Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today. This episode features Joseph Lai and Wenjing Yu, the founders of BentoCart.
Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus. I'm your host, Jade Wang.
And if you have questions for our guests, please email them in in the email address down below the screen.
Welcome to the show, Joseph and Wenjing. Hey, guys.
So Joseph and Wenjing are the founders of Bento Club or Bento Cart. What is the official name?
Bento Cart. Bento Cart. Can you describe to us how Bento Cart works?
Yeah, so it's actually quite simple. We work with local restaurants to create meals that travel well and reheat beautifully.
So work from home parents and professionals can stock up on these ready -to-eat meals.
Cool. Can you tell us how you differentiate yourselves between other ready-to-eat meals, whether they are bought from a grocery store or other delivery services?
Yeah, I think both Wenjing and I, we're pretty into food, like big foodies.
And I think one of the kind of observation we have in the market is I think a lot of people approach food with a very manufacturer mindset.
They all think, hey, you want to scale, you want to have margin.
Why don't you just doing a big factory, you know, mass produce it? But our observation is, hey, you know, there's a reason why restaurant as an industry is probably the most fragmented business out there.
There's a reason for that, right?
Why is it like nastily feeding the world right now? Why isn't McDonald's like 100% or 80% what we eat now by just branching to more cuisines?
The reason, I mean, at least like, you know, our belief is it's a field where it's very personalized.
It's very culturally rooted, that everyone has their own home taste that they are seeking.
And you just simply cannot, at least with the technology today, or the manufacturing process today, you cannot reproduce that.
And that's why there's so many restaurants, a lot of time run by immigrants, where they import, or sometimes they even like fly back to their hometown to bring back the fermented tea leaves, or you know, that Sichuan peppercorn that only grows on this mountain, and then they actually serve that to their customer.
And they are, this is the only way to kind of have that level of diversity, and the level of intensity and flavor that's authentic.
And we think that, hey, that's, that's actually how things should be for this industry.
So even, so ready to eat meal is a format that's very suitable for, especially COVID, or sheltering place right now, that for these families and for these business professionals.
And we do think even in this format, the food should come from individual restaurants, individual owners who knows that the taste of their home dishes, and to serve the customers.
And we think this is way better. And I mean, we obviously have been customers of like, you know, freshly or Monterey when it was still around.
It's like, it's great, it's healthy, but you eat it for like two months, it starts to get repetitive.
Two weeks. So that's why like, they all kind of, I don't know, I don't think any of them have become like a huge company so far.
It's like, yes, you have a specific convenience driven people who just, they value convenience so much, they don't care so much about like, whether it's catering, kitchen or not.
Right. So that that's like the full our thesis of like, why we're different.
We are all about working with individual mom, pop, oftentimes like restaurants and make their food available to people who appreciate them.
So back when I was in the Bay Area, you know, as early as about a year ago, your model was very different.
Can you tell us about the, the way that the year 2020 has been treating you and, and, and how you've been holding up under, under the pandemic and all the market shifts?
It's a total change, right? So prior to this new model, we have a very heavy focus on office buildings.
And we help office workers order food from their favorite restaurants.
And the way we, we make it, you know, economically feasible is by aggregating orders.
So we can transport food restaurant that's not necessarily in downtown area to where this office building are.
So say in San Francisco, you know, there's a lot of kind of small neighborhood restaurants, that's like five miles away from where office buildings are.
Now, all of a sudden, with our service, you can actually access these food.
And that was our model of aggregation of demand and using aggregation to make logistic work.
Well, March 16, shelter-in-place hit San Francisco.
Overnight, there's like zero people, like, Even today, there's no people on the street.
So it's kind of crazy. I think like there's some memes running on Internet with founders having all these accolades, like patty B.
And then, you know, ultimately market wins, they just kind of knock you out, like one punch.
It's kind of feel like that, but it's like, whoa, what happened? The market all of a sudden just shipped completely.
The market that the customer base we built over more than a year just vanished, at least temporarily.
And it's a slow recovery at this point.
