How to Scale Your Startup: Q&A with BentoBox Co-Founder & CEO Krystle Mobayeni
Delicious food and drink weren’t the only thing on the menu at Knotel’s Taste of Midtown event. Rachel Meranus, Knotel’s Chief Marketing Officer, served up an informative conversation with Krystle Mobayeni, the Co-Founder and CEO of BentoBox — an online platform that allows restaurants to streamline customer interfacing and strengthen their direct relationships with customers to drive revenue. BentoBox is one of Knotel’s strongest client partners.
The synergy between these two brands was on full display during Rachel and Krystle’s exchange. The pair discussed the ways flexible real estate options contribute to long-term risk reduction, the importance of scaling incrementally, and most significantly of all: how the organic, intimate relationship between the two brands allowed BentoBox’s company culture to flourish.
Read the transcript of their conversation below:
Rachel: Welcome to the Taste of Midtown. My name is Rachel and I’m the CMO of Knotel. We are very happy to have you all. Not only are we here to enjoy the fabulous tastes of Midtown, but also to learn about how businesses are future-proofing themselves by investing in intelligent real estate strategies. We’ll be talking to the CEO and Co-Founder of BentoBox, Krystle Mobayeni, in a minute, but first I just wanted to take a brief moment and tell you a little bit about Knotel.
Knotel is a real estate technology company. We are focused on creating agile headquarters for established and growing businesses. We do is take the headache out of your real estate strategy by removing the distractions and constraints of long-term leases, costly build-outs, and facilities management. We work not only with growing companies like BentoBox, but also with established businesses.
Growing companies like BentoBox need agility and flexibility to plan their growth without getting locked into long-term leases. Established businesses need the ability to compete in this innovative market and create office spaces where they can quickly ideate and develop new products. We have over sixty spaces and over one million square feet of real estate in New York, San Francisco, London and Berlin.
What we are not is coworking, shared space, or a conference-room-for-rent brand. We help businesses like BentoBox create their own cultures.
With all that being said, Krystle, can you tell us a little bit about BentoBox?
Krystle: BentoBox is a platform that helps restaurants grow their business online. We do that through a connective suite of tools focused around their website. As technologies became more important in the dining out experience, restaurants grew frustrated that the technology provided to them was actually driving a wedge between the restaurant and the guests. The restaurant guests end up developing relationships with these third-party services and apps rather than the restaurants themselves.
Seeing as the guest-restaurant relationship is the most important aspect of hospitality, we decided to solve this problem. A restaurant’s website is one of the places where the establishment have total control of their brand and the experience. What we do at BentoBox is give restaurants a home online that helps them connect with their guests directly. Not only does BentoBox allow restaurants to communicate their brand message more effectively, but it also drives revenue by selling gift cards, selling tickets, taking catering orders, and taking private event requests and deposits. We’re actually making an impact on a restaurant’s bottomline.
Rachel: How long has BentoBox been around?
Krystle: We launched the first version of the platform in 2013 but we didn’t really start growing the company until 2015. Now we’re at 2,000 restaurants all over the world. We started with three employees. By the end of the first year we had ten. Now, we have about fifty-five people, but we’re growing fast. By the end of the year, we’ll probably have about ninety.
Rachel: In the early days of BentoBox, you were clearly focused on creating the best brand and product that you could. How did real estate play into your decision making at that point?
Krystle: Building a company, you take every day as it comes. You really don’t know whats going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to close that round, you don’t know if you’re going to get to that customer or that revenue number. Our real estate strategy was one of “no commitment,” but we wanted a space that was ours. We didn’t want to be flopping around from one shared space to another.
Rachel: Why were you wary of commitment in the real estate arena?
Krystle: It’s really a balancing act. You want a space that you can grow in, yet you’re not really ready to pay for the space that you’re going to grow into in six to twelve months. The scariest thing ever is getting into a five year lease and getting stuck not really knowing what’s going to happen. We avoided that at all costs.
Rachel: I want to follow up on something you just said. You mentioned the importance of having your own company space, as opposed to inhabiting a co-working space. Can you elaborate on that?
Krystle: When you’re paying for co-working spaces, there are other people that may annoy you, furniture you would’ve never picked out. Those things make an impact on your culture. There are things you want to fix that you can’t quite fix. There are things you want but can’t get. We have this amazing balance now where we have the support we need so we can focus on what matters.
