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This is How You Build Partnerships to Make Your Startup Better, Faster, Stronger

Mr. Shore Gregory was skeptical. As owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 in Boston, he gets pitched by a lot of Harvard students who claim to be building the next 'distruptive' app for restauranteurs. Unsurprisingly, this is rarely the case, and the result is a huge waste of time. So when he got approached by Reserve, led by Co-founder and CEO Gregory Hong, he had his guard up. Here was another team with an app designed to improve the dining experience — only something was different. The product actually seemed to answer real needs.

“Right away, I think it was obvious that we had more than an idea — we were able to talk to him about features and show him things he could interact with,” Hong says. “More than that, I think we convinced him that our business depended on the strength of our partnerships with restaurants, and that we were really interested in creating an incredible experience for them, not just the consumers using the app.”

After a number of conversations, Island Creek Oysters was sold, and it's since become one of the startup's strongest advocates. “He realized that we're going all in on building tools that will help restaurants run their businesses better,” says Hong. And so far, this has been the case. For eight months before the app officially launched, Reserve diligently gathered feedback from hundreds of restaurants — as it continues to now — to craft a product that will attract more great restaurants, and in turn more customers.

Balancing all of these relationships, especially through rapid scale, is a massive challenge. But Reserve, a young company with a lot to prove, is approaching it as an opportunity to gain the feedback and influence it needs to become the market leader. In this exclusive interview, Hong shares his advice for startups that need to build strong, healthy partnerships to survive.

Before founding Reserve, Hong worked as a consultant for small businesses. One of their biggest concerns was that startups keep launching, supposedly to help them, but without ever engaging them in the development process. “At the very beginning of Reserve, I realized that there was this huge opportunity to not just listen to restaurants, but to involve them in what we were creating.”

From that point forward, the company got serious about executing on the feedback they fielded from restaurant partners. “We never want to ask people for their feedback and then have them feel like it went nowhere,” says Hong. “I think turning that approach on its head has become core to the whole Reserve experience.” Establishing this robust feedback loop has served two purposes for the startup: Not only has it expedited product development in the right direction, but its drawn the company much closer to the partners who power its platform.

FORGING AWESOME BONDS

“Our number one priority has been figuring out the best way to collaborate with our partners because we want these to be really longstanding relationships,” says Hong. “I think at most startups, there are a lot of cases where they partner with people, vendors, other organizations, but they don't have this long-view perspective.”

In Reserve's case, incorporating a large amount of partner feedback from the beginning was so important that they pushed the app's release date. They ran an Alpha between March and October, during which they talked to hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants about the features they'd like to see in the app, what they thought of existing features, what they would change and why. A lot of the information they collected is manifested in the product that's available in the App Store today. But Reserve hasn't stopped beating this drum. Every day, between all of the company's reps, they talk to nearly every single one of their 100+ restaurant partners.

Needless to say, this requires a massive investment of time, energy and people. But at this phase, it's been more than worth it. The calls the company makes range from light check-ins to more in-depth product discussions, consistently turning up gems about how both restaurants and customers are experiencing the product and what should come next. In every conversation, restaurants are encouraged to be as open and candid as possible.

On top of calls, Reserve's general managers and restaurant operations managers (and often the founders) regularly drop in to get face time with restaurant owners, as well as managers, chefs, waitstaff and hosts. “We want to build relationships with all of these people, and being there in person is such a huge part of that,” says Hong. “When we drop in, we'll take feedback about the product, but that's not the primary concern. Mostly we want to get to know everyone, ideally by name — everyone who might possibly come into contact with the product. We want them to feel like they can call us anytime and we'll know who they are and give them our full attention.”

If you have deep relationships, then when things aren't going 100% smoothly, they'll give you a chance to fix things and learn from the situation.

To get to know as many staff members at their partner restaurants as possible, Hong and his team find out when they're planning to hold their front-of-house or kitchen staff meetings. They'll swing by when everyone is in one spot; they'll offer to do an in-person training on the app so that anyone can ask questions and get answers right away; they'll schedule one-on-one meetings with hosts and and general managers so that people can speak candidly about how things are going. “Without a doubt, the more touch points you have with a partner, the more unbreakable that relationship becomes,” Hong says.

