Digby Vollrath, Feast It

We caught up with Digby Vollrath to discuss Feast It and its amazing journey over the past two and a half years. We chatted about how successful 2019 has been for ‘the Airbnb of Catering Suppliers’, how Feast It has developed a great working culture and the ups and downs of living and working with your Co-Founder. 

Feast It is a seed-funded company that matches the best events in the country with the best suppliers. It was founded in 2017 and recently ranked at #17 in the start-up.co.uk Top 100 list for the 2nd year running. 

Hi Digby, great to meet you. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m Digby Vollrath, I’m one of the co-founders and CEO of Feast It, we’re a London based event marketplace. In short, we help connect the best suppliers in the country to the best events in the country.

What inspired you to set up Feast It?

I’ve worked in events for a few years, spent a couple of years in the States, a year working for The Smithsonian Institute. 

I worked for a company called BritWeek in Los Angeles where I organised and ran events ranging from 14 to 200,000 people. After that, I moved back to the UK and worked for a festival startup Festicket, where I worked on over 200 festivals in the US and Northern Europe.

The commonality across all of them was that the best suppliers weren’t always finding the best events, it was really a case of trying to match those two. We’ve created a platform where you could find incredible suppliers and where suppliers could find incredible events.

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say I’m having a wedding and I was thinking about having BBQ food at my wedding. Would Feast It be able to help?

Yeah, absolutely. For us, we’re an online marketplace, similar to Airbnb, we allow you to easily discover, verify the quality of and book suppliers.

Our typical clients range massively, the biggest that we’ve done is 1.5 million people, the smallest event we’ve done is 14, our client varies from Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn through to Glastonbury, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo and Star Wars.

That’s cool! You’ve been around for about two and a half years now, what has been your biggest success at Feast It? Both for you personally, and for the team.

I think personally for me, there are a couple of events that we’ve done that have been massive moments.

This year we did London Pride for the 2nd year in a row, which is one of the largest events in the UK with 1.5 million people attending and just being able to work on something that huge which is such an important day to so many people is pretty incredible. 

Equally, we did some work with Glastonbury this year, it was a massive moment for me. Being able to work with one of the biggest events in the world.

Something we have always been proud is the team. I know it’s really cliché, as people always talk about community and culture. I think a lot of companies say it because it’s nice to say rather than actually doing anything. We’ve built a network of 30 people who work hard and genuinely enjoy spending time with each other.

We’ve got the hard facts that prove it like EMPS and loads of those metrics, but fundamentally we have a team that on Thursday and Friday are going for drinks with each other or helping each other in the office. It’s the biggest pleasure to see to have a workplace where people want to spend their time.

Absolutely. Company culture is something that comes up a lot. What do you think you have done differently to other startup founders who have struggled to develop that company culture from the start?

We actually spoke about it this morning in our team leads meetings about what we’re doing and what we can do better.

I think Hugo and I, were 24 when we started this business, and there were things that we knew that we were good at and we had a strong vision of what we wanted the business to look like. 

On the flip side, there were a lot of things we had no idea about. We’ve never been embarrassed about the gaps in our knowledge and the best thing you can do is get in people who are better than you and can teach you. I think from day one it’s been acceptable to not know or understand something, it been a really important thing for us.

For example, we had no development experience when we started this. We had to hire developers and therefore we had to learn. There has never been any shame in learning, this set up in a good place to work because it means that you’re allowed to acknowledge your own flaws and you’re allowed to improve on those.

Everything can be debated, from the founders to the most junior team members, roadmaps from every department are open to everyone, the entire company runs on two-week sprints, which mean there is a complete understanding across the business and new ideas can come from anywhere. Everybody can question seniority.

We’ve got the fun stuff, members of the team throw a dinner party for the whole company every month or two. We give them the day off, pay for the whole thing and you throw a big party for the team. 

Some of that is great because we have fun but it’s important that the team love where they work and are developing as people and that they are given the space to affect what’s happening.

We’ve got people here who are 20, and we want them to feel that they can get that more here than they would at a big corporate.

My colleagues wrote an article on company culture and benefits. A lot of the things you said, the extra stuff that makes work “fun” like a PlayStation and bean bags – are they really benefits when the company is not great to work for?

Fundamentally, does that mean a good culture? Is good culture the list of things you get for free? Or is it people that you enjoy spending time with every day, and you feel like it’s somewhere you can really learn?

For me, I’d much rather build the second one than the first one. The big corporate companies will always floor most startups with a list of perks because they can, they have the money. Most startups run at a deficit and we can’t compete when it comes to certain things.

Where we can compete is making people feel valued, make them feel listened to and give them a direct line of sight to seniority.

If you’re on a grad scheme at KPMG or PWC for example, what line of sight do you have towards a management position? We have a board come in and regular meet junior members of the team and mentor them.

I’d rather do that than the fluffy benefits that aren’t that novel.

I completely agree. If you want to be in a true leadership position in a corporate, it would take two decades whereas it could take less than five in a startup.

