Steve Simoni, Founder of Bbot | How human interactions in CRE can create new social networks | 24:32

Transcript

DA: Welcome to TEN, the Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host David Abrams. In this episode we are connecting with Steve Simoni, founder of Bbot which makes smart ordering technology for bars, restaurants and hotels, to make them run more efficiently. In this episode, we will learn about Steve’s journey to his current role at Bbot where he combines his experience working in the Navy as a nuclear engineer with his previous learning as a first-time founder. We will tap into his thinking around learning from failure as one of his keys to success. Hear more about the early days of his entrepreneurial journey and gain insight into why he thinks commercial real estate has an opportunity to reimagine how human interactions can create new social networks. We’re excited to be sharing this podcast with you. So be sure to follow TEN, so you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. Now, I’d like to welcome Steve to the show. Really glad you could be with us today. How are you?

SS: Good. How’re you doing today, David?

DA: I’m well, thank you. Let’s start with your journey to your current role as CEO of Bbot. How did you get started? Walk me through it and maybe a little bit more about your current role.

SS: Oh yeah. Well, I got started… probably five years ago in San Francisco when I was living out there. My friends and I were trying startups. I feel like it’s… if you live in San Francisco and you’re young, you always try a startup. The first one didn’t go so well, and then Bbot was our second try which started as a robotics company, weirdly enough. And now I’m in… fast forward, I’m in New York City still running Bbot but we’re a software company serving restaurants.

DA: Cool. So I am curious, I know this is a bit of a segue right out of the gate. When did you know the first company wasn’t going to work and what was that moment like?

SS: We spent the first… We started… me and my co-founder of that company started with an idea that we saw as like a problem to solve for sales teams. And I think we couldn’t get traction, we couldn’t get an initial product market fit after a couple iterations. So then that always becomes the question, should you pivot and try to find product market fit or should you throw in the towel? And that’s a really hard question for founders. I think about that all the time. When you’re in the pre-product market fit stage. And so what we looked at was like we looked at our founding team’s skill set based on the problem and the thing we were trying to build. And we were just like, it wasn’t going to be pretty… We just really came to that conclusion together. It was going to be tough to get to product market fit. So we shut it down but that is like the fundamental question. It’s really hard to answer for any founder.

DA: I can only imagine as a founder that’s probably got to be one of the hardest things to wrap your head around. So far I’m not there. I hope to never be there but I admire you for going through the process and coming back at it. So you mentioned that Bbot started in robotics and ended up in the food ordering food service restaurant business. Tell me, was that a pivot, or what happened there?

SS: Yes, so this time I thought… me and my co-founders, we had a lot of good skill sets. We were very technical and we knew we were… wanting to build a really technical product. So we were messing around with the overhead ceiling delivery robots which we built and launched. We got one customer on those but that doesn’t mean product market fit. You can get one paying customer on almost anything. Trying to get a second customer was proving to be challenging, just cause it’s a very unique product. Maybe not solving every customer’s pain is kind of a novelty in many ways but the software we had built around it for ordering, was something that customers were raising their hand asking for? So it was a pivot to listen to the customers a little more and away from listening to our hearts about wanting to be robotics engineers. So we just… We wanted to keep doing the startup together. We were having a lot of fun. We pivoted to the market forces.

DA: Oh, good for you. So why do you think you were so uniquely suited to this opportunity and what helped you or contributed to success? Whether it be skills, mentors, colleagues, books, school? Tell me about that.

SS: Really a couple of things, Navy background, we happen to… I was a nuclear engineer in the Navy and I’m ordering… so I didn’t realize this at the time of when we pivoted to the ordering software from the robots but ordering software for a small business is like a safety critical mission system, similar to like a nuclear reactor on submarine. They really really rely on this stuff to take payments and orders. So we take a lot of great care and finding, make it really mission critical software. And then that was like one thing, so that background, the other piece was just simply I caught the startup bug and I had failed a couple of times at various things. And through those failures, I learned a lot about how to actually do it. So that combination is what I think is really helping, helping me lead the team now

DA:  Makes a lot of sense. So I think you’ll agree that living through a pandemic is absolutely horrible. It’s not something any of us would’ve planned on or hope for but that being said, I’m at a place now personally and with regard to how we’re building HILO that I no longer think the pandemic can be an excuse. And to me, it’s now a time to do better, be better and build something better. You know, the companies where you call them up and they tell you there’s a longer wait time because of the current crisis or the current pandemic. I’m like really, like nine months later you’re still using that as an excuse? So, in terms of building something better creating something better, if I was to give you an extra $100,000 right now of budget what would you do? How would you spend it and why?

