How a dorm-room start-up became a 25-city franchise

Embracing an ownership culture enabled this start-up’s fast growth Chris_Jeffery

By Chris Jeffery, CEO and co-founder, OrderUp 

My first taste of entrepreneurship was back in 2003, when I first ventured into the online food ordering space with a couple of college buddies. I was 19 years old, naïve, ignorant, a bit arrogant and ambitious; this is often a great recipe for failure. After launching the first market in State College, PA, we went through the inevitable — and often ugly — partnership breakup that should have put the company under.

Ten years and 20 full-time employees later, I’ve experienced the trial and error it takes to find the right balance in a company culture, and for us, it’s empowering the internal entrepreneurs in a culture of ownership.

Growing up

Despite the setback of the partnership breakup, my friend (and now co-founder) Jason Kwicien and I saw the tremendous opportunity for a digital restaurant food ordering franchise across the country. In late 2009, we decided to run with our idea, predicated on empowering the local entrepreneur to scale.

With our first market, we out-competed our biggest national competitor, not with better technology, better customer service or more marketing dollars, but with an “out-hustle” approach to our local client relationships and marketing efforts. As residents of State College, we understood our market and established deep relationships with the local restaurateurs, creating a stronger appeal for many of them to sign up with us.

The local approach worked, and we wanted to scale it. In September 2009, we launched OrderUp to bring food ordering to 25 towns around the country. The key to our success has been the digital franchise system we use to help local entrepreneurs build their own successful online food ordering businesses.

Big players in online food ordering have a difficult time competing for market share because their employees have no ownership incentives.

The system is good, but it takes an entrepreneurial spirit to execute. Our target franchise owners are local people on the ground devoting their time, day-in and day-out, to building a business that better serves their market. Big players in online food ordering have a difficult time competing for market share because their employees have no ownership incentives that would empower them to better serve their markets.

The ownership culture and entrepreneurial mentality that we see on a day-to-day basis drives the OrderUp headquarters team — and our “frantrepreneurs,” as we like to call them — to think and work like entrepreneurs, helping us grow faster and overcome the challenges we face better.

Growing together

Maintaining the entrepreneurial culture in a growing company takes a conscious effort from leadership. Based on my own experience, I’ve found that a few key actions make all the difference.

Let the team define your culture — don’t force it on them. Your culture is what you feel when you walk into your office in the morning. Is it a fun feeling? Is it a stiff, stuffy feeling? Whatever the feeling, it’s the same feeling your team has when they walk in every day. Let the team help define your culture, and don’t force culture on them with strict rules and predetermined guidelines.

Provide meaningful positions that result in meaningful work. Don’t hire to hire. Think about the long-term benefits of a position, and create an opening that challenges anyone that fills the seat. When people do meaningful work, they see the results and feel empowered to develop within the company.

Roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty. Be involved on multiple levels, and show the team you’re willing to do what it takes to get things done. From intern to executive, create a culture that blurs the lines. If you’re willing to dive in and handle someone else’s work, then your attitude will be reflected in your employees.

Compensate based on performance. Compensation doesn’t have to come in the form of money. Anything from baseball tickets to a round of drinks is enough to inspire your workers. Try creating a contest, and organize the office into teams to encourage friendly competition. And just as you like to be compensated as an entrepreneur, when there’s a great month, quarter or year, compensate your team for a great new product release, new marketing campaign or sales numbers achieved. CEO

Chris Jeffery is co-founder and CEO of OrderUp, an online food-ordering site based in Baltimore, with franchises in 25 cities. www.orderup.com. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

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