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April 9, 2024

S2E9 - Inside Meal Ticket's Technological Impact on Food Service

Uncover Meal Ticket's tech-driven journey in the food industry with CEO Wink Jones. Discover innovation and the future of food service.

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WISK white logo-> All episodes <-

April 9, 2024

S2E9 - Inside Meal Ticket's Technological Impact on Food Service

Uncover Meal Ticket's tech-driven journey in the food industry with CEO Wink Jones. Discover innovation and the future of food service.

Apple Podcast player linkSpotify Podcast player linkGoogle Podcasts player link

Show notes

Wink Jones [00:00:00]:

This guy's supposed to come pick me up and then we're going to go present. I'm in my hotel room and it's, you know, whatever, eight in the morning. And he calls me and he's like, wink. I totally screwed up time zones. We're supposed to be there in 15 minutes, presenting. You gotta get there. And I'm like, in my hotel. I thought I had hours, right? So I'm like, you know, underwear and like, I haven't shaved and I'm just like banging away emails or whatever.

Wink Jones [00:00:22]:

And so I scrambled, like, throw my stuff in a bag and I jump in taxi. I'm like, shaving in the taxi. And I get there and this guy completely misses the meeting. But I was there in time to go present and kind of lead the presentation. And it turns out they were trying to build a loyalty program internally based on data and then matching items to data and all that stuff. So our technology kind of perfectly aligned with that and we ended up getting that business and that opened the door to PFG. And then we spent the next, basically spent the next five years, like, deploying through PFG and they became our biggest customer and they're still one of our bigger customers now.

Angelo Esposito [00:01:01]:

Welcome to wisking it all with your host, Angela Sposito, co founder of WISK.ai, a food and beverage intelligence platform. We're going to be interviewing hospitality professionals around the world to really understand how they do what they do. Welcome to another episode of wisking it all. We're here today with Wink Jones, CEO of Meal Ticket Wink, thank you for being here today.

Wink Jones [00:01:30]:

Thanks for having me, Angelo. Happy to be here, of course.

Angelo Esposito [00:01:33]:

So I guess maybe a good place to start just to kind of set the stage for people who don't know. Can you just get in the quick 411 on what is meal ticket?

Wink Jones [00:01:43]:

So meal ticket is a SaaS, provider of. Sorry, SAS solution, provider of software for the food service supply chain. We have solutions that we sell to restaurant operators, food service distributors, as well as food manufacturers. It ranges from back office solutions like inventory management, financial data management, trade spend management, data management for distributors, and ultimately a data product that manufacturer and suppliers use to find market, relative relevant market data for the products that they sell.

Angelo Esposito [00:02:22]:

Nice. And I guess maybe just to maybe take a few steps back. I think it's always interesting to understand, like, how people got where they are today. So where, you know, I'd love to hear the wink Jones story. Right. So how did you get into the tech space?

Wink Jones [00:02:38]:

Yeah. So if you want to go way back. I spent most of my twenties as a raft guide and a kayak instructor. I live in Idaho. I grew up here and spent a lot of time in my boat and ultimately ended up doing international trips where we would take clients overseas for a couple weeks at a time and then kind of show them the world through a kayak or through a raft. And a lot of times those clients were kind of upper class rich guys that we would get out on these trips. And I eventually had one guy that I met and did a few trips with, he said, as soon as you're done with messing around and you want a real job, let me know. And so over like eight years, I finished my degree.

Wink Jones [00:03:25]:

I was a slow learner, did a lot of sporadic correspondence type courses, and finished up. And then I got married and I was like, okay, I'm gonna get serious. Gave my friend a call and he got me a job at a startup in Boulder, Colorado, so moved there. This was 2002. Started as kind of a customer support guy and then worked my way up to operations manager. Then ultimately we sold the company about three and a half years in. And when we sold the company, we had some investors that were pretty happy and decided to form a small venture and seed fund to do a lot of the same type of activity. So I ended up over for about five years, worked as a seed investor, but really I was an operating partner within this small fund.

Wink Jones [00:04:15]:

And so we would invest in these little companies and then I would go to work as a management member. So I ran marketing, I did operations, I did finance, I just kind of did a little bit of everything at really early stage companies. And so I got a really great view of like all the things you can do wrong, because there's just so many ways to go wrong in early stage startups. And so had a really good experience, learned a ton. And then right around 2011, well, we moved back to Boise, where we're from a couple years before that. But in 2011, the fund had kind of run its course and I was looking for my next thing, and I got introduced to my current partner, whose name is Brian Conrath. And Brian was looking, Brian had actually just finished Techstars with meal ticket as sort of an incubator, and he was looking for someone to come in and help run the company. He was a technology guy.

Wink Jones [00:05:09]:

He got connected with me and I basically agreed to join up with him and help build the company from there. And then rest is history.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:18]:

Wow. And I guess maybe just to kind of go through that initial experience, first of all, I think there's a lesson there. And sometimes it's not just what you know, it's who you know. So being in the right place, the right time, getting that opportunity to. That, you know, first job, like, as you said, is. Is probably quite important. But I love to maybe get, shed some light on that initial experience of maybe going through an acquisition. Right.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:41]:

So if I'm not mistaken, I think it was. I was doing some research online. It was a kind of a image, a three. It was champion imaging, I believe it was. And something. Was that what I found?

Wink Jones [00:05:52]:

Yeah, that was technically my first startup.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:56]:

That was your first startup was around the same time. So I was like, okay, 2002. Okay, so tell me more about that. So I'd love to hear about that experience. And then just like any lessons and kind of like the acquisition side, because I'm sure there's a lot of people curious about that.

Wink Jones [00:06:12]:

Yeah. So the company that we, that I moved to Boulder to work for is called net identity. And we, the founders of that company, had bought in like 19, 97, 98. They'd gone through the phone book and bought as many domains as they could. And so they owned, they owned like, Smith.net and jones.org. And they had like 40,000 last name domains. And we sold, we sold email addresses so you could get, you know, winkones.com or whatever. Right.

Wink Jones [00:06:42]:

Nice little business didn't require a lot of people, wasn't growing much. But we ran that for, I ran that for three years, and we just weren't growing the business a lot. We looked, we found a couple buyers that were interested, ran in a process and then a process with a banker where basically we had three or four suitors come to the table, they bid on the company, and then we picked the winning bidder. And then McDonald. I explained that in that way, but it was a very long process. So going through an acquisition does take a while, especially when you're on kind of a. It's one thing if somebody comes to you and says, I want to buy your company. It's another thing if you're going to market and saying, I'm going to run a process of trying to find a buyer.

Wink Jones [00:07:25]:

That takes a while because you've got to get everybody. I mean, the banker's job is to get everybody to the finish line at the same time and then have competitive bids coming in. Right. So it's like when you're buying a house and the realtor is like, you know, realtor wants multiple bids and they can drive it up and blah, blah, blah. So we went through that whole process and, you know, it was, it was really, for me, it was fun. I was, you know, 29 at the time, and my first experience with, you know, real startup of going, going from like, you know, whatever, five people to ten or 15 people, and then having buyer who is a public company. Company is called two cows. It's based in Ontario or Toronto.

Wink Jones [00:08:00]:

Yeah, still there. And they found they were an Internet services provider, and this became kind of a nice package of customers and product that they could slot into their portfolio. They didn't really need me very long, not more than a couple months. And so I quickly took my exit package and took a hike after that.

Angelo Esposito [00:08:24]:

That's awesome. Sounds like the best of both worlds, acquisition and not having to stay too long. And I gotta ask you this, and this one might be a bit more personal, but a lot of the founders that I chat with that, that have had successful exits, I always like asking them how life has changed. You know, maybe after that exit, because I think the answer isn't always not what you might think it to be. So I'd be curious just to hear your quick two cent, like, how did it affect your life? Let's say, you know, overall, like, what things changed and what things did.

Wink Jones [00:08:53]:

It's a great, it's a great question. And, you know, I'll say that for me, being a pretty junior, not junior, but like, not an early employee there, I didn't have a ton of equity. I didn't make life changing money at that time.

Angelo Esposito [00:09:04]:

Okay.

Wink Jones [00:09:04]:

Okay. It allowed me to pay for school, which I still had some school debt sitting out there. And that helped it definitely, you know, as a 29 year old, it got minor. I guess I was 30 by the time I sold it. It helped me get my footing so that I could kind of be confident in the next step anytime, you know? So I guess, you know, a couple ways to think about it. Financially, it's always great, right? But no matter how much money you make in a transaction, it's never really enough unless you're a giant transaction. And so I think, more importantly, is kind of setting up that event as a stepping stone for the next event. And so in my case, the next event was all of a sudden we had a bunch of investors at this company that were flush with cash from this deal.

Wink Jones [00:09:50]:

They were happy and they were like, okay, tell us, what's the next thing you guys are going to do? So it was a really cool opportunity to go, okay, now I've got. That actually helped kind of jumpstart my network of people that now know me as a professional that I can rely on and lean on next time I wanted to go do something interesting and I ended up actually hitting up a lot of those guys five years later when we started raising money for Yale ticket. So I ended up having a bunch of seed investors out of Dallas that were part of that original net identity deal, all from that original same network who knew me and at least knew that I was going to do my best to deliver some kind of returns.

Angelo Esposito [00:10:26]:

That's awesome. I'm excited to get into meal ticket and honestly, we'll probably spend a good chunk there. But one last question I'd love to just shed some light on is you were on one side of the, the, you know, spectrum with, with being an entrepreneur, and then you flip to the kind of VC side. I'd love to hear a bit about just that experience before jumping more into meal ticket. How is, how is the VC side of things? I guess, generally, and I'd love if we could maybe get into some things that you could recommend, you know, to people listening that are maybe in the tech scene or building up their business, like what are things they can work on, you know, to I guess be more, increase the chance of being, you know, invested in when it comes to VC money?

Wink Jones [00:11:09]:

That's a great question and that's also a moving target. When I, when I, when I kind of switched over to that side, the, you know, VC back in 2006 and seven was fairly early. Right. I mean there wasn't, it just wasn't nearly the size that it is now. And so it was very kind of shiny and attractive and getting into it. We raised a tiny fund. So I have no, my experience is, you know, confined to a very, very small fund in a seed environment. But I'll say that I like operating much better.

Wink Jones [00:11:45]:

I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I like, you know, rolling my sleeves up and being in the weeds and like working with people and building something. What I found in the VC side of that role was that I just didn't, I just didn't feel like I was really adding value unless I was like neck deep in the business. And a lot of times, you know, the entrepreneurs don't want you all up in their business. Right, right. And so there's a real balance of doing that well, and I've, and I think what that did for me is a, it told me what I wanted to do. Right. Which is really, which is operate, like be in the, in the role, in the seat running the company, but it also helped me understand the VC's and the investors that I want to work with.

Wink Jones [00:12:29]:

And we'll get into a minute when we talk about private equity guys, but it's very similar. I've seen very similar good and bad across VC and private equity. And any investors really is like when you pick a VC or you pick an investor knowing their work style and knowing your work style is so critical, right? So I don't want to invest in, I don't want somebody to invest in me who's going to think that they've got to come in and hold my hand and run the business for me or straight out telling you what to do. Twenty four seven. I want an investor who's going to say, okay, we know that you're running the business day to day, this is what I know based on my experience. And here's our shared best practice playbook, whatever. But at the end of the day you're the one in the seat making the hard decisions and we're going to respect that. And so for people that are looking to get into VC, that's one story.

