Right now, in the U.S., 40% of the restaurant industry are independent restaurant owners and mom-and-pop shops. The pandemic hit these businesses hard, and many of them are still reeling from the past two years.
While we’ve seen a rise in food delivery as of late, this consumer behavior is actually quite detrimental to small-and-mid-sized restaurants. Third-party corporations like GrubHub charge up to 30% in fees per order, and it’s almost impossible for these owners to grow in size and build sustainable businesses.
I interviewed Owner.com co-founder and CEO Adam Guild about how he set out to solve this problem, the way his customers have inspired new product features, whether restaurant owners are quick to embrace new technologies, how the pandemic affected his business and more.
Gary Drenik: You dropped out of high school, started helping your mom’s dog grooming business, bootstrapped your own business and then raised venture funding for Owner.com. How did you get here?
Adam Guild: The story starts at 12 years old. It starts at 12 because that was the age that I built my first Minecraft server. Initially, it was a hobby for me but over the next 4 years it grew and grew and grew and became one of the largest Minecraft server networks in the world.
By the time I was 16, my server had reached over 7,000,000 players and was generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. So, I dropped out of high school to focus on scaling it up, and then on building my own mobile games using that community.
I didn’t know what that way would be, though, until I had an experience in saving my mom’s dog grooming business. She came to me for help, and I initially built the first version of what became Owner to help her convert more of her website visitors into appointments. It really worked. I saw my mom transform from struggling single mom, constantly stressed out about money to feeling really excited again about her future and realized that helping people like her live their dreams was my calling.
It wasn’t long before I realized that the $3b dog grooming market would never support an ambitious software company, but that I could help restaurants drive dine-in with the same technology. So, I repurposed it for restaurants and began building what became Owner.com.
Over 4 years of iteration and a pandemic later, we’ve gotten closer and closer to our long-term vision of Owner.com. I’ve built Owner.com alongside our genius co-founder and CTO Dean Bloembergen, who previously built ordering experiences for restaurant brands such as Blaze Pizza and Sharky’s, to help restaurant owners take back control from these huge technology corporations and achieve profitability.
Drenik: Can you tell me what makes Owner.com different from other online ordering apps like Yelp and GrubHub?
Guild: Currently, third-party corporations like GrubHub force restaurant owners to pay massive fees, up to 30% per transaction. This can be debilitating for mom-and-pop restaurant owners across the country whose profit margins are typically 5%. It’s unsustainable.
According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, around 25% of people in this country have reduced dining out due to fluctuating gas prices.
Within the same Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, Millennials and Gen-Z are more likely than their parents to frequent a restaurant that delivers to their home. This makes a solution like Owner.com even more important.
When we launched Owner.com during the pandemic, it was an online ordering solution, but after speaking to our customers more and more, we learned that these restaurant owners needed a lot more help from us to run their business. We’ve since expanded Owner.com to an all-in-one platform that manages the restaurant’s entire digital presence. This includes everything from websites to email marketing to features such as recruiting, messaging, reputation management and more.
Drenik: How has the pandemic affected your business?
Guild: Owner.com’s initial business was to help drive diners and reservations in-restaurant. Then, COVID lockdowns hit. We went from feeling at the top of the world – successfully bootstrapping the business and working with a large variety of restaurants – to $0 in revenue and months away from running out of money. Our dine-in product became irrelevant overnight.
So, I started cold-calling hundreds of restaurants, asking “how can I be helpful during this time?” I kept hearing from restaurant owners that online ordering totally sucks, GrubHub takes 30% fees, and they were hacking together ten different solutions that didn’t speak to each other to try to solve the problem by getting people to order directly from their website instead.
We were very close to running out of money when we built an online ordering system with marketing automation features to solve the problem. We launched it in May of 2020, praying that it would work, and thank God it did.
It became the foundation for the all-in-one platform that Owner is today. Over the next 10 months, we grew from $0 in revenue and weeks away from running out of cash to doing millions in revenue and raising over $10 million in venture from some of the most famous investors in tech and restaurants. We raised another $15 million earlier this year.
Drenik: You partner with thousands of restaurants all over the country. How do you figure out what these restaurant owners need and what features to build?
Guild: At Owner.com, we have a company policy that speaking to one of our restaurant owner customers for at least 30 minutes each week is a part of everyone’s job description, from our software engineers to our marketers to our designers. Our product decisions are guided by these weekly conversations with our customers to make sure they have what they need to succeed.
For example, earlier this year, our engineers kept hearing over and over again from our restaurant owners how difficult it was for them to hire due to the labor shortage. They were spending ridiculous amounts of money on Craigslist and Indeed Ads to fill entry level roles.
So, one weekend, a group of our engineers built an extension to our website product, which allowed our thousands of restaurant owners to host a job board directly on their website and promote open positions to their customers.
It went from idea to live product in less than 72 hours because our engineers are so passionate about helping improve the lives and businesses of our restaurant owners – many of whom have become close friends. We’ve now driven over 10,000 applications for our restaurant owners and helped them make over 500 hires — on a platform that previously had nothing to do with recruiting.
We also do company retreats with our entire team and several of our restaurant owners every quarter. At one dinner in particular, two of our restaurant owners drank a bit too much wine and began going off on some incredible ideas for the business – inspiring our all-in-one messaging aggregator product by talking about how much they hated having to check 15 different inboxes every day to keep up with customers.
Drenik: So many startups have cropped up in recent years to help restaurants embrace technology. Is there anything still holding the industry back from fully adopting technology? In your opinion, what part of the market still remains untapped?
Guild: We’ve seen independent restaurant owners be more than willing to embrace new technologies that’ll not only save but sustain their businesses. The untapped market is in mom-and-pop restaurants, which make up 40% of the restaurant industry in the U.S. They’re different from large restaurant chains, which have millions of dollars to spend building custom tech stacks and custom integrations with their point solutions. Independent restaurants don’t have the same luxury, so when they see a solution that fits all of their needs, they jump at it.
Highlighting this point is the fact that our thousands of restaurant customers have all come inbound so far, showing just how massive this need is for them.
Drenik: Tell us about some of the success you’ve had with restaurants regarding getting them through one of the most challenging times in history (i.e., the pandemic). Any success stories?
Guild: The most rewarding part about creating Owner.com is seeing all of these independent restaurant owners thrive using our platform. We’re currently in 49 out of 50 U.S. states, helping over 1,700 restaurants build sustainable businesses.
One great example is Rahul from Saffron Indian Cuisine in Philadelphia. He approached us shortly after Covid-19 lockdowns hit his town. His goal was to increase direct online ordering sales and to reduce money on third party fees that he was paying to platforms like GrubHub.
In just 4 days, he was live on the platform. In his first month, he drove almost $40,000 in sales on the platform, which we helped him increase by thousands using automated marketing, SEO, and other features. Since launching with us 2 years ago, he has driven over $1,700,000 in sales on Owner and saved over $425,000 in fees.
Yuliana from Samo’s Oaxaca in Santa Monica, CA saved thousands in delivery fees upon joining Owner.com. She felt so excited about Owner that he immediately referred others. We have countless stories similar to these ones.
Drenik: Thank you, Adam, for sharing more about Owner.com’s vision and how you’re saving our country’s restaurants.