A conversation with Jeff Hong, co-founder of Bite
Jeff Hong taught himself to code when he built out the first MVP for Bite, a fast-growing tech company that uses facial recognition and machine learning software and iPads to create intelligent self-order kiosks for the retail and hospitality verticals. He didn’t learn about software engineering as a student since he was busy earning an undergrad degree in marketing and then an MBA from Yale School of Management. He learned the ins and outs of product development at companies like Pepsi, Disney Mattel, and PlayStation before cofounding Bite. Hong, who we first learned about through one of Bite’s hardware partners Epson, sat down with SoftwareBusinessGrowth.com to share some of the things he’s learned from this startup.
Bite has won the business of some tier-one brands like Marriott. What advice do you have for young software companies who want to quickly sell upstream to these kinds of big-name accounts?
I think we got very lucky with our current customers. We're still very much working on expanding our footprint with many of these larger national brands – we've just got a foot in the door. But I think it helps understanding what these brands are looking for. To have a better shot at success, I think you have to start by framing your product to fit their problem – even better if it's a problem they're actively seeking a solution for.
If you're a true monopoly, that's wonderful! But in most cases, there's likely a better funded, big brand vendor that has a close offering, or it's something that your target customer might even consider building themselves. As a young startup, we've all got a few things working against us – chief among them is reliability and credibility. There's the saying: “no one gets fired for choosing X (X = IBM, or McKinsey or insert other big-name vendor).” Our job is to prove that we're not only as reliable and dependable, but ultimately a better partner for these brands. That means listening and addressing your customer's concerns, and quite frankly going the extra mile before asking for money. If we're able to demonstrate that then we're building our track record and credibility for the next customer.
Sometimes the best way to demonstrate these factors quickly is through partnerships. Find out if there companies that have built a history with your target customers that might be willing to bring you in.
Your software has a machine learning component to it – why is that important in your value proposition? What advice do you have for other software companies who want to add this kind of technology to an existing solution?
I think having the Machine Learning (ML) component is critical today if you're collecting data (and you should be collecting data). It's simply far too time consuming to try to make sense of the vast amounts of data you're collecting, and this is a very simple way to differentiate yourself from legacy competitors that don't have that sophistication. If you have the expertise you can certainly build a base level yourself, but there are also third-party services that are pretty sophisticated that you should consider as a startup. The downside is that it may entrench you into an existing solution down the road, but I believe that is something that can be addressed later as you grow.
According to Bite’s website, you offer 24/7 support. Why is that round the clock coverage important in your industry? How do you staff you support team to enable this?
It all goes back to the credibility and reliability equation for our customers. In the restaurant/hospitality space this is even more of a requirement. Our support coverage is especially important since our customers’ days start before most folks "get into the office" and close long after dinner. Staffing is a challenge at this stage, but we're able to ensure that there's someone on call from when the first restaurant opens on the East Coast to when the last one closes for the night out in California.
What do you look for when considering a new software or hardware partner? What factors are most important? How do you ensure new partners are seamlessly integrated with Bite?
For us, there's always a tradeoff between doing it right and doing it fast and doing it cheaply. It doesn't have to be a consistent answer across the board. Certain activities must be done right, others should be completed quickly. In deciding whether something works for us, I'm looking at the tradeoffs in time. Is this something we can bring up to speed quickly and would it have uses beyond the current project we're looking at?
What best practices can you share about leveraging vendor partnerships? What kinds of incentives and programs have you taken advantage of to help grow Bite?
We've had a lot of help from our partners like Epson, Elo, and Olo. They've helped us get more exposure in trade shows, for example. And our vendor partners have helped solve some of the hardware costs necessary for development. At the same time, I want to ensure that we're helping to create value for their brands and product lines.
What’s next on the product road map for Bite/what are your goals for the company heading in to 2019?
We're looking at a busy 2019. Aside from expanding our sales efforts, we're looking at expanding our integrations into the restaurant tech stack. We have two design philosophies:
We've got a ways to go before we get there, but I think we're off to a good start.