In the second week of March 2020, Krystle Mobayeni felt good. The entrepreneur was getting ready to welcome a new class of salespeople at her Restaurant Tech company, BentoBox. Earlier that week there was talk that the “novel coronavirus” could shut down offices, so the whole company did a practice work from home day that Thursday. Then New York City closed all in-person dining, which would have a major impact on the livelihood of restaurants, and therefore their customer base. This drastic move forced Krystle to unfortunately rescind those new job offers and focus on doing everything possible to keep the lights on, current jobs alive, and employees motivated.
In our latest Forum Innovator Series “Power of the Pivot”, Krystle shared her leadership approach through the pandemic, and how transparency, decision making based on values, and putting both employees and customers first, can lead to success. Not only was BentoBox able to hire back most of the people it laid off and furloughed, but the company was able to recoup almost all of its lost growth from March, April, and May 2020. Here are three key takeaways from the session:
1) Communication, respect and transparency make culture
BentoBox is a digital platform for restaurants, empowering restaurateurs to spin up a website and manage their brands online. So when the pandemic forced everyone into lockdowns, restaurants - and the companies that serve them like BentoBox - were hit hard.
Talking to her head of sales that Thursday after in-person dining was shut down in NYC, it became clear those recently hired sales reps wouldn’t have a job on Monday. After that decision, her Head of Sales had the difficult task of calling each candidate to explain the situation. While they could have just sent a public relations-approved email or zoom recording – as many companies did at the time – Krystle wanted to be more transparent and have it come from the person who would have been their boss.
She carried this value of transparency through the pandemic. Like many companies, BentoBox laid people off – around 20% of the company. However, to ensure her team felt secure and motivated, she sent email updates weekly (or even daily) to employees to keep them in the know – sharing financials, product shifts, and what they were doing to survive through this time.
“When we had to make tough decisions, I think everyone appreciated being kept in the loop,” she said.
2) Change your business to serve customers in times of need
One key feature BentoBox had been working on throughout 2019 was a module powering online ordering for pickup and delivery. The company wanted to help restaurants stand their ground against the high fees charged by delivery marketplaces.
In the original iteration of this module, restaurants had to sign up for the full SaaS platform up front in order to get the online ordering feature. When the pandemic hit, the company swooped into action. Not only did they fast track the completion of this feature, but in five days they made it a standalone feature for restaurants that wanted to offer online ordering without the rest of the website. BentoBox made this module free for restaurants and charged diners a 99 cent fee to order delivery, which she said “they were happy to pay" if that meant restaurants would keep 100% of their profits.
Krystle credits this pivot as what helped BentoBox recover from the blows early in the pandemic. And she said it only worked because they built it for their customers – really looking at what they needed during this time, not for their bottom line.
It was a “dramatic change” from the company’s SaaS model, but they were willing to change their business model to better serve their customers. Instead of taking a huge percentage of profits, they made it simple and transactional. As a result, the platform grew as restaurants clamored to build a sustainable online ordering offering.
3) Lead from your strengths
When Krystle started BentoBox, she assumed that she needed to fit the role of a ‘business’ CEO to succeed. Over time, she realized that her design background actually made her leadership more unique and authentic. COVID confirmed that for her.
The main job of a leader, said Krystle, is to inspire everyone to act and move towards a common goal and mission. On a fundamental level, this is the same as design, which is all about influencing behavior and motivating people with visual and experiential elements. During COVID, as they shifted the product quickly to serve their customers, this became even more apparent.
“It took me a while to learn that I could really lean into [my design background],” said Krystle. “I believe I became a much more authentic leader by doing that.”
Now, she thinks about building her business through the lens of user experience. In good UX design, she said, users should never encounter anything unexpected. That’s how she hopes to continue to lead her team as well.
The power of the pivot
A few key decisions – choosing transparency with the team, rallying around an outcome, shifting their product offering and pricing structure, and leading from her strengths as a designer – helped save BentoBox’s business. As other companies were wondering how they would survive, Krystle said BentoBox managed to grow tremendously in 2020.
Krystle Mobayeni is the Co-Founder and CEO of BentoBox, a hospitality platform that empowers restaurants to own their online presence, profits and relationships. Over 6,000 restaurants worldwide rely on BentoBox to drive high-margin revenue through their websites, including those of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Krystle founded BentoBox in 2013 after working with restaurants as a web designer, where she observed that existing technology drove a wedge between restaurants and their guests. She built BentoBox to provide technology that puts restaurants first. Under Krystle’s leadership, BentoBox grew revenue by 1,130% over three years and has maintained a 98% customer retention rate.