Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Jim Williams and I’m the founder and CEO of MustHaveMenus. This is my third successful Internet business.
MustHaveMenus provides software that lets restaurant managers create beautiful menus and marketing materials - without any design experience! This business is about bringing internet advantages to an old way of doing things. Five to ten years ago, restaurants typically used desktop publishing tools and a lot of back-n-forth with their local printers to produce their materials. Today, MustHaveMenus lets them design matching pieces quickly and print them professionally in a few clicks. MustHaveMenus was the first to offer truly editable menus in the cloud.
Today, we have kept pace with advances in browser and internet technology to offer a much more robust set of tools and templates for our customers, becoming a one-stop-shop for all marketing design needs for restaurants. We are the only service of our type that is 100% dedicated to restaurants, which makes it possible for us to compete against some much larger design software companies that are targeted towards the general consumer market.
A new restaurant will find everything to establish a brand, like logos and business cards, every type of menu they’ll need, and then all of the flyers, social media, and other marketing pieces they’ll need to keep generating new interest from their customers.
The most unique thing about our story is how fast we’ve responded to help restaurants during the COVID crisis. Massive change hit the industry overnight. We responded by guiding restaurants towards the best practices and key products that could help them thrive even during the crisis. This includes an incredible industry shift to takeout and curbside pickup business and an overhaul of most kitchen-to-customer operations with a focus on safety. Our ability to meet the needs of restaurants during the crisis has greatly elevated our visibility in the industry and proven that our specialization for restaurants matters.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea for MustHaveMenus was a simple one: to replace aging desktop publishing tools with a menu design tool on the web. We also envisioned a wide selection of templates that would make it easy for restaurants to establish all of the cornerstones of marketing: strong branding, strong communication, consistency, etc. We started with a more general market approach, testing different markets to see which were the most receptive and in need of online design. Wedding invitations were a strong one as were church programs. Both of those turned into standalone businesses on their own. But the one that got the team excited, because of our passion for restaurants and great food, was MustHaveMenus.
I can’t say it was an overnight success. The technology risk in this business is very high. Browsers simply couldn’t handle graphics and text placement well in the years before 2010. Our first true editor was available for restaurants by 2009, and we were the first on the web to do so. But this editor still had a lot of problems managing graphics like food photos and logos. Despite the challenges with the software, restaurants still rushed to join us as the power of work-from-anywhere and quick edits online proved appealing.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Designing software is always an iterative process. First, you have to decide on an “MVP” or a minimum viable product. The MVP does away with a lot of bells and whistles but still solves the core problem. Because we were a trail-blazing company, we had to improvise with available technologies. We used Microsoft Word as an engine and its networking powers to allow us to present basic editing features on the web. This product was a little buggy and limited, but it attracted many thousands of restaurant users, which proved to us that the value proposition was strong.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is to focus. It can be so tempting to chase every possible customer win, every potential partner, every product upgrade.
Since 2010, we switched technology platforms for our design software two more times. These types of changes are agonizing for entrepreneurs. It’s very tempting to keep applying fixes and workarounds to the old software and focus on keeping the immediate customers happy. The problem is that new customers are always asking for more and there’s no way to accommodate them. We had to make the hard decision to “sunset” our legacy software and invest massive resources into more modern systems. Each platform change costs $1M in resources and over a year of development time.
Today, standard web browsers coupled with HTML5 technology are very good at handling design demands like fonts, formatted text, and graphics. Where MustHaveMenus used to be the only player, there are now dozens of very robust web-based design programs. The challenge of growing our business has shifted away from getting the MVP and establishing the value proposition, away from modernizing the technology, and into a much more interesting phase of fully servicing the exact needs of restaurants.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching MustHaveMenus was a long, deliberate process of experimentation in a bootstrapped environment. The advantage of this approach is that you can keep costs very low, while gradually gaining expertise in customer needs and underlying technologies. Back in 2007, we owned a side business of vector graphics (think clipart!) which provided revenue, so my seed investment into MustHaveMenus was under $200k, which I was fortunate to provide myself with the help of a couple of friends.
The turning point in a software business tends to be around a $1M revenue milestone, especially when that revenue is diversified across a few thousand customers - the loss of any one customer has little impact. Once we reached this milestone in 2011, we could confidently say that we had a sustainable business and that we were truly solving problems for customers.
Therefore, 2011 was the true launch of the MustHaveMenus site that we know today. We decided to invest in growth with the ambition of becoming the one-stop provider of design and print services for restaurants. We raised $1.5M from angels through our networks, and changed the corporate structure so that MustHaveMenus was a standalone C Corporation - a fresh start on the future!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our customer acquisition strategy has always been based on Google SEO and Adwords. Almost every company on earth can use this strategy for at least some portion of their customer acquisition, but for MustHaveMenus, it has always been around 80-90%. This was planned from the start because we knew that people searched for menus and marketing materials in countless ways.
Think of every form of the term “_____” menu template. Italian menu template, vintage menu template, Christmas menu template, etc. Our job was simply to provide designs that created a strong landing page for every possible term. “Templates” is just one of several search term realms that cover the needs of our customers.
