When friends ask me for restaurant recommendations, The Infatuation is my go-to. Co-founded by ex-music industry execs (including my college friend, Chris Stang), the site stands out by providing relatable, reliable reviews– and by not taking itself too seriously.
Listen to find out what happens when you quit a dream job to take on an industry; when Bobby Flay wants to make seahorse sashimi for your restaurant; and when dinosaurs talk to your customers, in episode 6 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies.
This post is an excerpt of my interview with Chris, but the whole thing is worth a listen. To hear the whole conversation, including what happens when Bobby Flay wants to make seahorse sashimi for your restaurant, subscribe in iTunes here.
You and your co-founder Andrew started the site while you were both music industry executives. What was that like for you in the early days?
It was crazy. It changed my life. It became this thing where suddenly I had this whole other focus and it was a creative outlet, which was great. But it was also this totally unknown wild west scenario where I was like, both [my co-founder] Andrew and I don’t really know what to do. So just put one foot in front of the other. We didn’t even know how you would go about raising money for something, or what that would even look like.
We just knew, great, this is working, let’s keep doing more of it and we have the vision for it and it just became about executing.
But suddenly the way that people identified us was completely different. We went from being well-respected people in our careers to then being like, oh, these are the guys with that thing. And that was really weird, but great, very motivating. Because then, we get that hit of feeling like this thing I created is doing well and then you just want to replicate that over and over and over again.
You were basically doing two jobs for five years. Were you trying to make money on the site in the early days?
Yeah, we always knew that we would need to figure out that problem. Because, again, we weren’t the kind of people that even knew how to raise money, so there’s never this thing of, oh yeah, we’ll just fundraise and that’s how we’ll keep the business alive. We weren’t that smart. We were just like, cool, let’s figure out brand partnerships, because if we do brand partnerships we can make some money.
And we also just knew it was going to take a long time.
Why did you know it was going to take a long time?
I don’t know.
I’m not sure that everybody really goes into it with that idea.
I think that’s true. But I think a lot of that comes from, you’ve got to remember that Instagram didn’t exist at this point, right? There weren’t all these crazy stories of overnight internet success businesses – not that Instagram was overnight, but …
Yeah, but it was fast.
It was fast, right? So in 2009, Yelp was pretty new. We got kicked off it because we put our links on Yelp and we uploaded Yelp reviews and would say, read more, and then we got thrown off.
Twitter was also pretty new. It was just the beginning of people starting to understand what it was. And we actually used Twitter to build audience in a big way, but there just weren’t these examples of, hey, just start this internet thing and then it blows up. I mean, maybe from 1999 there were.
I also don’t think that either of us were mentally ready to jump in full-time because we were still very much on the upswing in our own careers. I think we just sort of looked at it like, there’s a path to this, but we were just going to sort of let it play out.
There were also real barriers of needing an app, because nobody had one. I used New York Magazine mostly before we launched our thing and, I always used to look at New York Magazine and think, right, great, you have this huge database of information, the iPhone had been around for two years at that point, but there wasn’t just a geo-location app that I could then pull up and get the New York Magazine rated restaurants around me.
And so we were thought, we should do that. That was kind of a big moment for us. Why can’t we do that? And then we realized though that to do that, especially in New York, you have to have a lot of reviews. You have to have a big database.
So we said to ourselves, great, let’s get to 250 reviews in the City, and then if you launch an app by then it should be somewhat usable, right? Because most neighborhoods you should at least have a couple of options.
Then we started down the road reviewing a restaurant every day until we got to that point, which took us two years, basically. Since we didn’t have capital, it’s not like you just go hire a bunch of people to start writing reviews. We didn’t want to because that wasn’t really the idea. And we were just doing the only thing we knew how to do, let’s go march down the road, and then we’ll see where we end up.
Tone matters a lot on your site. You said from the beginning that you don’t take yourself too seriously. One of the things that shows this is true is that you can text questions about where you should go out to dinner to a fake dinosaur. Tell me about Text Rex.
