Speaking of Thanksgiving Dinner

Today there will be turkey, yams, potatoes, and other assorted food at the table for everyone to pick from. Most of us will be with family and or friends, we’ll eat at generally the same time we do each year, and then we’ll fall asleep watching football.

There’s comfort in knowing that you’ll see your family, eat great food, and not have to take out your wallet at dinner. Imagine if you tried to get your relatives to split the meal after dessert, oyyy.

I’ve been mulling over another startup idea for a while. I can’t do it obviously as I’m focused on building Estimize, but I would really like to see someone else execute on it. It’s an idea easily executed utilizing lean startup principals, and would be almost immediately profitable. At scale it would be a serious acquisition target by someone like Yelp or OpenTable, if you decided to go that route. If not, it’s a business that would spin off a whole bunch of cash, and may not require venture capital to scale.

Here’s the basic thesis to be tested.

As young urban professionals get into their mid to late 20’s they begin to pair off and spend less time with friends. Careers, marriage, family, all of these things make it difficult to spend time with friends, especially as a group. I’ve experienced this personally, I spend a good deal of time with my best friend still, but it’s extremely hard to get a bunch of people together on the same night. As well, it’s hard to make new friends. Man dating is strange, and who the hell has time or energy to really put that effort in. People make new friends by integrating other people into their existing group, it’s difficult to form strong bonds one on one once you get older.

So there are your two “problems” that we’re trying to solve.

Here’s the solution.

Create a platform that allows one person to start a private group of their friends. This person then invites up to 40 people to join that group.

The group leader chooses one night of the week, let’s say Wednesday, and every two weeks a meal is scheduled. On Sunday night the week of each meal an email is sent asking group members to sign up for the meal. A maximum of 8 people are allow to sign up.

Everyone pays ahead of time, the platform collects a specific amount of money from each attendee for the meal, you can leave your wallet at home.

Every two weeks you’re going to see at least 7 other friends. If the meals fill up too fast and not enough friends are able to join, just add more meals to the schedule.

So that’s the very basic minimum viable product that can be built in a weekend at a hackathon using the Venmo or Dwolla API.

What’s the monetization model? In my opinion it would be to charge based on the dollar value of each meal arranged, and that would factor into the total cost per person who signs up for each meal. At the end of the day your users only pay you if the meal fills up and is scheduled.

Once you’ve validated that people are willing to use this system, here are the next steps.

One of the hardest parts of getting everyone together is figuring out where to eat. You can solve this for them by making deals with local restaurants. Your users would have the opportunity to choose from a list of different restaurants with pre-fixe menues and costs. New York City has restaurant week twice a year where great restaurants offer these types of meals. This is not meant to be a GroupOn type thing, but I’m betting that if your platform is sending a significant amount of traffic to these places you will eventually be able to get decent deals for your users on these meals creating even more incentive for them to use your service.

The great thing about this system is that no one in the group has to deal with paying the restaurant, the platform would arrange the payment and the reservation via OpenTable. All you have to do is show the email on your phone. Tip is included, your meal is set, the only thing you have to pay for us alcohol on an individual basis if a few bottles of wine are not included in the meal.

These meals could be family style or everyone could get their individual plates. I like the family style setup because you usually get better value by serving yourself at the table. The only problem is if you have a few friends who eat way too much.

Let’s go yet one step further now and solve the second problem, making new friends.

Have your same group, but stipulate that only 4 members of the group may sign up for the meal. After they sign up, they must invite one person from outside the group to join the group as a non permanent member and join the meal. This way you are constantly meeting new people, in an environment surrounded by your friends. This takes the awkwardness out of those one on one man dates and gives that other person a chance to integrate into your group of friends.

There are obviously different group sizes, meal sizes, and combinations of new and regular group members that you could try. Or you could allow the user to set those parameters. The only issue there is that you would have to make the restaurant aware of the number of people for the meal ahead of time.

This would be the first use case, but I could see this type of platform scaling far beyond meals. Why not other events? Baseball games, bowling, paintball, movies, concerts.

This is a low risk, easily executable idea that has very easily understandable rungs on the ladder of growth.

Now for those of you who are familiar with the startup ecosystem, or read this blog, you may know a site called Grubwith.us. They attempted something similar, except they made you eat with strangers, not your friends. They also executed poorly to say the least. I tried it out a year ago and the whole experience was lousy. Their communication with the restaurant was horrible and that ruined the meal. It also didn’t solve the problem I’m having, it’s not really solving any problem at all. Yes it’s interesting to eat with strangers once in a while, but how many people like to eat with strangers every other week? It’s just dumb.

If you’re interested in hacking on something like this you might be interested in attending the Fintech Startup Weekend on Dec. 7th here in NYC. Dwolla will be helping hackers use their API which is the hardest part of this thing. I’ll be attending as a mentor and would love to help a group work on this project. If you execute well, I’d be glad to be an advisor to the company.

At the end of the day though, ideas are worthless. We all have ideas, and if anyone ever asks you if their idea is good or bad, you should decline to answer. Who knows how good your idea is until you test it. Some crazy ideas that sound stupid end up being genius and worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The key is execution and the belief in your idea, if you have both of those, go for it.


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