To keep these relationships light and mutually beneficial, he says they try to strike a 50/50 balance between the questions Reserve asks and the questions they answer. “If we're working on any features in particular, we may have a list of questions we want to run through, but we don't want it to go on too long, and we want to provide plenty of time for them to talk about any pain points their running into and really guide the conversation based on their experience with the app,” he says. “We've been really pleased to see that a lot of our partners have strong opinions and ideas about what would help them in their jobs — and we're starting to see the results of hearing those things now in the product.”

BUY INTO THEIR VISION

If your company does rely on partners to provide supply for consumers — like restaurants do for Reserve — you have to make a bit of a sacrifice. What you end up building can't be based solely on your vision or initial plans. You have to cede a stake in how your product develops to the partners themselves. Much of what the Reserve app looks like today has been defined by partner needs and asks. Hong and his team couldn't have anticipated what they ended up with when they first began. They committed to their partners by buying into their visions for the company.

These visions have run the gamut from the big and bold to the seemingly mundane. In the process, Hong has learned how important it is to know your industry inside and out and pay attention to the nuances. For example, by talking to restaurant servers, the Reserve team got a crash course in exactly how fast and frantic it can be to deliver an amazing experience to every table. Once one table is done, it's onto the next with zero time in between. Accordingly, features need to be designed for this velocity.

To get an even better sense of partner expectations, the company is starting a program it calls Reserve After Hours, giving all of its employees the chance to shadow restaurant workers as they do their jobs. The idea is to get to know people well, increase the number of touch points on both sides, and gain a firsthand understanding of what restaurant workers need the app to do for them. By shadowing them in their roles throughout the day, it will be much easier to see where they hit roadblocks, where the app might need to be simplified, etc. And, generally, people are more likely to offer ideas casually as they come up than to send them in an unsolicited email.

“Every time I watch servers work, it blows me away how many interactions they have with the point of sales system over the course of a week or a single evening,” Hong says. “Every single one of those interactions, and how easy it was, and how long it took matters. If all of us at Reserve can have empathy for how fast they need to move and how much they need to get done, then we'll be able to build a product that makes a lot more sense for them.”

If we're present and care enough to see what a day or a week in their life looks like, they know we're trying our best to build an app that's truly for them.

EVOLVE THE PRODUCT TO FIT THEIR NEEDS

Despite all of the data collection that goes into every feature and product change, Hong and his team are not content to just release new things and then wait to hear what people think. They want their partners' input every step of the way. As part of their production cycle, they've built in steps where they show restaurants everything from early designs to intermediate mockups. “We ask our partners what they think before we even start building to make sure we're on the right track,” he says. “We don't want to put resources toward something that our partners don't need or believe in.”

As an example, Reserve worked closely with several of its partners as it built out its accounting system. The way it was initially supposed to work, the company would add together several days of revenue and provide restaurants with a lump sum several days later. But this didn't square with their partners, who explained how important it is for restaurants to see single-day lump sums. Reserve was able to adapt fast and change its accounting structure to make daily deposits. “This is one situation where it might have been easier for us to do it the other way, but it was more important to make our partners happy.”

If you can make a relatively quick fix to show a partner how much you care, do it every time. Don't hesitate.

According to Hong, all startups that work with partners should think about becoming end-to-end solutions for them. As is true of many companies — and especially small businesses — restaurants use a bunch of fragmented, disjointed tools to conduct business every day. There's no one seamless solution that serves all of their needs, but Reserve aspires to fix this.

“If you can figure out a way to eventually take care of all of your partner's needs from start to finish, you've won,” he says. “Being able to talk to the restaurants in our community about our vision to become this type of solution has really gotten a lot more people interested in what we're doing.”

The lesson here: Even if you don't have a comprehensive or holistic offering built yet, it's good to talk about how you want to get there someday, and how what you're doing now fits into that grand plan. That is what inspires people, Hong says. If they weren't able to convince restaurants of this larger ambition, then Reserve would seem like yet another incremental solution that would only end up complicating things. Startups should be vocal about their plans to evolve so they don't fall into this trap.

Hong cites the company's interaction with Los Angeles-based Tar & Roses as a prime example of an ideal collaboration. “We instantly knew that chef and owner Andrew Kirschner (pictured above, right, with Hong in the center) would make a terrific partner. From our very first meeting, his whole team gave us great feedback about what they liked about Reserve and wanted to see more of. Andrew was very open with us about the challenges of running a fast-paced restaurant, and over the course of a few weeks, we were able to prove that our technology wouldn't create a distraction for his staff and would actually help streamline things. Now when we go in there, his staff blows us away with how they're using the product.”

