“Being too early is indistinguishable from being wrong,” is a VC truism which is mostly accurate, unless you’re Noah Glass, the founder of Olo, a 14-year-old startup that is just now starting to look like an overnight success.
You may not have heard of Olo, but if you’ve placed an online order from Five Guys, Chili’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Jamba Juice, Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Wingstop, or one of over 300 other chains representing around 70,000 restaurants, you’ve used their software. It’s arguably the most important tech company in its space, but its path to success has been improbable.
I first met Noah when he came to South Africa for a year before he was supposed to start an MBA at Harvard. There, I saw him lead the office for Endeavor Global, a non-profit focused on encouraging entrepreneurship, and I was impressed by his ambition and focus. As he shared his idea for Olo with me, I was skeptical of the concept but unequivocally long on Noah.
When Noah ultimately decided that it was Olo instead of HBS, I wrote a check. It was a completely irrational decision on both of our parts.
Noah was addressing a truly minuscule market. In 2005, building software to enable mobile ordering meant serving an addressable market that consisted of a small cadre of BlackBerry power users, and an even smaller audience with the patience to punch in an order via a T9 interface. The iPhone was two years away, there were no app stores, and mobile was a backwater of business development, not a blue ocean for venture capital.
Beyond the technical challenges, the “Online to Offline” user experience pattern that now powers metros across the globe was largely non-existent. Even after the mobile platforms matured and Uber and Airbnb helped to popularize the “O2O” model, Noah had to manage glacial enterprise sales cycles and the overhead of educating the owners of restaurant chains, simultaneously pivoting his tech platform to modern technology, all the while fending off fresh competitors that were entering the space en masse.
Any of Noah’s would-have-been contemporaries at Harvard would have looked at the Olo case study and come away with the impression that it was a victim of the “curse of the first mover.” Fortunately, Noah is the embodiment of another truism: Great entrepreneurs find a way.
Noah’s vision of what the market could be was decades ahead of everyone else, but he operated his company with a clear-eyed focus on what it would take to make it through the quarter. In 2008 Noah cut burn in half by retooling as a B2B2C oriented subscription fee business. A year later, he arrived at an Olo board meeting with the opening: “We used to spend $150,000 each month to get 10,000 users to sign up. Now we’re getting paid $150,000 each month and getting 100,000 users to sign up. This is probably a better model.” This approach allowed him to stretch a small seed round for three years and make his series A last five.
After a dozen years of toiling in anonymity, the dominos have started to fall. In the last six months, Olo has signed a significant partnership with Uber, enjoyed an oversubscribed secondary offering, and leased the entire 82nd floor of NYC’s One World Trade Center as a base of operation to further its plan to remake the restaurant industry.
The Founder Partner program has been an important part of our fund since its inception. It’s designed to be mutually beneficial, whereby we support our Founder Partners in paying-it-forward by assisting in their angel investing while we, and our portfolio, get the benefit of the experience of these world-class founders. Over the last two decades, I’ve benefited tremendously from watching the Olo story unfold, and I’d be thrilled if our most recently funded companies made Noah a role model.
We’re thrilled to have Noah join a team that includes Dia&Co CEO Nadia Boujarwah, SeatGeek CEO Jack Groetzinger, Tamr CEO Andy Palmer, Firebase founder James Tamplin, Bloomreach CEO Raj De Datta, and serial entrepreneur Zach Klein, and can’t wait to see what we can cook up together.