From Idea to Empire: An Interview with the Founder of Grubhub, Mike Evans
Food delivery platforms, such as Grubhub, have seen significant growth during the pandemic as more people wanted contactless and convenient ways to get food, and with lockdowns and social distancing measures, delivery services became one of the only ways for people to get food from local restaurants. Grubhub, in particular, was able to accommodate this increase in customers successfully.
Grubhub is an American online and mobile food ordering and delivery platform that connects diners with local restaurants. It was valued by Just Eat Takeaway in 2020 when it acquired the company at $7.1 billion. Grubhub operates in over 4,000 U.S. cities, and it partners with over 365,000 restaurants. It was founded in 2004 by Mike Evans and Matt Maloney and began as a simple idea to make it easier for people to order food from their favorite restaurants. The company had started out small, but quickly grew as more people discovered the convenience of being able to order food from their favorite restaurants in only a few clicks. Under the leadership of Mike Evans, Grubhub has become one of the largest food delivery companies in the United States, and it continues to innovate and improve its services.
Christina: I’ve heard you have a new book coming out.
Mike: I do. I have a book out, coming out called Hangry. It’s just about my experience starting Grubhub in my apartment, running it through the IPO. And then after I left, I went and rode my bike across the United States. And so, it is the story of both of those things and what it’s like to go through creating something that big and what it means personally.
Christina: What made you want to drive your bike across the country?
Mike: I think I always wanted to do something like the Appalachian Trail or some sort of large adventure. And there’s something about riding across the country where you just meet more people than you do in a big hiking trip. And so that was a big part of why I wanted to experience the country that way.
Christina: You’re obviously a social person, do you think that helps with building a startup?
Mike: Yeah. Certainly, the nature of doing a startup starts fairly solo. There’s a lot of solitude associated with when you first start out, if you’re assuming you’d do it the way I did it, where you’re responsible for everything. You’re the janitor, you’re the software developer, you’re the lawyer, you do everything. But it’s the nature of growing that you, over time, do a lot less of that stuff yourself and end up just spending a ton of time, really, just interacting with people. And so yeah, it becomes more important as the company becomes more successful.
Christina: Can you take us through your career?
Mike: Sure. So, it started out, I went to college, went to MIT, got a software engineering degree. Shortly after school, it was like [the big dot-com crash]. And so, it was really hard to get a job, not hard to get a job in software, but it was definitely not the ideal way to go and start your career. And so, I started out at a software company called Homefinder.com, spent a couple years there. And really, what I learned was that I, like a lot of entrepreneurs, didn’t like working for other people, and so I was looking for something else to do. And it just so happened that ordering a pizza was really hard. And so, my first, version 1 of the website was about trying to find restaurants that delivered to me, to my address. And so that was the start of that. And then I really spent most of the rest of my career or the intervening years there just taking the company and growing it. It started out with just, I wanted a pizza, and then by the time I left, it was an IPO and we had millions of customers. And so, it was quite the experience to go from the very start all the way through the finish line from what most people think of from a startup perspective.
Christina: What made Grubhub grow so fast?
Mike: So, I think it was a combination of things that made Grubhub grow really fast. One of the things that, really, we had hit on, is people don’t like calling places by phone to place orders. And it doesn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal. I would tell my friends about, “I’m gonna create this. I’m gonna start online ordering for these restaurants. I’m gonna sign up a bunch of restaurants.” And they’re like, “Why wouldn’t you just call?” But it turns out that on Sunday evening when everybody says, “I don’t. Work is tomorrow. I don’t feel like cooking. Who’s gonna order?” Everybody says, “Not it.” Nobody wants to make that phone call. And it turns out that there’s a lot of anxiety associated with it. It’s inefficient. You call and they get the order wrong, and then you have to read a credit card number over a phone. There’s all sorts of things about it that just stink.
Mike: And so, we weren’t the first company to come along with online ordering, but the quality of the product was the best. We sorted the restaurants that did the best food delivery to the top of the rankings, and we signed up the best restaurants, independent Mom & Pop restaurants, independent restaurants, not chains. And that combination of things was really, it just grew like wildfire. And so, we had one of the first iPhone apps that was created. And so, there was just a constant theme of innovation within the company where we were always a step ahead. And so, we just acquired, we brought on customers by the thousands. Eventually we ended with millions of customers, but it wasn’t an overnight success, but it was like 12 years in the making, right? It took a long time to build it.
Christina: What makes Grubhub stand out over its competitors?
Mike: So, I think that the thing that really made the difference was, at the time that I was there, certainly it was all about, how do we get the best food to the customer? And so that really meant finding out which restaurants delivered the best food, learning from them what it was that they were doing, and sharing those best practices with the larger group of restaurants that was on the website and then just putting the most orders through the best restaurants. That was really what it was about. It wasn’t about making the most money for each order, it was about delivering the highest quality product. And so, people recognized that. When the food shows up and it’s good, people would say, “Wow, my Grubhub food was good.” And they wouldn’t necessarily say the food from that restaurant was good. They talked about the food from Grubhub being good.
