When I was a graduate student at MIT, I was regularly humbled by the superior brain-power of my classmates. So I expected to be intrigued by how an MIT graduate spent her career building companies not far from its Cambridge campus.
I was not disappointed -- in fact, I learned three important insights from my July 28 interview with Stefania Mallett, who holds a Bachelors and Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT.
The company she co-founded in 2007 is called ezCater which Mallett describes as "the only nationwide marketplace for the $21 billion business catering market. ezCater's online ordering, on-time ratings and reviews, and award-winning, 5-star customer service connect businesspeople to reliable catering for any meeting, anywhere in the United States."
In January 2017, ezCater raised $35 million from ICONIQ Capital, the family office and venture firm associated with Silicon Valley billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, and Insight Venture Partners -- bringing its total capital raised to $70 million, according to Forbes.
Here are three useful takeaways from my interview with her.
1. Find a partner with key skills you lack
In order to build an effective founding team, an entrepreneur must know what skills will be required to make the startup successful. The founder must next assess objectively her strengths and weaknesses and then find a partner who is strong where she is weak.
Mallett has done that. She cofounded ezCater after she and her partner, Briscoe Rodgers -- who she refers to as "the idea guy" -- made an observation while running a previous company, PreferredTime, that helped get enterprise sales people in front of customers.
"We noticed that the sales people needed to bring food into meetings and it was not enough to bring food in just for the individuals they were meeting with. Sales people needed to bring food for everybody," said Mallett.
They decided that they would build ezCater to make that process easier and their partnership seems to have worked.
In June 2017, the cofounders were awarded the EY New England Entrepreneur of the Year award. The award is based largely on a company's growth trajectory -- and EY was evidently impressed that the company had grown from 2 people and no customers to "over 250 employees and partnering with over 50,000 restaurants and caterers serving 23 million businesspeople in all 50 states," according to Mallett.
2. Use technology to create a great experience for customers, suppliers, and staff
If a company's operations make its stakeholders happy, then the company is likely to grow because customers will recommend it to other customers and employees will tell their most talented friends to join the company. Such a virtuous cycle helps a company grow sustainably as I discussed in my book, Disciplined Growth Strategies.
Mallett built ezCater through systems that make life easier for its stakeholders. As she explained, "I learned about how to use technology to deliver great service to employees, vendors, and customers."
3. Locate where you can hire great talent
ezCater is located in a part of downtown Boston in town that used to host the legendary Filene's Basement -- which closed long ago. This Downtown Crossing area offered startups like ezCater a relatively low rent and it's close to public transportation -- making the location a talent magnet.
Indeed changes in the economics of startups make ezCater's location very supportive of its growth. As Mallett explained, "It used to be that you needed to build your own server farms which meant higher capital expenditures and more people. But thanks to the cloud, we don't need those costs. We are a software-enabled service and we need people who can talk to humans. There are a lot of really good people here who are educated -- either with or without degrees. And they bring their brains and their hearts to work."
Mallett credits MIT for giving her can-do attitude which she looks for in people that she hires. As she said, "My parents had four kids -- all of whom went to hotshot schools. When my parents called MIT they got a very different attitude than they did from the other schools. MIT exuded the feeling that you are a good person and there is probably something we can do here to work out whatever problem we may face."