Originally posted on December 17, 2020
In this series, we’re putting the spotlight on founders who leverage software beyond the screen to build exciting startups. Each founder has their own nerdy background (we define nerdiness as having a deep obsession) and their own path to arrive at the founding moment of their startup. Meet Eugene Johnson, Founder/CEO of Revi (formerly ZYRL), a technology startup that helps fast-casual restaurants to digitize their in-store experience. Ubiquity Ventures led the $2 million seed round that the company just announced this morning.
Can you sum up what Revi does?
Revi helps restaurants deliver fast, personalized, and safe in-person and online experiences while increasing revenue. We combine our mobile app with in-store Revi devices to allow consumers to order, customize, pay, collect rewards, and discover their next favorite dining spots.
What is the story behind how you started your company? How did you meet your co-founders?
As a serial entrepreneur, I have been starting companies since I was 18, so I have always been on the lookout for opportunity. In 2012, while doing some investing and speaking, I realized I wanted to get back into operations and the tech world.
I joined Meraki in 2013 to learn the ropes at a rising tech startup. At the time, they had 60 employees, so I had a great “behind the scenes” view of a rocket ship. Over my next four years at Meraki, I played a role in our growth to almost 3,000 employees and the eventual acquisition of the company by Cisco. It was on the Meraki company basketball team that I met my eventual Revi co-founder and started brainstorming new ideas. We have a few others on Revi’s founding team, and we are all aligned in our dream of revolutionizing the physical in-store experience the way Amazon revolutionized the e-commerce experience.
When did you first get into the industry? What drew you to it?
I am originally from New York and moved to the Bay Area in 2006 to continue growing my offline business that was thriving in California. My original plan was to stay in California for a year before heading back to the East Coast. However, the longer I stayed, the more I fell in love with the culture.
While 2013 was when I dove into tech full-time with my role at Meraki, my passion for tech started in 2009 when I purchased my first iPhone. It became clear to me that modern technology (i.e. the internet, mobile, software, etc.) wasn’t some novelty — it was actually changing the world, and I had to find a way to be a part of it.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something (see our blog post on the subject). What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
My obsession is chess. At 9 years old, I had my first introduction to chess when I joined a chess club to learn how to play. Because my family moved away just two months later, I didn’t really play chess again until I was 20 years old. My roommate at the time re-introduced me to the game, regularly destroying me. Being as competitive as I am, I bought a chess book and after poring over it for a month, I was able to start splitting games with him. By the end of that year, I was regularly beating him. He moved and another 10 years without chess flew by. While at Meraki, I found a few co-workers who played chess and helped me turn my passion into an obsession. That year, I discovered Chess.com which allowed me to play any time day or night because I could compete with people all around the world.
When my chess obsession started, I had a rating of 500 which placed me below “beginner”. Twelve months later, I had a rating of 900 which is about “average novice”. By 2019, I was rated above 1200, which now gets you an FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation) and USCF (United States Chess Federation) official chess rating as a class D player. Today I have a rating of 1400–1500 which is a class C ranking. Now the class C ratings sound low, but I only play blitz chess because of my schedule, and a C rating puts you in the 85–90th percentile (which means out of the hundreds of millions of players worldwide only 10–15% of them are better).
I am very proud that I accomplished this status in only three years of consistently playing chess, but it didn’t come easy. In those three years I played over 10,000 games of chess! My goal before I turn 40 is to have a 2200–2300 rating which would qualify me for the National Master (NM) and FIDE Candidate Master titles.
Everything I have learned in chess is self-taught: to get better, I constantly analyze my old games and study what drives each win and loss. Over time, you start to recognize patterns that help you learn the game.
My next step is to recruit a Grand Master as a coach, but the Netflix show called “The Queen’s Gambit” was all I got in 2020. The show was entertaining but also a way for my wife to better understand my obsession. To be great at chess you must think 7 -10 moves ahead, and I truly believe learning that trait has made me 10x better as an entrepreneur.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet jumped off to launch their new company?
There are three things I would tell them:
1) Love it: Today everyone seems to want to launch a company, but many don’t recognize just how hard it can be. If you don’t love it, you won’t work as hard as you should, which means you won’t make it.
2) Carefully pick your team: Your team will make you or break you. A strong team is the difference between winning and not winning.
3) Keep learning: No one knows everything, so you must keep filling your learning gap. There is a misleading saying, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” — this statement is completely false. What you don’t know can kill your hopes and dreams of a successful startup, so a commitment to continual learning is critical.
Are you a founder in the smart hardware or machine learning sector? Let’s talk! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.