And what do we do, you know? I think even like people are different.
Before COVID, they work in the office. And right now, they work at home, but they still have the needs of how to eat, and they want good food.
So we still know, like, our customers still have the needs.
That's why we are working on, like, solve the problem right now.
Yeah. So we actually have an intermediate pivot before, you know, the current model, which was we were focusing on condo buildings, which is intuitively high density.
And basically, we shipped our office building delivery kind of operation to condo buildings, signing deals with, like, big condo buildings with, you know, a couple hundred units per building.
It works okay. Yeah.
But I think the problem is, like, most of the people doesn't live in a condo building.
We want to serve more of our customers, even if they live in a suburb or a single family house, wherever they are, we still want to serve the needs.
So once we shifted to residential, we actually noticed some patterns or some outliers among our customers.
So normally, people just order, you know, one meal or their lunch for the day.
And we started noticing some customers who are ordering, like, you know, $300 worth of food.
And we actually sometimes talk to them and then realize they're not even, like, a big family.
It's just, like, this one guy, you know, like, pick up, like, huge, several totes of food from our driver.
And we're like, what are you doing?
And can you tell us, like, what's going on here? And he's like, oh, yeah, I hate, like, you know, picking up food every single day from delivery drivers.
I just want to have all this food in the fridge. I'm stockpiling, like, and this food will be just so convenient.
I can just call the fridge. You know, I don't need to meet you at, like, 12 o'clock or wait for your phone calls to go down, run downstairs.
If I want, I'm in the middle of a voice call, I can just be at 3 p.m.
or at night if I want to eat at 8 p.m. I can do that because it's already in the fridge.
So we kind of start seeing more and more of that usage pattern.
And we realize, wow, there's actually an unsolved need here. And people are organically seeking a solution that's a good balance between convenience and variety through our service.
So we basically create this, like, the current model to fulfill that need that really just customer teaching us, you know, what they are looking for.
Yeah, and certainly in comparison to the, the regular sort of meal prep way that a lot of healthy living fit people live their lives, like, I, it's certainly, it's certainly really awesome to be able to go to the fridge and have the options, like, oh, there's Thai food, there's Indian food, there's Korean, there's Mongolian, there's, there's dumplings.
Yeah, we carry some kind of meal kit -ish items too, because there are certain categories of food, you know, like dumpling or like pasta.
I just got on the phone from, like, an Italian restaurant, and they're like, we, pasta must be cooked fresh, you know, like, you can't deliver this stuff, you can't even refrigerate it.
So we'll create it like a custom meal kit, right, for them, or with them, you know, and that's, it makes total sense, right, you know, like, I think noodles is another one, this can be cooked fresh, but it's actually pretty easy, you know, you already get a soup base, you know, and you do this, boil something, in three minutes, you have your meal.
So, shifting gears a little bit, can you tell me a little bit about how the two of you met and started the company?
Oh, yeah, that's a, that's a fun one. So, we didn't know each other, back before, before Bento Car, and Wenjing is actually a customer.
Early customer. Yeah, so I started out as a solo founder, and I basically code some very basic website, and then drive, like, oh, I was my own driver, and Wenjing was an early adopter, and she bought, like, maybe, like, once a week.
Yeah. Yeah, for my, like, earliest version of this product, which is also another different thing, but, and every time she picks out her food, she asks a lot of very, you know, insightful questions.
It just sounds like this person knows the business well, and, and I think later on, I, I found out, like, she actually was an engineer at Uber Eats, and actually solving the exact problem of logistic efficiency.
Unfortunately, yeah, but by that time, she wasn't working for Uber Eats anymore.
Yeah, and then, like, do you want to add there?
Oh, and also, when I pick out the food, I will look at, okay, how much Joseph sell today, and then later, and then sell way more.
Yeah, she reverse -engineered our order number scheme. Basically, just our, it's our database primary key, right, and then just our increment.
So, she's like, okay, last week, I bought, this week, I bought the Delta, is how many orders?