Wink Jones [00:13:23]:

But looking to get investment from VC, I think that's very different. The dynamic has changed right now. To get VC interest you have to show up into the right vertical hockey stick. And without that story, with a giant addressable market and a really unique product offering and like hyper growth potential, it's very hard to capture the attention of these guys and that's changing. But there's been so much VC money raised over the last five years that there's now just a demand for deals, right? So like VC's are looking for that story and they're, you know, you got deal generation teams and like, you know, you probably get emails from investors all the time that are just auto generated, right? Somebody's using marketo and just blasting these things. And so that to me says that there's more demand for good businesses than there is supply. And so I think if you're looking to get into having a VC investor and then VC versus PE is a different story. But having a VC investor also means that you're going to have a very high expectation of growth that's going to be put on your business.

Wink Jones [00:14:37]:

And if you're not a position where you're growing at early stage, it's got to be 100% plus and probably more to be exciting. At middle stage to growth stage you've got to be hitting rule of 40, 40% growth plus profitability to some level you've got to be at least there to capture their interest or at least the ability to get there easily. And if you're not in that phase, don't lie about it because it's not worth it because they're going to get in and they're going to screw up your cap table and then you're going to lose your job and your company anyway. So, I mean, and I don't think it used to be that harsh, but I really believe that's the environment now where it's like if you take that on, you have to know that that's the expected outcome. And if it's not like you're going to be in a tough spot.

Angelo Esposito [00:15:20]:

Yeah. And one thing I've also found interesting about the seed stage is, you know, unlike a series A or any series after that, really, where obviously a lot of it is just pure KPI's. Like you can't hide. It's, you know, show me the ARR, show me churn, show me this, show me that, show me growth projections, etcetera. What I like about the seed stage, or what's interesting at least the founders listening, is that there's a portion of it that they're really investing in the person. Right? That's the one stage where there's that bet on the founder or the founding team. So yes, it's market size, yes, it's some level of traction, some level of growth, but it's the one stage where you could kind of the stories got more weight than, or the story has a good chunk of weight because it's, it's why you, why now? Like, you know, so that's something I think that's also important is trying to convince or at least demonstrate or tell the story of why you are the.

Wink Jones [00:16:15]:

Right person to do it, which is 100% agree there. And I saw that play out a dozen times. You know, it happens over and over again and I always heard it that like it's, it's an investment in the CEO or the founder first and in the business. And I've seen a number of businesses that were good businesses that failed because the founder was not good and rarely seen a good founder truly not at least be mildly successful. And I think that's why VC's are willing to write almost a blank check to a great proven founder that has a good idea.

Angelo Esposito [00:16:53]:

Right. And I think VC's know that the idea will evolve, pivots will happen. So it's like you end up investing in the person, which makes sense. That's awesome. And it's really cool to hear like that kind of story from your point of view, from, from kayaking to meeting that right person, getting that job, then see, you know, being part of an acquisition and then being on the flip side of that, on the VC side. So now finally, the, the meat of it, no pun intended, getting to the meal ticket side. Let's get into, first of all, where the idea came from, right? So, like, where did that start? So you were on the VC world, whatever. Where did that transition to come? Where one day you just came up with the idea.

Angelo Esposito [00:17:29]:

I'd love to hear the origin of meal ticket. Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:17:32]:

So I was introduced to Brian Conrath, who was the true founder of Meal ticket.

Angelo Esposito [00:17:37]:

Got it.

Wink Jones [00:17:39]:

He went to Techstars with his partner over the summer of 2011. Their idea was to build an app that was for restaurateurs to use to do their marketing. So, like, you know, we've got to buy one, get one, or we've got a band or whatever it might be. And, you know, we as a consumer would download the app and install it and we would receive this, this content, and you could offer like, you know, whatever discounts and coupons and that kind of thing. They went through techstars with that, with that concept. They came out of Techstars. They recruited me. And as they were recruiting me, we started looking at the industry kind of who they were selling to.

Wink Jones [00:18:18]:

And the thing that got really interesting was that during the time when they were meeting with customers and trying to understand the business, because none of us were food guys, they interacted with sales reps for those distributors, and they saw these sales reps that are walking in the back door of the restaurant, slapping backs and giving high fives with the owner, and then they pull out their pen and paper and carbon copy and they're taking orders like this and it's 2011, right? And they've got their, they don't have a smartphone, they've got a flip phone, right? So they're flipped. They're doing their flip phone and they're, you know, and Brian, I remember specifically, Brian was describing this to me and they said, you know, there's, there's 7000 distributors in the US and it's a $250 billion a year industry, and that's how they're going to market. And I remember the light going off going, that's a disruptible market, right? Like, screw, you know, whatever the consumer facing thing, you know, that's not going to work. It's like, let's build something to drag these people into the 21st century, right? And that was the thesis, like, that was the underlying thesis of the business. So we quickly kind of scrapped the old thing and then started building a deal of the day concept where we basically would take in data from our distributor partner and then find from the distributor, like, let's find some aging inventory or something they want to get rid of, and let's do an email blast and see if we can get somebody interested in buying. And so we worked, I mean, Brian mostly built it by himself over about six months. And we sent our first deal, and I remember our first deal was with a little distributor in Oregon, and we had tater Tots and we had some meat, and then we had some mini corn dogs, and there was like a limited supply, and they were trying to get rid of this crap. And we sifted through their data and we pinpointed, like, here are the 100 restaurants that should receive each promotion.

Wink Jones [00:20:23]:

And we sent them out, and we got like 60, 70% open rates on the emails.

Angelo Esposito [00:20:29]:

Wow.

Wink Jones [00:20:30]:

And like 30% click throughs. And then we ended up selling, you know, we distributed, sold, like, most of their inventory just off of these promotions. And we're like, okay, this works, right? This is something to get proof of concept.

Angelo Esposito [00:20:40]:

Yeah, yeah.

Wink Jones [00:20:41]:

And so that was like the, that was the kernel of this whole idea. And so we took that and expanded it from there. We really, we built it around the distributor and the distributor's data, knowing that there's a gold mine of information that they're not mining themselves. Because, again, you've got sales reps that are just walking in the back door and taking orders. They're not actively selling, they're not looking for penetration opportunities. And so we could, you know, we built analytics around the data to say, show me everybody that's buying french fries from us, but not buying ketchup, or they've got burgers on the menu and they're not buying our beef patty. Right. And then we, you know, and then we bolstered that whole email campaign marketing concept and then started to bolt on more services so that it became roundly this kind of CRM tool that enabled the sales reps to push deals into their customers hands, allowed the distributor marketing team to create content, distribute content to relevant people, and really start to get pinpointed, start to use modern technology to do some of the things that other industries have been doing for a long time.

Angelo Esposito [00:21:49]:

That's really cool. It's funny when you're talking about the pen and paper, I think the restaurant space in general loves pen and paper. We see it on our side on the wizard side, when it comes to inventory and even placing, like you said, the orders to their suppliers, or you'd be surprised, recipe costing things out on Excel. So pen and paper, maybe very basic spreadsheets, but that's super common. And I don't know why I had a flashback. My dad, grocery store owner, and kind of in that space, and to this day probably still has a good chunk of suppliers that still come in and do the free order by hand. You know, there's some, the bigger ones have, like they're, they're whatever, palm pilot or whatever you want to call it, their, their, you know, mobile tablet, but a lot of them still do it manually, which I'm imagining that visual I'd love to know from you guys. Like, in the early days, right? Like, and we'll get to, you know, where you guys are at today, but in the early days, how did you go about, you know, kind of building that marketplace? Because it's always tough to build, you know, it's tough to build a business period.

Angelo Esposito [00:22:51]:

But you guys kind of have the two sides of trying to get suppliers, but needing to have the restaurants to satisfy the suppliers, but having, you know, having both sides to work. So I love to hear, just like, how you guys went about that in the early days.

Wink Jones [00:23:04]:

Well, we always position ourselves as distributor centric because the dynamic in that vertical is, especially ten years ago, there's a very large lack of trust between the distributors and the suppliers. Manufacturers and the distributors are extremely protective of their data. And so we would go to the distributors. We made lots of promises about the sanctity of their data. It's not leaving these four walls, which are all true and we still hold to, but we really had to bend over backwards to ensure that they believed in our ability to be protective of their data. Once they believed and trusted us in that, then they would go recruit the restaurants onto our platform. Right. So we would launch with a new distributor.

Wink Jones [00:23:51]:

They would talk about at their next sales meeting, and then all the sales reps go out and they sign up all of their restaurants. So the restaurant would, restaurant get an email and click here to log in, and all of a sudden they're looking at meal ticket offers and deals that are sponsored by, you know, whoever this distributor is.

Angelo Esposito [00:24:04]:

Right.

Wink Jones [00:24:06]:

The challenge for us was getting to the distributors in the first place, and because we were nobodies, right. Nobody knew us and we weren't industry guys, and it was very hard to build trustees. So I'll tell you a funny anecdote. So one of our first and one of our biggest distributor customers is performance foods. That is now a large public company. At the time, they were still private, but still pretty big. I think at the time they were maybe the fourth or fifth largest in the country. At that time we had maybe two little tiny distributors that were still kind of just like pilot stage.

Wink Jones [00:24:41]:

But then a friend of a friend of a friend introduced me to another guy who was going to go present to a performance foods house in the northeast, and he said, look, come along and you can be like our technology partner and you can talk about your stuff and maybe you'll get a chance to, like, sell something.

Angelo Esposito [00:24:57]:

Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:24:57]:

So I'm so in my hotel and this guy's supposed to come pick me up and then we're going to go present. I'm in my hotel room and it's, you know, whatever, eight in the morning. And he calls me and he's like, wink. I totally screwed up time zones. We're supposed to be there in 15 minutes, presenting. You gotta get there. And I'm like, in my hotel, I thought I had hours, right? So I'm like, you know, underwear and like, I haven't shaved and I'm just like banging away emails or whatever. And so I scrambled, like, throw my stuff in a bag, I jump in a taxi, I'm like shaving in the taxi.

Wink Jones [00:25:29]:

And I get there and this guy completely misses the meeting. But I was there in time to go present and kind of lead the presentation and it turns out they were trying to build a loyalty program internally based on data and then matching items to data and all that stuff. So our technology kind of perfectly aligned with that and we ended up getting that business and that opened the door to PFG. And then we spent the next, basically spent the next five years deploying through PFG and they became our biggest customer and they're still one of our bigger customers. Now. I have people there at PFG that I've been working with for, for twelve years that are, you know, I consider very, very good friends. So it's just kind of ballooned in this really cool opportunity.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:09]:

Wow. Yeah. For people listening, I think, right time, right place. Like, it could change your life. That, that's a really cool story. It's funny. Yeah. We had another guest, actually, funny enough on the last episode, same thing, right time, right place, kind of taking that, that leap of faith.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:27]:

She, she was. I'll give you a quick stories. It's super interesting. They did where they do healthy meals, basically, and they went from not knowing anything starting with zero locations. Now they have close to 100 locations. And she was telling a story about a military contract and basically how she was there at the base and like the, you know, sergeant or whatever the terminology is, I don't know. But some commander was just like, hey, we got a big problem here. We got 50 people.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:50]:

We're about to get kicked out because they're overweight. Whatever. Can you help? And her thing was just like how she said yes before figuring it out, kind of like jumping off before you have the parachute. And in the end they did it. They all passed. And then now they have this massive contract. And I guess to kind of parallel that here. Were you ready to take them on or was it a bit of that jumping off? No, no, we were built.

