Everyone has heard one: The so-obscure-it-might-just-be-true excuse when a potential paramour bails on plans. For Nik Kundra, the excuse he heard from one woman was "I'm stuck at my restaurant  job all night doing inventory."

In fairness to said woman, Kundra bought the excuse. And then he started thinking: This "inventory" thing might be a real, unnecessary, time suck.

Kundra, then a student of entrepreneurship at the University of Florida in Gainesville, decided to dedicate some of his free time to extracurricular research. "I started bar-backing and bartending and seeing for myself how inventory affected the bottom line," he says.

Yes, not only did he take part-time jobs in the name of startup R&D, but he also spent his off-hours barhopping, in a sense. He ended up interviewing--by his recollection--more than 800 different bar owners, managers, bartenders, and sommeliers. In this fashion, between 2011 and 2013, Kundra educated himself in the fundamentals of liquor inventory. 

"The same reason you count the cash at the end of the night is the reason you count the liquid cash sitting on the bar," he says. While most every bar or restaurant patron knows that high margins on booze are often what keeps an establishment afloat, they might not consider that losing inventory--because of employee theft or just overgenerous pours--can sink one.

Using a bit of capital contributed by family members, Kundra assembled a small team and coded a prototype app. He pitched it to nine bars, a handful of them in Gainesville, and Antoine's in New Orleans. Antoine's, a New Orleans classic, which claims to be the city's oldest Creole fine-dining establishment, has a massive bar--so large that, according to Kundra, it had been taking six employees four hours each to inventory all of the bottles and their contents. When the restaurant started using his app, the same process took one employee just three hours.

Brothers and sisters

Kundra saw that and other data from his testers as proof of concept. If he could save bars time, and eventually also help them save money with advice on loss-prevention and menu-pricing adjustments, they would certainly pay to use his app. He called it Partender, a portmanteau of "bartender" and "par level," a term used to indicate the minimum level of inventory an establishment needs in stock to meet demand at any given time.

Today, Partender is used by 15,000 bars and restaurants. Some use an unpaid trial version, but most pay a monthly subscription that ranges from $299 to $499. To understand how the company has succeeded, you must first understand the involvement of two women: Anjali Kundra (yes, the same Kundra; she's Nik's older sister) and an investor named Arielle Zuckerberg (yes, that Zuckerberg).

The elder Kundra's influence began when Nik was studying neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta while she was pursuing a master's in entrepreneurship at Gainesville. She adored the program so much that she implored her younger brother to ditch his studies and apply. Despite protest from their parents--both doctors who had not-so-secretly hoped their three children would study medicine--he did.

Once he moved to Florida, Anjali, who is now 30, enlisted Nik, who is now 26, in local Startup Weekend hackathons. Their team was chosen to represent their city in a global entrepreneurship conference in Rio de Janeiro. There, Anjali found herself talking with investor and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure. She was flattered that he seemed to prefer talking to her than being pitched by other attendees, she says. "He was like, 'Hey, can you sit down here and block me from people trying to pitch me?'" she recalls. Then she texted her brother, telling him to come over to join them. Lucky enough, he was wearing his Partender T-shirt, and it wasn't long before McClure asked about it.

Within a year, the co-founders were accepted into McClure's 500 Startups incubator and won additional seed funding for their company. With that, Partender, and the Kundras, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 2013. The following spring, they launched in Apple's app store. (With that app, at the end of a night a bar employee can monitor the booze level in every bottle with the swipe of a finger.) And Anjali and Nik's younger sister, Monica, 22, came out to help with publicity and partnerships.

A tough customer--and a big connection

Still, Nik was finding customers the old-fashioned way: By pounding the pavement, visiting bars, having a drink, and befriending the bartender or manager on duty. He'd done so at Palomino, a restaurant on the Embarcadero popular with tourists and locals. But the bar manager, Vlad Stadnik, was resistant to incorporating more technology into an already cumbersome process.

By the time the Kundras were trying to piece together funding, in late 2014, an employee of Partender pulled Nik aside and said he'd gone to school with Arielle Zuckerberg--and thought, maybe, she'd like to invest.

Kundra invited Zuckerberg--who now works at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers--to Palomino. He showed her Partender, explaining how it helps bar managers do inventory accounting and also tweak their menu to accurately cover costs. He said her feedback about the app was that it was "so simple and clean." She could see how anyone could use it, he said.

She wasn't the only one listening. Vlad, the Palomino manager Kundra had been courting, had been eavesdropping while waiting on a nearby table. He  decided he wanted to try Partender at Palomino--and before long left the bar to join Partender's staff. Today, he helps the company, which has fewer than 20 employees, manage sales and product.

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, invested in an extension of Partender's seed funding round in 2014, and later put in more funding, for a total of about $50,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was one of six investments she made before joining Kleiner Perkins in 2015.

Then, as Nik tells it, roughly a year later, he got a call from Zuckerberg (who declined interview requests for this story). "She said, 'Hey! I'm a little embarrassed to do this, but I was at dinner and I was talking to my parents about Partender, and they want to know more.'"

"I run Partender with two of my sisters. Of course, I will make it work!" he says he thought. But then getting on the phone with them--well, they used Facebook video--was nerve-racking. "I talked with her parents for over an hour. I think I was more nervous to meet them than to meet Arielle. Parents!"

Kundra remembers telling the Zuckerbergs the story of how he got the idea: From a girl he thought was avoiding hanging out with him. They laughed. They asked what it was like to work with family. He said he and his sisters fought, occasionally--but just like when they were kids, they always knew how to make up.

With that, Zuckerberg's parents invested. And the Kundra children recently threw their own parents a bone: Monica, the youngest, decided to leave Silicon Valley and return to medical school (which she had for the past year taken a deferment on). "I had gotten a few angry calls from my parents about that!" Nik said. She will be attending University of Miami medical school this fall.

Published on: Aug 10, 2016