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Venga's Sam Pollaro: Engineering a Better Customer Experience

 
Sam Pollaro, CEO of Venga

Venga Co-Founder and CEO Sam Pollaro needed Barack Obama to convince him to take the entrepreneurial leap. Ok, not directly, but in a round-about way. In 2009 the company Pollaro was working for closed down when its managing director was asked to join Obama’s administration.

“I suddenly found myself without a job, and I knew I had always wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” says Pollaro. With an opportunity cost of essentially zero, Pollaro took a chance and started his own business, Petals for the People, a flower subscription service for the Washington, D.C. metro area.

From Engineer to Entrepreneur

A flower subscription service might seem like an odd choice for a Carnegie Mellon alum with a degree in mechanical engineering. After working with some of the big-name engineering companies in college, however, Pollaro knew that engineering was not for him. “It’s not what you expect it’s going to be like as a kid,” explains Pollaro. “Instead of designing a car, you’re designing the bracket that holds the rearview mirror onto the car, and really you’re just taking last year’s bracket and modifying it a little bit.”

Pollaro was able to bridge the gap between engineering and business with some entrepreneurship courses in his senior year. After graduation, he went into strategy consulting and then private equity, before becoming certified as a Chartered Financial Analyst. When his entrepreneurial opportunity presented itself, he had developed a broad range of relevant skills and was ready to take the leap. Petals for the People was a successful startup and was sold to luxury floral service H.Bloom in 2010. At that point Pollaro was ready to start something new, and that’s when Venga was born.

2010 was the height of the daily deal era, and Venga was Pollaro’s solution to what he saw as an unsustainable model for restaurants. Businesses were giving 50%-off coupons to patrons and then giving 50% of the remainder to Groupon or Living Social. “They were basically giving a 75%-off discount,” says Pollaro, “and we thought that we could come up with a better, more sustainable, more business-friendly digital marketing platform.”

Venga’s original iteration required a balance between the restaurants themselves and the restaurant patrons. Both sides had to sign up with Venga to make it work. It involved a lot of marketing, including driving a renovated school bus around D.C.! While it wasn’t a perfect model, this was when Pollaro and his team realized that the restaurants they were working with didn’t know very much about their customers.

A Major Pivot Point

Pollaro and his team decided that instead of trying to do both B-to-B and B-to-C, they were going to be B-to-B-to-C. “In other words,” Pollaro says, “we’re providing the restaurants with the tools to engage their customers, but we don’t have to get the customers for the restaurants.” They became a CRM, helping restaurants get more return customers and engage with them better. This simplified model meant that Venga could serve restaurants located anywhere, and it meant they didn’t have to drive a bus around anymore to drum up diners.

This shift also meant that Venga could serve more industries. The need to better understand customers is not unique to restaurants. Venga Move was launched in 2017 for the fitness industry. By partnering with MINDBODY (think OpenTable but for fitness classes), Venga has delivered a client management platform that improves the client experience at boutique fitness studios by providing a personalized approach to every client.

At its core, Venga is a tool that businesses use to better understand and engage with their customers based on their past preferences, purchases, and behaviors. It also allows businesses to transform bad experiences into good ones.

A Chance to Correct Mistakes

When someone comes into a restaurant and has a negative experience, they may never come back. Even worse, they might go on Yelp and share their bad experience with everyone. With Venga, the restaurant can automatically reach out to the customer and ask about their experience. The customer responds privately to the restaurant, and the restaurant has the opportunity to turn a poor experience around. They can invite the guest to come back and experience the hospitality the way it should have been presented the first time.

“It’s taking a detractor and making them a promotor,” says Pollaro. “That’s a very tangible way for a restaurant to see the impact on their business.”

Pollaro is excited about where Venga is in their lifecycle. “It’s only in the last two years that I go to sleep not worrying about running out of cash,” he admits. Venga is no longer operating on a shoestring budget. They now have resources and a whole team of people. Pollaro sees them as being at an inflection point in terms of growth—they have the stability of being an established company, but still have a lot of opportunities ahead of them.

While Pollaro is happy with where he and Venga are right now, he would advise young entrepreneurs to start sooner rather than later. He recognizes that entrepreneurism often requires an opportunity. You can’t just drop everything and say that tomorrow you’ll be an entrepreneur. At the same time, your financial and geographical constraints will likely be higher in your 30’s than they are in your 20’s. “I think if I could go back, I would have put more effort into making things happen earlier and making the leap sooner,” says Pollaro. In other words, don’t wait around for the president.

Learn more about Venga Dine and Venga Move at www.getvenga.com.