Last year, The Mid-Atlantic Venture Capital Association (MAVA) moved from Georgetown to a stunning shared-space near the Farragut North Metro stop in the heart of DC’s Golden Triangle (BID). Maybe it’s the new view, but it seems that TechBuzz keeps getting better.
Here’s a close up of one of the companies that got a nod from half of the investor panel for addressing both hospitality business food purchaser and vendor in one intuitive platform. (Update 8/9/15: Congrats on raising $4 million series A from Blue Run Ventures! Update 10/30/2015: Improvonia is now BlueCart and free for both buyers and suppliers.)
The Company: Improvonia – Ordering Made Simple
Co-founders Konstantin Zvereff, CEO, and Jag Bansal started Improvonia as a project while students at Georgetown’s MBA program. “It was originally built for Sweetgreen,” said Konstantin. The co-founders had “met at school and bonded over their early experiences working in kitchens,” Jag explains. “We were waiters, I was a dishwasher in high school.”
Konstantin says he worked as an “expeditor” for serving at a high-end restaurant in Northern Virginia. That is how he knew how to work in an environment where occasionally plates were thrown and knives pointed in your direction. He turned that skill into several interesting entrepreneurial endeavors.
Fixing a broken communication chain
The team was inspired to create a platform to better connect the buyers and vendors of the hospitality industry. Legacy systems consisted of leaving a bunch of telephone order messages and returning missed calls separately, for every food and beverage vendor for restaurants and resorts. Buyers spent their mornings waiting for vendors to return their telephone calls to confirm their orders.
Communications in this industry are too loosely connected considering the affordable technology available to aggregate and streamline food orders with all vendors. What sets the solution apart is that it was developed for both sides of the transaction: buyer and seller.
“We ended up winning local and national competitions and then Georgetown flew us to Canada to compete in business school competitions,” says Konstantin, who says the successes along the way encouraged him to go all in. Industry feedback was good.
Konstantin’s background was part of his inspiration
“I lived in Uganda for three years running a nonprofit organization focused on micro-enterprise development in rural areas,” he explains. “We could see that farmers, rural agribusinesses, lacked the infrastructure to compete with the big guys.”
His gut instinct was that it would be ethical to help quality producers succeed by helping to create that infrastructure.
How their sales strategies evolved
Currently, buyers and vendors have the incentive to share Improvonia with each other. That’s the 1:1 referral secret that Konstantin says helped the company achieve its high user growth.
What is significant is why they strategy changed. In the first quarter, July – October, the team went after restaurants. “We were shooting for 16 and got 159 just by walking the streets in DC and telling them about the platform. Instead of adding 159 users, we grew to over 1,000 second quarter,” said Konstantin, “and we switched to the vendor focus.”
Refining the Approach
The team realized that the biggest bottle necks were vendors sitting on the platform that people didn’t use. In February 2015, they released a new invitation-only version that enables restaurants that are not registered on the program to start transacting with any vendor.
In the next three years, the co-founders plan to put Improvonia into the hands of every single chef and decision-maker in the hospitality industry. The challenge is how to activate people as fast as possible so they can spread its use.
“The more buyers a given vendor has on the platform, the more useful it becomes to understand purchasing patterns and other data based on time, users, and buyers,” says Konstantin. “It is remarkable that we’ve been doubling our aggregate order numbers from July to the end of December 2014.”
Improvonia has learned to balance different investor priorities on the East vs. West Coast. The company uses a separate pitch deck for each coast.
It’s been fascinating to see what different investors care about, Konstantin observes:
“There are different sets of priorities for East Coast vs. West Coast venture investors. East Coast investors are really focused on how much revenue you have today. West Coast investors want to know more about user engagement and growth, not financials. Balancing the two different sets of priorities is complex. While a West Coast investor might view selling sponsored ads as a way to supplement growth, a team on the East Coast might think that’s a terrible idea.”
Improvonia has already been approached by other verticals, such as dental and veterinary practices that have a fragmented communications channel. Improvonia could be used to help streamline their ordering process, but not now. The team remains focused on the food/hospitality sector.
Tell your favorite hospitality chains, independents, caterers, to start using Improvonia.