Wink Jones [00:27:12]:

We were building the plane while we were taking off.

Angelo Esposito [00:27:14]:

There you go.

Wink Jones [00:27:15]:

And, I mean, there are so many times where that happened and that, you know, you said it, but the serendipity is such a key part of success in early stage in startups. Like, you just, you have to get lucky a few times and then, yeah, you have to, like, commit to stuff that you're not ready for and just go do it and make it work, you know? And we did, and we, again, we got lucky and it worked out.

Angelo Esposito [00:27:35]:

That's awesome. And any, any lessons there to share? Because I think a lot of entrepreneurs, including myself, go through that, like, hey, we'll figure it out as we go. What were some, like, you know, tips you can give that, like, hey, it's going to be painful. You're going to make mistakes, but when figuring out things as you go, I recommend, you know, x, y, z, and.

Wink Jones [00:27:53]:

Kind of like, well, for us to be. For me to be confident and committing to things that we hadn't built yet, I had to. I really trusted my partner Brian, as a CTO. He's, he's a really, really smart guy, product oriented. Also, like a. More of a person, more of a people person than most, you know, heavy engineering guys. Right? So he could actually have a conversation and could, could understand how the customer would use the product, but, like, I would come back from one of these types of meetings and say, hey, okay, we got to go build this. And he's like, all right.

Wink Jones [00:28:33]:

And, you know, he worked 1214 hours a day knocking these things out. And so I think for me to have a guy like that as a partner, that we wholly trusted each other and he would trust me not to over commit was critical. Right. And you just, you're not going to get that level of commitment from a contractor. So if you're going into technology business and you don't have the expertise in house, it's going to be really hard to do as a partnership. You need somebody that's going to go way above and beyond putting in 8 hours a day. And just you have to both be kind of in lockstep in terms of your commitment to business there. And it's really hard to get right a partnership like that.

Angelo Esposito [00:29:14]:

And I love to hear like once you have, you know, this distributor on board, I'm imagining there's a bit of a snowball effect. So what does meal ticket look like at this point? Right. You start off ideas like so. So from Dexars, you find a bigger idea, a bigger problem to solve, jump into it. You finally get this, you know, serendipitous moment. Obviously it's not just cookie cutter. It's probably a lot of ups and downs to make them happy. But once you do make this client happy and, you know, there's growth there and obviously that network effect of, you know, growing through their, their kind of sales direct sales channel or sales reps, what happens next? Like what, what do you guys do to keep growing?

Wink Jones [00:29:52]:

Yeah, I mean, we, once we were able to prove that someone would pay us for this, we were able to go raise a little money. And that helped. That helped because then we can, then we can hire more engineers and start building more product. And then that really did create a snowball. Once we could build more product, we could start to service a broader set of customers. So, you know, we went from servicing one warehouse at PFG to servicing 35 within like three years. And then, and then, you know, that ballooned into 55, 65 now. So a lot of that was, you know, we've got to build this feature to go get that customer and then we got to go build this.

Wink Jones [00:30:31]:

And so it really was like fairly straightforward. Like we knew what we had to build in order to go get them on that platform and then, and then help them with the megaphone. Right. Help them with the word of mouth because the industry is still considered fairly small and tight given most of the, you know, $250 billion with sales. Probably 80% of that is controlled by 500 distribution centers. So almost everybody's kind of familiar with each other. So once you get your name out there and get your word out there, then people start talking about you, and then that snowballs. And in hindsight, it took years.

Wink Jones [00:31:10]:

At times it felt fast and at times it felt really slow. And we always wanted to go faster, but the thing we found is everything we're building, they want to use. And that was the key part. We keep building stuff that they want to use, and that's a good sign. As long as we can keep doing that, we're going to keep getting more customers.

Angelo Esposito [00:31:28]:

That's awesome. And today, how many, you know, just maybe to share with the audience how many suppliers you guys have on board, if you can share that information. Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:31:36]:

So we have over 200 individual distribution centers on our platform now. We also have manufacturers. There's about a 100, 110 manufacturers on the platform also that, that look at the data product that we built on top of that. So transitioning into kind of our next phase, we, because we had all this data, we were able to look at and consolidate data in a way that no one else really had before. And there's forever been this demand from the manufacturers, the guys at the top of the chain. So this is General Mills and Tyson chicken and whoever else actually makes the food. They've always had distribution, and food service distribution has always been kind of a black box for them. Right.

Wink Jones [00:32:24]:

So if I'm Tyson in general, if I, you know, I sell a truck full of chicken wings to a distribution center in Boise, Idaho, I don't really have visibility into who's buying that. All I know is I sold, you know, whatever, 1000 cases to this distribution center. I don't know. You know, was that bar and grill? Was it wingstop? Was it, you know, was it a wing place? You know, was it an asian restaurant? You know, what other stuff do they buy with it? I don't know. Right. So as a marketer at that level, at a manufacturer, it's really hard for me to actually know how to do my job and create more demand if I don't know who's actually buying the product. Some level of this has existed in grocery and retail for a long time through scan data and some other services. It's a little simpler there.

Wink Jones [00:33:05]:

But the fragmented nature of this industry has really prevented distributors and manufacturers from accessing that. So we proposed and we launched a data sharing platform where distributors would tell us, these are the manufacturers we want you to share data with, and it's Tyson and it's General Mills and some of these others. And then we're going to charge them and we're going to share that revenue. So we essentially created a data package. We sold access to the data to these manufacturers, and then we split the revenue with our. With our distributive partners again, like retaining our distributor centric view of the world, making sure that they're benefiting from this and, you know, helping to dissuade their fears about the way that we're taking care of their data. It's like, look, we're not, we're just doing what you tell us. We'll put the data wherever you want it to go and it should benefit you.

Wink Jones [00:33:56]:

And that's been, that's been a great success so far as well.

Angelo Esposito [00:33:59]:

That makes sense. And any anecdotes or just data you can share on, like some of the, I can imagine, but maybe some of the wins that the manufacturers can get with this data. Right. Like my head spinning with a bunch of marketing ideas, but I'd love to hear if you have any, you know, examples you can share.

Wink Jones [00:34:17]:

There's some, there's some really good examples there. I won't use names, but there is a rubber glove manufacturer that wanted to know every restaurant in a geography that was buying raw chicken from this distributor but not buying rubber gloves. And, and so you, so we pull that, it's like a couple clicks and you've got that. And we go, okay, here's a hundred restaurants, right? They're either buying it from somebody else, they're buying it from Costco, or they're not buying it at all. Right? So, like, target them. And they did this campaign and they had, you know, great uplift on their sales within that, and it sticks. So, like, those type of affinity, we call them affinity voids or matrix voids. Those are really successful because you can get really specific and back to, like, the Tyson example, like, if I want to look at, you know, if I'm a, if I'm a hidden Valley ranch brand manager, right, I want to know everybody that's buying chicken wings but not buying my ranch at these chicken wing places, right? Like, so clearly opportunity to sell.

Wink Jones [00:35:21]:

And then if I'm smart, I'll bundle it up with, you know, the little cups that they go into and, like, get somebody else to help me cover the marketing cost.

Angelo Esposito [00:35:27]:

Yeah, that's awesome.

Wink Jones [00:35:28]:

So that has been super successful. The manufacturing sales network is kind of constantly changing. And so this has morphed from being just that marketing engine to also being a sales lead engine as well. So that now manufacturers come in and buy the data and they mine the data and then they take the data and they plug it into their own CRM, like a salesforce or whatever, so that their reps know where to go fish, right? And it's the same concept, but they're just giving them, like, direct it. Look, it looks like Jim's diner isn't buying the barbecue sauce. Like, get in there and, you know, try to upsell them on whatever.

Angelo Esposito [00:36:09]:

Super interesting. And I wonder how much, because one thing that, that's, that we've seen on our side, especially in the early days when we're only focused on, let's say, beverage. So liquor and wine, you know, three tier system, same kind of concept, right? Like, the. The big brands would want to know from the distributors. They'd understand, like, case buys and stuff, but they'd want to understand more what's happening at, like, the retail level or the venue level. So, like, you know, okay, cool. Maybe x. Maybe they sold x amount of tequila.

Angelo Esposito [00:36:38]:

But, like, how did the restaurants actually sell the tequila? Were they selling it as a premium cocktail? Were they selling it as, like, the cheap shot to get rid of, you know, like, so how they're disposing or using that, that item. Do you see that same thing on the food side? Do you see, like, is there that interest from the manufacturers to know the how, recipe side? Yeah, definitely.

Wink Jones [00:36:59]:

Yeah, I mean, there's. There's definitely interest in that data, and we're getting close to connecting the dots there. We haven't done it yet, but with our Marketman edition, we have now. We're now seeing some of the data coming through pos that would allow us to connect the dots into the menu show manufacturers ultimately, like, how are these. How are these products being plated? Right. Where are they ending up? Because, again, that affects the way that they market, affects the way they sell and affects, you know, who they sell to. So there's. There's a very large, insatiable demand for data from the manufacturer level.

Wink Jones [00:37:33]:

And frankly, those guys in this system, those are the guys with most of the money to spend on.

Angelo Esposito [00:37:37]:

Correct. Right. And then, you know, you touch on market man, I'd love to hear, like, from the meal ticket side, I know there was, you know, market man as you. As you mentioned that, that you guys, you know, teamed up with and there was. But there was someone before and maybe others that I don't even know. So I love to hear, like, just a bit about that. Sorry. Like, meal tickets grown, getting these suppliers on, like, you know, just grown.

Angelo Esposito [00:38:00]:

In general, how do you guys think about these acquisitions? Maybe just walk through, like, a couple of these? I think there was, if I'm mistaken, obviously, market man. And there was track Max was the first. That's it. Yes.

Wink Jones [00:38:11]:

So we, in 2020, we had the experience. Everybody else did, and we're fortunate enough that software became more important to our customers, and we retained almost all of our business through that time, but we got to kind of mid 2020, and we saw the opportunity to start rolling up some of these technology companies that were focused on the supply chain. And one of the most obvious ones was Trackmax, who we had been talking to were very friendly with, don't really compete with, but maybe compete with the same dollar. And what track Max does is tracks trade spend earnings for distributors that are basically back end monies that are paid to the distributors by manufacturers. It's a very convoluted, specific thing to this industry, and I won't go totally into it, but bottom line is that the trade spend dollars are often most of the profit that a distributor will make in a given year. And basically it's manufacturers paying additional marketing funds into the distribution layer to get attention on their products or make sure that they're distributors, stay in business, frankly, and distributors will acknowledge this, that's a significant part of their business model. And so up until, you know, without Trackmax, it's a spreadsheet, and it's the same like we talked about a bunch of times already. Like, we're basically competing with spreadsheets, right? And so the guys at Trackmax built a really nice piece of software that offsets the spreadsheet use.

Wink Jones [00:39:49]:

So I found an investor in a fund called PSG out of Boston that got excited about the idea of putting these companies together. We brought PSG in in 2020, late 2020, to take out my existing investors and then do the track max acquisition at the same time. So we did this kind of three way deal where PSG invested in us. We bought Trackmax, rolled the two companies up, and then off to the races. Super cool, really interesting process. Really stressful to try to do two deals at the same time. We were very fortunate we did it, really. We ended and talk a little bit about company integrations and acquisitions.

