DataDay Design is interviewing CEOs and Founders of start-ups and early-stage companies to talk about entrepreneurship, learn how these businesses are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and understand how they’re rethinking growth strategy in 2020. This interview is with Salman Habib, CEO & Co-Founder of Hellofriend. Hellofriend is a social ordering app that encourages individuals to enjoy their favorite restaurants and businesses while getting rewarded for bringing along their friends.
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How did Hellofriend get started?
Hellofriend grew out of intellectual curiosity. Salman and his brother, Shaban, noticed how the college experience became devoid of in-person interactions as more things shifted online. The brothers didn’t expect to go down the entrepreneurship path when they first discussed the concept for Hellofriend in 2017. Their focus was more on the problem of in-person social interaction itself. When discussing how to address that issue area, some professors suggested that they consider starting a company. This led to the first iteration of Hellofriend.
Salman and Shaban’s initial concept was for a digital events planning platform. It quickly gained traction on-campus, and the brothers were accepted into Harvard Innovation Labs. Around this time, they decided they wanted to look beyond on-campus events to more effectively address their initial problem space.
How has the company evolved?
In normal years, college students go out to movie theatres, beauty salons, fitness studios, and restaurants at least every week, and sometimes every day. Focusing on those interactions gave Hellofriend more to work with than on-campus events, which students typically don’t attend as frequently. The team pivoted into this space by putting forward a dynamic group discount model. Individuals received discounted orders at local restaurants and businesses by inviting their friends to join them. Hellofriend began calling their service “social ordering.”
Hellofriend onboarded Drybar early on in the Boston market, which gave the company a huge boost. They then expanded to Richmond- the brothers’ hometown and a city with one of the highest concentrations of local restaurants from Boston. The move presented the opportunity to advance their product further with the help of Lighthouse Labs. Currently, their development team is based in Boston, while their sales operation is out of Richmond.
How has COVID-19 impacted Hellofriend?
In their first month after launching at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), 15 new restaurants and 4,000 individuals joined Hellofriend. This huge momentum coincided with COVID, which created significant challenges for their team and their local partners. Many restaurants and vendors had to close their doors due to COVID concerns.
Hellofriend recognized this as an opportunity to not only help their local partners but to grow alongside them. Within a few weeks, their team built a contactless ordering platform using QR codes, recognizing that this was the ideal time to move into that space. Many of their local business partners were able to re-open because they had access to Hellofriend’s contactless ordering platform. The majority of those early customers were given access for free.
Hellofriend was planning to do a bigger launch in Chicago and LA over the Summer but has had to push back their timeline due to COVID. When identifying cities for expansion, some of the key considerations include what college campus Hellofriend can grow out of, whether there are similar products in that area already, and whether the social ordering concept is one that locals will engage with.
Though the foodservice industry is highly saturated already, its size and potential for innovation make it a promising focus for Hellofriend moving forward. COVID-related uncertainty poses the greatest challenge to companies in the space because it’s so unclear how consumer behavior will continue to shift. The Hellofriend team, which now numbers nine full-time employees, will have to continue its vigilance in tracking emerging trends to keep up with the market. As is the case for many industries, individuals’ safety on all sides will be a top priority as Hellofriend expands its operations.
Hellofriend is in its third seed round. The company’s first and second seed rounds were led by Counterpoint Ventures and Right Side Capital Management, respectively.
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