SS: It’s definitely on more product. Customer demand for ordering software is very strong right now. The pandemic, you know… I always tell our customers like that there is light… I agree it’s not an excuse. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. And I think we’re months away from a pretty widely distributed vaccine. So I’m just trying to… I’m helping restaurants gear back up for the grand reopening of people being out and about at restaurants and bars. And I totally agree with you, there’s no excuse

DA:  Agreed. So, listen, there’s a lot we don’t know about what the return to workplace is going to look like. You and I are both selling into commercial real estate as one of our… certainly our major, our most important target. For you it’s one of several but I know the real estate sector is pretty important. We know that it’s going to be a much lower return. In April, May last year we were hoping July in July, we thought the fall and certainly this past fall, we now recognize that let’s hope that it’s sometime in 2021. We know that flexibility is going to be a major theme in commercial real estate. We know that people are going to continue to work from everywhere, including the home. Just wanted to get your thoughts on what you think this looks like going forward.

SS: I think that… Well, two things, one, there’s going to be a work from home component but before I address that I think just on the commercial real estate owners and operators are really considering adding a lot of new digital tools right now. I talked to a lot of these people in New York City and they’re looking for solutions to be more contactless for their tenants like having more digital experiences that they can render. And this is like super important because when they reopen and things get packed again people are still going to want to be safe and really have the convenience. They’re really looking at evaluating this stuff now. That’s one thing. So when it all comes back and New York City is raging again I think it’ll come back with more digital tooling. So I think you guys are doing a really smart thing. Go ahead.

DA:  I would agree. And I think in a city like New York, I had a conversation with someone from the commercial real estate industry previously it’s not tech for the sake of tech but if you’re already doing a whole lot of things great, the challenge as people reenter the workplace is that you’re going to need technology to deliver that experience to deliver on some of what is now even more important than perhaps what it was before like contactless, occupancy management and visitor management. These are all themes that were important before, but in a COVID or a post-COVID world become even more important.

SS: Yeah. And then on the remote workfront I don’t know how you run your business, but we’ve been a remote company since 2017. So you’re talking to someone who’s pretty biased. I know the CRE owners out there won’t want to hear this but I just think remote for an entrepreneur is such a competitive advantage. So I’m a little bit, maybe contrary, I just think that I can hire people across the Midwest that can work and be really productive and you get access to a really large talent pool that way. And so I really do think remote is here to stay. So I think CRE owners should be thinking about that and thinking about opening up some of their office space if it’s not going to all get filled and repurposing it for other convenient amenities, there’s a lot of great building space in New York city. And a lot of cool… you can do a lot of cool stuff with it. And I don’t know if you’ve seen Hudson yards but they have a lot of like cool non-office things in there like a lot of different experiences that they… have in there that aren’t just purely office rental. So it’s really cool to see.

DA:  Well, I’m totally with you. I think flexibility is what I think is going to be really important. I’m not necessarily 100% aligned to 100% remote. I feel it. My team feels it. The lack of opportunity to come together, but we need to come together and work every day in an office? Probably not. Whereas Pre-COVID we certainly probably thought that was the only way to be.

SS: It wouldn’t be a great podcast without some debate. I really think though, on the remote front, like I know as human interaction I was thinking about this, how could we repurpose the CRE building commercial real estate for different human interaction? Maybe it doesn’t have to be with your coworkers. Maybe it could be with other people in your community. When I was in my 20’s, I did enjoy going out after work for a drink with my coworkers. And I think I can, you can still get that same experience as long as it’s some humans, it doesn’t have to necessarily be your coworkers. So I’m wondering if there’s like a new social network going to be formed and actually take place in a lot of these buildings, but maybe just not with your exact coworkers. I don’t know. So that’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I don’t have a good answer, but…

DA:  I think that’s interesting, Pre-COVID at the end of 2019 we did a couple of workplace experience workshops in communities where HILO was present and brought users, people who worked in the communities that we served into a room with the commercial real estate teams that manage those buildings and really did a deep dive into what that looked like. And to your point, a lot of them talked about connecting with other people within their neighborhoods within their communities, networking opportunities, finding out about career opportunities within their neighborhoods and communities lunch and learns, socials, clubs. So, I think you’re right. I don’t think that the… the same way we don’t look as building as silos. I don’t think we have to look at attendants as a silo. I think people ultimately want to find and meet like-minded people.