Greg Hong, Co-Founder and CEO of Reserve

From the start, Reserve identified a core group of restaurants — those that had been around for decades — that could offer invaluable insight into the business and how it could be improved. “We've done everything we can to win over these partners from day one by being responsive, listening to their feedback, showing them how it's changed the product,” Hong says. “They're really the taste-makers for us in the restaurant space. Other people listen to them. We knew if we did right by them, they'd be our most powerful advocates when we started to talk to restaurants across the country. That's one of the reasons we took so long to roll out and finalize the product, because we had so many talks with these restaurants.”

To go the extra mile for these core influencers, Reserve gives them early demos of new feature sets, it sends its general managers and restaurant operations managers in to clearly communicate changes to their staff. The company itemizes every difference in user experience and offers in-person training. After that, they reach out regularly to make sure everything is running smoothly. If all's well, they'll push the features live for the rest of their partners.

When a restaurant has provided feedback that has shaped the app in a meaningful way, Reserve makes it known. “We don't just send a note saying, 'Hey this feature is because of you,'” says Hong. “We have a whole follow-up conversation about how they changed the way we're thinking about things, and how much better they've made the product for others like them. They appreciate that so much, they feel like they're really a part of something bigger.”

Spending this quality time with influential partners has its upside.

“You know you're doing something right when your partners are out there spreading your message, not just to other partners but to the consumers using your product too. What we're seeing now is wait staff dropping cards off at people's tables encouraging them to come back using Reserve — that's pretty amazing to us,” says Hong.

If you build your product so that partners feel like they're really contributing, they'll become your best ambassadors.

“Getting partner buy-in does so much to extend your business beyond just building a better product. At this point, our partners are helping us build a better brand and a better experience."

DON'T LET FEEDBACK DROP, EXPLAIN IT

One of the biggest mistakes a startup can make is soliciting feedback that goes absolutely nowhere. You may not remember dropping the ball, but the partners will, and it will affect their opinion of you. This doesn't mean you always have to make the changes they recommend. In Hong's experience, you want to walk the line between executing on everything and “making them feel heard.” But the latter, especially, has become an overused phrase in tech, and can come across as condescending. There's a big difference between making someone feel heard and making them feel considered, Hong says.

The first step is to make sure you're sourcing feedback in responsible, methodical ways. You don't want things to slip through the cracks, so you better design a system where everything gets recorded and passed along.

Reserve, for instance, holds weekly meetings where everyone in a position to receive feedback from partners convenes and relays what they learned. All of the opinions and suggestions they've gathered get logged in a feature reporting tool in real time (they use roadmapping tool Aha!) so it can get reviewed at the end of every week. “We use it to see if consistent issues pop up, or consistent consensus that we should be building something in particular. In either case, we take a closer look.”

If strong patterns do emerge, the company will re-prioritize its roadmap to make sure partner requests and bug fixes get bumped to the front of the line. “It's been really helpful to treat things this way because it helps us drive production that will no doubt make the most impact on our business,” Hong says.

But perhaps the most important phase of this process is managing the feedback that doesn't get implemented. Instead of ignoring it or relegating it to some remote file, Reserve will follow up with the person or restaurant that provided it and explain in detail why they decided to go in a different direction.

“In every case, we've seen this type of conversation be very impactful,” Hong says. “We'll say outright, 'Hey, we know that we're not doing what you hoped we would, but there is a larger set of people who felt strongly about doing it this other way.' The key is to convey that we really got on board with what they had to say and we followed that piece of feedback to its logical conclusion. When people feel like you've gotten behind something they came up with, whether it got done or not, you're fostering loyalty.”

REDEFINE CUSTOMER SERVICE FOR PARTNERS

“Given how high-touch our relationships with our restaurant partners are, it's important that CS responds differently.” says Hong. “They're dealing with issues in real time — not after the fact like most of our diners. They've got servers who need to get people checked out right this moment, and if the technology isn't working the way they expect it to, or the wifi connection has gone down or whatever, they need to speak to someone now.”