That was another function of trying to find out what people want, how do we get it to them, and how do we do it in a way that’s just really simple. We would hear from people a lot , sayings to us, “hey, I love the site, I love the app, would you please just tell me where to go”. Or my friends, people that I know would say, “where should I have dinner tonight?” I’m like, dude, I’ve spent 5 years building something to answer that question for you.
So there’s still, even to this day, whether it’s for restaurant reviews or anything, sometimes there’s just so much stuff on the Internet that sorting through it is a daunting task. How could we solve that pain point of, “I don’t even know where to start.
It also came from a function of realizing that for with Facebook, there’s a newsfeed algorithm between you and your audience that you have to figure out how to game to reach people. Twitter, nowadays unfortunately there’s just not that many regular people having normal conversations or seeking out conversations. There’s a lot of authorities on subjects, incredible people and celebrities and that’s great, but in the early days, Twitter was very much a community for us and it’s not anymore. Instagram, we have a massive reach, but it’s not our core audience. Something like 70% of the Instagram audience as a whole on the platform are outside of the US.
So we were just sort of searching for a way to reengage our core audience. Then we started talking about this messaging thing as a, sort of a concurrent idea, and realized they were kind of one and the same. If we could answer people’s questions via texts, and we did that right, it would also then develop a one-to-one relationship with them and a platform that we own, and we don’t have to worry about, something like Instagram announcing a newsfeed algorithm and all of a sudden everybody’s freaking out and reacting.
With something like messaging, it’s hard to do but if you do that right, you own the channel. And so, for us, we use Text Rex.
The way it works is really simple. You text us and we respond back. And so you say, hey, I’m looking for brunch in Chelsea and then there’s an actual person on the other end that has all our reviews that are tagged with brunch in Chelsea and then can just serve recommendations based on the content. The responder on the other end doesn’t even really need to be the expert, because the site is. All this content that is in there, meant to serve that exact purpose. They just have to be the shepherd and the idea is that it’s supposed to make it fun.
So it goes back to the tone thing, right? It’s like, can this thing be fun to use and seem like a friend and seem like a person or a fake dinosaur, rather than a robot?
We had no idea how to do it, we just went and got an iPhone, I plugged it into iCloud on three different computers, and we put up a splash page and launched it and thought that it would do well but we didn’t really know. We didn’t want to make any assumptions and build something before we knew what it was. But within a couple of hours, we had 3,000 people signed up for the waiting list for it.
This sounds awesome and very, very hard to scale.
And you’re working on ways to do that right now. But a really important point that comes along with it is that even if that doesn’t scale, you’re learning so much about your audience that it has value in itself, just where it’s sitting right now.
Exactly. And so people say that, the two things that always come up when we talk to people about Text Rex, at least people in the business world. They’re like, “oh yeah, great idea, how do you scale it? How do you monetize it?”
And my answer is always, I don’t know the answer to either, but I can tell you as it exists right now, it’s so valuable to the company that I would spend the money we’re spending on it ten times over. And I would, even if it only runs at a small portion of our audience, but if it makes us better at what we do; even if we’re not serving millions of people but it makes us better at what we do, it’s worth it.
So it’s one of those things where you’ll say, “would you pay, as a marketing person or CMO or the owner of a company, would you pay a somewhat reasonable amount of money to have a real-time feedback loop of your most dedicated users?” And if the answer is no, you’re doing something wrong.
Because it’s so hard, too often you make assumptions about what people want, and you’re wrong. And it’s hard. How do you then actually get to anybody? Do you survey people, do you focus group? The answer to those things are probably both, yes, and we do those two things too, but you can’t imagine how valuable it is to just get this constant stream of information.
Why would five thousand strangers across the country meet for tea? And what could you learn if you spent a few hours talking with people you've never met? Find out with Ankit Shah, founder of Tea with Strangers. in episode 5 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies.
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Below is an excerpt of my interview with Ankit Shah, founder of Tea with Strangers. To hear the whole discussion – and other conversations with entrepreneurs and experts – subscribe in iTunes here.
Tell us a little bit about Tea with Strangers.
It’s a community organization that I started about a year and a half ago. We bring strangers together for meaningful conversations in big cities. And we do it through a large community of hosts that we’ve grown and the hosts are people that bring together conversations and invite anybody and everybody to sit with them to talk about anything and everything.
