September 7, 2018
An interview with Tyler Wiest, founder of Ontray, a technology company that allows restaurant clients to spin up their own website and online ordering capabilities so that they can own and manage their customers’ experience.
Is entrepreneurship part of someone’s fabric when they are born? Or are creative curiosity, the need to find and solve problems, and the inclination to lead learned and nurtured over time?
For some founders entrepreneurship seems inevitable, like they have this constant itch, and they aren’t happy unless they are putting themselves through the gauntlet.
This is the story for Tyler Wiest, who was building online business ventures beginning in his early teenage years. It goes back as early as age 14, when he launched PuppyHideout.com. Interestingly, it was not at all inspired by a love for dogs (nothing against dogs). Tyler did his research and found that there was very little competition online for dog carriers and similar products and thought he would take advantage of the opportunity.
A few years later, Tyler again found an untapped opportunity while at college in Boston. He built CampusPost.com and it soon was a popular tool across his campus for students looking to communicate with each other.
“I have a passion for building technologies, but always grounded within business context.”
At first, I may have incorrectly tagged Tyler as a CTO acting as CEO, but he politely adjusted my perspective. It turns out that he naturally business inclined, and is comfortable taking the lumps as a startup founder. He actually enjoys breaking away from the dev ops and technical work to go out and sell. I see this as an incredible advantage for Tyler and Ontray. Tyler is the best of both worlds – he can cross into both territories and ensure that the business and the product are both developing in the right ways. It may be generalizing, but it’s not often that you find a startup CEO, that can actually perform the role well, that could just as well be the CTO if he decided to be. A CTO turned CEO is also not a sure thing. And this didn’t just happen to Tyler overnight.
Tyler designed it this way, at least somewhat intentionally. Starting with PuppyHideout and CampusPosts, then rising the ranks within Jarvus Innovations, a Dev shop based in Philadelphia, he fine tuned his skills and prepared himself to launch Ontray.
Currently serving approximately 145 restaurant clients
$1.3MM annualized run rate as of Sept 2018
Ontray spins up a domain, hosting, a website, and online ordering for their restaurant clients, and takes a 5% transaction fee on all orders.
Any food delivery business that wants to own the customer experience and control their delivery orders.
Tyler is currently raising a seed round to grow his development team and invest in marketing and advertising.
When it was clear that Tyler wanted a change, The team at Jarvus embraced his desire to shift from full time developer to startup CEO. They collaborated on a plan to spin out and incubate a new technology company using Jarvus’s team and resources as a platform.
That was mid 2017. Fast forward a year and Tyler is running Ontray as a lean operation, no longer in the incubator phase and looking to grow quickly. Tyler takes pride in the fact that he has built Ontray brick by brick and is patient when speaking about the future. With 145 customers and 10,000+ orders tallied, the proof of concept is undeniable. Ontray is serving restaurants all over the country and abroad, and they love it. It’s time for the next step.
What Will You Be When You Grow Up?
A fundamental question Tyler may need to answer sooner rather than later is whether Ontray is destined to be a restaurant platform or white-label network solution. Currently, Tyler has had success both launching branded restaurant sites for individual restaurant clients, and launching custom restaurant networks for whole communities, tying together many individual restaurant sites into one platform. Both angles have their benefits, but the sales process is very different for each.
When I asked Tyler about this, he was quick to state that it’s all about the mission to serve restaurant customers, with a customer-first approach. It still leaves me wondering… is it healthy to splinter your business model, even if it serves the core mission of your business? Tyler is increasing his revenue and diversifying his revenue channels by adding these restaurant networks but sales/marketing, brand messaging, and positioning all must splinter as well to reach two slightly different customers (direct and network) with slightly different needs. I’m not sure if Tyler plans to continue with this two pronged approach and whether it will work out long term. A lot of this comes down to the difference between mission and positioning and how well the two business units can co-exist without spreading the Ontray team too thin. At some point it may make sense to split the two business units fully or focus on one or the other.
The Holy Grail
When I look at Ontray, I see a lot of potential: a founder with diverse skills, a business with strong proof of concept, and attractive options for the future. I am constantly pulled into two simple questions… 1) how does Ontray scale up its marketing and sales efforts? and 2) how does Ontray build on the relationships it has with current customers? If Ontray could find a way to add additional value and increase the average monthly revenue of active clients, I think it would seal the deal for them. As a customer-centric brand, Ontray forges a bond with their restaurant partners, helping them to improve the relationship with customers, while often lowering costs. Now, what can they do with that relationship beyond the 5% transaction fee, I wonder? Only time will tell, and I believe Tyler is working away at this question as we speak. He’s always a few steps ahead.
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