Category Archives: Think

How These 20-Year-Olds Raised $13M And Built A Massive Food Tech Company

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Being a young, first time entrepreneur is hard. Without a stunning success story or years of applicable experience, a new founder can face significant challenges starting and growing a company. A study by the University of California indicated that the average venture backed founder is 38 years old with 16 years of work experience. That’s quite a gap when it seems today that every new startup founder is in their early 20s.

What challenges differentiate a veteran entrepreneur and a newcomer’s experiences? What are strategies a first time business owner can employ to maximize the chances of success?

Eat Street's Office in Madison, WI
Eat Street’s Office in Madison, WI

Eric Martell started EatStreet, the largest independent food ordering company in the United States, when he was 20 years old with two classmates at the University of Wisconsin. EatStreet has raised $13 million and powers the online ordering of 15,000 restaurants nationwide. The startup, founded in 2010, exists in a cohort of foodtech and delivery companies that have some impressive deal flow: Instacart raised $220 million at a $1 billion valuation, Postmates has raised $138 million.

I recently chatted with Eric about starting a business in college and about the explosive growth of the food and delivery tech sectors.

Dan Reich: Speak to the challenges of starting a company at 20 years old.

Eric Martell: Early on, and to this day, we’ve had to convince others to take a risk on us, because we’re young and don’t have any pre-EatStreet experience running a tech company. In 2010, we had to convince the restaurants to take a chance on us. Matt was walking into every restaurant in Madison, WI with a simple pitch that our service would bring the restaurants more orders from new diners. Restaurants were wary of the entire idea, because if we took an order online and didn’t properly ensure that the restaurant received the order and could fulfill it, the diners would blame the restaurant for the poor experience. Additionally, we accepted payments online, which meant that we had to pay the restaurant every week, so they had to trust us with their money. Matt looked young for a 20 year old, and he heard more than once that the restaurant “just didn’t feel comfortable doing business with a kid.” Matt was able to sign up five restaurants when we launched February 1, 2010. With some results under our belt, we were able to expand that list to over 100 Madison restaurants within a year.

Additionally, in order to process online payments, we needed the trust of a credit card processor. We applied for six processors before getting approved… there was a lot of inherent risk to accepting online payments and transferring out the payments to restaurants on a weekly basis. It took over two months of searching before someone took the risk on us.

If it weren’t for those five restaurants and the credit card processor taking a risk on us, EatStreet would not exist.

Dan Reich: Do you still face challenges similar to these?

Eric Martell:  Although the nature of the challenges has changed over the years, we still face obstacles from being first time entrepreneurs. We’ve raised over $13 million from venture capitalists, and every single one of them has taken a risk in betting on our drive. We also form strategic partnerships with companies like Yelp, Google, Single Platform, and Hotel Communications Network. These businesses need justification to take risks on a company like ours. I’m glad to say that we’ve always been able to put up results, and the company is the strongest it’s ever been.

Dan Reich:  Do you think the current trajectory of food and delivery business funding and acquisitions will continue?

Eric Martell: We stand by what we’re seeing. GrubHub IPO’d a little over a year ago, and has consistently held its value as a multibillion dollar company. Over in Europe, DeliveryHero has raised over $1.5 billion, and Just-Eat also had a very strong IPO. With even Amazon and Uber eyeing the food delivery space, we’re happy to be where we are, with strong relationships with thousands of restaurants.

Dan Reich: Do you have any advice for first time entrepreneurs facing challenges regarding their experience levels?

Eric Martell: Persistence and results. Matt went to over 100 restaurants and only signed up five for our business’ launch. We could have called it quits after five credit card processor rejections. Our investment pitch historically has had less than a fifty percent success rate. Accept the failure as inevitable, and push forward. We’ve had restaurants that initially refused to sign up with us tell us today that when they finally did sign up with us, the additional orders we drove saved their business from going under.

Results might not always be present, but they speak louder than the best sales pitch. Focus on the aspects of your business you have control over, and grow like crazy. We didn’t raise a dollar until we had over $1 million in food sales, and that first million was the product of thousands of hours of promotion and hard work. It’s much easier to convince someone to believe in your vision if you have a track record of growth and hard work to back it up.

Native Advertising for Uber

Here’s an idea for Uber on how they can sell advertising that is unique to them and them only. We’ll call it native advertising for Uber.

Today, Uber passengers have the ability to split a fair with other passengers. But Why not let Uber passengers split a fair with brands or advertisers?

So for example, if I chose “split fare with coke” I might be prompted to watch a 30 second coke commercial or maybe I would have to fill out a branded questionnaire.

