Joel Montaniel shares how SevenRooms improves the restaurant experience for everyone by focusing on the operators
After graduating from Georgetown University, Joel Montaniel worked 100+ hours a week at an NYC investment bank. In his rare free time, he and his friends enjoyed dining at trendy restaurants but were frequently turned away for not having reservations. The only exception to getting a last minute reservation was being recognized as a “regular” by the restaurant staff.
One shouldn’t have to dine often to be considered a valued customer, but they needed to because the data was stored in people’s heads instead of in systems and guest management software. Since hospitality is about making guests feel welcome and valued, guest data was key to unlocking this experience. So Joel set out to fix this problem by helping operators better understand their guests through data.
Eight years later, SevenRooms, now provides a reservation, seating, CRM and guest engagement platform for thousands of restaurant operators around the world, servicing millions of guests every month.
What pain points does SevenRooms solve?
SevenRooms was created with the mission to help operators build the direct relationships with guests that make exceptional experiences possible. The major pain point we came into the industry to solve was operators’ lack of actionable guest data that could enable these exceptional experiences to happen at every guest interaction.
SevenRooms is a one-stop-shop for understanding guests across the guest journey, and engaging with them across each point of this journey from discovery and booking, to in-service experience, to post-visit marketing automation. We help operators enable personalized service and marketing that turns first time guests into regulars all while driving revenue.
How is your solution different from what was already available?
Unlike most of the current solutions, SevenRooms’ platform is designed to help operators own the guest relationship themselves. We are 100% operator focused which enables us to align with our partners and focus solely on their problems. Most reservation platforms are competing with the restaurants to own the guest relationship, wanting to control everything from where guests make a reservation to information around their dining preferences to all the data that accompanies it. As we’ve seen, data is extremely valuable in helping build a relationship with guests, and we want to make sure that this data is in the hands of those that can use it best: the operators.
The restaurant guest management industry has some long established incumbents and a lot of upstarts. How have you maintained your success?
We’ve found success by focusing on a group that most incumbents have long ignored: operators. Most industry incumbents created products that cater to both consumers and operators, but when push came to shove, they prioritized consumers over operators. We never had to make that choice. From day one we focused on making operators’ lives easier, building tools that enable them to provide guests with exceptional experiences.
We also spent a lot of time building relationships with operators and listening to what they need and then delivering on it. We took the time to work in their restaurants (and still do), to put ourselves in their shoes, experiencing their challenges firsthand, and always treat them as a partner. Our open-minded, partner approach expands beyond the owner or operator of a restaurant to the managers, hosts and back-office teams, who are all integral parts of a successful restaurant.
At one point, SevenRooms’ runway was tight and the co-founders decided to temporarily work without pay. What did you learn from the experience?
Working without pay for 6 months and running out of money taught us the valuable lesson of being scrappy and how to maximize every dollar. When your back is against the wall, it forces extreme focus because you don’t have the runway or the time to pick more than one thing. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention.” We decided to bet on continuing to build out restaurant technology and looking back it turned out to be the right decision.
Today, those lessons still stick with us as we choose to invest dollars into areas of the business that will drive long-term value and sustainability. While it’s a great lesson to have had early in our company’s life, it certainly is a scary feeling, so we are extra motivated to not want to end up back in that situation.
What was the most helpful thing an investor did for you and your company?
When we went out to raise our Series A, we were first time founders without experience raising institutional money. We thought we were ready and well prepared but we were not. The very first venture capital investor we met essentially schooled us on all things VC without knowing he was doing so in the process. He asked us questions about our business we had never thought of and asked about data and metrics that we didn’t have ready.
One question I still remember is, “If I were to clone your team and founders and give them twice as much money as you, why would you still win?” We looked like deer in the headlights. In short, he taught us how to fundraise and pushed us to think about our business at a much deeper level. We got lucky that he was our first meeting because every meeting thereafter we were much better prepared. It caused an overall shift in the way we think about our business even outside of fundraising.
What do you know now through the process of building your company that you wish you knew before?
I wish I learned earlier on to take better care of my whole self. Over the past year, I’ve gotten much better at taking care of myself. Truthfully, it enables me to physically and mentally invest more into the business as it continues to grow.
Recently, I started thinking about my mental and physical health like a bank account. There are activities that will be like withdrawals and some that will be deposits. For me, the deposits are going to the gym or seeing friends and family. I’m mindful that if I never make any deposits, I’m operating with a negative balance.
The trick was understanding that one adds to the other and one takes from the other. Maintaining a healthy life outside of work can make you much more productive in work. Once you have that mindset you then have to consciously make time for it, especially in the early days to make it a part of your weekly routine. Flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before you try to help others. Starting and running a business is the same way — it’s very hard to take care of others if you don’t care for yourself first.
SevenRooms announced its first institutional round led by Comcast Ventures in 2017.
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Empowering Restaurants with Data to Elevate the Dining Experience was originally published in The Forecast on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.