This interview is with Kevin Yang, co-founder of EAT Club, an office lunch delivery service that has raised over $1.5M in venture capital and offers daily curated menus from local restaurants. Office workers of small- and medium-sized companies order lunch online by 10:15 a.m. and receive it at their front desks by 12:30 p.m. with free delivery and no minimum orders. The interview was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure, I’m 27. I have a B.A. in physics from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford. I worked for two years as a management consultant for a company called Dean & Company, mostly working in bio-tech and pharma, and then while at business school I spent a couple months doing venture capital investing at a firm called NanoDimension. The day after business school I started a company with one of my classmates called EAT Club, which is a lunch e-retailer.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current role as a venture-funded startup co-founder, and in particular what were the thought processes you went through at key decision moments along the way?
A. I’ll start near the end of college. I thought I was going to become a biophysics professor for most of my time in college. I spent most of my time doing research.
What I realized as I got to know that better is that it takes an incredible amount of patience to be a science professor. It might take twenty years to discover something worthwhile, if you happen to be lucky enough to do that.
I wanted to have more control over my own destiny. So at that point, near the end of college, I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know anything about business. I didn’t know anything non-science related.
So I went into management consulting explicitly to learn something about business. That’s the reason why I only ended up staying there for about two years before going to business school. And when I was applying I very explicitly said, “I want to start a business.” At that time, I thought it would be science-related, because I was such a science geek.
Between the two years, I ended up doing venture capital for those couple of months, because I wasn’t quite ready to start a business even though I had been working on something my first year — where it turns out the science just doesn’t work.
Venture capital seemed to be a good thing to do because I got to see a ton of ideas. NanoDimension was a very specific nano-technology focused venture capital firm that used a lot of science. So my background came in useful there.
And I got exactly what I wanted out of those months, just seeing a lot of business, both good and bad. It helped me calibrate when I was evaluating business ideas about what kind of business I wanted to run.
Throughout my two years of business school, I probably worked seriously on three separate ideas — and the last one was the intersection of a personal passion, which is food, as well as the business case which was great.
I was lucky enough to find a co-founder, one of my classmates, who had very complimentary skills. So we started the business the day after graduation.
Q. What motivated your switch in college from academic science to entrepreneurship?
A. Absolutely. Well, all of my friends are scientists, and they all have doctorates by now. But the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, we were all in Cambridge doing research in different fields.
At that time, during the day we’d spend 10-12 hours in lab each day. And then we’d all come home — we were living in two adjacent buildings — and we decided we were going to start a company together. So we would spend all of our weekends and evenings deciding what to do.
Eventually we decided to do an online collaborative network for academic labs. Long story short, we spent a lot of time on it. It was all of our first startup attempts. And we were going to do it as a non-profit startup, so it had no business model.
I think whereas all of my friends, with one exception, took away from the experience that “wow, this is really hard,” I took away from the experience that I had never been happier in my life.
My naive self thought, “Well, all of my friends will go into science; they’re going to make great discoveries, and I’ll do the business part so that we can actually start companies in the future.”
That’s how I thought about my life at that time. I think that was the point where I started deviating away from becoming an academic.
Q. During business school, what were specific important lessons you learned on each of your three serious attempts at exploring startup ideas that helped you launch EAT Club the day after graduation?
A. I never thought about it as a project. I threw myself in fully, and I think that’s how I actually learned lessons.
In the first one, there were a couple scientists that I had known for ten years prior through other contexts, and we worked really hard to genetically modify algae to turn salt water into clean water. It was a super geeky thing.
I spent a lot of time putting together a business case, whereas they were working on the science. I realized there how much you have to rely on other people with supreme competency. I understood the caliber of people you need to get something as difficult as a startup off the ground.
The second project I worked on was through a two-quarter entrepreneurship class through the Stanford Business School, where you work with a couple other MBA students and a couple engineers. There, I put together a team to basically figure out whether or not there is a market for electric bikes in the U.S.
What I learned there was that, as the person who put the team together, there was one point where I realized the business wasn’t really going to work — and that’s when I started working on the concept that became EAT Club.
But we spent six months doing the bike project, twenty hours a week. And when we debriefed at the end of the year, my team gave me the feedback that the moment you lost faith, the moment you took your eye off the ball and started treating it as a project rather than as a company, everyone else became demotivated.
That was tremendous lesson. Even though my peers were, in many ways, more talented than me, as the leader, as the one who brought everyone together, my emotions impacted how everyone functioned.