For example, we have a bar in our office. It’s our bar, we picked it out, decided how it would look and stocked the liquor. Knotel helped create that for us. Because we serve the restaurant industry, the bar feels perfect and truly ours.
Rachel: Talk about your decision making process as you moved between spaces?
Krystle: When we thought about getting our own space, we had a new head of business operations who explored all of our options. Although she came across spaces that looked affordable on paper, when we considered the cost of WiFi, of painters, of building the space out, and hiring a person to take care of the space, it made no sense. Most of all, it was going to be a distraction that took away time from building products. We would have gone from building our product to building an actual office. Thats not our business. Nothing should distract you from building your company. You can’t get that time back.
Rachel: So what’s next for BentoBox?
Krystle: We really want to make a technology that powers every interaction between restaurant and guest. Whatever technology is powering that interaction, whether websites or Alexa, that’s where we want our toolbox to be. Yet always in an invisible way, because it’s always going to be about the restaurant’s brand. That’s whats really important to us.
Rachel: Lastly, you’ve had this experience with flexible office space. Yet a lot of established companies are also starting up innovation labs. Do you have a real estate strategy for bigger companies and how they can stay competitive in this environment?
Krystle: That’s a good question. In order for a company to compete, it needs to make sure that it not only has a space where they can start quickly and see what happens over the next three, six, nine months, but also have a space that attracts the right kind of talent. The kind of talent who really cares about the brand experience. Being able to create a modern, warm environment that feels fresh is both important and something that can be done in a flexible space.
Rachel: Great. Thank you so much. Let’s open this discussion up to the audience for questions.
Audience: How did you select your space?
Krystle: First, let me tell you about the trajectory of us and Knotel. We first started in a Knotel space when our company was fifteen people. That was a more shared situation: we were in a place where there were other companies. Over time, we got so large that we moved to another floor of that building. The entire floor of that building is ours and that’s where we are now. Being able to transition like that without disrupting what was happening with our company made a huge impact on our business.
When we went to that floor, we spent a couple of weeks with designers looking at different pieces of furniture that would fit our brand and what we were looking for and considering what our logo mark would look like on the wall. We developed mood boards and went back and forth. Now we’re outgrowing that space and moving to another space a couple blocks away. So now we’re starting that process of actually filling out the space and making choices all over again.
Audience: What sets BentoBox’s relationship with Knotel apart from other business relationships that BentoBox has developed?
Krystle: The thing that’s different is that we have a monthly call with someone from Knotel. They understand the business and the workflow projections so we’re always in touch. It feels like a true partnership.
Audience: Have other coworking organizations prospected for your business? What has your experience been there?
Krystle: I’ve been in a couple of other coworking spaces throughout my career. I’ll be totally frank with you: we looked at options other than Knotel, but there was just no comparison. With other organizations I could tell the spaces would never feel like our space. There was no talk of design consultation or what would be interesting to us. It was always ‘this is what it is, take it how it is.’ That wasn’t really going to work for us.
Audience: What were the most important things to you in making this business decision?
Krystle: Price is important but really, when you add up the economics of having a space that doesn’t have the services included, it ends up costing maybe the same, maybe a little more. The thing that you don’t get back is your time. You can always raise more money. You can always cut costs in different ways, but you can never get back that time. If our lightbulb goes out, we don’t need to fix it ourselves. Those are little things but they all add up.
I see Knotel more as a partner in real estate as we grow. I know that they are committed to being there for our growth, so even if we get into something more long-term, they’re committed to accommodating us. It’s flexible, but flexible in a very different way from a month to month thing. Knotel is available to accommodate our growth, which makes the relationship feel so much more like a partnership.
Rachel: Also, since we’re a subscription service, should Krystle need to pick up and move to California and find a home in another Knotel space, then her subscription continues and the processes would be the same. That’s the idea of flexibility that we’ve built into the Knotel proposition.
On that note, one last question for you: if you were to have chosen a different route with your space management, how different would your costs have been? How many employees are you saving on by having a flexible partner?
Krystle: I’ll tell you the way I looked at it. I talked to a lot of people regarding services and construction and furniture. If I looked at a space that didn’t have all that built in, I added twenty percent to the rent. Then I added one or two people to manage that space depending on its size. That all added up to probably a hundred thousand dollars, which is not insignificant.