Law School or Waffles?
It started innocently enough, move-in day at the University of Virginia. I found a young Steve Huffman playing Gran Turismo 2 on his PS2.
We became fast friends after exchanging childhood stories of video games, Star Wars, and other geekery. As I worked through three years of history and business majors, fretting over my GPA as I looked toward law school, I realized I was having more fun doing independent research on Soviet propaganda techniques than doing practice LSATs. The epiphany would finally come at a Waffle House after my friend Jack and I walked out of a Kaplan review class mid-exam to get waffles. We didn't want to be lawyers. We wanted waffles.
No, I Think I’ll Start a Business
The only logical next step was to start a company. Independence was appealing, as well as owning every success and failure, but I wasn't going to be able to start reddit -- let alone any software company -- by myself (unless reddit was to be a static website where users emailed me links and votes that I'd update by hand).
That's where Steve, a Computer Science major, came in. He'd always been fond of ideas for technical solutions to everyday problems that we'd bullshit about over pizza or beer, or pizza and beer. And in my typical exuberance, I'd riff about ways we could make them into businesses. The one we liked the most was a way to order takeout food from your phone (it's worth noting that this was 2004).
An Idea is Born and Reborn
Steve was inspired by a routine frustration he had at a local gas station called Sheetz. They had the foresight to install touchscreen ordering at their deli (no human to interact with, just construct your, say, veggie sub with extra hots, and swipe a credit card), but you still couldn't order it until after you filled your tank and went inside. All that time spent pumping gas was time an order could have been placed and made in time for you to deftly pick it up while going in to pay.
Of course, this could be applied to any business where you've been stuck waiting in line for an order -- especially frustrating if you know exactly what you want, ordered it many times before, and that person in front of you has instructions that come with a table of contents, but I digress. Imagine if you could have placed that mocha frappuchino order five blocks away from your Starbucks so that it's waiting when you arrive. You tell them your username, last name, or maybe the last 4 digits of your phone number, and they hand you the drink, you leave. And it won't be long after your less savvy fellow customers learn from those customers who effortlessly walk in and pickup their orders.
This is the idea I had in my head on the way to Singapore the summer before our senior year. I'd had an NYC internship lined up with Ogilvy PR, when Professor Mark White invited me to compete in a "technopreneurship" symposium in Singapore as a member of the University of Virginia team. And it'd be all expenses paid. The decision wasn't too hard to make, but it couldn't have been more fortunate. Here's the email I sent Steve on July 11, 2004.
Excuse all the ellipses, typos, and the lack of punctuation; my well-ingrained US touch typing wasn't playing well with the keyboard layouts in Singapore, so I got lazy.
hey bro, i'm in singapore at this technepreneurial seminar, and am basically spending a week learning how to create a tech start-up.
i spoke to Mark White (a professor in the comm school, the guy who took me to South Africa, and who recruited me to come here, as well as a generally good guy and technophile) over some drinks last nite, and pitched him on our idea...
from his feedback -- and let me remind you that he gets pitches every couple of months from students, and was very candid and honest with his thoughts, but basically said it was one of the best he's heard, period. Not only that, but he wants to be on the board of directors, and already knows some people to hit up for starting capital... I've got plenty of more details, but I am seriously considering putting off law school for this, but i need you, and we'll both need to be doing this full time for about a year to get it off the ground....
but the potential he saw was in the millions my friend...
we need to talk
i am coming back the 20th so if we could have lunch around 1pm i could meet you whereever you'd like... let me know.
honestly, this is the kind of thing that could change our lives - and his motivation has really spurred me.
but i need you and the same kind of commitment.
For the next year, I'd research competitors, speak with restaurateurs, and even incorporate our company - redbrick solutions, LLC. But we made a fateful change thanks to something Steve's girlfriend (now wife) found while she was browsing the web... (Dramatic ellipses; more to come next week.)