While many young tech entrepreneurs dream of sunny California or coffee-loving Seattle, computer sciences alumnus Eric Martell (B.S. ’12) is happy to look out his office window and see Lake Monona rather than the San Francisco Bay.
Martell (pictured at left) has shepherded EatStreet, the startup he cofounded, from its humble beginnings in a cramped student apartment to spacious lakefront offices in downtown Madison. And while Silicon Valley has its allure—and potential backers from America’s tech capital urged the young company to relocate—the suburban Milwaukee native has chosen to remain near his alma mater. “Our story belongs in Madison,” he says. “It’s a product of the university and the culture here.”
Martell is chief operating officer of EatStreet, a food-delivery website that provides a single point through which users can order from a smorgasbord of restaurants in their area. Whether you want pizza in Pittsburgh or barbecue in Kalamazoo, EatStreet can satisfy your craving with a few clicks online or a smartphone app. Co-founder Matt Howard (B.S.’11, pictured at right), an economics and political science grad, serves as CEO, while a third co-founder, Alex Wyler, worked for Facebook for a time yet has returned full-time to EatStreet.
Only a few years ago, lakefront offices and being wooed by venture capitalists were not on Martell’s radar. But now, EatStreet has attracted a total of $6.2 million in investment, including a $400,000 infusion from Great Oaks Venture Capital, a firm founded by UW School of Business grad Andy Boszhardt, Jr. (BBA’78, MBA’80).
In its infancy, EatStreet was called BadgerBites.com and focused on Madison only. The expansion to other markets came later, as did the development of a full-fledged content management system for restaurants. No longer just a site for diners to order food, EatStreet strives to be a one-stop solution for restaurants and their online needs, from building a website of their own to receiving orders through social media channels.
Martell, Howard and Wyler tested their concept through the Department of Computer Sciences’ NEST contest (NEST for Emerging Software Technologies) and the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition in the School of Business. Other UW-Madison resources, such as the Law School’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, further helped the EatStreet team develop their real-world business skills.
The annual NEST contest, spearheaded by Professor of Computer Sciences Jignesh Patel, encourages creative software development among undergraduates. Teams work on specific projects, leading up to a demo day complete with faculty judges and cash prizes. While Badger Bites placed third in the 2011 contest, its creators gleaned valuable feedback that helped them refine their concept. The team also journeyed from last place to first in two different attempts at the Burrill Business Plan Competition.
The willingness of the EatStreet team to cope with problems, rejigger their ideas and try, try again has been key to their success. “NEST and the business competition helped us identify weaknesses in our technology and our business model,” says Martell, who is refreshingly candid about hurdles along the way.
Says Martell, “With every roadblock along the way, the first thing we tried to do was take a step back and say ‘why is this occurring?’ and put a positive spin on it. The reason we’re in this position is because we’re growing. Then you put your head down and figure out a solution. In the last three years, I’ve learned so much about computer science and about running a business.”
Last October, Martell shared some of those lessons by speaking to students in “Starting a Software Company,” a new course co-taught by Paul Barford and Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau.
EatStreet now runs localized sites in 50 cities, providing a gateway to 3,500 restaurants. It’s quite an accomplishment for something that was never intended to provide a career for Martell and Howard, as well as their 75 full- and part-time employees. “The three of us never anticipated doing this as a living when we started this as juniors in college,” says Martell.
Martell credits his top-notch computer sciences education at UW-Madison with building a “fantastic foundation” for his professional life. “I think what CS taught me most was critical thinking skills. When you hit the ground, you have to learn a lot on the fly. What CS has done for me is sharpen my problem-solving ability so that I could learn these things,” Martell says.
Faculty members such as Patel, Barford and Arpaci-Dusseau continue to provide both formal and informal advice to EatStreet. Martell and his colleagues have also been able to draw upon the expertise of CS Board of Visitors members such as Ramu Sunkara (M.S.’87), the co-founder of video-sharing service Qik, among other ventures. More and more, the UW-Madison computer sciences department is helping students translate bright ideas into real-world ventures. That takes not just a deep understanding of technology, but of the broader marketplace and the myriad legal and financial questions a business owner must confront.
The EatStreet team is proud to be a part of Madison’s burgeoning tech scene. Another startup, Abodo.com, shares space with EatStreet , and the two staffs enjoy camaraderie (especially, one imagines, in the break room with a massive TV, ping-pong tables and shimmering lake views). Many EatStreet staffers are fellow UW graduates, and that’s just as Martell likes it. “We have the highest class of employee coming right out of the university here,” says Martell.
[Photo credit: Joe Koshollek]