Yeah. And then, look at the, his car, I know, oh, okay, he's the only driver, because he always have all the food in his car.
Yeah, it's a very simple operation back then, but, you know, she's, she, you're running your company at the time, too.
Yeah, I was looking for different opportunity at that time.
Yeah, so, we decided to, hey, work on a feature together first, and worked out really well, and, you know, decided to co-found this company together, and it just totally changed the trajectory.
I would say, I learned a lot from Wenjing, just, we have a pretty different style in managing operation or, like, running businesses.
So, it's very, I think, this is one of the most lucky thing in the journey of starting a company.
Like, I know a lot of founders, friend, they struggle to find a co-founder, or they have co-founder breakup, or they have, like, lawyers, and, you know, like, mediating, all kinds of stuff, and I literally, they asked me, like, how did you find a co-founder?
I just, like, I think, I don't, I don't think it's reproducible, like, I think it's also very, Recruit your early customers.
It's almost like San Francisco, right? You can meet your CTO, like, just by serving, delivering lunches, you know, like, around, around San Francisco.
And then, and then you two decided to go through YC. Yeah, yeah, yeah, 2000, winter 2019, where that's our batch.
How was the experience for you?
It's super exciting. I actually think a lot of time, people just look at the money, and just like, okay, you know, this Accelerator give you, you know, 115, this one give you 150, they're all the same, like, why, why does it matter?
I think, besides the pedigree, or the brand, a lot of it is the network of founders.
I definitely have, haven't been exposed to such a high concentration of very impressive people.
They, they're all good at different things. And it becomes a great resource for me to tap into and learn.
Say, for example, hiring driver is hard, you know, then, like, I can actually tap into the network, like, hey, anyone have advice on this?
And you know, you have, like, someone who literally run, like, a marketplace for laborers, like, we find you, and hey, let me get on a call with you tomorrow afternoon.
So things like that happens. And I do feel like a lot of time, just by having people helping you sharing their expertise, they save you like months of waste of time and money to do things the wrong way.
And also, their first-hand experience, they just do it, like, last month, or a few months ago.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So very hands-on. It's not, you know, someone who had a success, successful business 20 years ago, give you a very high-level survival bias.
It's still useful, but less valuable. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like, it's better to get meta feedback from, you know, really experienced people, anything like that, yeah.
And also, it gives us, like, a great group of mentors. Yes, yes. Yeah, even after YC, like, demo day, whenever we have, I mean, every bottleneck or a bigger decision, so we can schedule office hours with any mentor, YC partner, yeah, you can find.
And different partners have the different strengths. Yeah, so I think it's really useful.
Yeah, that's totally true. In a similar vein, if the two of you were placed into a magical Zoom call with, with yourselves from way back in the early days of, you know, before you hired your first driver, what would that conversation be like?
Like, between us or to ourself individually? To yourselves from, like, with a, with a, you know, multi-year time difference.
You can go first.
I can go first. I, yeah, I think for me, it's gonna be, which doesn't sound that surprising, but I, I'm gonna tell myself, like, dude, this is actually harder than you think.
I remember I had this, like, spreadsheet of, like, my growth model and, like, how fast I'm gonna sell.
I'm like, okay, first month my goal is to sell 50 lunches per day.
You know, second month, you know, 100 and then, like, 300 and, like, okay, now break even.
Everything's gonna be great. I can bootstrap this thing, fine.
50 was so hard. Like, selling 50 meals, like, per day is actually pretty hard to get to.
I think, like, along the journey, we definitely learned, like, how important as a consumer product, finding your customers first is critical.
I guess maybe it's not just consumer, right, even enterprise. In today's market, I think maybe back in the day, maybe in the 60s or 50s, you could, it might, it was a supplier first market.
You have exclusive, right, and blah, you find the supplier from Italy or, like, Taiwan, then you can just, like, own the market.
But these days, like, you know, supplies there is global, right, and then they want to work with as many platforms, as many marketplaces as possible.
It's really hard to get any sort of exclusive supplies.
Same for restaurant industry. They can always make one more salad.
