Menu for Success
In March 2017, Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Robb Myer punched his meal ticket. The company he founded to shorten lines at restaurants, appropriately called Nowait, was acquired by Yelp for $40 million.
Myer, now an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Carnegie Mellon’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, profited handsomely, since he was on Nowait’s board and had the largest individual stake in the firm.
Myer was happy to see the app become part of Yelp, the fast-growing online customer review service. It was the culmination of an idea that had come to him eight years before in San Francisco, after he had spent a frustrating morning trying to buy brunch.
Every place he and his friends went had long lines. Finally, they encountered a restaurant host who told them, “if you give us your phone number, we’ll give you a call when a table is ready and you can go enjoy the weather outside.”
“I thought that simple act of hospitality was brilliant,” Myer said.
That gave Myer, who earned his MBA from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in 2006, the idea for Nowait, which he started with three other cofounders: James Belt, Luke Panza and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Richard Colvin, who earned his master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center in 2004.
“Richard and I didn’t know each other as students — and we didn’t start Nowait when we were at school either — but being Carnegie Mellon alumni created an affinity to work together,” Myer recalled.
The Nowait phone app lets customers see how long wait times are at participating restaurants and virtually get in line, which means they do not have to arrive at the restaurant until shortly before they are about to be seated.
While Nowait is known as an app that eases frustrations for diners, it began as a service for restaurants themselves, giving them a way to quickly create a list of customers and notify them by text message when seats were available. It also gives restaurants a way of keeping track of how many people visit at which times, what the typical size of groups is and how wait times vary.
One of the first restaurants to sign on was Burgatory in Pittsburgh.
“This app is saying that we know life is busy,” said James Cataldi, district manager for the burgers and shakes chain. “It gives our guests a chance to get in line before they even get here. Then we can plan on seating them more efficiently, which helps out our kitchen and our guests.”
Besides helping train students who want to start new companies, Myer is keeping his eye open for new business opportunities. One group he is advising at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute is Nabla Ascent, a company that is developing software that would allow drones to pilot themselves.
Myer says that in his spare time he puts his money where his advising is by angel investing in the next generation of Carnegie Mellon founders. “I know firsthand how hard it is to raise capital at the early stage, especially in Pittsburgh. That first $25,000 can make a huge difference,” he explained.
He calls the angel investors he is organizing, 99 Tartans, which consists of Carnegie Mellon alumni. “Successful alumni can be of a tremendous value sharing their resources, professional networks and experiences,” Myer said. “What better way for alumni to allocate some of their investment dollars than by helping fellow alumni succeed!”
When he was getting started with Nowait, Myer said the lessons he learned in Carnegie Mellon Professor Peter Boatwright’s class were critical to his early success.
Boatwright said he teaches a class that “helps students learn from marketplace feedback.” In Myer’s case, Boatwright said, “Robb mentioned he visited a lot of restaurants to find out what would be useful for them” before he launched Nowait.
Myer said the app is being used by about 5,000 restaurants, “but still there are a huge number of restaurants yet to come onboard, and that’s the exciting thing about Yelp acquiring the company.”
In an email statement, Yelp officials said that purchasing Nowait is helping it build extra services to the restaurant industry.
Myer said his entrepreneurship role at Carnegie Mellon, along with fellow mentor Craig Markovitz, founder of Blue Belt Technologies, is “powerful, because business is so real world-focused and it changes so rapidly. Having Craig and me on campus with relevant experiences I think is very valuable to students and faculty who are looking to spin off companies.”