Author Talks: After founding Grubhub, Mike Evans is still hungry

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Eleni Kostopoulos chats with Grubhub cofounder Mike Evans about his new book, Hangry: A Startup Journey (Legacy Lit, November 2022). Evans recounts Grubhub’s journey, from first intentions to IPO; a career-changing, cross-country bike ride; and the motivation behind his new venture, a handyman service called Fixer. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I had this goal in mind to convince ten people who read the book to think about the fact that businesses are huge levers for social change—and that’s true whether you want them to be or not. If people approach that reality with a sense of intentionality, thoughtfulness, and planfulness, then my book has succeeded.

I also think the book is pretty entertaining, and so I was hoping to make a few people laugh as well.

You say Grubhub was born out of a hobby. What drove its success?

The thing that drove the success was understanding first what success meant. I talk about this in the book quite a bit, about the idea of a person needing a personal definition of success.

Who is it that’s creating that definition for you? The answer, unless you’re being intentional about it, is almost always somebody else: society, government, church, friends, family—who knows? There are a lot of different entities that will spoon-feed you a definition of success.

Having success starts from understanding what success is. You can’t achieve it unless you know that. I think Grubhub was successful because I grew a lot while I was in it, and I had a lot of coworkers who grew in their talents and also made some money. It was also a success because it helped a lot of independent restaurants.

There are a lot of different entities that will spoon-feed you a definition of success. Having success starts from understanding what success is. You can’t achieve it unless you know that.

Those are all things that are different from “It went through an IPO,” which is what I think everybody assumes is the success. For me, the success was the fact that it was a constant learning process. I was constantly trying to iterate on how to make a great customer product, how to deliver that to customers, how to do it in a profitable way, and how to make a great working environment.

Success was that iteration and testing and reinventing of ourselves four or five times throughout the course of the business. Those were all successes along the way.

Is there a right time to call it quits?

The reality of trying to achieve a big goal, put yourself out there, and put the effort in over time, is hard. Hard things have consequences for relationships, for other elements of our lives, for ourselves, and for our ability to keep going.

I think the one piece of advice I have about hard things—and this was true at Grubhub, though I didn’t know it until I was on a bike trip—is don’t quit at night. Don’t quit at 10 PM, or even at 5 PM, because you’re tired, exhausted, and it’s hard to keep going. You don’t have a lot of energy, and the idea of coming back and doing it again tomorrow is really tough.

By 9 AM the next morning, after a good night’s sleep, that same challenge doesn’t seem as bad. I always say, “Quit things in the morning,” as opposed to at the end of a long day.

After you’re rested, if you still don’t think your activity is lined up with your goals, that’s a good time to walk away and do something else, versus giving up the previous evening, when you’re just too tired to keep going.

Could you have started a business without a support system?

I think for all of us and our work—whether that’s starting businesses or whatever—we don’t do it in a vacuum. We’re within the relationships we live in and the support groups that we live in, and we’re either supporting or being supported.

I say in the book, if you have an idea, go for it. Just start. Don’t overthink it. That’s a position coming from a place of privilege that I recognize. At the time I started my company, I didn’t have any kids that were depending on me, I was in good health—I’m fortunately still in good health—I had a lot of people supporting me, and I didn’t have to put a lot of energy toward supporting other people, which is not the case for everyone.

I’m trying to do things in a way that doesn’t require sacrifice from the people who are around me.

It is absolutely critical to have that support network, especially at the times during the journey when you simply don’t have enough hours in the day to invest as much time in relationships as they need to thrive. I have a very patient and understanding wife who was in a relationship with me while I went through this whole process and was understanding of that.

The second time around, as I’ve started this new business, Fixer, it’s all the more important that I live in an environment where I’m not in a vacuum. I still have to support the relationships that I’m in, and people still support me.

Thinking more holistically this time around, I’m trying to do things in a way that doesn’t require sacrifice from the people who are around me, in the way it did the first time around.

You say the first rule of mergers is don’t be a jerk. What’s the second?

The second rule of mergers is making the other team think that your stuff is more valuable than their stuff.

I messed this up in our initial conversations with Campus Food. I was a jerk in those conversations because I fell into the trap of the dueling blowfish, where each of us was trying to make ourselves look bigger than the other person, but I did it in a way that was pretty socially unacceptable. I learned from that.