With that, I think I came into my first real startup with some lessons that I would have learned the hard way otherwise.
Q. How and when did EAT Club get started?
A. My co-founder was actually another classmate; we were working on an independent study around the food market.
My co-founder and I also knew each other socially as co-presidents of the food club at Stanford GSB. And I heard what they were doing and I joined their independent study for non-credit. But I ended up doing all the work with them.
We spent a quarter investigating the market. We didn’t really have the idea for the business by the time we graduated; the original idea was to do something like put vending machines that sold salads and sandwiches into people’s office buildings. I’m glad we didn’t end up doing that.
But the most important thing was finding my co-founder. Because we would never have been able to do this without the two of us working together.
Q. Say more about what you meant by the caliber of people needed to do a startup. What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now about finding a co-founder?
A. The most remarkable thing about Rodrigo is that he works so hard. I think what it is is that, everything where I’m like, okay Rodrigo, you do this and I’ll do that — I have full trust he will do it as well or better than I could, and vice versa.
Early on, there’s just so much to do in a startup that, if you don’t have that confidence that the other person is going to be fully accountable and super competent and just pour their heart into it, it’s really hard to co-found something.
So what I would say is that, if you’re going to co-found something with someone else, you have to believe they care about it, almost more than you do. If there is a commitment gap, and if there is someone who isn’t super dedicated to it, the partnership isn’t going to work out.
I think the same could be said about early employees as well. That type of dedication, commitment, and passion you have to just know. And if you don’t know you have it, then you should give it a second thought.
Q. What else is important in terms of the caliber of your co-founder?
A. It’s important for the skills to be slightly complementary, in that you can split domains pretty clearly.
With the scientists in my first startup effort, I was the business person, and my co-founders there were the scientists. (One is now a professor at MIT.) It worked really well because they didn’t really question me about business and I never really questioned them about technology, so it worked out well. You have a partnership where you just trust.
With Rodrigo and I, where we found ourselves wasting a lot of time was where we both had a lot of expertise. We were both Stanford MBAs. So sometimes we would debate things we both had context in.
But most of the time that wasn’t the case, because I was filling in as our developer, so I was effectively the technical co-founder. He’s much better with people and operations, so he ran the operations part of our business. So I think the complementary part was good, but we shared a common language, which was helpful.
Q. So a Venn diagram, where you have distinct roles but a shared language, is ideal?
A. Right. So that you can also communicate well.
Q. Do you see tension between having clear roles where you don’t question each other too much vs. having your co-founder be a legitimate sounding board to sanity check decisions in order to reach better outcomes?
A. Generally in a startup, I think I would favor making decisions quickly. So what we agreed to do is, for key important questions we would debate them very fiercely. And then we would get to a solution, and we would both believe it with all our hearts, and then just go forward with it.
In areas where I just allowed Rodrigo to make decisions, or he just allowed me to make decisions, I don’t think the quality of decisions was really that much worse.
Ultimately, I would favor making people more autonomous, if you believe in their quality. And I wish that, early on, we had spent less time debating things and more time just deciding and executing — and then finding out we were wrong and just doing the opposite.
Because frequently you just don’t know. In a startup, it’s hard to analytically derive the right answer. Frequently, it’s easier to just do it, get a fast read, and then iterate based on that.
Q. Tell us more about the EAT Club product; what is it like working there as a co-founder; and what do you do day-to-day?
A. What EAT Club does is we allow you to order lunch online the way you would expect to order books from Amazon or movies from Netflix.
You order from a small curated menu that changes every day by 10:15 a.m., and magically your lunch shows up in your office lobby by 12:30 p.m. And you’re paying retail price — $8-10 for great food from great local restaurants.
To make this possible, we’ve had to solve a pretty complicated logistics problem, as well as take the best of group buying and mobile technologies and bundle it all together.
What I do right now is run revenue. And what that means in our case is that I direct the food team — what we actually sell; what combination of it do we sell; how frequently do people see things. I also have a role doing some product management.
But it’s vague. We try to give ourselves titles, but at different times there are just important things to do at a company.
I started working on food because that was what was really important about six months ago. But occasionally, I’m effectively a product manager. And occasionally, I’m a restaurant account manager. It just changes all the time.
Q. On a task level, tell me about what you did this past week so we can get a sense of the way your role changes day-to-day?
A. This week, we’re fundraising right now, so I spent a lot of time talking to investors. That means driving to their office, pitching them, following up with them, and doing homework like creating financial models and sending it to them.
