“We were two guys with two backpacks and a dream. We rolled into MakeOffices and said ‘wow this is amazing.'”
That’s how Cherian Thomas, the CEO and co-founder of Spotluck, describes his first day at MakeOffices. Since launching in June 2014, Thomas and his team have grown to 16 employees and counting. Spotluck, a former member company at MakeOffices Bethesda, is a dining app which allows users to receive discounts at local spots while also helping restaurant owners fill their shops. The app is currently exclusive to customers and neighborhood restaurants in the DC metro area, but Thomas has bold plans in place to expand to Philadelphia (as a member at our Philly coworking space ) and other cities throughout the U.S.
When Thomas came up with the idea for Spotluck while completing his Master’s degree at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, he set out to solve two problems. One challenge was the ongoing struggle customers have of deciding where to eat, and the second was yield management in the restaurant space. Thomas remembers, “it was kind of just an idea until we got the right team involved, specifically Brad Sayler, who is our co-founder and CFO.” The two made a great dichotomy. Sayler was a corporate attorney and CPA while Thomas held two Master’s degrees in business and had experience building an inventory management app.
Spotluck has since taken the restaurant business by storm—it’s the now the #1 dining app on the Apple iTunes store outranking other great companies like OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, and GrubHub. With a true understanding of what both customers and restaurants need, it’s no wonder Spotluck has been such a runaway success in the area.
How does Spotluck work?
Spotluck is great for indecisive diners who know they want to try local restaurants, but aren’t sure where to go. “Instead of arguing where to eat…you get one spin per day per neighborhood and it makes the decision for you,” Thomas says. “we can actually get someone to get off the couch on a rainy Tuesday because they got one spin, they landed on a restaurant randomly, they got an exclusive incentive, and it’s going to expire tonight so you better use it.”
In addition to getting users off their couch, Spotluck helps local restaurants during off hours, aims to increase diner awareness, and provides GPS-verified reviews that are guaranteed to be from real customers. Thomas explains, “from the restaurant perspective, Spotluck is smart. It understands the challenges that restaurants have, and it tries to minimize or negate those things…Spotluck’s propriety software changes discounts based on the day, time, weather, and other factors. It’s really about making sure that restaurants are protected, also making sure that local restaurants have a platform to collaborate with one another, to make sure that their brand is seen.”
What’s the catch?
There is no catch! Everyone benefits from Spotluck. They partner exclusively with “certified local” restaurants, forming a neighborhood-centric community of local “spots” who help market each other and the neighborhood.
What differentiates Spotluck from other dining apps is that “It’s very very merchant-centric.” Thomas says, “Restaurants like Spotluck because it’s very smart, sophisticated, and scientific, and it’s using factors that affect restaurant occupancy to make sure that it protects them, their brand and their bottom line.”
Spotluck, as Thomas explains, is “creating that win-win marketplace” for both customers and local restaurants.
Getting out of the basement and into our coworking community
According to Thomas, Spotluck was a “traditional startup story,” a university project turned self-funded basement project, turned successful startup. Spotluck joined MakeOffices Bethesda after the two-man team outgrew Thomas’ basement and felt ready to propel the company to the next level.
“MakeOffices was great because it allowed us to have the professionalism of a company without the hard costs that are associated with your own space,” Thomas remembers. “We have advisors who are at our company now because we met them as fellow tenants at MakeOffices. It’s a great environment to share ideas, to share best practices.”
Even with a solid business plan, there were certainly challenges along the way. Before Spotluck grew to the size it is today, Thomas was knocking door to door at restaurants. “We hustled, we went in and we demanded 5 minutes. We always put a smile on our face even when a restaurant didn’t have time or didn’t want to sit down with us,” Thomas muses.
Spotluck went from “two guys with two backpacks and a dream,” to the #1 dining app on the apple iTunes store because of hard work and elbow grease, through hiring great team members, and with a little help from the coworking community.
Why choose D.C.? And what’s next?
Though the idea for Spotluck was spawned within the walls of Georgetown University, Thomas was strategic about his decision to launch the app in D.C. His reasoning? The D.C. area is “extremely foodie, arguably one of the largest dining booms in the nation right now…it’s very very neighborhood centric, so one of the reasons we really like D.C. is that it is a melting pot.”
With people from different backgrounds in one place, and a wide variety and high concentration of local restaurants, D.C. provided the perfect test market to “prove that Spotluck works for anyone and everyone both in the consumer and restaurant space.”
Now, Spotluck has exciting plans for expansion to Philadelphia, because like D.C., the city checked all the right boxes – a thriving local restaurant scene, a tech community, and proximity to home. In fact, the app will be expanding at MakeOffices, because, as Thomas notes, “knowing that we could replicate a kind of home away from home was also an integral part of our decision [to expand to Philadelphia].” Soon, Thomas hopes to continue the growth momentum through expansion to New York, Chicago and Boston.
Any advice for early-stage startups?
Now that Spotluck has established itself in the D.C. tech community, Thomas and Sayler pay it forward by advising early-stage startups. “We’re not the greatest company in the world, but we have a decent foundation and a kick-ass team that’s amazing…people see that and feel that energy and it gives them a little hope to take the plunge.”
One piece of advice Thomas gives to startups is “you can’t do it by yourself, find the right team, hire people who are smarter than you, team up with people who are better than you at whatever role they’re going to be functioning in.”
“The second bit of advice is product-centric. Get it out, record everything, and learn from it. [The product] is never going to be finished.” For Thomas, the product is constantly improving and growing from feedback both from users and restaurants. “You could think you have the best idea, but your stakeholders are going to tell you what ideas they want to see, and you have to listen.”
One of the things that inspires Thomas the most, is “seeing other people in the D.C. environment take their companies to the next echelon.” He says, “I don’t think Spotluck would exist without the foundation that MakeOffices gave us, because it allowed us to be professional.”
From working out of a basement, to a two-man team in our Bethesda office, to taking over the D.C. dining scene, and now expansion to Philly, we’re inspired by everything Spotluck has accomplished – we would not exist without the great members that help our coworking communities grow and thrive.