Either way, I opt in to the advertising, coke gets my full and undivided attention and I get a subsidy on my car ride.

Furthermore, if the brand or advertiser was providing me with real value then I might, keyword being might, be compelled to give them my email address or phone number. It’s already there in my profile along with my home address and other important travel destinations. And if Uber took this a step further, they could theoretically enable hyper targeted advertising based on who the passengers are.

And then when I’m riding solo in a car like I am now (yes, typing from the back of an Uber), I could get a better rate on my ride and Coke or whoever else can get a nice slice of my time and attention.

Brands and advertisers are already paying big money to advertise in airports, taxis, buses and trains so why not Uber? This form of advertising might be the first time there would be a truly interactive form of ‘transportation advertising’ because it wouldn’t be on some display in a taxi or on the back of your chair on an airplane. It would be on you personal mobile device.

I’m not sure I’ve seen this before and for all I know Uber could very well be working on something like this.

But that’s my idea of the day for Uber and now I’m at my destination.

How This Low-Tech Founder Got A High-Tech Startup To House $150M In Transactions

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In a market like this where it’s relatively easy to raise capital at higher valuations, it can be tempting to spend big on customer acquisition. This environment has led to recent conversations around high burn rates and the relationship between “Capital and Success.” But some startups are realizing that overspending on customer acquisition may not lead to the return they are looking for and are instead finding different, more cost-effective growth strategies.

In just two years, Sweeten, a New York City-based virtual matchmaking service for homeowners and renovation experts, hit $150M in projects posted on their marketplace driven by one of the cheapest forms of customer acquisition: content marketing.

sweeten homepage

Under enormous pressure to post gains in the $12B NYC renovation space, Sweeten CEO and founder, Jean Brownhill Lauer, was initially tempted to spend on obvious advertising purchases. Surely, targeted advertising would bring homeowners looking for hand-selected general contractors and designers to the site. Instead, Lauer has bet big on a different approach: creating in-house content that gets serious traction with zero customer acquisition costs. Adhering to a strict no-paid-advertising model, Lauer’s team is using original content to drive social media activity and partnerships with widely-viewed shelter and design sites, drawing prospective customers to the site more organically.

In-house content over paid advertising

“We started with big ideas but severely limited capital,” Lauer said. “When we looked at our budget and tried to envision parting with funding to cover advertising costs, we knew we could get clicks and site visits but probably not much else. Instead, we’ve watched as our investment in high quality and highly visual in-house content has drawn those same clicks and site visits through collaborations with industry leaders, and at the same time, has been a particularly powerful tool in establishing relationships and trust with customers.”

For a company trying to bring trust and structure to an unwieldy market, this outcome is in many ways more important than page views.

Regular, reliable content

Sweeten’s blog features two key categories of regular content.

The first is fairly typical “before and after” photos that show how the site connects homeowners to contractors who are uniquely suited to a project’s budget, location, and style. The second is content that digs deeply into questions around the renovation process that most homeowners face.

This combination of content is attractive to both a design-savvy urban audience as well as actual homeowners who are desperately looking for reliable information before spending significant money on their own home renovations. In both cases, this content is relatively cheap to create and has a high return on prospective customers and users of the site.

Content partnerships and social conversations

In today’s world of Instagram, Pinterest and other ‘photo-first’ platforms, users continue to demonstrate an increasing demand for quality content. As Lauer said, “We’ve learned that quality writing and photos seem to be constantly in demand – there is this insatiable appetite for design gorgeousness and trustworthy information.”

And to prove it, Sweeten’s photography has generated a not-insignificant social presence with 160K followers on Instagram.

“The Instagram crowd loves our design perspective and actual homeowners are coming back to our site for guides to renovation pricing and regulatory insight that they need to feel ready to start a transformative renovation.”

Lauer is now focused on getting the most out of the content: tailoring it across social media platforms and building it into the site so that customers are getting personalized information as they use the marketplace.

Lauer is also seeing that investors are paying attention to the content cycle; “Our investors want to see site traffic and transaction growth, and they love the fact that we’re able to garner this kind of volume with zero acquisition costs. When you pay for a click, you might get that one click and then the interaction is over. When you create great content, you can get thousands of clicks and use that piece over and over again.”

More and more companies are beginning to realize the value of content over paid advertising.  Sweeten is just one example of a startup that is realizing this and for them, the result is over $150M in transactions.

The $2.3 Billion Business Model – How Content, Community and Commerce are fueling these companies.

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A new breed of business model is emerging which combines content, community and commerce to dramatically improve the consumer discovery and shopping experience online. Sites like Houzz, Polyvore, and Motoroso are putting themselves at the center of their industries using this “Trifecta,” a moniker applied by Mary Meeker of KPCB in her 2014 Trend Report.

