First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Alexander Abell: I feel really blessed because we are thriving! The turmoil and division in our country, mixed with the health concerns, have certainly made us all long for brighter days. However, since we’ve been able to serve so many clients with our virtual events, I feel really lucky to be where I am. My wife is a professor at the University of Tennessee and has been able to adjust to online teaching. All in all, we’re adapting and improvising like everyone else.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Lunchpool.
Alexander Abell: It all started when I was sitting at my desk, hungry for lunch and connection. I was at my corporate job, engaging in what we call “desktop dining.” After finding some receipts for a $20-30 meal at Buffalo Wild Wings, my fiscally responsible wife had recently started packing my lunch.
While my normal lunchmates, or my “lunchpool” as we would jokingly refer to ourselves, were out at our go-to lunch spot, I was confined to my desk eating a depressing salad and scrolling mindlessly through social media. A naturally social and outgoing guy, for the most part, I pondered how strange it was that I didn’t really know anyone else in the company well enough to simply ask to lunch.
I thought to myself, “I really know my lunch buddies well because we go to lunch day in and day out. If I could build a network of people interested in getting to know one another, I would enjoy my lunch more and could also help build and bridge connections and communities.”
The next day I got invited to a local Tampa Bay startup event called Startup Weekend Tampa Bay. At the 52-hour event, I decided to pitch the idea of using technology to meaningfully connect people together instead of gluing users to their screens to sell ads. In the one-minute pitch, I described a platform that would serve as a sort of digital icebreaker to let people get over that weird hump of introducing yourself to a stranger. My thought was that anyone could be in your lunchpool with the right data and methods of connection.
After winning first place with the original team, I started working hard to figure out how we could innovate the lunch break. We got our first start in the offices of award-winning Clearwater company, KnowBe4, offering our early prototype to the company’s 800 or so employees. From there, we started doing virtual lunch breaks and grew to doing full-scale end-to-end virtual conference and event production using a unique platform that feels like you’re actually in-person.
How does Lunchpool innovate?
Alexander Abell: Innovation is baked into our core. A few months after we started, we hired a St. Pete-based creative consultant to help us with a brand identity exercise. We wanted to understand where we were and what we wanted to become. It was one of those things that big companies do, but we figured as a small startup we might as well be aspirational in case it ever took off.
We realized that four directions would guide our company like a compass. To the east and west, work and play. We wanted to help people be more productive through the connections we helped form but also remind them of the importance of downtime and play.
To the south was inclusion, which we felt was an important foundation on which to build the entire company.
Our north star would be innovation – almost an overused word in the technology community. But we decided to be true innovators and find technology that does things nobody else is even considering. We wanted to highlight human tech that helps promote empathy, understanding, and a good dose of humanity in its users. This focus on innovation and inclusion, with a healthy dose of work and play, drives absolutely every decision we make and everything we have built thus far.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Alexander Abell: The coronavirus pandemic presented us with an opportunity to really utilize the solutions we’d been putting together to end the feelings of social isolation that first sparked the idea behind Lunchpool. We had no idea that social isolation would be the stark reality for the entire world. We quickly announced our event virtualization services to those who needed it the most – nonprofits and universities.
Since pivoting to virtual experiences, we’ve been able to grow to over $100k/mo in revenue since March and build a team of 10 employees with many more to come!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Alexander Abell: I definitely had to make some difficult choices along the way. Hiring fast also meant firing fast. One of the early team members and I had a split during the height of our early growth – it’s easy to get lost on the path if you aren’t constantly communicating. Luckily, we’re still friends and were able to both pursue our dreams and visions.
The lesson I’d share with anyone in the startup space: “Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant” You’ve got to build a culture that surfaces disagreements before they fester and grow.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Lunchpool in the future?
Alexander Abell: We’re dedicated to practicing what we preach. Sometimes my team works so hard that we forget to take lunch breaks, but I quickly remind them that it’s unacceptable and stay true to my job title as Founder, CEO & Lunch Break Enforcer.
I constantly remind myself that the mission is only as important as the journey to complete the mission – if you’re not having fun and enjoying yourself along the way, you have to stop, slow down, and reassess.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Alexander Abell: We’re baking the pie and building it bigger and bigger each day. We have a lot of people playing in the same kitchen, but we look at them all as potential collaborators. Competition is taking a back seat to collaboration and co-opetition. It’s truly becoming a dog feed dog world, and by partnering with some of the leading companies in the virtual experience arena, we’re building lasting coalitions that will keep us in play for many years.
Your final thoughts?
Alexander Abell: Having grown the team quickly, Lunchpool will continue to hire talented individuals with a passion for connective tech and empathetic people skills. We are most excited about continuing our hunt for startups with technology that brings people together. We have formed a lot of relationships with founders at an early stage like us that have a similar vision and mission.
We are building the platform to connect them all together. We really do believe the world can be your Lunchpool. With that, we are striving to build the world’s first truly experiential social network. Our initiatives to help nonprofits and other event organizations stay afloat amidst the pandemic have given us a lot of resources we would not have had otherwise (namely revenue). This year, with money in hand, we will be building some things that will truly amaze you. You can take that for lunch.