Why do they have to go exclusive with you? So, it's all about, like, getting the customers.
And then that's something I don't think I realized back then, was very optimistic.
So, my financial, personal financial plan was a little bit off, let's put it that way.
Yeah. I mean, for me, I think at early days, I just got out of my engineer job.
I think I, my mindset is more like an engineer than a founder.
So, I think, I can tell you a story. So, when I work at a, like, larger company, whenever you build a new feature or make some improvement, if you have 1% improvement, that's good.
If you have 3%, that's great.
And I still remember at Uber Eats, I have a new feature, and there's an improvement of, like, 10%.
And my co -worker, who is a data scientist, said, oh, this is phenomenal.
We haven't seen two digits improvement for a long time. This is great.
Okay. But as a founder, it's totally different. So, whenever we talk about some new idea, can we get, like, twice better?
Yeah. No? Okay. Two x is, like, minimum.
You can't two x that. I think we learned that. Yeah. I think we always know it, but we know it more, like, better and better over time.
We suffer through it.
Suffer through it. If I can talk to my earlier me, I would say, okay, you should think about this earlier instead of wait for, like, a failure a few times and realize, okay, this is not what I'm looking for.
Yeah. Yeah. Speaking of product market fit and, you know, finding your persona of customers and going after that market, can you tell us a bit more about your customer base?
The impression I mostly have is a lot of the same working professionals who had been buying lunches beforehand, but now some of them are working from home parents who have, you know, children to take care of who are doing virtual learning and who are, you know, breaking at the seams because they're trying to two-and-a-half full-time jobs.
Is that mental image about right? I think I can use myself as an example.
I think both my husband and I have a very demanding job and also, additionally, we have our first kid this April.
Wow. Congratulations. Thank you. With two full-time jobs and a newborn at home, it's really hard to first, like, cooking is off our map and also sometimes we think about maybe we can order, like, delivery service, but the problem is you have three meals per day.
If you add, like, a late-night snack, that's even one more.
So, you cannot, like, keep ordering all the time and you don't know when you can get it.
So, that's why I think we really need to order as much food as possible and put it in the fridge.
So, whenever we are hungry and have 15 minutes, sometimes 15 minutes is not easy when you have a baby at home.
Whenever we have 15 minutes, we just, like, find the food we want to eat in the fridge and reheat it in three minutes, then we can enjoy it.
It's really convenient and you don't need to coordinate with, like, a driver or coordinate with your family member when you want to eat.
You just do it whenever you feel like it.
So, that makes our life way more, way easier and also we don't compromise on what we eat.
We still enjoy the food we like and I don't think I eat, like, less than any time before.
Yeah. I think I still, like, have all those things I enjoy.
I think Wenjing's family is definitely very representative.
I have another anecdote to share. So, one of the features of our service is we're very on time.
So, we'll give our customer a scheduled time, plus minus three minutes, we'll be there.
So, I remember this, like, really fancy condo building.
Our arrival time used to be, like, 12.05 for lunch and because of logistic optimization, whatever, you know, like, we shift them to, like, 12.21 or something.
Within two days, this very passionate customer wrote an email to us. It's like, did you change the time?
Like, the new time really doesn't work for us because our kids need to do, wake up this time, need to eat by this time, they'd be hungry and then get really cranky and we can't, like, get our day going.
Can you please, like, move it back to, like, 12 .05?
We're like, that's only, like, 15 minutes different.
Like, apparently, I think as a parent, you know, if you also have, like, back-to-back Zoom calls, like, 15 minutes matters and you really need that flexibility because your kids, they have their own schedule and they can't just, they're not that flexible and that's kind of part of our learning just by interacting with customers.
Like, wow, like, I didn't know that's such a valued feature and then also it has to be done in such precision, you know, for, to kind of, so our service just nicely fit into their daily life, like, and that's something I don't think a lot of people, like, have discovered or, like, people as an entrepreneur or, like, services and we're trying to fulfill that.
