Co-Founder and COO, GrubHub Seamless; blogger, writer
Mike Evans has known about MIT for a long time — since his older brother applied to MIT when he (Mike) was in the sixth grade. “I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of our car listening to my mother talking to him about it. She said, ‘If you go to MIT, you can do anything in the world.’” Growing up, Evans noticed that MIT was often part of movies he watched and in science fiction books. Once on campus, he was fascinated by the idea of combining disciplines from the impressive number of top-rated programs – such as the interface of mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science.
Evans’ MIT “light bulb moment” hit in a Science, Technology, and Society class. He realized, “Never before, in the history of humanity, has a single individual been so in control of the means of creating value as a software developer in 1997.” The heady idea that he could bring ideas all the way to market entirely based on his own skills and efforts came to him during the dotcom boom. And, in his last semester when he studied acoustics with Dr. Amar Bose, the final sequence of lectures that focused on the financial engineering behind the Bose Corporation became for Evans an inspiring reality check in successful management.
In 1998 and 99, Evans notes, almost the entire campus was thinking about entrepreneurship. The 50k competition had just launched, at the AI lab, Akamai had just been founded and the Media Lab was just getting going. “There was a lot of entrepreneurial energy. Rather than making a big course correction, however, the Institute treated this as the newest incarnation of a long history of innovation. Engagement looked much like it had for years: individual professor and individual students meeting in an ecosystem that encourages experimentation and risktaking.”
After graduating Mike worked for three years as a software developer — as the dotcom bubble burst. While his technical skills developed, he fed his craving to understand how management in a larger company handled its employees. He saw how his boss, who valued and protected his people, created an effective team dynamic. Evans also noticed how HR worked to limit liability rather than maximize employee potential. All the while, his engineering mind kept asking, “Can this be done better? How would I break the challenges of creating a culture into smaller pieces and tackle them individually?” This thinking was supported by an engineering lesson he had learned: a key principle of engineering is questioning things that have always been done that way.
Also during this stretch, Evans says, his actual hunger such as ordering pizza downtown began to bug him. He was coding late at night and wanted to order food online. He wondered why it could be featured in the movie The Net in 1995, but not exist in 2004? So MIT-trained in the art of “all-nighters”, he wrote the first version of GrubHub. The following morning, his co-founder Matt Maloney sold a restaurant and by that afternoon, Evans had quit his job. By day 10, they had signed up eight restaurants. When a restaurant owner asked Evans if they had coupons on the site, he said yes… and proceeded to pull another all-nighter to write the coupon functionality, signing up two more restaurants with the coupons the following morning.
He notes, “Today, this methodology is called the “Lean Startup” movement.” At the time, he just thought of it as an engineering problem to be solved: Step 1: Build a product., Step 2: Sell it. Step 3: Profit.
Evans and Maloney bootstrapped their business for three years before taking venture capital. When they did take VC, they took it as much to learn from institutional investors as to finance the growth of the company. Evans says about this time: “Each stage of growth brought challenges, and each round of VC brought new expertise to help us meet those challenges. Internally, we added experts in fields I had never encountered before: sales, marketing, operations, and customer service. I learned as much from our employees as I did from our investors.”
From the first day Evans and Maloney were solving challenging problems at GrubHub. Each solution led to another opportunity to create a better discover, ordering, and fulfillment opportunity. Sometimes they used technology, other times process optimization, still other times education of restaurants and customers. Each innovation represented change, but throughout all of that change one thing remained constant: making delivery better for the customer.
Following the GrubHub IPO in spring 2014, Evans decided to hand over the company reigns. This was a time, he describes, as critical to centering himself following the intensity of the previous 10 years at GrubHub. It was also a time he used to figure out what would come next.
Although he says he totally failed at that goal — more like letting it gel — he did splash his bicycle tire in the Atlantic (at Virginia Beach) and ride 4,500 miles across the country reaching the Pacific 75 days later. He describes this journey and more on his blog: http://mikeevans.co/.
He said for this feature, “I succeeded in an unexpected way: I discovered that people are amazing. Across 4,500 miles, and over a thousand interactions with people on my trip, I overwhelmingly experienced kindness, graciousness, and generosity.” In a characteristic engineer’s approach he notes that “if the 24 hour news cycle was representative of how people actually act, we’d be watching 23 hours and 58 minutes of acts of kindness, with 2 minutes of all the other garbage.”
Besides listing himself as writer and photographer, Mike Evans has decided to write a science fiction novel. He notes that there is a good chance that MIT will be mentioned in there somewhere. [We’re on the waiting list Mike!]