Online catering marketplace ezCater is not your typical unicorn--if the fact you've perhaps never heard its name doesn't make that readily apparent. 

For one thing, the company is based not in Silicon Valley, but rather in Boston. Its founder isn't a young man armed with an MBA, it's Stefania Mallett, a veteran executive who is now 63. Nevertheless, ezCater--an online marketplace for catered meal delivery--is valued at $1.25 billion following a $150 million funding round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners in April. The business has doubled sales eight years running--and if it does so again in 2020, it'll hit $1 billion in orders. 

Mallett has run or been a board member of nearly a dozen organizations, bringing engineering skills--she has degrees from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science--and a customer-focused approach. By the mid-2000s, she was working with co-founder Briscoe Rodgers as CEO of PreferredTime, a company that helped pharmaceutical sales representatives get face time with doctors to pitch their products. One of the most effective ways of doing that, they found, was helping the reps order food to a hospital or doctors' office.

"Doctors are extremely busy. But what we found was they are also a little too polite to grab the food and run, so they will stand there while you give your pitch," Mallett says. "It buys you 90 seconds to talk while they are stuffing some food in their face."

Mallett and Rodgers couldn't help wondering if a catering platform, one that would help sales reps across industries make delicious meals appear at their would-be clients' offices, could scale. In 2007, they abandoned PreferredTime and founded ezCater, without a staff or proper office. They each had a Boston-area home; they chose to work out of Mallett's because her dining-room table was larger.

The founders also envisioned that a platform that connected local restaurants to offer large, shared trays of food--rather than, say, individually packaged sandwiches--would have applications beyond just sales calls. "Turns out, the formula also works for feeding hungry Millennials at tech companies," Mallett says. 

EzCater launched quietly in two test markets, its home of Boston and Greensboro, North Carolina. (The latter was a large enough city to be a legitimate test bed, but small enough that it could let the company fix problems without causing a huge flap.) It wasn't magic at first, because Mallett and Rodgers needed both sellers--restaurants willing to fulfill large orders--and buyers. "We tried at first to push both those rocks up the hill at roughly the same rate," Mallett says.

An aha! moment came in the first year. To find customers, first they needed to offer more catering options. They worked fast, and went from just more than 1,000 restaurants on ezCater to some 20,000 in three months. Customers followed. "If you are selling things people want, they will find you," Mallett says. 

National expansion started in 2011, fueled by venture capital investments. To date, ezCater has raised nearly $320 million. The funding also has allowed the company to begin to expand internationally, thanks to acquisitions of a software firm in Vancouver that also ran a catering platform, and a corporate-catering firm in Paris.

Now the company has 750 employees, with about 450 in Boston, 200 in Denver, and the other 100 split between Vancouver and Paris. "We've outgrown my house--though I still go home to that house every night and think, yup, it started here!" Mallett says.

Despite the fast growth, the company has tried to develop an easygoing culture based on camaraderie and experimentation. EzCater orders breakfast on Monday and lunch on Thursdays for its Boston staff, using its own platform of course. New hires and interns are tasked with placing the orders, to learn how to use the system--and potentially spot pain points or to help come up with new features.

Growth is still the top metric on Mallett's mind. She says ezCater is somewhat hesitant to make another acquisition, though, because "virtually all of the companies we are looking to acquire are growing slower than us--so they would slow our growth." Mallett, who has taken companies public in the past, adds that ezCater could be ready by 2021 to consider an IPO--but with plenty of money in the bank from its past two venture rounds, there's no pressure to do so.

"Success breeds options," she says. "We've gotten to a place we can make our own choices."

Published on: Jul 30, 2019