Wink Jones [00:40:36]:

Before then, I had never been part of an acquisition or merger. And so bringing in another company under our roof during COVID when everything's remote and we're doing this type of conversation with all our new employees, was a very new challenge. We were super lucky with that deal because that company was so distributor focused, also that we just had a lot of cultural traits that were very similar. And so it was really easy to like to bring them into the fold. We all had very similar outlooks on how to treat customers and what's important. And within three or four months, we completely reorged the two companies together and begun rebuilding the software to integrate together.

Angelo Esposito [00:41:19]:

Wow.

Wink Jones [00:41:20]:

So that was a really fun deal. And then that kind of got our first taste at acquisition. PSG, as an investor, is very acquisitive with their strategy. They love to do acquisitions that are like bolt on or product extensions or things like that. And so we look at acquisitions quite often now as part of our strategy. Within a year, we had found Marketman. Marketman is a restaurant facing inventory management software that basically pulls in POS data, pulls in distributor data, and then allows restaurants to manage their inventory, look at their gross profit order, etcetera. We that they ran a process to try to get the best price.

Wink Jones [00:42:06]:

We ended up the winner, and we closed that deal at the end of 2021. Different company and almost, I mean, they were about our same size when we bought them, so. Okay. So, in effect, in the prior 18 months, we had doubled the company with one acquisition, and then doubled the company again with Marketman, which was pretty exciting. And then the additional complexity of Marketman having half of their staff in Israel was a very challenging integration. So we're now 18 months into that and 20 months into that, and it's been a great, great program, a great, great group of people, a really good acquisition, and a challenging, but good integration as well.

Angelo Esposito [00:42:55]:

That's super interesting. I'd love to hear what's the. Again, if you can share. What's the role? Rough, you know, head count right now. Like, are you guys. Yeah, just like, in terms of, like, overall team.

Wink Jones [00:43:08]:

Yeah. In total, we're about 200 people globally.

Angelo Esposito [00:43:11]:

That's awesome. And so I got, I gotta ask. I gotta ask you this, because you touched upon culture was actually one of the questions I wanted to ask you. So it's perfect. It's as you're scaling, and not only are you scaling, you know, you're doubling because of one acquisition, doubling again. So you're just scaling, but you're acquiring, and things are growing fast. How do you keep team culture, I guess, alive, or how do you foster team culture? Keep the right culture, I should say, going through such rapid growth?

Wink Jones [00:43:43]:

It's a very good question, and it's a very difficult challenge. And my approach early on in the company was that culture just takes care of itself. And in fact, I found it kind of distracting to talk about culture and even kind of annoying. But then I realized over time what culture really means. And culture isn't like, bring your dog to work day and free lunches. Culture is the way you come to work and the way you approach your job and the way you treat your customers, the way you address the tough trade offs. And I think that to me, is one of the most defining things about culture is within a SaaS business, how do I address the custom requests that I get from customers versus the desire to build something that more people will use? And that to me is one of the defining components of a culture is like, how do I deal with that? Truly, if I'm Salesforce, I don't do any custom requests, right? But if I'm meal ticket, I tend to do a lot of custom requests because we're very customer centric and we understand the pains of our distributor customers and our operator restaurant customers. And so that culture kind of, it grew up by itself.

Wink Jones [00:44:58]:

But then to your question, when you bring in a whole new company that's not only diverse in its culture, but diverse in its geography and spread all over the world, mostly remote, how do you keep that together and align? And the tough thing is, oftentimes cultures can clash, right? And so we do. We probably didn't do the best job at first. And it took a little while to learn that, like, oh, like, these guys are still kind of running things very differently than we anticipated. And so we've got to change a little bit about the way that we talk about our culture, talk about how we do things, remind the company of what our goals are. And so that really morphed into a continuous reminder of who we are, why we're doing what we're doing, what the acronyms are that we use all the time, and why they're important. I mean, if I talk about PLG and product led growth, right? Like, some people don't even know what that means and implies, right? A lot of people don't, in fact. And for us to expect that someone knows that after only being with us for two years, months, is sort of naive and not really considerate. And so a lot of it was, a lot of it's been repetition.

Wink Jones [00:46:12]:

But then the other thing is, like, we also had to acknowledge that there's some parts of the culture that we acquired that are really important and probably productive to bringing that company to where it is now. And then specifically, when I talk about, you know, our employee base in Israel, there's a whole lot of that culture that is different, and not just from a work culture standpoint, but just, you know, ground zero basis of, like, cultural. And so we really worked hard to be accommodative to the important parts of that and be respectful to the important parts of that that we wanted to, you know, not only respect, but then also integrate into our overall culture. And so I think that the net of it is, like, you have to be fluid to some extent. There's some absolute, like, must haves, you know, guardrails. We got, we got to be this. But then there's other things where it's like, no, that's a, that's a good idea. We should incorporate that.

Wink Jones [00:47:03]:

That should be part of who we are.

Angelo Esposito [00:47:04]:

That makes sense. And where do you see the, you know, in general? Right. You guys are growing fast. Acquisition, general growth. Right. Where do you kind of see the restaurant industry heading when it comes to, I guess, you know, adopting, you know, all these different types of technologies? Like, how do you, how do you look at it? Right. Like, you're obviously been in this for quite, quite a while. You got a ton of experience now in the restaurant space.

Angelo Esposito [00:47:28]:

I know you said you didn't start, but being exposed to it for so long, where do you see things heading in the near future?

Wink Jones [00:47:35]:

Well, I've come to really love and appreciate the independent business owner, whether that's an independent family owned distributor or an independent restaurant that is growing and entering that mid market phase. But it comes back to really respecting that, that entrepreneur operator out there kind of rolling up his or her sleeves and taking on the world. And when I look at our customers and what I love about our business is being in a position where we can enable those people that we most respect. And because we're bringing, there's a concept of, like, SaaS is really kind of democratizing software for everybody else that can't afford to install an ERP into their system. And I really take that to heart. In that 1015 years ago, there wasn't a good solution for inventory management and data management, data sharing. You had to be a Cisco or a McDonald's or somebody giant to go build your own or afford to contract out and spend millions of dollars. Well, we're at the point now where we can actually bring this stuff into the independence in an affordable way that they can.

Wink Jones [00:48:53]:

Like, this isn't me selling. This is like, I really believe that, like, bringing that to the independence is so important. And so, so when I see giant, you know, roll ups and acquisitions and consolidation within the market, within the restaurant and the distributor market, it makes me nervous because I think the blood of the real blood and the heart and soul of this industry is within those independent owners and operators and entrepreneurs.

Angelo Esposito [00:49:22]:

Yeah. Well said. Well said. And I guess maybe to wrap things up, like, where, where is meal ticket headed? Right? So, like, what's, what's next for you guys, obviously, you're doing a bunch of cool stuff. You're growing quickly, like, done some interesting acquisitions. What's, what's next for you?

Wink Jones [00:49:38]:

Yeah, it's funny, I can talk out both sides of my mouth where we've done all this acquisition, but, yeah, I'm trying to help the independents. Right. But no, I mean, you know, we, so the reason we did market man is because we think we can bring a really good restaurant solution to market through our distributor relationships. And again, we want to be distributor centric in that we want to benefit the distributor. We want to, you know, help, help them, the smaller distributors, we want to help them compete with the big guys who build the rum stuff. Right. So that's a big part of our strategy in the coming years, is to continue to deploy marketman through that channel. We see this as a meaningful company in the food service space.

Wink Jones [00:50:23]:

We've already built a great brand within the distribution layer of the space, but we think there's an opportunity to build a really meaningful brand that represents the independence that provides a full suite end to end of services for restaurants, distributors, manufacturers, to manage their data, their software. And, you know, we've talked about this before. The headroom in this space is enormous because so few of our target customers have even adopted software. I mean, there's still so much of it on pen and paper and an Excel spreadsheet and the opportunity to be out there in front creating an important company during a time where software adoption is just like, you know, going crazy up and to the right. That to me, is super exciting, and that's really what, that's what we're building towards.

Angelo Esposito [00:51:10]:

I love it. I love it. Yeah, it's funny because it's, people might look at this and say, like, oh, isn't market man a competitor? WISK? But it's like, and I've told you this, our biggest competitor is pen and paper. Right. The market's still just primed with pen and paper and Excel. I'll give Excel some credit, or spreadsheets in general. Maybe not Excel, but spreadsheets in general. And I think there's so much room for, for innovation, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

Angelo Esposito [00:51:32]:

I'm excited to chat with you and then to maybe conclude any, you know, I always like to kind of end off with maybe some, some words of wisdom. Obviously, you're an entrepreneur. It's in your blood. You've built something out of nothing, which I think is always super exciting and thrilling feeling for entrepreneurs. Any kind of last you know, piece of advice you want to share before we kind of sign off? Piece of advice or just words of wisdom that you want to share with fellow entrepreneurs?

Wink Jones [00:51:59]:

Boy, I hate to be preachy, but you've lived it.

Angelo Esposito [00:52:04]:

Look, preachy sucks and you haven't lived it, but, like, if you, you've done things, you're living it. You've built a company, you're acquiring it. So it's like living it. I think it's different when you're sharing experiences versus when you're just like, sharing a quote on Instagram and you don't do anything.

Wink Jones [00:52:19]:

You can see on my whiteboard I've got written hope is not a strategy. Oh, I've had that. I've had that written on my whiteboard since we started the company. Every time I move, I rewrite it. I make sure it's up there. And it's my reminder that you got to take action if you want something to happen. Action creates information. Information allows you to act more intelligently and ultimately creates urgency.

Wink Jones [00:52:46]:

And sitting back and waiting and hoping that you win the lottery is just not a way to be successful at this. And it takes point. A lot of grinding. It takes hard work and good luck, but it starts with action. So I guess that would be my parting wisdom.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:02]:

Perfect. Perfect way to end the podcast. Hope is not a strategy. I love that. So, wink, thank you for being here. Once again, we're with wink Jones, CEO of meal ticket. You can go check them out@mealticket.com. And do you want to share any socials? If you feel free to share any socials or where people can find you with, with their audience.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:21]:

So meal tickets off.

Wink Jones [00:53:22]:

I don't, I don't post much, but the stuff we post is on meal tickets LinkedIn account. So I point you there. We do actually post some good content there for, especially for restaurant management and operations.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:34]:

Awesome. So there you have it. Check out the LinkedIn. Check out meal ticket.com as well. And wink, thank you for being here today on the wisking at all podcast. It was such a pleasure chatting with you.

Wink Jones [00:53:44]:

Thanks, Angela. Really appreciate being here.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:47]:

Feel free to check out WISK.ai for more resources and schedule a demo with one of our product specialists to see if it's a fit for.

Meet Your Host & Guest

Wink Jones, CEO of Meal Ticket

Wink Jones is a visionary leader and founding member of Meal Ticket, a pioneering venture that revolutionized the foodservice industry by introducing modern technology to an underserved market. Inspired by a strategic vision to transform an industry reliant on outdated technology, Wink has played a pivotal role in leveraging SaaS and cloud-based solutions to modernize day-to-day operations in foodservice. With a commitment to relationship-building and market evangelism, Wink leads by example, prioritizing strong market relationships to drive product innovation and guide strategic direction. His tenure at Meal Ticket has provided invaluable insights into the intersection of technology and industry, positioning him as a forward-thinking leader in the field.

