and follow guidelines such as not using photos that are too revealing or having an inappropriate profile in general.
When it comes time to eat, drink, and merry
The hangout sessions on Ribbon are also called Eat, Drink, and Merry, which is a direct translation of a popular Chinese phrase meaning the same thing. Hosts get to set their own pricing (minimum of RM50) and meet-up locations.
Hosts can up their pricing, but it depends on how high their levels are. To level up, they essentially need to collect positive reviews and ratings.
According to Mumu, Ribbon takes a percentage of the revenue, much like how Airbnb would take a cut from its hosts. In the pipeline, VIP monthly subscriptions are also something the company plans to roll out.
Before meeting up, both users and the host have to agree and sign an agreement. For safety purposes, Ribbon only allows meetings in public spaces.
If any party feels uncomfortable after the hangouts, they will be able to report it in the app so the company can investigate the issue. There’s also a rating and review system where hosts and users can give each other feedback.
If you’re interested in the app, there is one thing to note before you start using it—most of the hosts primarily speak Chinese.
“Our initial publicity was mainly in Chinese,” Mumu explained. “But now, there are also more users of different ethnicities joining.”
A serial entrepreneur’s mindset
Perhaps part of Mumu’s resilience comes from his experience. Ribbon is essentially Mumu’s fifth time starting a business. That is, if you count his shaved ice business from when he was 10.
“I wrote flyers in buku latihans with a marker pen and stuffed it in every neighbour’s mailbox,” he recalled. “And the next day, I did door-to-door sales.”
It was the first time he started making money with his own ideas, and he was thrilled by the experience.
From then onwards, Mumu would look for business opportunities everywhere, with his latest being Ribbon, of course.
“Before we created Ribbon, I asked 100 people around me about doing a cultural experience and rent-a-friend platform in Malaysia,” he pointed out. “At least 90 people answered that it was not feasible.”
While some may be discouraged by this, Mumu instead saw the silver lining. The responses he got showed him that Ribbon was a business opportunity that others hadn’t noticed yet.
Down the road, Mumu hopes to bring the app to more countries. It’s already made a footprint in Singapore and Taiwan, made possible thanks to Mumu’s previous job as an agent, and he’s got expansions to the rest of Southeast Asia in mind.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide a new way to play in this world,” Mumu shared. “So that everyone can learn more about the lives and culture of locals in unfamiliar cities, and so that we can shorten the distance between people.”
Featured Image Credit: Ribbon / Mumu Ngui