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A Recipe for Growth
A Recipe for Growth
ezCater CEO Stefania Mallett is cooking with the ingredients for long-term success
When Boston-based startup ezCater secured a $100 million investment after years of incremental growth, CEO and co-founder Stefania Mallett didn’t blink. She quickly moved to purchase French catering platform GoCater, securing a foothold in the EU market. Mallett puts her confidence this way: “The U.S. catering market is $24 billion. Of late, that’s started to feel small.”
From engineer to executive
Mallett began her career as a promising programmer in the ‘70s, boasting a BS and MS from MIT. Despite these impressive credentials, she quickly found her talents were misplaced. “I was curious what the humans did with our software. The other programmers—mostly male—would tell me, ‘You go talk to them. We don’t want to.’ I realized I am really good at understanding how people use technology, and how to make technology sing for people.”
This instinct prompted Mallett to transition to executive leadership, where she went through the “hairball school of business.” She explains, “I am a hairball of my many, many experiences and observations. I’ve been working full time in the computer industry since 1976, and the industry has been through a lot of ups and downs. I’ve quit a bunch of companies, I’ve started a bunch of companies.”
Mallett started to apply the lessons learned ascending the corporate ladder to her own startups in the early 2000s. She partnered with Briscoe Rodgers, a fellow engineer whose ace problem-solving complemented her knack for appealing to “the humans.”
“We are a great partnership,” Mallett says. “I am a good engineer, but he has a streak of Steve Jobs’ genius.”
The seeds of a startup
In 2004 they started PreferredTime, a meeting scheduling service for pharmaceutical industry sales reps. “The users loved the service, but kept asking us for a way to get food to the meetings,” she says.
“We saw that organizing the food, rather than the meetings themselves, was the real opportunity.”
Mallett and Rodgers had to shut down PreferredTime in 2007 when funding ran out. They immediately launched their next venture, taking what assets they could from PreferredTime. “We brought knowledge of how sales reps think about food and how food facilitates meetings. And contacts for a third of all pharma reps in the country, with whom we had good relationships.”
Despite these advantages, ezCater underwent a bootstrapping period of five years. “I recently compiled a history of the company, and you could see that those first years were like the blade of the hockey stick—nothing happened. But once we hit the stick, we went straight up it. When I showed Briscoe, he remarked, ‘Good thing we’re stubborn.’”
The rabid loyalty of their first customers also helped. “I remember a panicked call to our 800 number from a woman who thought the website had shut down. She said she couldn’t imagine going back to ordering food directly from restaurants! It turned out she’d just mistyped our URL, but her anxiety over losing our service—that kept us going.”
Early on, we developed the discipline of measuring everything that we did, to know whether to throw our limited money at it.
Stefania Mallett | Vistage Member
Mallett explains that ezCater’s growth spurt partly reflects the nature of their business: Once they’d figured out how to expand their catering network nationwide, new customers rushed to join, which in turn attracted an explosion of new caterers on the service.
Importantly, ezCater had systems in place to ride this growth without capsizing. “Our first angel investors were all surprised at our efficiency and the maturity of our processes. Just about every decision is data-driven,” Mallett explains. “Briscoe and I run the company like engineers, so early on, we developed the discipline of measuring everything that we did, to know whether to throw our limited money at it. We would have an investor recommend a strategy and come back that we’d already A/B tested it and ruled it out.”
She adds that her reliance on data also reflects a hardearned lesson. “There is still a bias against female CEOs, so you can’t rely on building business relationships in the country club. You have to use the data.”
Data also helps Mallett circumvent personal bias. This is key to ezCater’s equitable and efficient workplace culture. “We have a single compensation structure, promotions are based on results, and we’re completely transparent about just about everything. Because we don’t get caught up in office politics—there’s no mystery around why a decision is made, no specter of favoritism or anything like that—we can move fast,” Mallett says.
Because of the mutual trust ezCater’s culture has built, Mallett finds she is able to cede more control to her employees— not easy, she admits, but essential if ezCater is to keep up with the market. “You have to give your talent so much authority that you cringe. If I’m not cringing three times per day per department, I haven’t delegated enough control.”
Advice and affirmation from the group
As ezCater looks to conquer a comparably massive market in the EU, Mallett relies on every bit of wisdom she’s accumulated through her many personal and professional transitions. She credits her Vistage Chair, Jeff Janer, who’s mentored her since 2016, with helping her. Since Janer deliberately crafts his Vistage group to include CEOs from companies at a wide range of stages, everyone is forced to clearly explain—and therefore understand—what they are instinctively doing. “He tells us to make conscious choices,” Mallett says. “Don’t just do things; get to the why.”
Vistage has also helped Mallett understand places where she was plain wrong. “One speaker in particular, Eve Grodnitzky, made a comment about the growth mindset that made me pause. I realized that ezCater’s culture of risk-taking and insane helpfulness wasn’t a lucky byproduct of our success; it was perhaps the biggest driver of our success,” Mallet says. “Our growth and the influx of capital didn’t mean we need to suddenly rethink how we are running ezCater. Rather, it is because of the processes and culture we’d already put in place that we are in a position to capitalize. What we need to do now is make sure we keep it up.”