ANGELO ESPOSITO, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO OF WISK.AI

Meet Angelo Esposito, the Co-Founder and CEO of WISK.ai, Angelo's vision is to revolutionize the hospitality industry by creating an inventory software that allows bar and restaurant owners to streamline their operations, improve their margins and sales, and minimize waste. With over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry, Angelo deeply understands the challenges faced by bar and restaurant owners. From managing inventory to tracking sales to forecasting demand, Angelo has seen it all firsthand. This gave him the insight he needed to create WISK.ai.

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S2E9 - Inside Meal Ticket's Technological Impact on Food Service

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Show notes

Wink Jones [00:00:00]:

This guy's supposed to come pick me up and then we're going to go present. I'm in my hotel room and it's, you know, whatever, eight in the morning. And he calls me and he's like, wink. I totally screwed up time zones. We're supposed to be there in 15 minutes, presenting. You gotta get there. And I'm like, in my hotel. I thought I had hours, right? So I'm like, you know, underwear and like, I haven't shaved and I'm just like banging away emails or whatever.

Wink Jones [00:00:22]:

And so I scrambled, like, throw my stuff in a bag and I jump in taxi. I'm like, shaving in the taxi. And I get there and this guy completely misses the meeting. But I was there in time to go present and kind of lead the presentation. And it turns out they were trying to build a loyalty program internally based on data and then matching items to data and all that stuff. So our technology kind of perfectly aligned with that and we ended up getting that business and that opened the door to PFG. And then we spent the next, basically spent the next five years, like, deploying through PFG and they became our biggest customer and they're still one of our bigger customers now.

Angelo Esposito [00:01:01]:

Welcome to wisking it all with your host, Angela Sposito, co founder of WISK.ai, a food and beverage intelligence platform. We're going to be interviewing hospitality professionals around the world to really understand how they do what they do. Welcome to another episode of wisking it all. We're here today with Wink Jones, CEO of Meal Ticket Wink, thank you for being here today.

Wink Jones [00:01:30]:

Thanks for having me, Angelo. Happy to be here, of course.

Angelo Esposito [00:01:33]:

So I guess maybe a good place to start just to kind of set the stage for people who don't know. Can you just get in the quick 411 on what is meal ticket?

Wink Jones [00:01:43]:

So meal ticket is a SaaS, provider of. Sorry, SAS solution, provider of software for the food service supply chain. We have solutions that we sell to restaurant operators, food service distributors, as well as food manufacturers. It ranges from back office solutions like inventory management, financial data management, trade spend management, data management for distributors, and ultimately a data product that manufacturer and suppliers use to find market, relative relevant market data for the products that they sell.

Angelo Esposito [00:02:22]:

Nice. And I guess maybe just to maybe take a few steps back. I think it's always interesting to understand, like, how people got where they are today. So where, you know, I'd love to hear the wink Jones story. Right. So how did you get into the tech space?

Wink Jones [00:02:38]:

Yeah. So if you want to go way back. I spent most of my twenties as a raft guide and a kayak instructor. I live in Idaho. I grew up here and spent a lot of time in my boat and ultimately ended up doing international trips where we would take clients overseas for a couple weeks at a time and then kind of show them the world through a kayak or through a raft. And a lot of times those clients were kind of upper class rich guys that we would get out on these trips. And I eventually had one guy that I met and did a few trips with, he said, as soon as you're done with messing around and you want a real job, let me know. And so over like eight years, I finished my degree.

Wink Jones [00:03:25]:

I was a slow learner, did a lot of sporadic correspondence type courses, and finished up. And then I got married and I was like, okay, I'm gonna get serious. Gave my friend a call and he got me a job at a startup in Boulder, Colorado, so moved there. This was 2002. Started as kind of a customer support guy and then worked my way up to operations manager. Then ultimately we sold the company about three and a half years in. And when we sold the company, we had some investors that were pretty happy and decided to form a small venture and seed fund to do a lot of the same type of activity. So I ended up over for about five years, worked as a seed investor, but really I was an operating partner within this small fund.

Wink Jones [00:04:15]:

And so we would invest in these little companies and then I would go to work as a management member. So I ran marketing, I did operations, I did finance, I just kind of did a little bit of everything at really early stage companies. And so I got a really great view of like all the things you can do wrong, because there's just so many ways to go wrong in early stage startups. And so had a really good experience, learned a ton. And then right around 2011, well, we moved back to Boise, where we're from a couple years before that. But in 2011, the fund had kind of run its course and I was looking for my next thing, and I got introduced to my current partner, whose name is Brian Conrath. And Brian was looking, Brian had actually just finished Techstars with meal ticket as sort of an incubator, and he was looking for someone to come in and help run the company. He was a technology guy.

Wink Jones [00:05:09]:

He got connected with me and I basically agreed to join up with him and help build the company from there. And then rest is history.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:18]:

Wow. And I guess maybe just to kind of go through that initial experience, first of all, I think there's a lesson there. And sometimes it's not just what you know, it's who you know. So being in the right place, the right time, getting that opportunity to. That, you know, first job, like, as you said, is. Is probably quite important. But I love to maybe get, shed some light on that initial experience of maybe going through an acquisition. Right.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:41]:

So if I'm not mistaken, I think it was. I was doing some research online. It was a kind of a image, a three. It was champion imaging, I believe it was. And something. Was that what I found?

Wink Jones [00:05:52]:

Yeah, that was technically my first startup.

Angelo Esposito [00:05:56]:

That was your first startup was around the same time. So I was like, okay, 2002. Okay, so tell me more about that. So I'd love to hear about that experience. And then just like any lessons and kind of like the acquisition side, because I'm sure there's a lot of people curious about that.

Wink Jones [00:06:12]:

Yeah. So the company that we, that I moved to Boulder to work for is called net identity. And we, the founders of that company, had bought in like 19, 97, 98. They'd gone through the phone book and bought as many domains as they could. And so they owned, they owned like, Smith.net and jones.org. And they had like 40,000 last name domains. And we sold, we sold email addresses so you could get, you know, winkones.com or whatever. Right.

Wink Jones [00:06:42]:

Nice little business didn't require a lot of people, wasn't growing much. But we ran that for, I ran that for three years, and we just weren't growing the business a lot. We looked, we found a couple buyers that were interested, ran in a process and then a process with a banker where basically we had three or four suitors come to the table, they bid on the company, and then we picked the winning bidder. And then McDonald. I explained that in that way, but it was a very long process. So going through an acquisition does take a while, especially when you're on kind of a. It's one thing if somebody comes to you and says, I want to buy your company. It's another thing if you're going to market and saying, I'm going to run a process of trying to find a buyer.

Wink Jones [00:07:25]:

That takes a while because you've got to get everybody. I mean, the banker's job is to get everybody to the finish line at the same time and then have competitive bids coming in. Right. So it's like when you're buying a house and the realtor is like, you know, realtor wants multiple bids and they can drive it up and blah, blah, blah. So we went through that whole process and, you know, it was, it was really, for me, it was fun. I was, you know, 29 at the time, and my first experience with, you know, real startup of going, going from like, you know, whatever, five people to ten or 15 people, and then having buyer who is a public company. Company is called two cows. It's based in Ontario or Toronto.

Wink Jones [00:08:00]:

Yeah, still there. And they found they were an Internet services provider, and this became kind of a nice package of customers and product that they could slot into their portfolio. They didn't really need me very long, not more than a couple months. And so I quickly took my exit package and took a hike after that.

Angelo Esposito [00:08:24]:

That's awesome. Sounds like the best of both worlds, acquisition and not having to stay too long. And I gotta ask you this, and this one might be a bit more personal, but a lot of the founders that I chat with that, that have had successful exits, I always like asking them how life has changed. You know, maybe after that exit, because I think the answer isn't always not what you might think it to be. So I'd be curious just to hear your quick two cent, like, how did it affect your life? Let's say, you know, overall, like, what things changed and what things did.

Wink Jones [00:08:53]:

It's a great, it's a great question. And, you know, I'll say that for me, being a pretty junior, not junior, but like, not an early employee there, I didn't have a ton of equity. I didn't make life changing money at that time.

Angelo Esposito [00:09:04]:

Okay.

Wink Jones [00:09:04]:

Okay. It allowed me to pay for school, which I still had some school debt sitting out there. And that helped it definitely, you know, as a 29 year old, it got minor. I guess I was 30 by the time I sold it. It helped me get my footing so that I could kind of be confident in the next step anytime, you know? So I guess, you know, a couple ways to think about it. Financially, it's always great, right? But no matter how much money you make in a transaction, it's never really enough unless you're a giant transaction. And so I think, more importantly, is kind of setting up that event as a stepping stone for the next event. And so in my case, the next event was all of a sudden we had a bunch of investors at this company that were flush with cash from this deal.

Wink Jones [00:09:50]:

They were happy and they were like, okay, tell us, what's the next thing you guys are going to do? So it was a really cool opportunity to go, okay, now I've got. That actually helped kind of jumpstart my network of people that now know me as a professional that I can rely on and lean on next time I wanted to go do something interesting and I ended up actually hitting up a lot of those guys five years later when we started raising money for Yale ticket. So I ended up having a bunch of seed investors out of Dallas that were part of that original net identity deal, all from that original same network who knew me and at least knew that I was going to do my best to deliver some kind of returns.

Angelo Esposito [00:10:26]:

That's awesome. I'm excited to get into meal ticket and honestly, we'll probably spend a good chunk there. But one last question I'd love to just shed some light on is you were on one side of the, the, you know, spectrum with, with being an entrepreneur, and then you flip to the kind of VC side. I'd love to hear a bit about just that experience before jumping more into meal ticket. How is, how is the VC side of things? I guess, generally, and I'd love if we could maybe get into some things that you could recommend, you know, to people listening that are maybe in the tech scene or building up their business, like what are things they can work on, you know, to I guess be more, increase the chance of being, you know, invested in when it comes to VC money?

Wink Jones [00:11:09]:

That's a great question and that's also a moving target. When I, when I, when I kind of switched over to that side, the, you know, VC back in 2006 and seven was fairly early. Right. I mean there wasn't, it just wasn't nearly the size that it is now. And so it was very kind of shiny and attractive and getting into it. We raised a tiny fund. So I have no, my experience is, you know, confined to a very, very small fund in a seed environment. But I'll say that I like operating much better.

Wink Jones [00:11:45]:

I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I like, you know, rolling my sleeves up and being in the weeds and like working with people and building something. What I found in the VC side of that role was that I just didn't, I just didn't feel like I was really adding value unless I was like neck deep in the business. And a lot of times, you know, the entrepreneurs don't want you all up in their business. Right, right. And so there's a real balance of doing that well, and I've, and I think what that did for me is a, it told me what I wanted to do. Right. Which is really, which is operate, like be in the, in the role, in the seat running the company, but it also helped me understand the VC's and the investors that I want to work with.

