Venga on path to growth after two years of change,


Winston Bao Lord, center, Sam von Pollaro, right, and Karl Johnson, of District-based Venga. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Several desks in Venga’s single-suite headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW have yet to be filled. If the company’s current trajectory holds, they may serve as a sign of growth to come.

Co-founder Winston Bao Lord said the nine-person company is looking to bulk up its sales staff — adding as many as one or two employees a month — to its office in D.C. and other cities around the country where Venga is selling software that allows restaurants to track patrons’ dining habits.

It’s a substantive change for a company where just two years ago the co-founders and a group of contract employees and interns were huddled in a shared office space in Chinatown.

But Venga is, in many ways, a very different company today compared with the day it launched. It’s a narrative common among start-ups: The founders began with one idea, then kept tweaking and overhauling until the business takes off or the cash runs out.

“Start-ups are not for everyone. You’re either born with an innate desire to build something or you’re not,” Lord said. “For the trials and tribulations we’ve faced over the years, you need to have a certain level of stomach to handle that.”

Venga came to market at the height of the daily deal craze. District-based LivingSocial and its main rival, Groupon, were attracting gobs of attention and investment dollars as they added hundreds of employees and broke into new geographic markets. Many were eager to get in on the business.

Venga, however, fancied itself the anti-daily deal. It was a smartphone app for upscale restaurants to pull in new clients by advertising unique experiences or special dishes rather than steep discounts. The response from consumers was tepid.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned, and you always hear this in start-up world, is don’t build something you think people want, but build something you know people need,” Lord said.

That’s what Lord and co-founder Sam von Pollaro think they’ve got now. Their software allows restaurateurs to monitor how often patrons visit, what they order, how much they spend and how they rate their experience.

The restaurant can then use that information to target groups of patrons with specific advertisements or correct a negative experience by contacting the customer who penned a bad review.

“It’s just all about being targeted,” Lord said. “It’s helping the restaurant because it’s keeping people engaged, and it’s helping me because it’s not cluttering my in-box with useless stuff.”

The software can either be implemented in the form of a loyalty program that customers opt into or, since earlier this year, it can be integrated with Open Table, a Web site that facilitates dining reservations.

Venga is battling a crowded market of loyalty programs that help merchants retain customers by offering rewards or discounts. But the founders said they believe the firm’s focus on customer information and data sets it apart.

“It’s much more about developing a long-lasting relationship between the restaurant and the guest and you do that by providing unique experiences, not by giving them $5 back on their credit card, at least that’s our theory,” Lord said.

The company’s sales strategy has changed along with its software. Venga used to sell its marketing app door-to-door in meetings with restaurant managers. Now the company targets restaurant groups with several locations, allowing it to sell beyond D.C. in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

Restaurants pay a flat, monthly fee to Venga based on the number of establishments using the software. Locally, it’s software can be found in Taylor Gourmet, Ping Pong and La Tasca, as well as restaurants owned by Think Food Group, such as Jaleo.

“Right now, our focus has shifted to going to restaurant groups of five to 100 locations,” Lord said. “We’re finding the sales cycle being only slightly longer for a five-restaurant group compared to one restaurant, so why not get five times the revenue?” Lord said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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