SS: I’m looking forward to that. Cause I still want the human interaction but also if you saw inside of our company you might think it a bit odd like me and my co-founders just went through like everyone’s calendars and made them delete 25 hours + of meetings that they’d held hat. We’re trying to get people to talk less. In a remote company it’s kind of a weird situation where like, no you need time to focus on work like stop having these recurring meetings. But we might be a little odd. So I don’t know.

DA:  No, I think we’ve all come out of 2020 and we thought a lot about… I certainly did over the holidays. What am I going to do differently? Because 2020 was not sustainable. It was… You went into crisis mode and you just reacted and developed all these processes. For example, we met, we have a huddle every morning and what I’ve done personally is my team finds that very helpful, but I realized that I need time to do David work. And so Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t join the team huddle. I take those mornings now and I’m 100% no meetings, no calls and I get work done. So I think it’s evolving. And I think we all have to constantly look at what we’re doing and think about what we want to do differently going forward because it doesn’t mean it has to be the same. It’s a really exciting time in the future of work category. I’m not a venture capitalist but they always use the future of work buzzword And like that is… it actually really is an exciting time thinking about that. I am jealous of the investors in a way because they get to think about it more than me.

SS: Right.

DA:  Before we take a quick break, I’ll just note that I believe on your sweatshirt. It says craft. I’m assuming that’s Craft Venture.

SS: I’m giving them free advertisements.

DA:  I know they’re an investor of yours. I know that I’m a huge fan of David Sax, which is one of the reasons why you and I connected. I hope some day to get that personal introduction but good for you for some promotion for the…

SS: They got to pay me for this advert… They got to pay me for this.

DA:  We’ll take a short break. We’ll be right back.

Commercial Break

DA:  We’re back with Steve from Bbot continuing the conversation. Commercial real estate industry is moving faster towards recognizing that their core business is not just about building ownership. Some have debated with me whether or not that’s true or not. I think they certainly are moving, some fast some not so fast, but rather it really is about creating the best customer experience for their tenants or their residents and both you and I play in that arena to help make that possible. So just wondering what you think… how we will define and deliver tenant experience in 2021? What will that look like?

SS: So let me clarify the question. How we are going to deliver it? Like both of our companies are…

DA:  How will the industry define and deliver? How will companies like ours help define and deliver?

SS: We’re seeing a variation actually across the board. Some of them are… It depends on how the CRE company has it established. Some of them actually are bringing dedicated like a VP of technology buyer role that they’re creating. And in that case, they’re kind of doing like a central purchasing and then dissemination through their buildings. And then there are some that are more bottoms up approach. That are like leaving it up to the surrounding restaurants and just some of the other. So like for particular, or in my space, food ordering, some of them are trying to roll my product into apps like yours or platforms like yours, and some are taking a more bottoms up approach. So I can only really speak for this one small segment of this broader category that you’re seeing, but in the ordering part of it, it depends on the company and whether it’s bottoms up or top down. What are you saying? Cause I need to see more. Cause you’re actually doing more than just ordering.

DA:  We are. And from our perspective, the way we… so we started to describe HILO as the Shopify of candidate experience. Really trying to create an ecosystem where our building partners are other Prop-Tech service provider partners and then the end user, the customer, the tenant sort of come together and create this ecosystem. And HILO is really… where we really want to be expert is to help deliver that seamless beautiful customer focused experience and ensure that we have the best engagement rates and our effort and our energy is spent working on engagement and not trying to replicate what you do or what a visitor management system will do or a contact with entry system will do. We want to bring those partners into our ecosystem allow our building partners to literally come into our platform and check which systems processes programs they want to activate. And what HILO really helps them with is just delivering that to their customers and focus on being the best and having tenants absolutely love where they work.

SS: Awesome.

DA:  And we think it’s even more important in this new flexible workspace and work from everywhere environment where people wouldn’t always be in your building. So if we don’t stay connected and really important in their world, then we grow, we get more distant and that’s where there’s danger.

SS: Love it.

DA: Can you share any details about something new you’re working on or a challenge you’re facing in light of the current world circumstances that you think our listeners might find interesting?

SS: Yeah, we’re working on… and again this is really applicable to building owners a lot of virtual kitchen deals. Obviously that’s been talked a lot in the… if you follow the food and restaurant tech space that’s like a big thing right now.

DA:  Ghost Kitchens?