Wink Jones [00:12:29]:

And we'll get into a minute when we talk about private equity guys, but it's very similar. I've seen very similar good and bad across VC and private equity. And any investors really is like when you pick a VC or you pick an investor knowing their work style and knowing your work style is so critical, right? So I don't want to invest in, I don't want somebody to invest in me who's going to think that they've got to come in and hold my hand and run the business for me or straight out telling you what to do. Twenty four seven. I want an investor who's going to say, okay, we know that you're running the business day to day, this is what I know based on my experience. And here's our shared best practice playbook, whatever. But at the end of the day you're the one in the seat making the hard decisions and we're going to respect that. And so for people that are looking to get into VC, that's one story.

Wink Jones [00:13:23]:

But looking to get investment from VC, I think that's very different. The dynamic has changed right now. To get VC interest you have to show up into the right vertical hockey stick. And without that story, with a giant addressable market and a really unique product offering and like hyper growth potential, it's very hard to capture the attention of these guys and that's changing. But there's been so much VC money raised over the last five years that there's now just a demand for deals, right? So like VC's are looking for that story and they're, you know, you got deal generation teams and like, you know, you probably get emails from investors all the time that are just auto generated, right? Somebody's using marketo and just blasting these things. And so that to me says that there's more demand for good businesses than there is supply. And so I think if you're looking to get into having a VC investor and then VC versus PE is a different story. But having a VC investor also means that you're going to have a very high expectation of growth that's going to be put on your business.

Wink Jones [00:14:37]:

And if you're not a position where you're growing at early stage, it's got to be 100% plus and probably more to be exciting. At middle stage to growth stage you've got to be hitting rule of 40, 40% growth plus profitability to some level you've got to be at least there to capture their interest or at least the ability to get there easily. And if you're not in that phase, don't lie about it because it's not worth it because they're going to get in and they're going to screw up your cap table and then you're going to lose your job and your company anyway. So, I mean, and I don't think it used to be that harsh, but I really believe that's the environment now where it's like if you take that on, you have to know that that's the expected outcome. And if it's not like you're going to be in a tough spot.

Angelo Esposito [00:15:20]:

Yeah. And one thing I've also found interesting about the seed stage is, you know, unlike a series A or any series after that, really, where obviously a lot of it is just pure KPI's. Like you can't hide. It's, you know, show me the ARR, show me churn, show me this, show me that, show me growth projections, etcetera. What I like about the seed stage, or what's interesting at least the founders listening, is that there's a portion of it that they're really investing in the person. Right? That's the one stage where there's that bet on the founder or the founding team. So yes, it's market size, yes, it's some level of traction, some level of growth, but it's the one stage where you could kind of the stories got more weight than, or the story has a good chunk of weight because it's, it's why you, why now? Like, you know, so that's something I think that's also important is trying to convince or at least demonstrate or tell the story of why you are the.

Wink Jones [00:16:15]:

Right person to do it, which is 100% agree there. And I saw that play out a dozen times. You know, it happens over and over again and I always heard it that like it's, it's an investment in the CEO or the founder first and in the business. And I've seen a number of businesses that were good businesses that failed because the founder was not good and rarely seen a good founder truly not at least be mildly successful. And I think that's why VC's are willing to write almost a blank check to a great proven founder that has a good idea.

Angelo Esposito [00:16:53]:

Right. And I think VC's know that the idea will evolve, pivots will happen. So it's like you end up investing in the person, which makes sense. That's awesome. And it's really cool to hear like that kind of story from your point of view, from, from kayaking to meeting that right person, getting that job, then see, you know, being part of an acquisition and then being on the flip side of that, on the VC side. So now finally, the, the meat of it, no pun intended, getting to the meal ticket side. Let's get into, first of all, where the idea came from, right? So, like, where did that start? So you were on the VC world, whatever. Where did that transition to come? Where one day you just came up with the idea.

Angelo Esposito [00:17:29]:

I'd love to hear the origin of meal ticket. Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:17:32]:

So I was introduced to Brian Conrath, who was the true founder of Meal ticket.

Angelo Esposito [00:17:37]:

Got it.

Wink Jones [00:17:39]:

He went to Techstars with his partner over the summer of 2011. Their idea was to build an app that was for restaurateurs to use to do their marketing. So, like, you know, we've got to buy one, get one, or we've got a band or whatever it might be. And, you know, we as a consumer would download the app and install it and we would receive this, this content, and you could offer like, you know, whatever discounts and coupons and that kind of thing. They went through techstars with that, with that concept. They came out of Techstars. They recruited me. And as they were recruiting me, we started looking at the industry kind of who they were selling to.

Wink Jones [00:18:18]:

And the thing that got really interesting was that during the time when they were meeting with customers and trying to understand the business, because none of us were food guys, they interacted with sales reps for those distributors, and they saw these sales reps that are walking in the back door of the restaurant, slapping backs and giving high fives with the owner, and then they pull out their pen and paper and carbon copy and they're taking orders like this and it's 2011, right? And they've got their, they don't have a smartphone, they've got a flip phone, right? So they're flipped. They're doing their flip phone and they're, you know, and Brian, I remember specifically, Brian was describing this to me and they said, you know, there's, there's 7000 distributors in the US and it's a $250 billion a year industry, and that's how they're going to market. And I remember the light going off going, that's a disruptible market, right? Like, screw, you know, whatever the consumer facing thing, you know, that's not going to work. It's like, let's build something to drag these people into the 21st century, right? And that was the thesis, like, that was the underlying thesis of the business. So we quickly kind of scrapped the old thing and then started building a deal of the day concept where we basically would take in data from our distributor partner and then find from the distributor, like, let's find some aging inventory or something they want to get rid of, and let's do an email blast and see if we can get somebody interested in buying. And so we worked, I mean, Brian mostly built it by himself over about six months. And we sent our first deal, and I remember our first deal was with a little distributor in Oregon, and we had tater Tots and we had some meat, and then we had some mini corn dogs, and there was like a limited supply, and they were trying to get rid of this crap. And we sifted through their data and we pinpointed, like, here are the 100 restaurants that should receive each promotion.

Wink Jones [00:20:23]:

And we sent them out, and we got like 60, 70% open rates on the emails.

Angelo Esposito [00:20:29]:

Wow.

Wink Jones [00:20:30]:

And like 30% click throughs. And then we ended up selling, you know, we distributed, sold, like, most of their inventory just off of these promotions. And we're like, okay, this works, right? This is something to get proof of concept.

Angelo Esposito [00:20:40]:

Yeah, yeah.

Wink Jones [00:20:41]:

And so that was like the, that was the kernel of this whole idea. And so we took that and expanded it from there. We really, we built it around the distributor and the distributor's data, knowing that there's a gold mine of information that they're not mining themselves. Because, again, you've got sales reps that are just walking in the back door and taking orders. They're not actively selling, they're not looking for penetration opportunities. And so we could, you know, we built analytics around the data to say, show me everybody that's buying french fries from us, but not buying ketchup, or they've got burgers on the menu and they're not buying our beef patty. Right. And then we, you know, and then we bolstered that whole email campaign marketing concept and then started to bolt on more services so that it became roundly this kind of CRM tool that enabled the sales reps to push deals into their customers hands, allowed the distributor marketing team to create content, distribute content to relevant people, and really start to get pinpointed, start to use modern technology to do some of the things that other industries have been doing for a long time.

Angelo Esposito [00:21:49]:

That's really cool. It's funny when you're talking about the pen and paper, I think the restaurant space in general loves pen and paper. We see it on our side on the wizard side, when it comes to inventory and even placing, like you said, the orders to their suppliers, or you'd be surprised, recipe costing things out on Excel. So pen and paper, maybe very basic spreadsheets, but that's super common. And I don't know why I had a flashback. My dad, grocery store owner, and kind of in that space, and to this day probably still has a good chunk of suppliers that still come in and do the free order by hand. You know, there's some, the bigger ones have, like they're, they're whatever, palm pilot or whatever you want to call it, their, their, you know, mobile tablet, but a lot of them still do it manually, which I'm imagining that visual I'd love to know from you guys. Like, in the early days, right? Like, and we'll get to, you know, where you guys are at today, but in the early days, how did you go about, you know, kind of building that marketplace? Because it's always tough to build, you know, it's tough to build a business period.

Angelo Esposito [00:22:51]:

But you guys kind of have the two sides of trying to get suppliers, but needing to have the restaurants to satisfy the suppliers, but having, you know, having both sides to work. So I love to hear, just like, how you guys went about that in the early days.

Wink Jones [00:23:04]:

Well, we always position ourselves as distributor centric because the dynamic in that vertical is, especially ten years ago, there's a very large lack of trust between the distributors and the suppliers. Manufacturers and the distributors are extremely protective of their data. And so we would go to the distributors. We made lots of promises about the sanctity of their data. It's not leaving these four walls, which are all true and we still hold to, but we really had to bend over backwards to ensure that they believed in our ability to be protective of their data. Once they believed and trusted us in that, then they would go recruit the restaurants onto our platform. Right. So we would launch with a new distributor.

Wink Jones [00:23:51]:

They would talk about at their next sales meeting, and then all the sales reps go out and they sign up all of their restaurants. So the restaurant would, restaurant get an email and click here to log in, and all of a sudden they're looking at meal ticket offers and deals that are sponsored by, you know, whoever this distributor is.

Angelo Esposito [00:24:04]:

Right.

Wink Jones [00:24:06]:

The challenge for us was getting to the distributors in the first place, and because we were nobodies, right. Nobody knew us and we weren't industry guys, and it was very hard to build trustees. So I'll tell you a funny anecdote. So one of our first and one of our biggest distributor customers is performance foods. That is now a large public company. At the time, they were still private, but still pretty big. I think at the time they were maybe the fourth or fifth largest in the country. At that time we had maybe two little tiny distributors that were still kind of just like pilot stage.

Wink Jones [00:24:41]:

But then a friend of a friend of a friend introduced me to another guy who was going to go present to a performance foods house in the northeast, and he said, look, come along and you can be like our technology partner and you can talk about your stuff and maybe you'll get a chance to, like, sell something.

Angelo Esposito [00:24:57]:

Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:24:57]:

So I'm so in my hotel and this guy's supposed to come pick me up and then we're going to go present. I'm in my hotel room and it's, you know, whatever, eight in the morning. And he calls me and he's like, wink. I totally screwed up time zones. We're supposed to be there in 15 minutes, presenting. You gotta get there. And I'm like, in my hotel, I thought I had hours, right? So I'm like, you know, underwear and like, I haven't shaved and I'm just like banging away emails or whatever. And so I scrambled, like, throw my stuff in a bag, I jump in a taxi, I'm like shaving in the taxi.

Wink Jones [00:25:29]:

And I get there and this guy completely misses the meeting. But I was there in time to go present and kind of lead the presentation and it turns out they were trying to build a loyalty program internally based on data and then matching items to data and all that stuff. So our technology kind of perfectly aligned with that and we ended up getting that business and that opened the door to PFG. And then we spent the next, basically spent the next five years deploying through PFG and they became our biggest customer and they're still one of our bigger customers. Now. I have people there at PFG that I've been working with for, for twelve years that are, you know, I consider very, very good friends. So it's just kind of ballooned in this really cool opportunity.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:09]:

Wow. Yeah. For people listening, I think, right time, right place. Like, it could change your life. That, that's a really cool story. It's funny. Yeah. We had another guest, actually, funny enough on the last episode, same thing, right time, right place, kind of taking that, that leap of faith.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:27]:

She, she was. I'll give you a quick stories. It's super interesting. They did where they do healthy meals, basically, and they went from not knowing anything starting with zero locations. Now they have close to 100 locations. And she was telling a story about a military contract and basically how she was there at the base and like the, you know, sergeant or whatever the terminology is, I don't know. But some commander was just like, hey, we got a big problem here. We got 50 people.