Mike: And so, we leaned into that instead of the obvious thing, which a lot of online ordering companies had done prior to us was, “Well, we don’t touch the food. It’s not our responsibility.” And we said, “No, we’ll own it. Let’s make sure the food’s the best.” And that was the thing that really made the difference between us and competitors. And so, we had… Our customers just came back to us again and again and again. They referred their friends. And that’s really what made the difference.
Christina: What is the most important quality in a leader and why?
Mike: I think, empathy. You hear a lot about, in startups, that you need to be able to hire slowly. Make sure you get the right people, but then if you get the wrong person, fire them quickly. And I think that that’s a really terrible idea. I think that when you’re dealing with other people and their livelihoods, it should be really hard to make tough decisions like that. And it should never get easy. And you should be really invested in your coworkers’ lives. And more than just lip service, right? And so, I think that’s probably the most important quality in leaders, is just caring and empathy and the ability to make sure that people within the organization really thrive while they’re at the organization. It’s not like they suffer through a few years so that at the end they get a big paycheck. It’s gotta be good the whole time that they’re there. So, I think that’s really what leadership comes down to, is caring about the people that you work with.
Christina: How can businesses navigate today’s economy?
Mike: I think today’s economy is probably not too different from the economy a thousand years ago, in the sense that when people buy things, they want to get value for what they buy. And so, even as the pandemic changed the way we do business, I think the nature of people wanting to get good quality when they buy things is important. And so, in terms of, when I talk to other business owners, I think having a really strong bias towards, “Make sure your product is the best quality it can be without cutting corners,” I think that helps a lot. Certainly, that’s pretty general, right? After Grubhub, I went on to create another company called Fixer. So, I left Grubhub in 2014, did this long bike ride, and then I went on to create this other company called Fixer.
Mike: And Fixer is an on-demand, handyperson service where you can go online, tell us what’s wrong, and we’ll send a handyperson within an hour, or you can schedule it. And so, the product itself is the person who comes and does the work. And they’re full-time employees with benefits, and we train them from scratch. That whole business, the pandemic was not great, right? We go into people’s homes, and we fix things in their homes. And there was certainly a few months there where nobody wanted anybody in their homes. We were all scared. And so, we had to adapt a little bit. And the thing that we did was we did larger jobs. We did some remodels and things like that. We lost money on all of them, but we were able to keep our employees employed.
Again, it’s a combination of taking care of our people. And since our product is the work that we do in people’s homes and depends on the skill of the people doing that work, it was really important to retain them through all this craziness that was going on everywhere in the world. And so, I think that that creating a place of stability in a time of uncertainty really helped us. And so, who knows what the next challenges are going to be? It’s hard to imagine that they’re going to be as bad as what the pandemic was, but the idea that you take the risk out of employment and that you create a safe space for all types of employees and for all people that you work with, I think that that goes a long way to being competitive in today’s environment.
Christina: Why do leaders need to trust in their teams?
Mike: Because you don’t [want to] do all the work yourself of course, you have to trust your teams. I don’t get people who micromanage. I don’t understand it. It’s too much work. The idea that you have to tell your coworkers and your employees how they do things just feels like it’s patronizing to the employees. And it’s too much work for the employer. For the manager, I much prefer the idea of, “Here’s our goal. This is our goal as a company.” Let’s say you were in marketing, here’s your goal as a marketing department. Tell me how you’re [going to] do it. Let me know what resources you need. Let’s check in regularly and see if things are going in the right direction.
But empowering people and giving them the tools that they need and the resources they need to be able to accomplish the goals that you share is so much more powerful than micromanaging.
One thing comes to mind. So, one of our first employees, his name is Jack Ken. I hired him really early in his career. He had been out of college for like a year, and at first all he was doing was scanning menus. The menus that, we would go and pick up all the paper menus from the restaurants and we would scan them and put them on the website. And so that was his job originally. But he was empowered, and he was allowed to experiment and do things with marketing and with the brand.
And that went from, he was scanning menus as his first job out of college all the way to, he was designing Super Bowl ads. And so that’s a pretty meteoric rise in a person’s career. And if I had been micromanaging him, and if I hadn’t been trusting him, he would’ve never had the opportunity to attempt those things. And he thrived. And there were a lot of employees at the company that did that, that started in a pretty junior role, and then just moved all the way up through the ranks to do all of the things. And you can’t get that unless you trust your people.
Christina: What is your experience with mentors?
