ENTREPRENEUR-IN-RESIDENCE, SWARTZ CENTER FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP | PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
Four years out of a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Robb Myer watched as the collapse of the dot-com bubble stung many of his peers in the Bay Area. With his technical background, he sought out an MBA program with a strong quantitative component to bring him to the next phase of his career, “and CMU and Tepper were at the top of that category.”
With his new MBA in hand, Myer dipped his toe into entrepreneurial waters, joining an upstart social network called Clique as its director of marketing. In 2010, he dove into his own venture with Nowait, an app allowing patrons to add their names to restaurants’ wait lists in advance. The app was purchased by Yelp for $40 million in February 2017.
Myer had left Nowait more than a year before the acquisition, and now serves as an entrepreneur-in-residence for the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon. In this role, he advises startups that are incubated at the university, including a drone software company from the Robotics Institute and a Nowait-like app called Srvd, through which bar patrons can order drinks and pay their tabs without waiting in line at the bar
What is your elevator pitch?
Nowait is a mobile network that connects consumers to casual dining restaurants so they can put their names on the wait list before they arrive, so they don’t have to wait for a table at the restaurant when they get there. That’s what we do.
What was the “aha” moment?
It’s the classic “I’ve got a problem” startup story. I was a guy waiting in line in San Francisco for brunch at the end of 2009. We went to a couple different restaurants where we were told it was going to be an hour wait. And then we went to one where, as we were leaving, they said, “What’s your phone number? We’ll call you when your table is ready, and you can go window shopping.” I thought at the time that it was just brilliant. Why didn’t every other restaurant offer that level of hospitality and convenience? Why would they all expect me to sit in the crowd in the lobby or stand on the sidewalk for an hour to get a table? This restaurant provided something that was very useful and presumably not that hard to do.
I thought about how to automate the process and make it even easier for restaurants. And then I thought about how the real-time data — if I had that — could be shared with people on the street so they wouldn’t even have to go into the restaurant; they could just see the wait time and put their name on the list.
So really, from the very beginning, the whole idea — which was a rather straightforward and simple concept — came out of that one waiting experience. Our timing was really good: The Apple App Store had just launched maybe six to nine months before this, so apps had just started to become very popular, and people were imagining all different kinds of things to do with location-aware apps. We were moving into the mobile technology cycle, where people were more accustomed to getting real-time information and location-based information on their phones — really starting to look to their phones for basically everything.
What don’t people realize it takes to get started?
One of the most overlooked things is timing. People don’t realize — whether they’re doing it themselves or they’re seeing other people doing it — how important the overall macro market timing is to the success or failure of a business. That’s not something you can control, but it is something you can identify. When I work with startups in the Swartz Center’s Project Olympus Incubator on campus, I always ask them to rationalize why the timing is right for them now. Why didn’t somebody do this last year? Why is it going to be successful this year? Why is next year not the right time for it? And there has to be some legitimate reason why now is going to work and somebody hasn’t already done it. People don’t really appreciate that. They just see the success story and think that they have discovered something magical.
Any new venture is going to meet with many, many challenges. If you choose an industry or market that is naturally growing, that’s going to increase your probability of success. If you choose a new technology that can fundamentally change the economics of how something is developed or delivered, that’s going to increase your chances of success. A lot of it is about positioning yourself in those areas.
Why Carnegie Mellon?
The reasons that I chose the Tepper School and CMU were because of the business and technical focus, and the cross collaboration that I perceived at the university. I would think today, that’s just as important as it was 12 years ago.
CMU is undergoing exponential growth with the endowment of the Swartz Center by Jim Swartz [MSIA ’66], bringing together all the entrepreneurial teaching with incubators like Olympus and programs like I-Corps. Under Dave Mawhinney’s [teaching professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Swartz Center] leadership over the last five years, this stuff has all come together to give emphasis to propelling entrepreneurs, to help them become successful as quickly as possible.
CMU has amazing programs in engineering, computer science, design, fine arts, everything. What makes us unique is how we are able to integrate and focus all these multiple groups to produce an environment where people can meet and spin off companies that are truly unique.
How did the business school help shape your company?
I was an engineer. I didn’t know anything about business. Going to the Tepper School just completely reframed the way that I see the world — thinking about products, thinking about businesses, thinking about management (product management, people management, financial management). It’s hard to even think about my career without that.
What about growth?
We really followed the agile and lean methodology from the beginning. We very clearly defined what our minimum viable product would be. We were able to go from zero to one — one being our first sale — within six months, which was incredibly fast. Over our first two years, we grew very well. Restaurants really responded to what we were doing. At first, we grew very linearly, but then when we brought in some additional investment dollars, that really accelerated our growth.