Retaining customers is a much more difficult task because restaurant marketing habits are so diverse. Some customers make menu changes every day and are easy to retain. Others may only make changes once per year. We work hard to provide a year-round system for all restaurants by constantly expanding the set of products we offer. Today we have over 25 individual product lines. Maybe a restaurant won’t change their menu frequently, and they may only need new business cards every few years. But they will use our social media templates, event flyers, or table tent promotions frequently.
Pick big markets where there is room for several winners. Pick markets where a generic solution doesn’t solve enough problems, but customers want your tailored solution. Pick markets where the use cases are frequent so that loyalty to your product is high.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We believe the future of MustHaveMenus is very bright and we are investing every dollar we make right back into our amazing, growing team of 30 full-time employees and approximately 35 freelancers.
Our optimism is based on our ability to expand product lines far beyond the core of menus. While we are already extremely deep in menu products, including dozens of sizes, styles, and paper types, we are becoming deep in marketing materials including business cards, stickers, sandwich boards, flyers, table promotions, social media, and much more. In other words, our ‘store’ is getting bigger! Customers can solve more of their needs without leaving the MustHaveMenus site.
This means that our growth boils down to attracting new prospective customers, i.e. growing our traffic. Luckily, expanding a design product line automatically gives us more SEO wins from Google. In 2020, MustHaveMenus site traffic is up over 50%. Here you can see an example of the year-over-year traffic in August. Up 70%!
That said, COVID has been extremely hard on the restaurant industry and we have felt the pain as well. There is no doubt that every restaurant out there is facing a survival struggle in adjusting to the new normal. While our site traffic is up against strong, we’ve had an opposite effect of seeing customers put the business on hold, or drastically cut back.
We feel inspired to help, inspired by the perseverance and determination shown by our restaurant customers. We’ve tried to help by running discounts and free services, and presenting clear guidance on safety-related products, beginning immediately in late March. When the dust clears on COVID, we believe the takeout world will be a much larger feature of restaurants, but also that the restaurant will return fully as a social hub and dine-in services will be just as popular as ever.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Many hard lessons show up for new businesses and entrepreneurs. One of the biggest is the focus. It can be so tempting to chase every possible customer win, every potential partner, every product upgrade. For example, in 2011, MustHaveMenus knew that the future of online food ordering was bright and that we managed the menus for all of our customers. We thought it would be a simple extension of our business to allow customers to launch online menus with ordering capabilities.
We spent $1M and over a year of effort to build the product, only to re-discover the hard lesson of focus. Online ordering is a different business than menu design! Sounds so obvious, right? Every aspect of selling, supporting, and managing an online ordering system is different than a design tool. We were suddenly in two different businesses, both good, but our origins were designed. We knew we couldn’t split into a two-headed monster, so we made the tough decision to kill the ordering product almost as soon as it was launched, and get back to our primary focus of solving design and print needs for restaurants.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
MustHaveMenus is built from the ground up on advanced programming tools that allow us to achieve some very difficult software challenges. Even after 25 years of browser technology, they still present many problems for full-featured design on the web.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The most important resource for me has been other entrepreneurs, especially those with eCommerce and software-as-a-service experience. I have spent a lot of time in the past twenty years maintaining a small but very experienced network of startup founders. We share war stories. I hear about the mistakes they’ve made, the bad technologies, the business models that failed. I learned how they faced adversity and learned to pivot.
Successful entrepreneurs are not those who “fall in love” with a single idea and pursue it at all costs. Successful entrepreneurs start with one good idea and hold it long enough for the market to tell them it’s time to change. When I see other founders do it, I learn and think about how to apply the rule of “fail faster” to MustHaveMenus.
I’ll recommend an unheralded book written by another entrepreneur I know. It’s called the Startup J-Curve by Howard Love. I recommend it because I know the stories are real, easily accessible, and invaluable for entrepreneurs trying to keep their sanity when it feels like the sky is falling.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My advice to entrepreneurs - go for it! Despite the vast number of technology businesses today, there’s never been a better time to start a new one. The cost of building an MVP product has come down by 90% or more since 2000. Old headaches about hosting are gone. Many technologies, like eCommerce websites, can be set up by non-technical people in a matter of days. Marketing campaigns can be run on any budget and with laser precision using Google or Social Media.
My advice to technology entrepreneurs specifically is to be very open about the audience in the beginning. Pick big markets where there is room for several winners. Sometimes big markets are hidden or undiscovered, these are the best! Pick markets where a generic solution doesn’t solve enough problems, but customers want your tailored solution. Pick markets where the use cases are frequent so that loyalty to your product is high. Perhaps multiple ideal audiences turn out to fit your product idea. Take the time to prototype and test each one. Find out which ones are hungry for your idea.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
MustHaveMenus is always looking for talented people in all aspects of the business: menu design, service, and engineering. We are working very hard to find a DevOps/SysAdmin Engineer that has fantastic skills with AWS, RDS, MySQL, Java, and other full-stack technologies.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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