When Krystle Mobayeni launched BentoBox--which helps restaurants build state-of-the-art websites--her experience in hospitality was mostly limited to dining out. Today, her startup serves more than 4,500 restaurants worldwide. She's succeeded by persevering through a time she thought her company might lose everything--and because of the great sacrifices her parents made for her. --As told to Zoë Henry
I'm a first-generation American. My parents emigrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1976 so my father could study at American University. They intended to go back, but then the revolution there intensified in 1978, four years before I was born, and they didn't.
My father had been in the Air Force in Iran. My family gave up so much to come here, to provide for me. That's always in the back of my mind. I couldn't settle for being average. I wanted to make my mark.
I've always been excited by hospitality. A lot of first-generation Americans feel this way, I think. You have your one culture at home, another where you go to school, and then there is a third culture you create, to bridge the others. For me, bridging happened in restaurants. Going out to eat was the only experience I had when I was young that made me feel I was bringing my parents into my world.
I started out as a web designer and consultant, and started taking on restaurant clients. I helped restaurants improve their websites. But I couldn't find anything that focused on the specific tools that restaurants need to drive revenue--the ability to take catering orders, sell tickets for a private event, or manage their presence on Google and Facebook. Instead, restaurants were using several different tools--Eventbrite here, WordPress there--which wasted time and cost them a lot of money.
Meanwhile, as technology became more important to dining out, restaurants gave a lot of control to applications like OpenTable and Seamless. While these help restaurants find new customers, they take away that one-to-one relationship that is key to hospitality.
So in 2013, with my co-founder Pierre Drescher, I launched BentoBox, which helps restaurants do all those simple, day-to-day tasks. Except with BentoBox, the clients own every aspect of their relationship with the customer.
The first two years were really tough. There was a period when I considered giving up on a daily basis. We didn't have much financing, and I had gotten feedback that I needed to do a "friends and family" round before a seed round.
I thought, I don't have friends and family who have a bunch of money to just give me.
I also had the misconception that, because we were young and growing, everything had to be built from scratch--rather than automating some part of the process. We were trying to sell technology to become more efficient, but we didn't take our own advice.
Back then, it was just me, an intern, and my co-founder, and we barely paid ourselves. I was doing freelance work on the side to make ends meet--and running up my credit cards.
In the fall of 2015, the year I finally started paying myself, a VC fund I was talking to flagged the financial risks I had taken during the early days of the company--like how I'd run up my credit cards, and been selective about which personal obligations I paid. It was also impossible to get a company credit card--probably for the best--since that depended on my personal credit history.
Because of that, there was a time when I thought that the investment might not happen. I remember having that difficult conversation on the phone with the investor in the middle of a workday, and having to continue meetings with customers, pretending that everything was fine. I couldn't believe that all the risk I took to make this work would be why we didn't succeed. I just wanted to talk about it with someone--but there was no one. Luckily, after some back and forth, we moved forward with that investor. And now we even have company credit cards.
Since then, BentoBox has grown to 125 employees, with 4,500 restaurant clients worldwide, and we have raised around $25 million. In May, my parents came to New York City and visited our office for the first time since the early days. They realized that BentoBox is a pretty large company now. I think they started to get nervous--they were advising me to be careful, not to grow too fast or spend too much. But they are very supportive.
My father now works for his local government, in a very secure but limited position. Entrepreneurship, from my parents' perspective, was an opportunity for me to take my career as far as humanly possible. Starting my company, they say, was the only way for me to truly have freedom and ownership.
Which is exactly what they left Iran to give me.
How BentoBox Gets Bigger
BentoBox serves an industry with notoriously thin margins--net profits for full-service restaurants peaked at only 6.1 percent in 2017, according to Abrigo--which poses challenges for Mobayeni: She needs to coax her company's future success from customers who are often cash-strapped and solo operators.
Her strategy: Start with well-known restaurants and use those marquee names to bring in others. In early 2014, her concerted efforts to woo New York City staples, like those in Danny Meyer's empire (including his company's iconic Gramercy Tavern), paid off and greatly helped her expansion there--which then opened doors in other cities, like Washington, D.C. (with José Andrés's ThinkFoodGroup) and Houston (with H-Town Restaurant Group).
Up next for Mobayeni as she strives to scale: creating a white-label product so other kinds of providers can offer services to restaurants, finding new types of customers (like US Foods, the nation's second-largest food service, which recently inked a deal with BentoBox)--and handling the tricky balancing act between growth and management. "Businesses grow at a certain rate, but people are human, and they grow at a different rate," she says. "Making sure that's aligned is constantly challenging."