Pivotal players who get included in the thank-you speech?
We are grateful for all the support we’ve gotten in Pittsburgh growing the company. We went through AlphaLab, which has been a great supporter of us from the very beginning. We had affordable and flexible office space at both StartUptown and Revv Oakland. Our investors deserve credit — CMU through the Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund established by alumnus Jonathan Kaplan [BSIM 1990] and Peter Stern [E 1989] and Drive Capital was a major investor.
Often, I get a lot of the credit and the limelight — you have to interview one person, not 50 — but every single person who came into the company and believed that crazy vision, who decided to vote with their energy, their life, their time contributed to the company. Everyone pitched in and made that company what it was, and I would thank all those people.
What did you have to learn to keep things moving?
One thing I really learned along the way is the importance of working on communicating my vision and my objectives and expectations for the people on my team. Hiring great people is important. But giving meaningful and quick feedback on what your very specific expectations are and how those people are performing to those expectations is extremely important in building a high-performance organization.
One thing I never really appreciated is how important culture is. The communication has to be very intentional to create a meaningful and deliberate culture. That’s very important for both short- and long-term success of any enterprise. In a startup, there’s so much ambiguity. You’re solving problems that no one has ever solved before because you’re doing something that no one has attempted before.
What were your pivotal moments?
There are two big milestones I’d identify. First, really early on — maybe nine months in — we had launched a product and were making some sales in Pittsburgh. We went to our second market, which was Philadelphia, and tried to sell the same way — door to door. It was very, very challenging.
After several months we pulled the plug on Philadelphia; we were not growing quickly enough. So we retooled and developed a sales strategy, which really centered on selling through the App Store and selling online with a “freemium” self-serve model. So our big, pivotal moment was when that started gaining traction and we started seeing signups and actual sales from restaurants that we had never physically visited. That was one of the big pivot points — when we saw we could sell this to people without having to go and show it to them in person.
The second milestone was in 2013. Our vision always was to connect restaurants and consumers so consumers don’t have to wait in line. For the first couple of years, we were focused on the restaurant side of the network. When a person walked into a restaurant, the hostess would put their name on the Nowait list, and the restaurant would send a text message when their table was ready.
Our big, pivotal moment was when we introduced the consumer half, which is now what most people know Nowait as — the app where you can put your name on the list yourself without going into the restaurant.
Consumers just loved it: Surprise! No one likes to wait in line. It’s not rocket science. People told their friends about it; they tweeted about it; they put it in Yelp reviews. That absolutely cemented our vision that people would respond to our concept. And we think our concept essentially is giving people back their most valuable asset: their time.
What about the acquisition?
The integration of Nowait into Yelp is a fantastic win-win for both Yelp and Nowait as companies, and for consumers and restaurants. I think it’s a win for everyone. Yelp has a consumer network that is orders of magnitude larger than Nowait, so to get instant exposure on their network for all of our restaurants has just been a fantastic experience.
I think the natural synergies between their networks on the consumer side were really a natural fit. From the beginning of Nowait, I was thinking about companies where Nowait might eventually find a great home, and Yelp was always on top of the list.
Yelp knew about us for years. They’d been watching us, so to speak. They had bought the online reservation company SeatMe a couple years ago, and the food delivery company Eat24 after that. So Yelp was very much interested in rounding out their strategic offering. And when Nowait really emerged as the market leader for the casual dining space and got some really significant traction from both the restaurant side and the consumer side, that’s what became attractive to them.
What “big ideas” would you like to pursue next?
I think we’re standing just at the precipice of the next major shift in our technology cycle. We’re moving out of the mobile cycle into the next, which I think is artificial intelligence. The way I view it is in terms of mechanical advantage: Computers back in the ’80s gave us better computational power; the internet gave us quick access to information; mobile gave us the dimension of location-based services.
Now, cognitive processing is giving us a multiplication factor around decision making. The big idea now is around cognitive decisions that we have to make as people are starting to get replaced — supplemented, really — by some aspects of what we are calling artificial intelligence. I think this is going to ripple through the whole world over the next 20 years.
That’s why I think the Tepper School and CMU are so valuable today, because those kinds of technologies are being pioneered — have always been pioneered — at CMU: machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, computer vision, robotics. As a technology leader, Carnegie Mellon is driving that. The business school understands how to tap into that and bring those technologies to market. That’s a combination that most schools do not offer.
Does anything keep you up at night?
There are so many things I’m interested in, and I just want to pursue them all. I have a bit of a fear of missing out on the next big thing. Today is an incredible time to be an entrepreneur. There are so many things going on, and I don’t want to miss out on that.