I’ve come to realize that if you start a company or are in a company that’s competing with another one—which is every company, by the way—the people who you’re competing with are as close to you as anyone else that you know. They’re solving the same problems for the same types of customers, so you have an awful lot in common with them.

When we went through the merger, I came to find that some of my favorite coworkers over the course of my entire time at Grubhub were the people who were previously at Seamless. I really, really enjoyed working with them.

I spent far too much time worried and frustrated about competition in the marketplace instead of appreciating that other people are also trying to make the world better in their own way.

After you quit Grubhub, you went on an ambitious bike tour. Why?

On the bike journey, I had a couple of goals. One was just, physically, to get across the country—from Virginia to Oregon—but there was something much deeper going on.

I wanted to decompress and find something through solitude and being present in nature. As I rode across the country, I reflected on what happened and what I wanted to do next, and something happened: by the time I was halfway across the country, I thought, “Well, that was enough of that.” I realized I was more interested in the relationships I developed with the other cyclists than in the journey.

As we approach our goals and we change, our goals change—and it’s okay.

That was the furthest thing from my mind when I started. It was like I was on Survivor, thinking “I’m not here to make friends.” It wasn’t my goal when I started the ride, but then that became the goal. There’s this thing that happened at Grubhub that also happened on the bike trip, which is the nature of the human journey: as we approach our goals and we change, our goals change—and it’s okay.

It’s okay to abandon old goals made by previous versions of ourselves and try new things. In fact, giving yourself the grace to do that allows you to take bigger risks. I didn’t start with, “I need to be able to cycle over a mountain,” I started with, “I need to get 40 miles up the coast.”

I have to tell you, that first mountain range just about did me in, but by the time I got through it, I was strong enough to make it across the rest of the country easily. I learned a lot, and I adapted, and I got better at what I was doing as I went.

What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs?

Start. Do the thing. Make the product. Sell it. We spend so much time stuck in the inertia of our day-to-day jobs and our obligations that it’s very hard to take that step to put yourself out there and sell a product.

In fact, it’s so hard that I think it’s a predictor of success. Everything that you do after the moment you start until the moment you sell a business or retire is 49 percent of running a business. Fifty-one percent is just the first moment, when you actually sell a product to a customer, and you start the thing. I’m a strong believer in that.

I think we all are in different places from an opportunity perspective, or from a privilege perspective. Not everyone can just quit their job and go full-time in pursuing something, regardless of your situation. It is always risky to put yourself out there or start something—whether it’s full-time or in a more limited way.

Everything that you do after the moment you start until the moment you sell a business or retire is 49 percent of running a business. Fifty-one percent is just the first moment, when you actually sell a product to a customer.

If you define your own success and you go for it without spending too much time worried about if it’s going to work, I think most people will be successful within their own definition of success.

If you could, would you do anything differently?

If I could go back 20 years in time and hand myself the book I just wrote, I’d say, “Think bigger. Make your goals harder to hit. I understand that you, the 26-year-old version of me, want to pay off your school debt, but you’re going to create a business so big that 70,000 restaurants depend on you for their livelihood, so make sure that being of service to independent restaurants and leveling the playing field relative to chains is in the DNA of the company and can’t be changed.”

I would talk to myself about being more intentional from the very start. I learned that lesson as I went, and my hope is with this book, someone else can read it and say, “I’m going to be more intentional about this business I start and the impact I create in the communities that I serve,” from the very first moment.

What can you tell us about your new company?

After my time at Grubhub, I had this moment of “what now?” I had a lot of resources: the cash from the IPO, coworkers who had done really great work with me, investors who believed in me, and all the skills that I had developed.

I spent a lot of time thinking, “What business can I create where the social impact and the financial return can’t be divorced?” I ended up creating Fixer, which is an on-demand handyperson service.

The idea behind the business is that the supply of skilled fixers is not sufficient relative to the demand from homeowners for those people’s skills, so we created a full-time W-2 workforce with benefits that we train from scratch.

What we’re trying to do is increase the skill and diversity of tradespeople in the communities we serve. By creating this supply that didn’t exist previously, by training people from scratch, we’re making it much more accessible for homeowners to find people who can do their work.

I went a step further. We didn’t just create the business, we created it as a public-benefit corporation, where all the way down the corporate charter, the value to the stakeholders—to the fixers themselves and the communities we serve—is of equal importance with the return to shareholders.

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