Why is this?

Consumers rely on three factors when making purchasing decisions: content, community, and commerce. Content for inspiration and information; Community for social validation and recommendations; and Commerce for making the purchase. Today the landscape of the web serves all of these needs from every imaginable angle and from millions of fragmented sources. This results in a lengthy and frustrating experience for the consumer. Amplified by the massive adoption of mobile, consumers are increasingly demanding seamlessly integrated experiences that combine these 3 C’s.

This concept seems to be working well. Five years into its life, Houzz recently made news by fetching a $2.3 Billon valuation and appears to have become the definitive online resource that combines design inspiration, products, and service providers in the $300B home remodeling industry. Polyvore has revolutionized fashion by enabling community contributors to curate and drive sales of fashion, propelling it into the limelight and attracting over $22 Million in venture capital.

It’s not unimaginable that companies like these will rise to become powerful forces at the center of many different industries. One such business focused on the automotive industry is Motoroso. Released in beta just 2 months ago, Motoroso features over 100 official brand profiles from leading auto and motorcycle brands, including Ducati North America, Porsche, and Volvo.  Ducati North America Online Marketing Manager Patrick Flynn says: “Motoroso is an excellent online platform for Ducati as it allows the distinctive designs of our products to speak for themselves. It’s a welcome addition to our online marketing strategy.” Volvo Cars of North America’s Head of Social Media, Rahul Mahtani states “Volvo is in the process of a major brand transformation and Motoroso provides a unique channel to showcase the evolution of our products visually, as well as demonstrate our commitment to innovation.”

Porsche 911 GT3RS
Porsche 911 GT3RS (Photo credit: Axion23)

I sat down with Motoroso CEO Alex Littlewood, he says “We live this lifestyle, so we know how painful it is to discover and shop. We’re here to create a better experience for everyone in this industry.” In regards to launching Motoroso he adds “We’re starting with enthusiast niches and lifestyles, because they’re the influencers that drive the larger industry trends.”

While Houzz, Polyvore, and Motoroso seem poised to become powerhouse companies in their respective industries, it will be exciting to see which other major verticals or lifestyles will see similar business models applied. Sports, travel, food, outdoor, education, and pets could all benefit from sites that serve their industry this way.

What if?

My brain is still rattling even a week later after hearing the story. Like all life or death stories, this one forces you to ask…

What if…?

What if she didn’t check Facebook at 4 in the morning?

What if the police didn’t arrive on time?

What if social media didn’t exist?

What is she was too afraid to reach out?

Like I said, the story is still reverberating in my head and it’s fitting that my sister, someone trained as a professional nurse, is playing the role of “healthcare provider” but only in a much different capacity than I would have anticipated.

So it begins..

It’s 4 am. My sister just got back from a night out in NYC. Like most nights out in the city, you can expect that there were a few drinks involved. Anyone that’s been out in the city until 4am can understand the way these nights work. By the time you get home, your brain and body are operating on fumes and you can only handle the important tasks. Ordering late night food and checking Facebook.

So you hit the couch, the phone comes out and Facebook opens.

The newsfeed scroll begins…

The first post in the feed is a group picture of some friends from their night out. Five girls, arms wrapped around each other, big smiles and camera poses (3 minutes ago).

The next is a status update. An update that makes you question why you’re on Facebook in the first place because it says something like, “just got home” or “lower east side.” The content of this post doesn’t really matter because it’s a completely useless post. On to the next update (4 minutes ago).

It’s from an old high school acquaintance. I say “acquaintance” because growing up my sister and this girl were “the other girls” to each other. They ran in different groups and said hi to one another on occasion.

The status update.. (I’m using a fake name here.)

“Remember the happy Jane, remember the good times we have shared. I cannot handle the pain any longer. Goodbye. I love you all. Pray for me please. Until we meet again.” (5 minutes ago)


“What the…”

In sheer disbelief and confusion, my sister ran over to her roommate and showed her the update.

“Is this a joke?”

Her roommate, “I don’t know but this is crazy.”

And in that moment my sister went through a series of questions that I think any reasonable person would ask in that situation.

Should I text her? Should I call her? What if something really is wrong? I haven’t seen this girl since high school. Am I overthinking this? It’s a Facebook post, it can’t be serious…can it?

“Fuck it, i’m texting her.”

“Hey Jane, this is Nicole. I just saw your Facebook update. Is everything ok?”

Within a minute, Jane shoots back a text: “Hi Nicole, I’m so glad you reached out to me but it’s too late..”

