I applied for the GWU Business Plan competition in 2011 and 12 with high hopes that perseverance would pay off. After all, I had a couple of notches such as Startup Weekend in my belt, and unlike the vast majority of applicants, I actually had a real business that was gaining traction.

April 1 2012

Dear Chito,

 I was personally very impressed with your business plan.  Therefore, I was pleased that even though it was not included in the top 8, it was selected to serve as the “backup” in case one of the 8 teams selected chosen to advance to the finals cannot present on April 13. 

 My advice is to begin planning your oral presentation now and I will let you know as soon as we know for sure whether you will or won’t be presenting on the 13th. 

I will be in touch as soon as I know more about whether the top 8 teams will all be able to present on April 13.  Congratulations on being one of the “top 9” teams out of the 144 that entered this year’s competition!

John Rollins

Director, GW Business Plan Competition

Professor of Entrepreneurship

I took Professor Rollins advice and accepted the invitation to attend the April 2012 GW Startup & Internship Fair.  The halls of the Marvin Center were filled with students some with blank stares mindlessly flipping pages, others on their laptops with Netflix streaming in the background. Despite their best attempts, they yearned for the lazy days of summer, but could not ignore the fact that midterms were just around the corner. Meanwhile, upstairs in the Grand Ballroom, there was lots of buzz for the next big thing.  I arrived at the career fair with huge aspirations but tempered expectations.  A flock of fellow co-founders from the D.C. meetup group as well as George Washington University classmates were also participating, and those adventurous self-starters were eager to explain their big ideas.  There were many thoughtful conversations and face-to-face interactions with the rising talent pool from all over the metro area.

GW Startup & Internship Fair

One particular enterprising young man meandered through the crowd and over to my table. He was a cheerful happy-go-lucky sophomore who looked every bit a techie, but also a guy with a playful smile. “Hello, I’m Zach,” he introduced himself gleefully.

“Nice to meet you. Are you from here?”

“Originally from California, but went to high school in the South. I’m passionate, over-caffeinated and goofy, some say.”

Zach Peirce

Zach geeked over the pictures of food and wanted to hear more about our dish repository.

“I love discovering new places and tasting different types of food, and I’m a technical product guy, so this could be the right fit.”

“Are you sure the startup world is the right move for you as opposed to interning for Uncle Sam down the road?”

“I’m more enamored by the startup life than working for the government.”

“How ‘bout environmental activism – there are tons of opportunities in town.”

“I’m a business student, so I’m all about process improvement.  I have lots of innovative ideas that I would like to see put to work and don’t have the patience for the government to implement them. Again, I’m here so I can effect immediate change.”

I described to Zach the whole concept of the Vapiano ordering system. “You get a store charge card as you enter, and then you walk up to different stations to order pasta, pizza, antipasto, salad and drinks, scanning your card at each station.  Often you have to have to queue up for 15-20 minutes before you even get to order from the line cooks, so it’s important to have your selection ready. If you’re not a regular customer, it can be difficult to know what type of dish to order and what toppings and ingredients you want.

“So we should feature each dish online and break it down by specific type and category and then list all their ingredients.  Then customers can preselect their preferences and taste and the site will show them the name and picture of the dish which they can show to the cooks.”

“How will customers access the site?”

“We can provide the QR code to customers when they queue up, and they can use their phones to make their seamless selections.”

The following week, Zach and I spent an afternoon at Vapiano like food nerds, snapping pictures of dishes as they were prepared.  Lunchtime was crush time from a rush of mindless govies, so major kudos to the white coats who let us photograph the dishes while juggling orders from impatient customers. The work was exhausting but stimulating, and the best part, the starving sophomore and I were able to sample several dishes that are renowned across Italy.

“What’s next? I’ve eaten my share of fettuccine to last the whole school year.”

“I’m afraid there’s plenty more pasta on the horizon. Now we gotta do all the grunt work.”

We headed to the Gelman Library on campus to post the dishes and categories on our site. There we met up with my friend and fellow entrepreneur JD Pagano. A software developer by trade, JD recently returned from a two-year stint in the Peace Corp.

“This country is very grateful to its veterans. But we need to appreciate the service of the Peace Corps, also. How did you enjoy your tour?” I asked.

“Very meaningful and impactful service. The experience was life-changing.”

“That’s awesome. Anywhere exotic?”

“The beautiful country of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.”

“Was there lots to see and do?”

“Absolutely. Great place to hike and ski. Loved the traditional Kyrgyz dancing and amazing folklife.”

After the three of us got done adding the content to RUNINOut, we planned the next step.

“Let’s organize a food tasting event at Vapiano’s for later this month,” I suggested. “We want people to test out our platform.”

“Great idea,” Zach said. “Just advertise on campus that they’ll be free pizza, and you’ll get a ton of students there.”

“College students are not the right audience for our survey. We’re looking for young professionals in their 20s and 30s with more refined taste,” I replied.

JD started creating an event on Facebook. “I can ask my friend Misha to help promote it. Between the two of us, we know a ton of people in that demographic.”

Together we sent out a boatload of invitations to our friends from that category, and we were delighted to see a few dozen foodies and govies show up with curious minds and ravenous appetites.

In the beginning, the three of us stayed busy doling out dishes of Carbonara and Margherita. But once everyone was served, we were able to mingle and obtain feedback.

I approached a cute girl with long black hair. “So you must be Misha, JD’s friend who you met in Kazakhstan.”

Misha chuckled. “You got the right girl, but the wrong stan. It’s Kyrgyzstan not Kazakhstan.”

“Oh so sorry, Kazakhstan was the country portrayed in the movie ‘Borat’ — a lot different than Kyrgyzstan where you served.”

“No worries, almost everyone gets the names mixed up. The Peace Corp recently left Kazakhstan and hopefully, there’ll be no more mockumentaries.”

JD Pagano & Misha Davies

Kanita Williams left her job early from the D.C. Superior Court and made the 10 minutes walk over.

“The pizza is awesome, but not great for someone on a minimal-carb diet.”

“You should meet Orlando. He’s a personal trainer and runs a company called Bodyfit D.C.”

Orlando walked over to introduce himself. “Nice to meet you. Where do you currently work out?”

“LA Fitness but with work requirements, I find it challenging meeting my fitness goals.”

“Skip the gym and get an awesome workout outdoors. Come join me for a boot camp workout three times a week. We do high intensity interval training.”

“But my schedule at the court is so unpredictable. Can you be flexible?”

Kanita and Orlando

“Absolutely. Daily exercise is a gift that enables us to experience the gift of life more abundantly. I would be happy to get you started.”

Vapiano’s Meetup

A woman in her early 30’s with dirty blonde hair and a beaming smile took a bite of her pasta. “Mmm, the Pasta Basilico is cooked perfectly, al dente.”

“Tender but firm is how I like it, too. So what do you think of this crazy concept?”

“Not a fan of having to wait in line and returning to my table, only to find out that my friends have already started digging into their Greek salads. But I like how your site helps customers choose their orders while they wait.”

“Super to hear. Zach and I spent last week, photographing each dish and then painstakingly adding them to the site.”

“Wow, just the two of you? There’s a ton of different dishes here.”

“Yes, my co-founder, Senodja, is deployed to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, and Kanita is busy clerking in the D.C. Superior Court. So we have room for one more.”

“I think this would be fun. My name is Suzannah by the way.  I’m a foodie just like you, and also an entrepreneur, specializing in marketing and business development.”

“Super Suzannah, maybe we can help each other. We could use help reaching out to restaurants, and you can gain priceless experience working with a budding startup.”