SS: Virtual Kitchens, Cloud Kitchens, Ghost Kitchens. They call them all these names. I don’t know which one they’re going to standardize on. I hope they pick one soon. There are better marketers than me who pick these things. But we are seeing a lot of that out of buildings in New York City, like repurposing some of that space to be a kitchen that you cook and do delivery out of but it doesn’t actually have a storefront. And so we’re in a lot of those deals. Now that’s one thing that I’m trying to figure out how to market better to that. And then the other thing we’re working on that is new and exciting for us is our launch of our tabs product. So being able to start a tab on your phone when you’re at the restaurant, so that we serve. We’re really excited about that. We think that’ll be a game changing feature for mobile order and pay at restaurants.

DA:  Definitely. So as opposed to leaving your credit card it’ll all be automated.

SS: Yeah. And then being able to easily add more drinks to the experience or have a lot of bars and restaurants. They’ve been asking for that. It’s the opposite of the robot thing where we’re listening to the customers now.

SS: Right. Well, listen, we’ve all got to be more customer focused more customer centric and they’re the ones that need to help drive where our product goes. So it makes a ton of sense.

DA:  All right, closing speed around, and an opportunity to get to know you on a more personal level. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

SS: The ability to banter well with supervillains.

DA:  Supervillains?

SS: Yeah, that’s the best… Have you ever noticed, like in the comic books the best superheroes are the ones that can banter well with super villains?

DA:  Okay, I like it.

SS: That’s mine. That’s from a movie called… one of my favorite comedies growing up called Mallrats. It’s a Kevin Smith movie. They ask that question in the movie.

DA:  Did they? All right. What city or country do you want to travel to first when you are able and why?

SS: I really want to go to Copenhagen. I’ve not been that many places in Europe. That’s one I want to go to. We have a customer there I really want to visit.

DA:  All right. When you’re not working, what are you doing?

SS: I’m thinking about new product market fits for new startup ideas. Pretty much like that’s… I’m a little bit of an obsession with that.

DA:  As an aside, do you think there’s more… there’s other startups in your future?

SS: Oh yeah. Till I die.

DA:  Awesome. Listen, I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire career. Right out of school I got into public accounting and then ultimately going into the marketing and communications world. But I ran that business for 25 years and then find myself now as a tech startup co-founder I had no idea that this world existed. If I had known a long time ago, I would have done it a lot sooner. So I’m with you. It is pretty exciting. The number one thing you miss about the workplace, and maybe for you based on your earlier answer, it’s nothing. I’m not sure.

SS: I’ll go back to my Marquette or my… When I was in the office days pre this startup I missed all the catered lunches. We had ezCater, there’s a plug for ezCater where we had that at my last startup I was at. It was great.

DA:  You were clearly destined to do something in the food industry. Your favorite recent TV, streaming movie, or series? You got to be watching something when… 

SS: I’ll just go with the, I guess the most recent this is like a super trashy show, but Unreal on Hulu.

DA:  Unreal?

SS: It’s so trashy. It’s like, it’s terror. It’s not educational, but I like it.

DA:  Well, listen, it probably serves as a distraction from A, real life. And B, you got to take a break from thinking about the startup world, at some point during your day, right?

SS: Yeah.

DA:  Steve, I’m really glad we were able to connect and I look forward to continuing the conversation. And as you know, we’re looking forward to collaborating with you and bringing your platform into our ecosystem and enabling our food service retailers and our buildings to take advantage of your mobile ordering and payment processing system. So we look forward to continuing to work together and to continuing the conversation.

SS: All right. Thanks, David. I appreciate it.

DA:  Thanks, Steve. Bye now. I want to thank Steve Simoni for joining me on today’s episode of TEN and for sharing his journey from early beginnings as an entrepreneur to now helping the hospitality industry run more efficiently with happier staff and guests, great learning for all our listeners and an opportunity to gain insights into what it takes to become an innovation leader. Please be sure to follow TEN for future discussions with leading professionals and industry experts who all have something to say about the impact of technology on Tenant Experience in the built world. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at david@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work and live. Thank you.

 

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Season Two | Trailer | 1:13

Season 2 / Episode 0
Join us for season 2 as we continue our conversations with leading CRE professionals who all have something to say about the impact of technology on tenant experience in the built world.

Season Two | Trailer | 1:13

Season 2 / Episode 0
Join us for season 2 as we continue our conversations with leading CRE professionals who all have something to say about the impact of technology on tenant experience in the built world.