The events that followed were sudden and decisive…

Nicole and her roommate made one phone call each.

One to Jane and one to 911.

Jane had overdosed on pain killers and left a goodbye note to her friends and family. She also prepared a farewell video and left it on her computer. The police and paramedics made it to her apartment just as she faded out into darkness and became unconscious. When she made it to the ER she was hooked up to a ventilator because she could no longer breathe. Her organs stopped working and she was now fighting for her life.


It’s hard to know what anyone would do in a situation unless they are faced head on with that choice. In this case, it might have been easy for Nicole and her roommate to go to sleep and brush off the update as a joke, but they made a choice. The text, the phone call, the will to act even at 4am despite having fear of over reacting and being too dramatic because of a little Facebook post.

But overreact they did…

And it helped the paramedics get there on time.

From today’s news:

Facebook Switches Default Setting to Private to Prevent Oversharing

What if…?

What if Facebook made this switch just one week ago and Jane didn’t “over share” her message?

What if Nicole didn’t see the update or take action, or “overreaction” when she saw the message?

According to the doctors and paramedics, Jane’s Facebook wall would have looked something like this upon sunrise.

“R.I.P. Jane”

Instead, Jane has a second chance at life and a newfound appreciation for the kindness and caring of human beings.

Her Facebook header now reads:

“You never know when one kind act or one word of encouragement will change a life forever.”

What if…?

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 4.43.58 PM

Do You Hate Your Job? 5 Tips To Change That

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“I knew I had to quit when I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning to go to work.”

Those words stuck with me. I heard them from a successful entrepreneur and I think about them almost every day. It’s a quick gut check against the happiness and balance in your professional and personal life.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard similar words from countless friends and colleagues.

The lawyer that started a legal career because it was a safe and steady job.

The financier that went to wall street because of the big bonuses.

The doctor that attended medical school because the parents said they should.

The consultant that joined a big named firm because of the prestige associated with it.

To the outside world these jobs are normal. In fact, they are celebrated. But to the individual they can sometimes feel like a cage with no escape. However the good news is that I’ve seen people successfully make the switch from a career they hate to a career they love. In all of these situations, there were at least five common themes that enabled these people to make the leap of faith and recalibrate their life for a happier, more successful career.

Hone in on your transferable skills. A friend recently described his job to me. He does “platform sales to financial institutions and hedge funds.” When I asked him what that meant he said, “I’m basically a waiter. My tables are my clients. My dishes are my financial products. My tips are my commission. And my job, is to basically keep my tables happy and answer any questions that the customers may have.” A waiter on wall street. Pretty simple. But a good waiter must have good people skills and good people skills are transferable to any industry. However, it’s not just people skills that are valuable. Organization, communication, and leadership are also very important. We sometimes take these intangibles for granted, but if you can hone in on your strongest transferable skills then you can figure out where else they might be applied in a setting that you enjoy.

Leverage your transferable knowledge.  Another friend of mine has been working in commercial real estate for the past few years. When he took a sales leadership position at a new technology startup, someone asked me, “what does a commercial real estate broker know about startups?” I said, “not much. But he knows more about real estate sales than anyone I know and for a technology startup that is focused on the real estate market, that’s a pretty big asset to have.” Sometimes a career change isn’t as big of a change as you think it is. If you have deep industry knowledge it’s likely that there are multiple opportunities and jobs that could benefit your experiences.

Try something new. I recently saw a Facebook status that said “Learning how to code. I’m a nerd and I love it.” In a million years I would have never guessed this person to learn to code or to even know what “ruby on rails” means. In school, you’re required to take classes in different disciplines. But just because school is over it doesn’t mean you should stop exploring new horizons. Take chances. Open new doors. Learn something new because you might actually enjoy it and it may very well lead to a new, professional path.

Ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help when help is needed. Sometimes it’s easy to let pride get in the way but as someone once told me, “ducks that quack get fed.” If you want to make some changes but don’t know how then simply pick up the phone, write an email and share your thoughts with someone. It’s human nature for people to help one another but no one can help you unless they know you are looking for it. So don’t be shy. Ask for help.

Recognize the difference between quitting and recalibrating. I wonder what Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg’s parents thought when they decided to drop out of school. Is that considered quitting? If it is then I plan to quit something as often as possible. There is a big difference between giving up and realigning your goals and objectives. Sometimes people are afraid to “quit their job” because it’s viewed as just that, quitting. But the thing is, it’s not. If you have a game plan and a strategy in place then you owe it to yourself to “quit” so that you can recalibrate your path to success and happiness.

Follow me on Twitter at @DanReich.