The concept of EatStreet is simple—make ordering takeout food fast and easy by presenting multiple restaurant menus on a single website. Turning this straightforward idea into a successful business with nearly 10,000 restaurants across the country that employs 80 people and recently signed a $6-million investment agreement? That’s a tall order.
Just ask Matt Howard (BS ’11), UW-Madison alum, cofounder and CEO of EatStreet who launched the company in February 2010 with two other UW-Madison students, Eric Martell and Alex Wyler, under the name “Badger Bites.” They were pleased with their overall results that year, signing 15 partner restaurants and acquiring 300 student users.
“As Eric and Alex built the website, I called restaurants and most of them were interested in hiring us as a service,” says Howard. “When we got close to launching, I started signing them up.”
In May 2010, they entered the Wisconsin School of Business’s G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition.
“It was a tremendous learning experience,” says Howard. “We were nowhere near ready, and it showed us how far we had to go. The judges told us that if we want this to work, if we really wanted to take on our competition, we had to work a lot harder. We had to figure it out. It was a wake-up call. We realized we had a lot to learn in order to expand our customer base.”
Taking expert advice to heart
The young execs rolled up their sleeves and applied this valuable advice, increasing their restaurant list from 15 to 100 and their user base from 300 to 9,000 in one year. Their dedication paid off—they entered the Burrill competition again in 2011, and this time they won, earning a $10,000 prize and a year’s rent on 200 square feet of office space.
“The first time we were just really getting started,” says Howard. “The judges said we needed a plan, to think it through, write it down, and adjust as needed. This is exactly what we did. It really made us figure out how to make EatStreet a real business.”
The biggest benefit of winning the Burrill competition could be the advice and support Howard continues to receive from some of the judges. “These individuals are still mentors to us and help us through many of the issues that come up as we expand the business,” Howard says.
Scott Button, a venture investor, encouraged the young founders to get aggressive about their growth. “Our original business plan said we were not going to raise capital, that we preferred to grow slowly,” says Howard. “Scott said that’s fine, but pointed out our industry is moving very fast. He emphasized raising capital and expanding more quickly. This is one of the best pieces of advice we received. A short time later we closed on a $150,000 investment. To date we have raised a total of $8.7 million, which has allowed us to expand much more rapidly than we thought we could.”
Laurie Benson is another judge who continues to advise EatStreet.
“If I have a problem or a question I can always go to Laurie and there is a 99.99-percent chance she has experienced it and can provide some valuable insight,” says Howard. “My Burrill connections have never turned me down for a cup of coffee to talk about our business.”
Finding the right mentors, winning the Burrill competition, and plain old hard work were all instrumental the success of this start-up.
“We are proof that you can turn an idea into a successful business,” says Howard. “You will have to work harder than ever before. It will be 10 times harder than you thought it could be. I also learned early on it is very important to reach out to those around you and find mentors who have ‘been there, done that.’ Finding the right mentors will help you avoid those critical mistakes that can cripple a young business.”