How did she do it? A Q&A with Krystle Mobayeni, CEO of BentoBox

Jo Ann Corkran, managing partner of Golden Seeds

November 30, 2017

Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate women entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How did she do it?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.

Today, Jo Ann Corkran, managing partner of Golden Seeds and board observer of BentoBox, interviews Krystle Mobayeni, CEO and co-founder of BentoBox. Below, they discuss how Mobayeni launched her company, which offers restaurants beautiful, mobile-friendly websites that drive revenue and customers — complete with a simple, hospitality-focused management system, hosting and exceptional customer support.

JC: Tell us about the origins of your company.

KM: I’ve been working in web and digital my entire career, first at ad agencies in New York, and then at my own boutique firm. As a consultant, I worked with a lot of clients in industries from fashion to nonprofits to the financial sector and more. When I took on a project with a well-known restaurant in New York, I learned how deep their pain points around online presence were. The web platforms available at the time did not solve restaurants’ specific pain points, and they were costly to customize. I realized it would be more affordable and effective to build a platform from scratch that addressed these needs. That was when my co-founder, Pierre Drescher, and I put together the first version of BentoBox, back in 2013. We launched with two well-known New York restaurants as our first customers.

JC: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?

KM: Technology has become so much more important in the dining out experience, but over the past 10 years, restaurants didn’t have the ability to translate the experience they provide in the brick-and-mortar world to the online one. They were busy running restaurants, and they didn’t have the technology backgrounds to do the work. Yelp, Seamless and other third-party platforms provided these tools, but restauranteurs didn’t want to give up the one-to-one relationship with their guests. They wanted a place online where they could translate their own restaurant experience, cultivate relationships with guests online and drive revenue instead of relying on third-party systems. Their websites are the only places they can retain total control of their brands and experience.

Before BentoBox, most restaurants couldn’t even update their seasonal menus without hiring consultants, never mind sell tickets to events, offer gift cards, take catering orders and more. BentoBox provides all of that in one place, where restaurants can get to know their customers and all of the ways they interact with the brand. For the owner or general manager who is wearing many hats, we make it easy to automate all of these things and turn them into marketers without any heavy lifting.

The return on investment (ROI) is clear to our customers. What is the cost of losing a customer? That resonates. If someone goes to your website and can’t find your menu, what does that cost you? For restaurants that use our revenue-generating features, they see six or seven times the ROI on what they pay to BentoBox.

JC: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?

KM: Early on, we did some non-scalable things, but I stand by them and think they were important. For example, we did a lot of custom work, but it was the best way to learn the specific customer needs. In terms of sales, we started with top restaurant groups, which required a lot of effort to close, but that got us the brands that helped solidify our expertise and place in the market. Our model evolved into a more templated approach and process, but we’re happy we didn’t do that right off the bat — we would have built the wrong thing. Spending all that time with the customer and doing that work early on showed us the commonalities and where we could be systematic to grow a scalable business.

JC: Did you know from the beginning you would seek funding?

KM: We made a conscious choice to seek funding, so we could build a business that scales quickly, ramp up the sales team early and move quickly to capture as many restaurants as possible. It was the right choice. Even to this day, we have competitors for different features, but we don’t have an obvious direct competitor.

We got feedback early on that this was a lifestyle business, and it seemed like we were running an agency rather than creating a product, but it was always clear to me that we could move out of that. I think being a female CEO played into that perception. That has always been a challenge. My approach to that whole problem is just making sure we’re building the best business possible and we’re as successful as can be. The only way to make a huge change and impact is to show undeniable, quantifiable success, which is what we’re focused on, and showing that there can be a different style of leadership that creates an environment people love working in. That’s what we’re focused on, and we’re in it for the long game.

JC: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?

KM: Our customer has primarily been restaurants, and many restaurants have relationships with designers, developers and agencies that work on their menus and websites. Our initiative in the next year is to create a platform from which those types of organizations can service their clients. We’re also working on other initiatives to help restaurants drive traffic to their sites, so they can then drive revenue and convert visitors into paying customers

JC: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?

KM: Making sure that you have early revenue speaks volumes. If you’re going to raise money, especially when there are biases beyond you, being able to give quantifiable proof that what you’re building has a need and people are willing to pay goes a long way. If you can be scrappy and get those customers on board without giving away anything for free, that’s very important.

I’d also advise women entrepreneurs to be authentic about who they are. All our examples of what leadership looks like are a specific mold. I found it frustrating when I was growing a team and raising money to try to fit myself into that mold of what people expected from the CEO figure. For example, I thought I needed to be extremely aggressive, outspoken and overly confident to the point of exaggeration. It really made me uncomfortable, and my discomfort was obvious.

As I embraced the person I really was and let that be my leadership style, I got a lot more confident. I held onto why BentoBox was successful in the beginning, my strengths in product and visual design, and my focus on the customer. When I focused on those things in conversations with investors, it was so much more effective, and I could be more passionate and convincing.

JC: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds.

KM: I was introduced to Golden Seeds through our lawyer while we were raising our seed round. I appreciated their process in terms of vetting. They really dug into the economics of the business and the market. It was comforting to me, because they were uncovering everything and investing from a place of understanding what we’re trying to do.

The whole Golden Seeds network is very direct. You know exactly where you are in their process. After the investment, the Golden Seeds team brought in a lot of experience in growing companies and made a lot of key introductions for us. The fact that their network is so large, it’s like getting hundreds of investors.

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