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Category: Silicon Beach

Munch On Me, a deals site for restaurants, expands to West L.A.


Munch On Me, a San Francisco-based start-up, is hoping to be the first thing you think of when that ever-recurring question arises: "What do I want to eat?"

The company's website, of course, is a foodie's take on the hot streak of deal-offering sites that have popped up in recent years (sort of like Groupon, LivingSocial and Woot!). But, unlike other deals sites, Munch On Me isn't waiting for others to take part in a bargain before one can nab a discount out in the real world.

Munch On Me offers specific food items -- just individual items, not entire meals -- for a week, at  discounts that vary by restaurant. Usually, each week, three or four items are up for grabs and as soon as users buy an item, they can redeem their discount.

The start-up, coming out of the Mountain View, Calif., tech incubator Y Combinator, launched this week in West Los Angeles and is offering three discounted items -- a "specialty donut" at Stan's Doughnuts, a $5 wine tasting card at the Pourtal Wine tasting bar and a Stand Dog (hot dog) at The Stand.

And to kick things off for Munch On Me, the first three discounts are sizable: 100% off. Free. Gratis.

Free is exactly the kind of deal co-founder and CEO Jason Wang would have loved to have been offered a bit more while in college at UC Berkeley, where met the company's other three co-founders: Richard Din, Andy Zhang and Tony Li.

"In college, I ate out just about every meal and I had to think about what am I going to eat for every meal, every day," Wang said. "When I got out of college, I got a job at Google and they feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner and it made me realize I didn't have to think about that anymore. And that made me realize how helpful something like Munch On Me could have been to me in college and for everyone else who doesn't work at a company that feeds you."

After about nine months at Google as a risk analyst, Wang and his friend Din, who was working as a  software engineer at Electronic Arts, broke out on their own and hired Zhang to lead Web development and Li to handle sales.

The site launched appropriately in Berkely and the East Bay area as its first market in February and is currently offering weekly deals there and in San Francisco, as well as in San Jose and the South Bay.

"So far, the response has been really good," Wang said. "We've had a lot of restaurants wanting to return and do more deals with us and often, when people get a deal from us, they'll buy something else at the merchant, too, because our deals aren't full meals. We usually do an appetizer, a drink, a meal, a dessert, all at different places."

After some success in the site's first three markets, rolling out to West Los Angeles was a no brainer, he said.

"West L.A. is dense, and the food is really good, and our users have been asking for us to add West L.A. for a while now," Wang said.

The company is hoping to launch into Seattle sometime in August and sometime after that in Orange County, Chicago, New York and San Diego. The planned expansion will call for more new hires; part-timers who can meet with restaurant owners, shoot photos of food and write up copy on all the edibles that are featured, he said.

The team is also working on building out a mobile website, as well as apps for Apple's iOS and Google's Android, Wang said.

"Our market is really the whole world, because everybody eats," he said. "We're just getting started, but we want to be the go-to service when you ask yourself everyday 'what am I going to eat today.' People turn to Facebook for social networking, LinkedIn for professional networking, Amazon to buy things, Craigslist to sell things -- we want to be that for food."


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Image: A screen shot of Munch On Me's first meal deals in West Los Angeles. Credit: Munch On Me

Grubwithus looks to take social networking from the Web to the dinner table


Grubwithus is a start-up looking to bring social networking from the Web to the dinner table.

Already active in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., the social dining website launched in Los Angeles on Thursday night with a meal at Shin Hollywood, a Korean BBQ restaurant.

The site offers users a chance to eat meals at trendy restaurants in groups of about six to 12 people, depending on the size of the restaurant. To sign up for a meal, a user has to set up an account with Grubwithus or sign in using Facebook or Twitter.

Next meal up for Grubwithus in Los Angeles is Lala's Argentine on Monday.

Usually those attending a dinner don't know one another, and that's the point, said Daishin Sugano, who founded Grubwithus with his college buddy, Eddy Lu.

The reason Sugano and Lu started the site, which first launched last August in Chicago at the URL, was precisely to meet people they didn't know.

"We were living in Chicago and we didn't really know anyone there, and we went to bars and lounges and did the normal thing to make friends, and it was really hard to meet people," Sugano said. "And one of the social settings where we, and we think most people, feel comfortable in is over dinner -- it's one of the oldest traditions out there. But we really sort of started Grubwithus for ourselves first."

And so far the idea seems to be catching on, he said.

After launching in Chicago, where Sugano and Lu own a Beard Papa's cream puff store, Grubwithus was taken in by Y Combinator, a San Francisco firm that funds start-ups at their earliest "seed" stage.

The duo, who met at UC Berkeley, launched their social dining site in the Bay Area in January and followed with New York in March and D.C. in April.

Now up and running in Los Angeles, the young site may be in for its biggest challenge yet, Sugano said.

"Los Angeles to me is the most exciting because we're coming home; both Eddy and I grew up in the L.A. area," he said. "At the same time, L.A. is really different type of city. Everyone has a car here, for one thing. In the other cities we've launched in, it's a lot easier to rely on public transportation to get around because things are a lot less spread out. But we're L.A. guys, we know the city and we think we'll catch on here too."

