Innovating with a calculated risk
Graduates create a food-focused mobile application as their first start-up venture
For a technology start-up, the prospects of wild success are low and the prospects of complete failure are high. Why would a group of bright, well-trained engineers, who have the world of job prospects in research and technology at their feet, choose instead to start an iPhone application For the team of Farseer Inc., Han Wang M.S. '12, Zhaoming Deng M.A. '12, Tong Shen M.A. '12, David Deng M.A. '12, Yeifi Chen M.A. '12 and Karen Hu '12, the answer comes in two parts-passion and challenge.
Farseer, Inc. is the team behind the Boston based mobile application FotoDish, which works directly with restaurant owners to provide app-users with professional quality photographs of local restaurant's most popular dishes. They recently reached the milestone of $100,000 in funds raised. The company's professional brief describes the goal of FotoDish as making "the dining experience more enjoyable, by providing [the customer] the most accurate information straight from the source."
Wang, the CEO and co-founder, worked for an Information and Technology company in Boston before quitting his job in search of the challenge that working independently would offer. "We only have two modes: sleeping and working. That's the reason all of us are here-because we want to be challenged," Wang said in an interview with the Justice.
Co-founders Zhaoming Deng and Shen primarily work on the web application and partially on the mobile application.
The original Farseer Inc. team was brought together by a passion for computer science entrepreneurship and a desire for a bigger challenge than what a conventional post-graduate job would offer. They met as Computer Science masters students at Brandeis and were inspired by classes in the department that focused on computer science entrepreneurship.
While their mutual interest in entrepreneurship was cultivated in the classroom, their friendship was formed on the basketball court. Their weekly pick-up games brought them closer together as friends and future business partners.
Hu, public relations manager for Farseer Inc., met the rest of the team in a different way. Hu was an Economics and Business major, and was introduced to the team by her close friend Deng. Her passion for public relations was born out of the marketing classes and clubs she participated in while a student at Brandeis. "I loved doing event planning at Brandeis. I did event planning for the Asian American Student Association, Chinese Student Association and Culture X for two years in a row. All this led me to want to work for Farseer Inc. in public relations, and help them to coordinate and connect with restaurants," Hu said.
Although each member of the team pursued other job opportunities after graduating, their friendship and mutual desire for a challenge brought them back together to make Farseer Inc. a reality in August of 2012. Zhaoming Deng, for example, worked for a year in lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pursuing diabetes research before joining the team. "I realized that in my personality I was not very passionate about working in a lab. I preferred to interact with people. I really enjoy working with friends," Zhaoming Deng said.
The excitement of being part of a constantly evolving enterprise is another factor that motivated these recent graduates to form a start-up. They felt that the stagnancy of working for a large well-established firm presents a lack of challenge and imagination, as well as the feeling that an individual cannot have a real influence over the course of the company's future. "A lot of large companies are completely established in their structure. In a new company, there are always fresh challenges," Zhaoming Deng said.
The beginning stages of the company's evolution, as the co-founders remember it, seemed discouraging and impossible. "When we first started recruiting owners, we didn't have an app and we didn't have users, so it was hard to just walk into restaurants and convince restaurant owners. At the beginning it's very tough," Shen said. Zhaoming Deng remembers walking into the first restaurant he ever pitched, Lizzy's Ice Cream in Waltham, and being terrified at the prospect of rejection. The owner, Miriam Benitez, expressed excitement at the idea of the app, boosting Deng's confidence in the viability of the app's future.
The idea for FotoDish happened by accident. "We are food lovers, and we always wanted to try all the restaurants in Waltham. That's what drew us to the restaurant industry," Wang said. He personally loves fried rice, and his co-founders joked that they made a channel on the app exclusively so that Wang could find the best fried rice in Boston.
The application is unique because of the source of the information, which is not from the consumer, but the restaurant owners themselves. This allows restaurant owners direct influence over how they present their restaurant, which allows them to portray the reality of what the consumer will receive through photography. They contrasted FotoDish with the hugely popular app and website Yelp, which allows users to rate restaurants and view other's ratings of restaurants throughout the United States. "FotoDish is local. It's more accurate, and a lot closer to the restaurant owners. It's not just user-generated content, everything is professional," Hu said.
As young people working for a start-up, delineation between work and life ceases to exist. Their colleagues are their closest friends, and they are working in a high-risk, high-reward environment every day to create something unique.
"I personally love this kind of status," Wang said. "I know I am learning and growing stronger. I know the company is growing stronger." When asked about where he hopes to see Farseer, Inc. in five years, Wang said, "we don't know. In a start-up, everything could change five months from now."