It has been a crazy holiday weekend.
In three days we went from relative obscurity to being the punching bag of the entire tech industry. I suppose some might envy me for all the media attention I’ve received for a side project I built in my underwear one night after waiting in line for a burrito, but that sort of attention does not a legitimate business make. Getting covered in CNN has its perks, to be sure, but a business needs customers, and most of all, trust.
Let’s start with customers. Opening a firehose of traffic on ReservationHop, with the sales that followed, showed that there is indeed a validated secondary market for restaurant reservations. Paid restaurant reservations are not only desirable, but the market is heading that way as people awaken to the inefficiencies in the current system. Some restaurants, annoyed by empty tables reserved for no-shows and short-sats, are moving towards ticketing and deposits anyway. Multiple chefs and owners have pointed to OpenTable as more of a problem than a solution. A paid reservation system makes sense as a way to dissuade no-shows, distribute covers throughout the week, and even increase fairness for customers. As Tyler Cowen put it in the New York Times, “Money is ultimately a more egalitarian force than privilege, as everyone’s greenbacks are worth the same.”
The biggest criticism we have received has not been about the principle of selling reservations, but rather the methods we initially employed to hack this project into existence. We appreciate the criticism and honest feedback, which is why today ReservationHop is doing a “soft pivot” to address the same customer demand, and in addition work with the restaurants directly to cut them in on the deal. We believe that restaurants can benefit from selling reservations for a couple tables per weekend. This will not only reduce no-shows and mediate demand for their peak reservations slots in favor of off-peak times, but they will also get paid for filling these tables, instead of the other way around.
It was never our intention to harm the restaurants. In fact, as we promised from the beginning, we called to cancel 15 or so reservations that didn’t get claimed this weekend 4-6 hours in advance, so restaurants would not have to deal with no-shows.
In addition, I spent a lot of time in the last couple days speaking and meeting with restaurant owners personally, offering my apologies for the troubles we may have caused them and discussing how we may work together in the future on the massive opportunity that has presented itself. It has not been lost on many restaurants that with the sort of media coverage ReservationHop is receiving and the hundreds of local customers begging for instant access to their tables, they are not only getting free advertising as the hottest ticket in town, but are given the opportunity to make money filling their best tables at near-zero risk of no-shows. This is of course an opportunity that we need to explore with them over the next couple of weeks.
This also means that ReservationHop will be evolving, as all early-stage startups do, as we experiment to find a product-market fit. We may find that our early assumptions about customers or restaurants are faulty, or there are better services we can offer to the foodies of San Francisco that are more scalable. Or we may find that this entire venture doesn’t really have a large enough addressable market. One of the interesting things about the last couple of days is how our initial in experiment in customer demand was taken to be “what we do,” with little acknowledgement or understanding (at least outside of the lean-startup-model-aware tech community) that rapid iterations on business models are the norm. As far as I can tell, it is rare for early stage startups to have this much press attention this early in the game. One of the challenges for us will be to navigate the extreme press scrutiny while simultaneously experimenting to find a model that works.
As we evolve, we will continue to let customers have exclusive access to the best tables in the city, while making a new promise to restaurants: we hear your concerns, and we want to work with you. As always, if you are in the restaurant business please drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.