2014-08-25

Co.Labs

Going From The Restaurant World To Big Data

This CEO didn't take the traditional route to a career in data science, and neither should you.



Jenny Zeszut, the CEO of analytics firm Beckon, didn’t take the traditional road to working in data science or business intelligence. She didn’t dive deep into statistics at a school like Stanford or the University of Washington. She didn’t start off working on the fine points of data mining for Google or Amazon. Instead, working in the restaurant industry set her on the path of starting an analytics company.

During a junior year abroad studying in Paris, Zeszut found herself working at the original location of French sandwich shop Cosi, and was tasked with helping to write the restaurant’s manual of operations by owner Drew Harré. As she put it, the assignment entailed a book about “how to run the restaurant and everything you needed to do it.” Shortly after she wrote the manual, Cosi licensed their concept to American investors Jay and Shep Wainwright in 1996, who opened a 50+ location chain based on the Parisian cafe. Zeszut then went on to work front-of-house at prominent Northern California restaurant Cafe Beaujolais.

“That’s when I realized it was much more fun to be on the business side of things,” Zeszut told Co.Labs. Instead of worrying about setting plates down or having dishes come out in time, Zeszut realized there was much more potential in working on the office side. She studied marketing, went to business school, and ended up at Razorfish and Proctor & Gamble before striking out on her own with Beckon and previous company Scout Labs.

As she put it on the phone to Co.Labs, “There's a huge stereotype with marketers based around the idea that we aren’t data-driven or accountable. Being an analytical person, I knew that a much bigger barrier for us is the fact that we didn’t have access to good data sets for running analytics. The data side of the big data world is making data accessible to people and end users.”

Beckon monitors spending by marketing departments and accepts data inputs either by the usual API integrations, through direct uploads of files, or by emailing files to a beckon.com address tied to the account in a similar manner to Evernote or TripIt. The company raised an $8 million Series A round this past January, and already has high-profile companies like Nokia, BSkyB, Union Bank, The Gap, Converse, and StubHub as clients.

Before Beckon, Zeszut founded Scout Labs, a social media monitoring service which was acquired by Lithium Technologies in 2010 for more than $20 million. Beckon was formed after Zeszut and fellow cofounder, Scout Labs’ ex-CTO Jochen Frey, left Lithium two years later. She says many of Scout’s architects, support people, and designers migrated to the new company as well.

The transition from the restaurant world to the analytics world isn’t as random as it seems. Restaurants are typically low-margin, cash-intensive businesses that require constantly fluxing inventory and smart purchasing decisions on the chef’s and owner’s parts. They also, as IBM discovered when they teamed up with Bon Appetit magazine to test machine learning on recipes, assemble dishes in a methodical, step-driven manner. While most restaurants depend on old-fashioned Excel spreadsheets rather than big data-driven analytics platform, the methodology is much the same.

“Because it’s such a low margin business, tiny decisions can make or break restaurants like deciding to source from supplier A or B,” she added. “There are a million little decisions that lead to success or failure, even down to seating or lighting.” Those experiences, she says, helped pique her interest in analytics.

[Image: Flickr user Wim de Jong]




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