It’s not for everybody though! You have people who do work 9 to 5 and get free breakfast, lunch, and dinner with free healthcare and dental. 

That’s not wrong! In a startup though, it’s a grind and really hard work and your back is always up against it trying to reach stretch targets.

The positives are the culture and opportunity.

If I was to join as an employee of Feast It today, where could I see myself and the business in three to five years?

There’s a fluidity, we never block someone if they show a lot of potential. We’ve hired people who we’ve hired for the wrong role and we’ve switched them around and they are absolutely smashing it.

We have an obligation to give people a chance, but this doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard work so you need to be good and you really have to prove yourself. We’re trying to be disruptive and build something out of nothing which means its hard graft but it means everybody has the chance to build what they want.

We have a budget for the team for self-learning so if you want to go on a course or buy a book, so you can make yourself better. You’d also have access to mentorship and advice from everybody that Hugo, the team and I have met along the way.

The senior management that we’ve built has vast experience. We have people who’ve been COOs of really good startups, people who’ve been in massive award-winning companies, senior managers from Deliveroo and Uber. 

As a business, we were four people, two years ago, and we’re now 30. We want to put ourselves in a position of being one of the largest businesses in the world, we want to be global, we’ve grown massively, and nothing is indicating that we’ll stop. That’s what we’re chasing.

We want to build something that, ultimately, completely disrupts the industry, and do it in a way that we can be proud of.

Amazing, that sounds exciting! What is the biggest challenge going to be? 

There is a step-up. We’ve probably gone through two major step-ups in the business so far.

Year one, we were a tiny little team, four to five people sat around a single table, and that was one version of the company. Then last year we suddenly became a 15-person company, and that has a really different feeling to it, a different beast. 

Year one, anything we did was good, and we were growing and that was great. Year two we suddenly have benchmarks for every single month, and we had to 3x them, so that was a tough growth stage, and then this year we’re going through the next one. The team is 30 people, which is a huge step up in terms of the skills that all of us in management have had to learn – how do you manage those people, how do you keep everyone happy… and all of that is new!

The next step-up is in, let’s say two years from now when we might be at 90 people, and what does that look like. It’s a hugely different beast.

That is one of the biggest challenges for any startup, the full scaleup phase is around the 25 heads up to 100.

Yeah, it’s a huge difference, I’ve been there before with other rapidly growing startups. How do you keep the original culture, when people seem less tied to the business because they aren’t one of ‘the originals’? Learning to deal with that is really important.

A huge challenge is launching aboard, building an ever-more scalable product. Finding your first customer was, for us, very easy. Finding our 100th customer was also easy. Is finding 100,000th, 400,000th or millionth customer going to be so easy? These are big questions for us.

I think a nice thing that we’ve always had is that we’ve never had a shortage of ideas, we’re always on a backlog of ideas that are ten times the size of what we actually have the capacity for. Right now, we’ve got a clear vision of where we’re going and confident that we’ll achieve it.

What has been your biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge we’ve ever had was our first round of funding because we just had no concept of where to start. We were both fairly senior in terms of responsibility, but very far from anything to do with funding the business. 

I literally didn’t know what a term sheet was, didn’t know a single bit of phrasing, and I think that funding is one of these things that a lot of industries add a bunch of wording around, and make it sounds more complicated than it is because it makes everyone feel more important.  

VCs are great at making things more complicated than it needs to be, making it a jargon-heavy thing that makes people feel important, but for those on the outside, it makes it difficult because we just have no idea where to start. We didn’t have a network, nothing – so the biggest challenge we’ve ever had was knowing how we go about getting our first quarter of a million pounds. 

The other was development – didn’t even know where to begin with building a product. We had a strong vision of what the product needed to be and how it would look, but fundamentals like what language needed to be written – all this kind of stuff! We had 6 months to do our fundraising, build a platform, get our first 100 suppliers on board, and get our first customer.

We needed proof-of-concept, we needed cash, and that was a real struggle, especially when it’s just two of you – and add to that we were living together as flatmates! Pretty bleak. No money, spending a lot of hours together, and no gauge for whether you’re doing well or not! Luckily, we’re still very good mates and still go on holiday together.

What advice would you have given yourself two and a half years ago? 

I think we had the right idea, and I’ve always said to anyone who has asked us for advice ‘you can’t ask enough’ – people love giving advice! Ask as many people as possible. We’ve literally built our network from nothing; built on cold LinkedIn messages, to founders of businesses, just asking for a coffee and conversation to pick their brains. It’s amazing. 

The strongest thing about the community is there are lots of people who will give you advice and for me, that was how we did it, that was the thing I’d say people should be spending their time doing.

There are a lot of time wasters in London, a lot of co-working or networking events and so much bloat in the scene. When you directly reach out, you get a one on one conversation that gets you so much further. Some events are brilliant, but a lot will be 35 who haven’t done a round of funding and one VC, and everyone is competing for that person’s time. 

If you meet the right person and ask the right questions, that person might connect you with ten people that are really important for your product.

Awesome! Thanks, Digby!

Learn more about Feast It