What Covid-19 taught me about running a tech startup

- September 2, 2020 4 MIN READ
HungryHungry co-founder Mark Calabro
My business partner Shannon and I started HungryHungry in early 2019,  but it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions kicked in that many of our existing and potential clients realised the value of what we could offer.

We have been operating businesses in the hospitality industry for over 15 years and when the pandemic forced many to shut their doors, our primary source of revenue vanished.

HungryHungry is a tech platform designed for at-table contactless ordering and digital menus for diners. On the side, it also has an online ordering and pick-up/delivery feature. You can probably guess which feature became the most sought-after during lockdown. Focusing on refining that feature – including a function where customers could enter the colour and registration number of their car so staff could limit contact by delivering orders to a vehicle – has helped over 1,000 venues across Australia keep running.

We have been in a fortunate position where we can help so many and our business has survived through these tough times. It has not been without some trouble, however.


Victim of our own success

Usually, onboarding a client takes about two weeks. Due to demand in those early weeks of the first lockdown, our team worked around the clock to reduce that to 48 hours.

Within six weeks we gained more than a thousand new clients and reached capacity in a very short period. The huge surge in demand placed extraordinary pressure on our servers and as a result we had a few Friday and Saturday nights – the busiest periods -where the technology started to crack and cause unexpected outages on some individual sites.

Needless to say, we were not only dealing with trying to fix the technology but also fielding calls, emails and social media complaints from unhappy customers.

It was a devastating position to be in as we had the best of intentions and as a result of the breakdowns our clients also had their reputations on the line. In normal circumstances we might have been able to identify our capacity limits and make changes to the infrastructure that removed the limitations before the system broke down. These were not normal circumstances, however, and we just had to front up, do our best to resolve the issues, and own the problem.

Between myself, Shannon and some of our senior team, we individually contacted everyone who had been affected, offered our sincere apologies and assured them that we were doing our absolute best to resolve the situation. I also found myself jumping into Facebook threads where people were understandably voicing their frustrations and letting people know that they could call or email me at any point.

It certainly hasn’t been the most fun aspect of running a business but in times like these there is little to do but own it and do your darnedest to fix it, and fast.

If we had our time again, we’d focus less on trying to introduce new, unique features and more on the optimal performance of our servers, including the rebuilding of our software, in anticipation of such big demand.


Lessons from lockdown

At the beginning of this year we were in the middle of a capital raise and if you’d told us then that we would be doing these kinds of numbers in terms of acquiring new clients, we would have probably said you were dreaming. Every startup wants to achieve rapid growth, especially when you’re trying to achieve proof of concept and raise capital, but it is not always a good thing.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, it felt like we were in a ‘washing machine’ stuck on a non-stop cycle; demand was high, and we were onboarding as many venues as we could. We charged minimal fees to cover our costs – and in many cases we were losing money – so we could help our customers earn an income again. 

Taking a moment to stop-think-reset might have prevented some of the growing pains we experienced. We would have realised that demand was not going to slow; we were not going to lose business by taking the time to make sure the ground was firm before we rushed ahead. Instead, it felt like we were constantly running on mud and we had to keep running so we wouldn’t sink. It meant a lot of late nights and brought the team close to burnout.

Keeping the team close during the first lockdown – metaphorically, seeing as we had physical distancing in place – was essential to powering through. We’ve now grown our team from 13 people pre-COVID to 24, with another eight to start in the next month across software development, marketing, onboarding and account management.

During this time, it was also helpful to have someone experienced to turn to when things got hairy. In our case, our chairman Brodie had been through a crisis before and was able to provide sound advice and access to his networks to make sure we were going to come out of this intact. It was comforting to be able to reach out to the experts who have done this before. Look for this mentor figure if you don’t already have one.

With restrictions due to Covid now differing across the nation it is good to know that we have a stronger foundation in place to tackle growth and help venues regardless of whether it is delivery and takeaway or contactless ordering at the table and digital menus once the doors open again.