It manifests itself in a small group conversation called Tea Time. A host and a few strangers sit together at a table at a café or a park and they just talk. And there is no pre-determined topic or anything of the nature. They just see where it goes.
Who attends Tea Time?
I’ll be honest. If you were to ask me this before I started the organization, I wouldn’t really know who would do this because it’s very random. It’s a very unusual thing to carve out time for, because a lot of times when we do things like this, we’re usually going to large events. We’re going to a party or something interesting that has like a catch to it.
For example, something that’s been growing a lot in New York City and a lot of other cities around the country is this thing called Daybreaker. They do these early morning dance parties, which I think is so cool. But, see, what they do is cool. You go, you dance early in the morning, there’s something fascinating and new about that.
Tea with Strangers does not have that same sort of appeal. If you really think about it, what we do is conversations. So it does confuse me the people who come. Why are you coming? But over time, obviously, I’ve run the organization for enough time and met enough people through the organization to have a better grasp on why they come and who they actually are.
The best thing I could say is that it’s a bunch of young people. They’re usually in their 20s and 30s. They are curious. They are very, very curious and they’re also constantly trying to discover themselves, whether or not they actually say that.
They might not say that I’m trying to discover myself because for some people that’s language that they don’t use. But in the sense of getting a sense of purpose and figuring out how you see the world, where you want to dedicate your time and what sorts of interests that you really want to cultivate, when you don’t know what those things are, which is true for a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, this emerging adulthood period, it’s really, really helpful to talk to people.
Mind you, the conversations that people have are not about how I should live my life. They’re not conversations that say, I’m going through challenges, can you guys help me. It’s conversations that are very much just talking about different subjects and sharing stories and getting a sense of who the people around you actually are on a human level. Things that might be seemingly mundane to catch up on over a party. But things that you would talk about if there’s only 3 or 4 or 5 of you. And I think in those stories and in those shared reflections during a very kind of a quiet stable conversation where you’re not really going anywhere, there’s no activity centering a group of people besides talking. In that kind of environment, people really get an opportunity to discover themselves.
Do people feel more free to talk to strangers about things than maybe they would to people they know? Do you find that people are like comfortable in this kind of environment? Or does it take some warming up and getting people to say things?
It varies. I think on a grand level, people are more interested in saying things to strangers that they wouldn’t say to people they know. There’s fewer strings attached. There’s less of a burden of, what does that mean in the grander context of a relationship? So the idea of like you might think something of me, only really matters if you’re a person that’s going to be consistent in my life in the future in some way or fashion.
But if you’re just an anonymous face, you are Josh, someone that I’m talking to just right now, and then maybe I might never see you again, or there’s no obligation to doing so, that is kind of liberating. And I think in those contexts people are a little more comfortable opening up around one another.
It’s on your website, so I have to ask: What do you say to people who say that this is weird?
You’re right. It is. So what? If you don’t like doing weird things then maybe right now you shouldn’t come. Eventually, this isn’t going to be weird. And when it’s not weird, maybe then you could come. But if you think it’s weird and that’s a turn off for you, then okay. That’s fine. Don’t come. And I don’t say that with disdain. I rather say that with a sense of, you should be allowed to do things that make you feel comfortable. And some people seek the discomfort that Tea with Strangers might bring them.
It’s the same reason that people like lifting heavy weights. It hurts. And why would someone ever enjoy that? Because it makes them stronger. It makes them a better person at the end of it. They learn something about themselves in the process. Same thing about running. Why do people run marathons? It does not seem like an enjoyable way to spend time. I can think of a lot of things I would rather do than run a marathon, like maybe eat a pizza.
But why do I still run? This morning, I ran 8 miles. And then I just had pizza for lunch right before you and I are talking. I did both. Why? Because running makes me feel really good. And then again, pizza makes me feel really good. So I do both.
There’s nothing mutually exclusive about going to a tea time and then going to happy hour the way normal people do. You can meet people at happy hour and meet people at tea time. They’re both allowed.