The mobile and web app by Grand Rapid-based startup FoodCircles helps feed the hungry locally and globally. Courtesy FoodCircles
Progress looks like a reboot — just ask a Grand Rapids entrepreneur.
That agonizing process of re-working and re-launching a product has been what made this a long year for altruistic-minded startup founder Jonathan Kumar.
The University of Michigan grad and mind behind FoodCircles has spent the last year completely renovating his idea: a mobile and web app that lets users “buy one, feed one” when dining out at registered restaurants.
Here’s how the app originally worked: FoodCircles users would dine on specials offered by registered restaurants and promoted on the FoodCircles app. The restaurants would pay a subscription to register on FoodCircles. The restaurants could attract altruistic customers, and FoodCircles would use the subscription money to stay open and pay for needy children’s meals.
It was a good idea, Kumar said, but it just didn’t make sense to users. Even with heavy marketing, the app wasn’t growing.
“We realized our app was Foursquare . . . without the social media component, which practically made it useless,” Kumar said. “While it was a great concept, we felt people didn’t understand why they were getting something for free and how the child in need was getting something for free, and when they don’t understand your story, they aren’t able to share it.”
Last year, Kumar and his team reached a low point when they decided that they either simplify the app or find different jobs.
So he asked himself, “What’s a model people already understand?” And that’s when he realized what he needed to do.
Fast forward through “eight months of tears, development and volunteer code” and Kumar now has a similar, but much-simpler app that allows users to “buy one, feed as many as you want.”
The app lets users buy a local special — an appetizer or dessert — for $1 and donates 100 percent of the purchase to either World Vision to feed kids in Africa or Kids' Food Basket to feed kids locally.
The re-launched app allows people to pay more than $1, Kumar said, and already users have generously averaged about $4 with each purchase, an increase of 800 percent in donations. Kumar said the startup gave 50 cents per redeemed special before.
“We think we have the fastest check out experience in the Midwest,” Kumar said. “That’s a claim I’m willing to stand by. We’re the fastest way to buy something online.”
The app also caps the amount of weekly specials offered at restaurants. When those restaurants sell out, the number of specials offered increases.
Every week, restaurants give FoodCircles a limited amount of specials to use, “so it doesn’t go crazy for them,” Kumar said.
“Every week, we have a weekly goal, so the amount of dishes these restaurants are offering per week corresponds to how many meals we’re trying to feed kids,” Kumar said.
The app and website re-launched early this month. The app automatically updated on Google Android, but for Apple iOS, Kumar said his team actually had to publish a new app and recommended iPhone users delete their old FoodCircles app and download the new one for free.
As of this month, the re-launch has put FoodCircles into 20 restaurants in Grand Rapids, with three in Allendale coming and a few more in Holland and Rockford.
The goal is to be in 10 cities in the next year, Kumar said.
Grand Rapids support
The past year gave Kumar time to reflect on what it means to be an entrepreneur in America in 2013.
“We wouldn’t have existed if we tried to start this in Chicago or Ann Arbor, mostly because of the patience restaurants have shown us and the support business has given us,” Kumar said. “Places like Clark Communications, OST, Adtegrity, The Factory — all these places have really seen what we were doing and really helped us out.”
His experience taught him Grand Rapids’ environment made FoodCircles' re-birth possible. He described how the city fostered his business’s second shot at life as a “unique balance” of startup activity.
“If there’s too little, people aren’t willing to take risk, but if there’s too much, restaurant owners are getting hit by 10 entrepreneurs a day who want to ‘help them,’” Kumar said. “Grand Rapids is right in the middle. Restaurants have seen the value of what we’re trying to do, which is introduce them to a customer coming in based on a common belief.”