Sugano grew up in Downey and Lu was raised in Pasadena. After graduating in 2003, the two were roommates in West Los Angeles while working corporate jobs neither was particularly passionate about.

"We came home every day from work and we'd just talk about and outline ideas for how we could get out of the corporate life. And we eventually came up with cream puffs in Chicago, and that eventually led us to start Grubwithus," Sugano said. "And now we're back in L.A."

The plan going forward is to move back to Los Angeles and maybe even get an actual office.

"Or we may get a house and work out of that; we're not sure yet," Sugano said. "We've been working out of apartments and Starbucks, but it's hard to work without your own space and it might soon be time to change that."

Funding from Y Combinator and a few early investors has allowed Grubwithus to grow to a team of seven, with two other engineers, two "city developers" who scout out restaurants and establish relationships with eateries, and one person to oversee finances, he said.

The company takes in revenue by way of a fee for each person who purchases a meal to a dinner organized by the site, which is averaging about one meal in each city on weekdays, Sugano said.

"We find the restaurants and set everything up with them," he said. "We take care of bill splitting, what you're going to order, all that. So the food just comes out and you can focus on socializing and meeting people."

Grubwithus is looking to launch in Boston next month and then sometime shortly thereafter in Seattle, he said.

More funding is being raised to help bankroll expansion plans, but Sugano said he wasn't ready yet to talk about that end.

"I kept saying I haven't made money in like six years, and everyone laughs, but it's a serious thing," Sugano said. "That's what it takes sometimes. We saved money from our corporate jobs to open up our cream puff store in Chicago, and we started Grubwithus the same way. And it seems to be really sticking, and that's what it takes. We're just getting started."


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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Photo: A screenshot of a Grubwithus dinner in Los Angeles. Credit: Grubwithus

Coloft: a shared work space in Santa Monica and a real-life social network [Video]


Coloft, a shared work space in Santa Monica, is a tech company that produces no actual technology.

"It's sort of like a real-life social network," said Coloft co-founder Cameron Kashani. "We've got the printer, scanner, fax, Wi-Fi, fridge, microwave, coffee. But that's not the reason people come here. People come here because of the community; because of the other people that are here."

And, on any given weekday, a walk into Coloft offers up a taste of the L.A.-area's start-up scene with entrepreneurs working at tables next to one another, sometimes offering each other advice and occasionally even collaborating on projects.

Many of the "Colofters," as many paying-members like to call themselves, proudly wear T-shirts displaying their company names. Memberships run from $35 for one-day, to as high as $550 per month for one of eight permanent desks, with other prices and time allotments in between.

Vasily Myazin, works most days from Coloft, for Mingly, a Santa Monica start-up that builds an online tool that brings together a user's Google Contacts, Google Calendar and Gmail activity, in one place.

"If it wasn't for Coloft, I wouldn't have this job," Myazin said. "I was coming here after work at my old job, to work on some personal projects -- doing that from home was sort of distracting. And Tyler [Koblasa, Mingly's founder and CEO] walked by and asked what I was working on and after a while, I started helping him out with his company and now I work for Mingly."

While some unemployed folks have found jobs at Coloft, Myazin said he wasn't quite looking at the time.

"I worked a corporate job at Sony and it was a very good job, but I wanted to be a part of something where I can get direct feedback, from users, on what I'm working on. I wanted to be a part of a start-up rather than just be a cog in a big, bureaucratic machine. If I want to go back to the corporate world, there's still time for that later. But this is exciting."

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Ex-News Corp. entrepreneurs by the beach look to make a mint on social commerce

Two hotshots from News Corp.'s incubator Slingshot Labs have launched a Santa Monica company with $5 million in funding.

Less than two months after leaving Slingshot, MySpace co-founder Josh Berman and Diego Berdakin raised the cash from New Enterprise Associates and Anthem Venture Partners. Their start-up, called BeachMint Inc., will attempt to make shopping a more social experience.

Basically, their idea is this: Online retail has largely been a search-driven business with consumers going to Google or Amazon to find a product or service. That has begun to change as shopping sites attempt to help people find new things or what they are looking for by tapping into their interests, friends or by cutting through the online clutter to offer a single good deal, as with Groupon, or an array of good deals, as with Gilt Groupe.

"As consumers are finding more choices online today than ever before, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate the value in those choices. We believe a substantial part of online commerce will shift from search to experiences curated by trusted influencers," said Berman, CEO of BeachMint.

Retailers and Internet start-ups have been trying to push the social shopping concept for years to solve the perennial problem of product discovery. Two of the most popular activities online, social and shopping, should be a powerful combination. Visitors to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter shop online more than those who don't frequent those sites, according to research firm ComScore. 

Berman and Berdakin are tight-lipped on the details of their foray into the potentially lucrative arena of online retail spending. But their site is likely to guide you to what your friends or celebrities and other influential people recommend.

The pair expects the site to go live in time for the all-important holiday season.

-- Jessica Guynn


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