Photos by Clarissa Villondo
Spotluck is living the startup dream. Sure, they’re not in a hip coworking space, they’re not partying down at SXSW, but they have their very own office space. They’re throwing parties at The Big Mug where they can afford to get everyone in the place as much beer as they can drink. They’re becoming a real business. A serious company.
Well, not too serious.
When I meet the founder Cherian Thomas at Spotluck headquarters, he’s quick to point out how much fun they like to have. From playstation in the corner, to the two regulation ping pong tables, to all of the adorable arts and crafts the team has created, it’s clear that making work enjoyable is a priority.
And you can fucking tell. I can’t say I’ve been to many startup spaces, usually I hold interviews over the phone instead, but Cherian insisted I come meet the team. I seriously don’t know if he would have taken no for an answer, but I see why he wanted me to travel all the way into Bethesda, I’ve never seen a happier team in my life. Don’t get me wrong, we all love each other at BYT, but if someone was to tell me Spotluck was a SoulCycle level cult, I would believe them in a heartbeat. The amount of friendship I felt in that office was overwhelming to say the least.
Of course, Spotluck wasn’t always like this. Before Cherian could cultivate this group of seriously passionate people he had to start somewhere.
“It was the typical startup story in a lot of ways,” said Cherian.
It was while he was working on his capstone for his second masters at the Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business that Cherian along with friend (and now co-founder) Brad Sayler, came up with Spotluck. At first, it was simply a part of his capstone project. Then they started thinking more seriously about the idea that eating out at a restaurant shouldn’t cost as much on a Tuesday at 3pm when it’s raining, as it does on a Friday night.
“We set out to bring yield management to the restaurant space,” said Cherian. “Similar to Priceline and Uber with surcharging and Hotels.com and Stubhub.”
So they came up with the wheel and the hub. Spotluck is a little like a cross between Urban Spoon and Priceline. When opening the app, you pick a neighborhood you would like to eat in, then you get to spin a wheel comprised of eight different restaurants in that neighborhood (or what Cherian likes to call a hub). Depending on the day and your luck, you’ll win a certain percentage off your check from one of the eight restaurants. On Tuesday, I won 30% off at the Satellite Room. Considering it’s Thirsty Thursday, today I could probably win 15% off somewhere else.
“On one hand we solve a big picture challenge with a lot of zeros at the end, this concept of yield management in the restaurant space,” said Cherian. “And on the other hand it’s fun, sexy, and viral because we help people figure out where to eat.”
Yield management is certainly what drives the app, but Cherian is particularly enthusiastic when it comes to helping people decide where to spend their money. Spotluck prides itself on only including local restaurants in their app. You will not find any deals for places like Chili’s or TGIFridays. What you will find are places like Roofers Union, Wonderland Ballroom, Chez Billy, Comet Ping Pong, Bar Deco, Solly’s, Duke’s Grocery, and more.
“We started out solving the proverbial chicken and the egg problem, no one wants to be an Uber driver unless there are people with the Uber app and no one wants to have the Uber app unless there’s drivers,” said Cherian. “That’s the challenge we faced in the beginning… We needed restaurants.”
After teaming up with co-founder and CFO Brad Sayler, they were able to convince a couple of restaurants in Rockville and Bethesda to hop on Spotluck. Then with the help of those restaurants, as well as a few unconventional marketing techniques (Cherian and Brad both joke about sneaking into apartment buildings to throw fliers under people’s doors), they finally had a userbase.
As of right now, Spotluck has 320 restaurants in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia on the app and 60,000 people spin the bright green wheel each month.
“An assignment turned into a full fledged business and now we’ve got twelve employees here, four in India, and we have a team in California,” said Cherian. “It’s the best team in the word.”
There’s a joke I heard more than once while hanging out in the Spotluck office. The people who work there are so crazy about their job, and each other, they laugh about how their spouses, friends and family all eventually reach a point where they can’t stand to hear about Spotluck anymore.
As my photographer Clarissa and I left the office and made our way to the elevator, we both turned to look at each other. “Those guys truly love each other,” I said. Clarissa nodded. We both agreed it was kind of insane.