Angelo Esposito [00:26:50]:

We're about to get kicked out because they're overweight. Whatever. Can you help? And her thing was just like how she said yes before figuring it out, kind of like jumping off before you have the parachute. And in the end they did it. They all passed. And then now they have this massive contract. And I guess to kind of parallel that here. Were you ready to take them on or was it a bit of that jumping off? No, no, we were built.

Wink Jones [00:27:12]:

We were building the plane while we were taking off.

Angelo Esposito [00:27:14]:

There you go.

Wink Jones [00:27:15]:

And, I mean, there are so many times where that happened and that, you know, you said it, but the serendipity is such a key part of success in early stage in startups. Like, you just, you have to get lucky a few times and then, yeah, you have to, like, commit to stuff that you're not ready for and just go do it and make it work, you know? And we did, and we, again, we got lucky and it worked out.

Angelo Esposito [00:27:35]:

That's awesome. And any, any lessons there to share? Because I think a lot of entrepreneurs, including myself, go through that, like, hey, we'll figure it out as we go. What were some, like, you know, tips you can give that, like, hey, it's going to be painful. You're going to make mistakes, but when figuring out things as you go, I recommend, you know, x, y, z, and.

Wink Jones [00:27:53]:

Kind of like, well, for us to be. For me to be confident and committing to things that we hadn't built yet, I had to. I really trusted my partner Brian, as a CTO. He's, he's a really, really smart guy, product oriented. Also, like a. More of a person, more of a people person than most, you know, heavy engineering guys. Right? So he could actually have a conversation and could, could understand how the customer would use the product, but, like, I would come back from one of these types of meetings and say, hey, okay, we got to go build this. And he's like, all right.

Wink Jones [00:28:33]:

And, you know, he worked 1214 hours a day knocking these things out. And so I think for me to have a guy like that as a partner, that we wholly trusted each other and he would trust me not to over commit was critical. Right. And you just, you're not going to get that level of commitment from a contractor. So if you're going into technology business and you don't have the expertise in house, it's going to be really hard to do as a partnership. You need somebody that's going to go way above and beyond putting in 8 hours a day. And just you have to both be kind of in lockstep in terms of your commitment to business there. And it's really hard to get right a partnership like that.

Angelo Esposito [00:29:14]:

And I love to hear like once you have, you know, this distributor on board, I'm imagining there's a bit of a snowball effect. So what does meal ticket look like at this point? Right. You start off ideas like so. So from Dexars, you find a bigger idea, a bigger problem to solve, jump into it. You finally get this, you know, serendipitous moment. Obviously it's not just cookie cutter. It's probably a lot of ups and downs to make them happy. But once you do make this client happy and, you know, there's growth there and obviously that network effect of, you know, growing through their, their kind of sales direct sales channel or sales reps, what happens next? Like what, what do you guys do to keep growing?

Wink Jones [00:29:52]:

Yeah, I mean, we, once we were able to prove that someone would pay us for this, we were able to go raise a little money. And that helped. That helped because then we can, then we can hire more engineers and start building more product. And then that really did create a snowball. Once we could build more product, we could start to service a broader set of customers. So, you know, we went from servicing one warehouse at PFG to servicing 35 within like three years. And then, and then, you know, that ballooned into 55, 65 now. So a lot of that was, you know, we've got to build this feature to go get that customer and then we got to go build this.

Wink Jones [00:30:31]:

And so it really was like fairly straightforward. Like we knew what we had to build in order to go get them on that platform and then, and then help them with the megaphone. Right. Help them with the word of mouth because the industry is still considered fairly small and tight given most of the, you know, $250 billion with sales. Probably 80% of that is controlled by 500 distribution centers. So almost everybody's kind of familiar with each other. So once you get your name out there and get your word out there, then people start talking about you, and then that snowballs. And in hindsight, it took years.

Wink Jones [00:31:10]:

At times it felt fast and at times it felt really slow. And we always wanted to go faster, but the thing we found is everything we're building, they want to use. And that was the key part. We keep building stuff that they want to use, and that's a good sign. As long as we can keep doing that, we're going to keep getting more customers.

Angelo Esposito [00:31:28]:

That's awesome. And today, how many, you know, just maybe to share with the audience how many suppliers you guys have on board, if you can share that information. Yeah.

Wink Jones [00:31:36]:

So we have over 200 individual distribution centers on our platform now. We also have manufacturers. There's about a 100, 110 manufacturers on the platform also that, that look at the data product that we built on top of that. So transitioning into kind of our next phase, we, because we had all this data, we were able to look at and consolidate data in a way that no one else really had before. And there's forever been this demand from the manufacturers, the guys at the top of the chain. So this is General Mills and Tyson chicken and whoever else actually makes the food. They've always had distribution, and food service distribution has always been kind of a black box for them. Right.

Wink Jones [00:32:24]:

So if I'm Tyson in general, if I, you know, I sell a truck full of chicken wings to a distribution center in Boise, Idaho, I don't really have visibility into who's buying that. All I know is I sold, you know, whatever, 1000 cases to this distribution center. I don't know. You know, was that bar and grill? Was it wingstop? Was it, you know, was it a wing place? You know, was it an asian restaurant? You know, what other stuff do they buy with it? I don't know. Right. So as a marketer at that level, at a manufacturer, it's really hard for me to actually know how to do my job and create more demand if I don't know who's actually buying the product. Some level of this has existed in grocery and retail for a long time through scan data and some other services. It's a little simpler there.

Wink Jones [00:33:05]:

But the fragmented nature of this industry has really prevented distributors and manufacturers from accessing that. So we proposed and we launched a data sharing platform where distributors would tell us, these are the manufacturers we want you to share data with, and it's Tyson and it's General Mills and some of these others. And then we're going to charge them and we're going to share that revenue. So we essentially created a data package. We sold access to the data to these manufacturers, and then we split the revenue with our. With our distributive partners again, like retaining our distributor centric view of the world, making sure that they're benefiting from this and, you know, helping to dissuade their fears about the way that we're taking care of their data. It's like, look, we're not, we're just doing what you tell us. We'll put the data wherever you want it to go and it should benefit you.

Wink Jones [00:33:56]:

And that's been, that's been a great success so far as well.

Angelo Esposito [00:33:59]:

That makes sense. And any anecdotes or just data you can share on, like some of the, I can imagine, but maybe some of the wins that the manufacturers can get with this data. Right. Like my head spinning with a bunch of marketing ideas, but I'd love to hear if you have any, you know, examples you can share.

Wink Jones [00:34:17]:

There's some, there's some really good examples there. I won't use names, but there is a rubber glove manufacturer that wanted to know every restaurant in a geography that was buying raw chicken from this distributor but not buying rubber gloves. And, and so you, so we pull that, it's like a couple clicks and you've got that. And we go, okay, here's a hundred restaurants, right? They're either buying it from somebody else, they're buying it from Costco, or they're not buying it at all. Right? So, like, target them. And they did this campaign and they had, you know, great uplift on their sales within that, and it sticks. So, like, those type of affinity, we call them affinity voids or matrix voids. Those are really successful because you can get really specific and back to, like, the Tyson example, like, if I want to look at, you know, if I'm a, if I'm a hidden Valley ranch brand manager, right, I want to know everybody that's buying chicken wings but not buying my ranch at these chicken wing places, right? Like, so clearly opportunity to sell.

Wink Jones [00:35:21]:

And then if I'm smart, I'll bundle it up with, you know, the little cups that they go into and, like, get somebody else to help me cover the marketing cost.

Angelo Esposito [00:35:27]:

Yeah, that's awesome.

Wink Jones [00:35:28]:

So that has been super successful. The manufacturing sales network is kind of constantly changing. And so this has morphed from being just that marketing engine to also being a sales lead engine as well. So that now manufacturers come in and buy the data and they mine the data and then they take the data and they plug it into their own CRM, like a salesforce or whatever, so that their reps know where to go fish, right? And it's the same concept, but they're just giving them, like, direct it. Look, it looks like Jim's diner isn't buying the barbecue sauce. Like, get in there and, you know, try to upsell them on whatever.

Angelo Esposito [00:36:09]:

Super interesting. And I wonder how much, because one thing that, that's, that we've seen on our side, especially in the early days when we're only focused on, let's say, beverage. So liquor and wine, you know, three tier system, same kind of concept, right? Like, the. The big brands would want to know from the distributors. They'd understand, like, case buys and stuff, but they'd want to understand more what's happening at, like, the retail level or the venue level. So, like, you know, okay, cool. Maybe x. Maybe they sold x amount of tequila.

Angelo Esposito [00:36:38]:

But, like, how did the restaurants actually sell the tequila? Were they selling it as a premium cocktail? Were they selling it as, like, the cheap shot to get rid of, you know, like, so how they're disposing or using that, that item. Do you see that same thing on the food side? Do you see, like, is there that interest from the manufacturers to know the how, recipe side? Yeah, definitely.

Wink Jones [00:36:59]:

Yeah, I mean, there's. There's definitely interest in that data, and we're getting close to connecting the dots there. We haven't done it yet, but with our Marketman edition, we have now. We're now seeing some of the data coming through pos that would allow us to connect the dots into the menu show manufacturers ultimately, like, how are these. How are these products being plated? Right. Where are they ending up? Because, again, that affects the way that they market, affects the way they sell and affects, you know, who they sell to. So there's. There's a very large, insatiable demand for data from the manufacturer level.

Wink Jones [00:37:33]:

And frankly, those guys in this system, those are the guys with most of the money to spend on.

Angelo Esposito [00:37:37]:

Correct. Right. And then, you know, you touch on market man, I'd love to hear, like, from the meal ticket side, I know there was, you know, market man as you. As you mentioned that, that you guys, you know, teamed up with and there was. But there was someone before and maybe others that I don't even know. So I love to hear, like, just a bit about that. Sorry. Like, meal tickets grown, getting these suppliers on, like, you know, just grown.

Angelo Esposito [00:38:00]:

In general, how do you guys think about these acquisitions? Maybe just walk through, like, a couple of these? I think there was, if I'm mistaken, obviously, market man. And there was track Max was the first. That's it. Yes.

Wink Jones [00:38:11]:

So we, in 2020, we had the experience. Everybody else did, and we're fortunate enough that software became more important to our customers, and we retained almost all of our business through that time, but we got to kind of mid 2020, and we saw the opportunity to start rolling up some of these technology companies that were focused on the supply chain. And one of the most obvious ones was Trackmax, who we had been talking to were very friendly with, don't really compete with, but maybe compete with the same dollar. And what track Max does is tracks trade spend earnings for distributors that are basically back end monies that are paid to the distributors by manufacturers. It's a very convoluted, specific thing to this industry, and I won't go totally into it, but bottom line is that the trade spend dollars are often most of the profit that a distributor will make in a given year. And basically it's manufacturers paying additional marketing funds into the distribution layer to get attention on their products or make sure that they're distributors, stay in business, frankly, and distributors will acknowledge this, that's a significant part of their business model. And so up until, you know, without Trackmax, it's a spreadsheet, and it's the same like we talked about a bunch of times already. Like, we're basically competing with spreadsheets, right? And so the guys at Trackmax built a really nice piece of software that offsets the spreadsheet use.