Reserve provides its partners with the cell phone numbers for restaurant operation managers and general managers so they can get in touch with someone immediately and solve problems on the fly. “That in and of itself is representative of the feeling of security and importance we want them to have.”

Customer service for partners also needs to be different because a lot of their immediate issues can probably be traced to changes that need to be made to the product. Unlike consumer CS queries like forgotten passwords, partners' issues go straight to the core of functionality. “You need to have a mechanism in place to take all the immediate problems partners report and wrap them into larger packages that you can work on to meet their long-term needs.”

In order to build something that works like magic for consumers, you need to be tightly integrated with your partners.

Considering the depth of Reserve's partner relationships and how frequently they're in touch, every customer service and operations manager needs to treat every query as a bonding opportunity — another chance to make a great impression and reinforce how valuable Reserve can be to their business.

As the company expands to new cities, the key to keeping these interactions meaningful and personal is internal communication, Hong says. The company has already hosted a number of summits for its general managers and the entire team to ensure continuity of the partner experience no matter where they are.

Hong will sometimes call weekly and even daily meetings depending on whether major changes are on the horizon that will affect partners, or if they've been hearing a lot of instances of the same problem. Every operations manager has a number of restaurants they work with, and their top priority is providing that personal link between them and Reserve. Summits and meetings arm them with the data and language they need to provide well-informed answers.

SCALING PARTNER RELATIONSHIPS

Reserve hopes to one day be a platform where hundreds of thousands of restaurants everywhere can sign up for a self-serve package that will let them offer a premium experience to diners. Accordingly, Hong and his team expects to see a stratification and segmentation of their products across markets. Keeping quality of experience high, however, will not change as the company grows. It's too central to Reserve's mission.

To keep its feedback loop fast and effective, Reserve will choose a smaller rotating cast of partner restaurants that have been using the service the longest, and who have served as trusted advisors in the past. “These restaurants will have a deeper understanding of what we're trying to build and what our priorities are going forward,” Hong says. “When our platform really does grow to be so big, we won't be able to listen to everyone the same way we do now. We'll need different cohorts of people we're listening to depending on market segment."

Keeping standards high as you scale is all about building a brand that's tied to quality from the start.

Reserve's biggest initiatives to maintain high standards are focused on partner education. Today, whenever a new restaurant joins, it receives brief guidelines that describe the ideal in-restaurant experience that accompanies the app.

Examples of guidelines include greeting guests by name when they arrive (their photos show up on the restaurant's app beforehand), and dropping off cards at the end of the night that let diners know the check has been paid. These simply say, “The check is paid. You're all set.”

Small touches like this have actually struck such a chord that diners have taken pictures of the Reserve cards and posted them on Twitter and Instagram. “That phenomenon has created a whole other guideline,” Hong says. “We see all of this love on social media, and we can point our partners to it and say, 'Hey, let's all work hard to make sure this keeps happening.'”

One of the most important things Reserve does in this area is remind its restaurant partners that their interests are very closely aligned. Both Reserve and the restaurants it works with want diners to walk out after a meal completely thrilled with their experience from top to bottom. “As we grow more, we'll keep sending the main message over and over again that we're providing tools to make it even easier for restaurants to hit this goal. And if we get feedback that things weren't ideal for a diner, we'll share that with the restaurant so they'll know what they can do better next time.”

As Reserve pulls together all of the lessons, observations and data from diners and restaurants, it plans to create more detailed guidelines, sets of best practices and manuals that get distributed to every partner in every market.

“At the same time, we want them to be empowered to do things on their own, so there's this balance between standardization and giving them a sandbox where they can express their own flavor and identity. Standardization is key because we don't want to be having the same conversation about basics with restaurants in four different cities.”

Hong knows that this type of thoughtful, careful growth will need to be deliberate, and that Reserve will need to have an incredibly strong sense of brand integrity before they stop curating and open the platform up to everyone.

“If people understand what the Reserve experience is supposed to be like before they join as a partner, I think we're headed in the right direction,” he says. “Experience will always have to be paramount to the service we're delivering. We know that about ourselves, and it's one of the main things we'll always communicate to our partners again and again.”

Having strong partnerships is so much more influential than we could have imagined.

“I think if you're running your partner strategy right, they should become an extension of your business, members of your team, all working together to get the job done.”

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