From a food perspective, we have discussions specifically about what we should be serving customers, what would make them happier, and we talk about it both at an operating level (how do we ensure quality is high?), as well as at a strategic level (which is, hey if we were to do this in another city, how would we do it?).
And then on the product side, it involves discussions about how we should be changing our website to improve customer conversion. There will be specific discussions around what tests we should run and what directions should we give to engineering. And at the tactical level, you have to test the features that the engineers have built, so we can actually release them to our user base.
I think this is a fairly common week in terms of running around and doing all this stuff.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your role?
A. I think what’s most exciting is that I’m still learning things at such a rapid pace.
It’s definitely stressful doing a startup, and there are a lot of situations that, frankly, you just don’t know what you’re supposed to do because you’ve never seen it before. And while it’s a little frightening, it’s also really exciting because you do it, and then all of the sudden you know that you’re now armed with this experience that, had I been working a traditional job, I may never have had, or would have gotten 20 years later.
So it feels like I am learning a lot of things that make me a better entrepreneur — and actually just a more competent person. And I’m doing it at record speed.
Q. What do you most wish you could change?
A. I would probably put a constant emphasis on making sure that our organization moves quickly. I think we’ve made certain decisions at certain times that had a near-term benefit, but actually burdened our organization by making us structurally inefficient.
Like, if it takes two hours a day of a couple people’s time to make a little bit more money, maybe that was the right thing to do at the time, but we should have actually been willing to forgo that revenue without burdening ourselves and making us slower.
Q. Where do you see yourself ideally going in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I want to build EAT Club into a national presence, one that touches the lives of millions of people and changes the way they eat, and fundamentally makes them happier and more efficient.
I think I would be really happy to have that positive impact on people, even if it means taking the next five or ten years of my life.
It’s clear to me that I will be an entrepreneur for the rest of my life. And, you know, there are a lot of other interesting problems out there. I spent a lot of time looking at energy; I spent a lot of time looking at education.
And maybe it’s my time from being a consultant, but I believe there isn’t really domain knowledge, so to speak, that if you just study something really hard you can somehow become a domain expert in a relatively short period of time. So it feels like the important problems of the world are all opportunities.
Q. For people who are starting companies with a technology dependency, how do you overcome the specialized domain knowledge of technical or computer science skills needed to get the company off the ground?
A. Well, you can find a technical co-founder I guess, but honestly it’s very hard.
Like, for a long time, I wanted to do hard science startups. The algae desalination problem is not an easy one. Or to build a better solar cell is not an easy one.
And I think if you’re not the scientist, you can’t actually build a business where the technical challenge is the core breakthrough. Like, I came to terms that I’m never going to be the lead scientist on a project ever again; I’m just not good enough at it anymore.
But there are a lot of problems you can solve that don’t require a technical breakthrough. If you can articulate a business problem or a user problem clearly enough, and you can make some progress, then you can hire people to help you.
The other thing I would say is, I basically taught myself to code, and launched our initial product in six weeks. I didn’t solve any earth-breaking technical problems, but I did solve the technology behind how we do the distribution that we do. I did that on the whiteboard with my co-founder, and the code was just a tool.
So if you’re just relatively intelligent, you can figure out the common sense problem — and then whether you turn it into code or hire someone to turn it into code is a different issue.
Even if you look at technology companies like Facebook or Microsoft, the initial iteration was the proof of concept. Bill Gates and Zuckerberg were super smart, but they were proving a concept, and once you prove a concept you can hire extremely smart people to actually build all that technology that becomes your differentiation.
Q. What advice would you offer to people who are interested in transitioning into entrepreneurship someday?
A. I think the most important thing is, you’ll be happy doing something if you can articulate to yourself why you’re doing it.
When I was a consultant, it wasn’t that I was dying to be a consultant; it was just that I knew there was so much I needed to learn about how business works. And I enjoyed my time as a consultant because I was able to do exactly that extremely quickly.
With entrepreneurship, I would just say that it’s really, really hard. Like, if you want to make money, you should probably go work in finance. If you want glory, this is probably not the easiest place to do it.
But if you feel the only way you’re going to be happy with your life is to go and change the world, and you take joy in just building things even if it’s going to be extremely painful, and that’s the attitude you take, then you’ll probably make a great entrepreneur.
It’s just hard to describe in words how hard this road is. But if it’s what you want to do, this is how you’ll be happy.
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