Wink Jones [00:39:49]:

So I found an investor in a fund called PSG out of Boston that got excited about the idea of putting these companies together. We brought PSG in in 2020, late 2020, to take out my existing investors and then do the track max acquisition at the same time. So we did this kind of three way deal where PSG invested in us. We bought Trackmax, rolled the two companies up, and then off to the races. Super cool, really interesting process. Really stressful to try to do two deals at the same time. We were very fortunate we did it, really. We ended and talk a little bit about company integrations and acquisitions.

Wink Jones [00:40:36]:

Before then, I had never been part of an acquisition or merger. And so bringing in another company under our roof during COVID when everything's remote and we're doing this type of conversation with all our new employees, was a very new challenge. We were super lucky with that deal because that company was so distributor focused, also that we just had a lot of cultural traits that were very similar. And so it was really easy to like to bring them into the fold. We all had very similar outlooks on how to treat customers and what's important. And within three or four months, we completely reorged the two companies together and begun rebuilding the software to integrate together.

Angelo Esposito [00:41:19]:

Wow.

Wink Jones [00:41:20]:

So that was a really fun deal. And then that kind of got our first taste at acquisition. PSG, as an investor, is very acquisitive with their strategy. They love to do acquisitions that are like bolt on or product extensions or things like that. And so we look at acquisitions quite often now as part of our strategy. Within a year, we had found Marketman. Marketman is a restaurant facing inventory management software that basically pulls in POS data, pulls in distributor data, and then allows restaurants to manage their inventory, look at their gross profit order, etcetera. We that they ran a process to try to get the best price.

Wink Jones [00:42:06]:

We ended up the winner, and we closed that deal at the end of 2021. Different company and almost, I mean, they were about our same size when we bought them, so. Okay. So, in effect, in the prior 18 months, we had doubled the company with one acquisition, and then doubled the company again with Marketman, which was pretty exciting. And then the additional complexity of Marketman having half of their staff in Israel was a very challenging integration. So we're now 18 months into that and 20 months into that, and it's been a great, great program, a great, great group of people, a really good acquisition, and a challenging, but good integration as well.

Angelo Esposito [00:42:55]:

That's super interesting. I'd love to hear what's the. Again, if you can share. What's the role? Rough, you know, head count right now. Like, are you guys. Yeah, just like, in terms of, like, overall team.

Wink Jones [00:43:08]:

Yeah. In total, we're about 200 people globally.

Angelo Esposito [00:43:11]:

That's awesome. And so I got, I gotta ask. I gotta ask you this, because you touched upon culture was actually one of the questions I wanted to ask you. So it's perfect. It's as you're scaling, and not only are you scaling, you know, you're doubling because of one acquisition, doubling again. So you're just scaling, but you're acquiring, and things are growing fast. How do you keep team culture, I guess, alive, or how do you foster team culture? Keep the right culture, I should say, going through such rapid growth?

Wink Jones [00:43:43]:

It's a very good question, and it's a very difficult challenge. And my approach early on in the company was that culture just takes care of itself. And in fact, I found it kind of distracting to talk about culture and even kind of annoying. But then I realized over time what culture really means. And culture isn't like, bring your dog to work day and free lunches. Culture is the way you come to work and the way you approach your job and the way you treat your customers, the way you address the tough trade offs. And I think that to me, is one of the most defining things about culture is within a SaaS business, how do I address the custom requests that I get from customers versus the desire to build something that more people will use? And that to me is one of the defining components of a culture is like, how do I deal with that? Truly, if I'm Salesforce, I don't do any custom requests, right? But if I'm meal ticket, I tend to do a lot of custom requests because we're very customer centric and we understand the pains of our distributor customers and our operator restaurant customers. And so that culture kind of, it grew up by itself.

Wink Jones [00:44:58]:

But then to your question, when you bring in a whole new company that's not only diverse in its culture, but diverse in its geography and spread all over the world, mostly remote, how do you keep that together and align? And the tough thing is, oftentimes cultures can clash, right? And so we do. We probably didn't do the best job at first. And it took a little while to learn that, like, oh, like, these guys are still kind of running things very differently than we anticipated. And so we've got to change a little bit about the way that we talk about our culture, talk about how we do things, remind the company of what our goals are. And so that really morphed into a continuous reminder of who we are, why we're doing what we're doing, what the acronyms are that we use all the time, and why they're important. I mean, if I talk about PLG and product led growth, right? Like, some people don't even know what that means and implies, right? A lot of people don't, in fact. And for us to expect that someone knows that after only being with us for two years, months, is sort of naive and not really considerate. And so a lot of it was, a lot of it's been repetition.

Wink Jones [00:46:12]:

But then the other thing is, like, we also had to acknowledge that there's some parts of the culture that we acquired that are really important and probably productive to bringing that company to where it is now. And then specifically, when I talk about, you know, our employee base in Israel, there's a whole lot of that culture that is different, and not just from a work culture standpoint, but just, you know, ground zero basis of, like, cultural. And so we really worked hard to be accommodative to the important parts of that and be respectful to the important parts of that that we wanted to, you know, not only respect, but then also integrate into our overall culture. And so I think that the net of it is, like, you have to be fluid to some extent. There's some absolute, like, must haves, you know, guardrails. We got, we got to be this. But then there's other things where it's like, no, that's a, that's a good idea. We should incorporate that.

Wink Jones [00:47:03]:

That should be part of who we are.

Angelo Esposito [00:47:04]:

That makes sense. And where do you see the, you know, in general? Right. You guys are growing fast. Acquisition, general growth. Right. Where do you kind of see the restaurant industry heading when it comes to, I guess, you know, adopting, you know, all these different types of technologies? Like, how do you, how do you look at it? Right. Like, you're obviously been in this for quite, quite a while. You got a ton of experience now in the restaurant space.

Angelo Esposito [00:47:28]:

I know you said you didn't start, but being exposed to it for so long, where do you see things heading in the near future?

Wink Jones [00:47:35]:

Well, I've come to really love and appreciate the independent business owner, whether that's an independent family owned distributor or an independent restaurant that is growing and entering that mid market phase. But it comes back to really respecting that, that entrepreneur operator out there kind of rolling up his or her sleeves and taking on the world. And when I look at our customers and what I love about our business is being in a position where we can enable those people that we most respect. And because we're bringing, there's a concept of, like, SaaS is really kind of democratizing software for everybody else that can't afford to install an ERP into their system. And I really take that to heart. In that 1015 years ago, there wasn't a good solution for inventory management and data management, data sharing. You had to be a Cisco or a McDonald's or somebody giant to go build your own or afford to contract out and spend millions of dollars. Well, we're at the point now where we can actually bring this stuff into the independence in an affordable way that they can.

Wink Jones [00:48:53]:

Like, this isn't me selling. This is like, I really believe that, like, bringing that to the independence is so important. And so, so when I see giant, you know, roll ups and acquisitions and consolidation within the market, within the restaurant and the distributor market, it makes me nervous because I think the blood of the real blood and the heart and soul of this industry is within those independent owners and operators and entrepreneurs.

Angelo Esposito [00:49:22]:

Yeah. Well said. Well said. And I guess maybe to wrap things up, like, where, where is meal ticket headed? Right? So, like, what's, what's next for you guys, obviously, you're doing a bunch of cool stuff. You're growing quickly, like, done some interesting acquisitions. What's, what's next for you?

Wink Jones [00:49:38]:

Yeah, it's funny, I can talk out both sides of my mouth where we've done all this acquisition, but, yeah, I'm trying to help the independents. Right. But no, I mean, you know, we, so the reason we did market man is because we think we can bring a really good restaurant solution to market through our distributor relationships. And again, we want to be distributor centric in that we want to benefit the distributor. We want to, you know, help, help them, the smaller distributors, we want to help them compete with the big guys who build the rum stuff. Right. So that's a big part of our strategy in the coming years, is to continue to deploy marketman through that channel. We see this as a meaningful company in the food service space.

Wink Jones [00:50:23]:

We've already built a great brand within the distribution layer of the space, but we think there's an opportunity to build a really meaningful brand that represents the independence that provides a full suite end to end of services for restaurants, distributors, manufacturers, to manage their data, their software. And, you know, we've talked about this before. The headroom in this space is enormous because so few of our target customers have even adopted software. I mean, there's still so much of it on pen and paper and an Excel spreadsheet and the opportunity to be out there in front creating an important company during a time where software adoption is just like, you know, going crazy up and to the right. That to me, is super exciting, and that's really what, that's what we're building towards.

Angelo Esposito [00:51:10]:

I love it. I love it. Yeah, it's funny because it's, people might look at this and say, like, oh, isn't market man a competitor? WISK? But it's like, and I've told you this, our biggest competitor is pen and paper. Right. The market's still just primed with pen and paper and Excel. I'll give Excel some credit, or spreadsheets in general. Maybe not Excel, but spreadsheets in general. And I think there's so much room for, for innovation, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

Angelo Esposito [00:51:32]:

I'm excited to chat with you and then to maybe conclude any, you know, I always like to kind of end off with maybe some, some words of wisdom. Obviously, you're an entrepreneur. It's in your blood. You've built something out of nothing, which I think is always super exciting and thrilling feeling for entrepreneurs. Any kind of last you know, piece of advice you want to share before we kind of sign off? Piece of advice or just words of wisdom that you want to share with fellow entrepreneurs?

Wink Jones [00:51:59]:

Boy, I hate to be preachy, but you've lived it.

Angelo Esposito [00:52:04]:

Look, preachy sucks and you haven't lived it, but, like, if you, you've done things, you're living it. You've built a company, you're acquiring it. So it's like living it. I think it's different when you're sharing experiences versus when you're just like, sharing a quote on Instagram and you don't do anything.

Wink Jones [00:52:19]:

You can see on my whiteboard I've got written hope is not a strategy. Oh, I've had that. I've had that written on my whiteboard since we started the company. Every time I move, I rewrite it. I make sure it's up there. And it's my reminder that you got to take action if you want something to happen. Action creates information. Information allows you to act more intelligently and ultimately creates urgency.

Wink Jones [00:52:46]:

And sitting back and waiting and hoping that you win the lottery is just not a way to be successful at this. And it takes point. A lot of grinding. It takes hard work and good luck, but it starts with action. So I guess that would be my parting wisdom.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:02]:

Perfect. Perfect way to end the podcast. Hope is not a strategy. I love that. So, wink, thank you for being here. Once again, we're with wink Jones, CEO of meal ticket. You can go check them out@mealticket.com. And do you want to share any socials? If you feel free to share any socials or where people can find you with, with their audience.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:21]:

So meal tickets off.

Wink Jones [00:53:22]:

I don't, I don't post much, but the stuff we post is on meal tickets LinkedIn account. So I point you there. We do actually post some good content there for, especially for restaurant management and operations.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:34]:

Awesome. So there you have it. Check out the LinkedIn. Check out meal ticket.com as well. And wink, thank you for being here today on the wisking at all podcast. It was such a pleasure chatting with you.

Wink Jones [00:53:44]:

Thanks, Angela. Really appreciate being here.

Angelo Esposito [00:53:47]:

Feel free to check out WISK.ai for more resources and schedule a demo with one of our product specialists to see if it's a fit for.