Speaking of entrepreneurial experiences, Joseph, you're, you are no stranger to food companies, right?
Can you tell us a story about some of your past ventures, starting with the peach jam?
Yeah, so I have this, like, as a tech person, I have this, like, weird kind of two-year detour of my career into manufacturing or food processing.
So what happened was, circa 2011, I was born in Taiwan, so Taiwan still have a drafting system, so at some point in your young life, you have to, like, go back to the army and these days, because they actually give you, like, a social service route, and so I decided to be a teacher in a small village in the mountains of Taiwan, so I went there to teach, and I think that was summer of 2012, and I, it was summer break, right, so there's nothing to do for me as a teacher, and it's also a village which is, like, four hours away from the closest gas station, so there's really, you're just, like, stuck in the middle of the mountain, and it's a farming village where they grow peaches, and I got a lot of free peaches from the parents because they know I'm the teacher, you know, and they are super nice, and I just couldn't finish those peaches, and so I decided, hey, why don't I just preserve them and make some peach jams, and I don't really, I'm not an expert on, like, peach breeds per se, but, like, that particular peach, whatever they grow with some mix of the, they had multiple ones, and I created a mix, and it tastes so good that I was, like, oh my god, like, I can productize this, so I actually drove out of the town and bought a lot of supplies and jar and canning equipment and hire a designer and just created a food product, a peach jam brand in Taiwan and kind of sold it that summer, and I think within a week, being online, it went viral on Facebook, and which is, yeah, Facebook used to be a good channel, like, 2012 in Taiwan, so it just went crazy, you know, hundreds of shares of each post, like, we make, and people just, like, buying peach jams, and that's a really interesting experience where I was able to create a factory in the middle of nowhere and hiring the local aborigines, they actually, yeah, they're, it's an aboriginal village, and kind of create a job opportunity and got the first taste of, I think, I built a thesis of there's plenty of opportunity outside of software or pure tech, and in these kind of industries, if you can bring some of your software automation advantage and also the kind of rigor of building a product, you have a lot of advantage as an entrepreneur, and that's when I got my first taste of, like, well, I mean, I apply some viral marketing, like, you know, on this little jam jar, peach jam, and I create an opportunity for the village, and that was really exciting for me.
Are the folks in the village still making it? They actually make their white label, like, they don't have a good way to create my brand, my label, but, you know, like, it becomes a thing, actually, so people know if you go to this village, besides fresh peaches, they can buy the peach jams.
Yeah, so I was pretty proud of that project.
It was really fun, and after that, I moved back to the States, and I think I, do you want me to talk about the next project, or?
Oh, we'll see. We have three minutes left, so we're gonna, so I would like to make sure we have some time to address both your, both stories from both of your backstories, so Wenjing, you did a lot of engineering work at Facebook and at Uber before starting Bento Cart with Joseph, right?
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path from that?
You were even employee number one at one of the top e-commerce companies in China, is that right?
When I was in college, yeah. Yeah, can you, can you, can you share with us, can you share with the audience a bit about your career path trajectory?
Yeah, I think one of the things I'm really proud of is I actually worked at two startups before I graduated from college.
So, so the first startup is a mobile app startup, and I started work for them since the second year in college.
It was a full-time intern.
Full-time is not like summer intern full-time. It's actually within the semester, I work for them like almost full-time, so I actually got a lot of experience about like how does it like to work as a startup, and then later I also work for the e-commerce startup you just mentioned.
So that's a very interesting experience.
I think it prepared me to be a founder today. Yeah, I think that's my earlier time, and then later I worked for like Instagram and Uber.
I joined Instagram relatively early when they only have like 50-ish people. So yeah, so I can know a lot of people like who was the original team of Instagram.
You know what kind of people are they, and then later joined the Uber at 2015.
Yeah, and at that time I think people at Uber still like hustling all the time and trying to move fast and build a feature really fast.
I think that's also the experience I would benefit a lot even today.
Nice, yeah. Well, in our very last minute, thank you so much for being on the show.
Yeah, thank you, Jay. Thank you.