Interview with Kevin Tan, Founder & CEO of Snackpass
Authored by Kathy Kong.
Snackpass is a mobile app that lets users order takeout and skip the line. Ever since launching in Berkeley, Snackpass has developed a cult following from dedicated fans who “Snackpass” breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates, and many other food delivery apps in the market, it can be hard to understand what makes Snackpass so special. The secret lies in the social features of the app, which allows users to unlock discounts with friends, send gifts, and collect points. By integrating social + food, Snackpass has baked virality into its platform.
What we’re seeing is the next generation of social startups. Facebook and Snapchat, which were both built by college students for college students, focused on connecting others through status updates and disappearing photos. Snackpass is taking a different route and combining the three things college students love most — eating food, hanging out with friends, and getting as many discounts as possible. In this article, Kevin talks about the early days of Snackpass, his long term vision, and general advice for founders.
Snackpass is hiring — roles in product, operations, engineering, and more!
Snackpass was founded by Kevin in his last semester at Yale — an idea he conceived while sitting in an economics lecture. After building out the first iteration of the app, he met his co-founders — John, who was from his hometown, and Jamie, who had messaged him after using the app. At the time when Snackpass was founded, the startup scene at Yale was almost nonexistent and ironically the one startup accelerator that did exist didn’t accept them. The founders, who didn’t have any capital, relied on hard work and hustle to keep the app alive. In the beginning, they partnered with restaurants by going door to door to mom and pop shops and talking personally with the owners. They also posted a bunch of flyers around campus and created referral mechanisms on the app to get the word out.
Q: What were the early days of Snackpass like?
Kevin: “It was definitely tough as a business — we were a little overwhelmed because we didn’t have any funding. Especially when we launched, 40% of the campus started using it in the middle of 2017 and it kept growing and growing, and we had to build a bunch of things really quickly — like having a tablet in the restaurant for ordering, a ticket printer, etc.
One time, we were overrun by the entire football team ordering at once — so they [cofounders] were in the back washing blenders so that the employees could keep taking orders. There was also one really popular restaurant where, because it was so busy, we were in the back handing out sandwiches and calling out names. We eventually figured all that stuff out but it was definitely tough in the beginning — and it still is tough.”
Q: How has Snackpass evolved over time?
Kevin: “The first version was a website — it wasn’t even an app. It was called Happy Hour and it had a few student discounts on it — that was about it. We added takeout because some restaurants didn’t have delivery and we wanted to add more restaurants. We quickly realized that people really liked the takeout aspect and liked it even more than the discount. And the social part was interesting — we had something that people used but wasn’t spreading very fast or talked about. We wanted to find a way to make it a social/viral product, and at the time there was a girl I had a crush on who really liked this place called Tropical Smoothie, so I was trying to think of a way to impress her and send her something on the app like a gift.”
Q: How are you dealing with other food delivery/takeout apps and restaurants that are creating their own apps?
Kevin: “I think the main group we’re doing this for is people standing in line because if you look around, most people aren’t using take out apps anyways. They’re just ordering it in person. So I think that’s the challenge we’re focused on. I don’t think that doing takeout really changes the game; in fact, some of them have had takeout for a while — like Grub Hub — and it hasn’t really caught on. First, we’re targeting college campuses — it’s a lot easier to get word of mouth and the markets themselves are more walkable. And then I think long term, the approach of combining the social aspect will make it something that helps you get food with friends — that’s ultimately the market strategy.
I think the large chains in particular will be hard to partner with for anyone — you need to have a large national presence, which is why we targeted the mom and pop shops. That being said, we do partner with a lot of franchisees like Subway, Papa Johns, and Jamba Juice. And even though they have apps, it doesn’t mean that people are using them. What we can provide that they don’t have is a customer base.”
Q: What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Kevin: “The biggest challenge at the moment is the transition from building a product to building a team. It is definitely a different muscle; building a product is like locking yourself up in the room and coding all day, talking to your users, or building something for yourself — you know exactly what you want to build, which is great for the invention aspect. But what I think we have right now is this product market fit in several markets; so now we want to scale it and bring Snackpass to 100 campuses and right now we’re at 11 campuses, and that takes a huge team. That’s all pretty challenging so I quickly learned some of the best practices for hiring and building a team. I’m certainly not an expert yet but definitely focused on learning.”
Q: What is the long term vision for Snackpass?
Kevin: “There are two angles — first, anywhere there’s a person standing in line to buy something — that’s a problem we want to solve. And then another angle is that anytime you’re buying something by yourself you can use Snackpass to buy it with your friend or get your friends’ recommendation.”
Q: Any advice for founders who are looking to raise?
Kevin: “I do think that obviously some businesses need a lot of capital like biotech or very operation heavy companies. But for consumer, people don’t need that much money. I think right now people come up with the idea, raise money, and then build it, when they should really come up with the idea, build it, test it, and if it works out, then they can optionally raise money if they want to. But it’s really not about the money — it’s about what you’re solving and what value you’re creating for people.”
Q: Any general advice for student founders?
Kevin: “I think if you don’t have product market fit or are validating your hypothesis, I would say building something you want yourself or at least people around you or people you know very well is really important because that way you can iterate quickly on what people actually like. If you have a product, try selling it. You’ll quickly learn whether people want it or not — I think that’s the biggest risk you face in the beginning. And then later on you can worry about doing things like building a company. Later you learn things like getting an EA, leveraging your time better, and scaling yourself by bringing people on you can fully trust — but that’s a different phase”
Snackpass is hiring — open roles in product, marketing, operations, and more!
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The FreeV Spotlight and article were written and edited by Kathy Kong, from the FreeV Internal Team. Feel free to email email@example.com if have any questions or want to get involved with FreeV!