Mike: I had a mentor, and I talk about this in the book a little bit. My mentor, going into, as I was starting Grubhub, his name was Chuck Templeton. He was the founder of OpenTable. And so he had done a food related business seven or eight years before I had done Grubhub. And the most valuable thing about mentors is that they point out your blind spots. All of us, none of us are good at everything. And all of us make assumptions about the world. And we all have our own sets of information and data that we collect, whether we watch the news or we get it from Reddit or wherever we get our news and our knowledge. And because of that, because you can’t perceive everything and because you have your own belief systems, it’s impossible to see your own blind spots. And so, having a mentor who can point out to you, “Hey, you know you’re wrong about this thing,” or “Hey, are you sure you treated that person the way that you would like to be treated?” It’s incredibly helpful. And it can be hard as an entrepreneur to have people who are really that honest with you. And so having a mentor who’s outside the company, but still committed and involved in you as a person, is incredibly valuable. And that’s what Chuck did for me.
Christina: What should be considered when creating a marketing strategy?
Mike: So, certainly, it’s important to know your audience. Marketing, ultimately, is about getting exposure for your product so that you can sell it, right? And so, it has to start all the way with who your audience is and has to go all the way through, are they actually purchasing whatever it is that you’re advertising? It’s not enough to say, I’ve got a thousand eyeballs on the website. That doesn’t do anybody any good. Getting a thousand eyeballs from people who might want to buy your product, who then [will] actually buy your product, is a marketing strategy. And so, I think it has to be holistic in that sense. And then it has to be authentic, right? So, you have to know who you are as a company or as a business, or as an entrepreneur, so that you can represent that authentically. So, it’s important to make sure that it’s, you’re trying to share what value you can bring with your product, or what your business does, that it’s done authentically and that it’s goal oriented. And so, I think that those are the building blocks for an effective marketing strategy.
Christina: Burnout is a big issue today. What are your tips to overcome burnout?
Mike: I don’t know. [laughter] I worked real hard at Grubhub and then ended up taking a bike ride across the country, in part because I was burnt out. Nowadays I’m a little bit more careful about that and a little bit thoughtful about what my goals are with the business that I’m running at fixer.com. But then also, what are my goals with regards to my family and my health? And so, understanding those things upfront and then carving out the right amount of time for each one, certainly feels like a longer-term strategy than what I did the first time around, which was burn the midnight oil for 10 years. That did not… Well, it worked. Actually, it worked financially great, but it left me burnt out and like a husk at the end, and I had to spend years recovering from that. And so, I think taking a more holistic approach early on probably would’ve been a better idea.
Christina: What has been your most successful accomplishment with Grubhub?
Mike: I think the thing that I consider the success at Grubhub was, just after the housing crisis in 2007–2008, I had restaurateurs who expressed thanks to me because I kept… Grubhub had kept their restaurants in business through this huge economic downturn, this huge economic crash. And ultimately, we grew to the point where we had 70,000 restaurants on the website, and the restaurants loved us. Our product was really good for them. We made it more likely that they would stay in business. We made restaurants more profitable, and hundreds of restaurants contacted me personally to thank me for that. And so that, for the time that I was there, that’s why I would consider it a success. I also consider it a success because of the employees that I worked with.
I think I hired around 4000 employees. And at any one given time, I think the most I had reporting to me was like 2500 people. And a lot of those people sent me emails saying the company changed their lives and the opportunity that they got there and the cash that they made, but also the trust that was put in them to grow in their careers, really just made a huge difference in their lives. And I tell you, when you get one of those thank-you cards, I get all teary, like, this is amazing. This is what it’s all about. This is great. Also, it was nice to have a financial return from the business, but that’s not the primary thing that I think of in terms of what the success was from that business. It was really about helping our customers and enriching the lives of our employees, it is why I consider the business a success.
Christina: Can you talk a little bit about your book before we sign off?
Mike: Sure. So, Hangry is the story of starting Grubhub in my apartment. It’s not like a typical startup story. I didn’t go to a business school and figure out how to run a business and then decide to run a startup. I was cranky and I wanted a pizza. And I hated using the yellow pages. That was what I was cranky about. And so, I created a website, so I didn’t have to use the yellow pages. And then it evolved from there to online ordering and then became a business. And then I was like, “Hey, maybe I can quit my job and pay off my school loans with this business I created.” And then I overshot; not only did I do that, it got really big. And so, it’s that story and then what happens as the company gets so big that I don’t have control over it anymore.
And then it became a public company. And what the emotional experience is of seeing the thing that you created spin out of your control, and then ultimately became a force, maybe not for good, from the restaurant industry’s perspective, and from independent restaurants’ perspective. And how that was frustrating to experience that and then what to do with that. What next? How do I take that? And then what’s the next step? If I didn’t love the way that happened, how do I do it better the next time? And so that’s really what the book is about. And the main theme in the book is being thoughtful about what it is you’re trying to accomplish.
And then just making sure that that’s a personal goal. That you don’t take the definition of success from what other people are telling you what success should be but defining it for yourself and then what it was like to go through that experience for me. And then interspersed with that is, after the whole experience, after the IPO, I did this huge bike ride, got a chance to reflect on what I had accomplished and how I had changed the country, as I was riding across the country. And I happened to think it’s pretty funny. So yeah, it’s available, starting November 1st, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. And it’s available for pre-order prior to that.
Christina: Okay. Thank you so much, Mike.
Mike: All right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.