Screen shot from Mobile Nom
If you read this week's issue, you're familiar with Mobile Nom, the app that tracks the locations of nearby food trucks in real time. The origin story was a bit too lengthy to include in print, but it's a good one, so here's the full transcript of City Paper'
s email interview with Paul Landry, one of the founders of Mobile Nom.
I recently had this thought that there was no single source of food-truck locations/schedules, then emailed a friend about it and she said she had just thought the same thing. So, since you scooped us by three years, can you tell me about how you and Jonathan came up with the idea? Can you trace it back to a single conversation or moment?
Our inner desire to track down our food dates back to the Pleistocene era, so it was actually the Hominini that scooped all of us by 1.5 million years. Seriously, it actually all started for us 2013 when Pittsburgh only had a few food trucks. I saw that one of them would be in Shadyside, so I drove all the way from the airport area to Shadyside and turns out they weren't there that day. I thought that if there was a way to track food trucks in real time, I wouldn't have to drive all that way only to have nothing but sadness for lunch because I missed the truck.
I saw that there was a need for an easier way to track food trucks, so I text Jon to see if he would be interested in putting one together. Jon and I went to Pitt, as well as working at Radio Shack together. I reached out to Jon because he was one of the best software engineers I have ever met. When I first proposed the idea, he had said no because he had a lot going on with his career and just didn't have the time. I didn't ask anyone else, because there isn't anyone else I would want to work on a project like this with.
A year later, he text me and said, "Let's do this." So we started building the app in 2014, and it took an entire year to build. We didn't want to just put an app out to simply have an app; we wanted something that had value for both the food trucks as well as their customers. We started talking with several different food-truck owners, such as Sugar and Spice and Las Chicas, who gave us a lot of ideas of how the app should work for the food-truck owners. The customer side was initially just based on what we would want as a food-truck customer, but it wasn't long before we were just striking up conversations in lines at food trucks with customers to see what they would want. I still do that. As a matter of fact, if you are ever standing in a food-truck line and someone with mustard on his shirt and churro crumbs on his face asks you how you found this truck, there is a 84 percent chance it is me.
Interesting facts: Prior to us building the app, Jon had never visited a food truck. Me, on the other hand, will buy food out of the back of basically any vehicle that offers it. When I was in the Marines, we used to have a random dude that just drove around the base selling slices of pizza out of the back of his old pickup truck. He didn't have a pizza place, just a truck full of pizza. That is probably where half my money went each week.
What was the process like after the two of you decided to pursue this? When did you work on it? Did you raise money, etc.?
Jon and I have very different personality types. Which can be challenging at times, but I think it is an approach that every startup company should take: Take on business partners that are completely opposite as you. You end up with a product that great because so many different inputs and perspectives were put into it.
We both have full-time careers: Jon is a software engineer for an online clothing company, and I am in education. So for us, this came down to building it during our free time. This meant working nights, weekends, before work and after work. When we weren't working or spending time with our families, it was "Mobile Nom" time.
We’ve funded it 100 percent out of our own pockets, and that is something we are very proud of. We started this, partially out of a desire to completely control our own destiny. Taking funding would run counter that desire. We won’t say we’ll never take funding, but we’ll do everything we can to remain independent.
Late last year, we launched premium services for food trucks that added many beneficial features to their marketing abilities, such as check-in beacons, which pop up on the screen of all Mobile Nom users within a certain radius of their location when they start serving food; a calendar widget that allows them to share their upcoming schedule from the Mobile Nom app right on their websites; and many more features that increases exposure for their food truck and lessens the amount of time they have to dedicate to using the app. The app basically handles most of their social-media postings as well.
What was the biggest challenge in putting together Mobile Nom?
Being that neither one of us ever owned a food truck, and up until 2015, Jon had never even visited a food truck, we didn't know exactly how it should look on the food-truck-owner side. Again, we wanted an app that provided just as much value to the food trucks as it did to the customers. We wanted to build an app that would be easy for the trucks to use and actually get them excited about using. We are into our third year since we released it, and we are still asking food-truck owners what they want to see in the app.
Anytime I speak to a food-truck owner, one of the questions I always ask is, "What do you want to see in the app?" regardless if it is the first time I have spoken with them, or the 100th time. We feel the app is amazing where it is right now, and it would easy for us to say, "You know what? The app is where it is ultimately meant to be," and to stop developing new features. But if you aren't constantly working to make something even better, you should have stopped a long time ago.
We have to keep building features into the app that are going to make it easy and fun for food-truck customers to use, and easy for the food trucks to allow their customers to find them, or for new customers to discover their truck.
How many cities is Mobile Nom available in?
Pittsburgh is first and foremost our main area of operations. You’ll find the greatest concentration of active trucks here. We’ve set up services in 17 other metro areas around the USA. I travel a lot for my job, so when I am traveling, as soon as I am done working, I am out speaking to food-truck owners in those cities as well.
What’s the current state of the company? Where would you like to see it go?
The business is doing well, and is growing every quarter. Every single dollar we make is reinvested back into the company to further its growth. We want to see Mobile Nom in every city of the country. There are a ton of hard-working mobile-food vendors whose businesses could benefit from what we do, and we strive to bring what we do to help them win in the extremely competitive fast-food/restaurant industries.
We are working on making Mobile Nom a "hub" for all things food trucks. One feature we just launched is metro pages, which consolidate a lot of different food-truck-related pieces onto one page such as upcoming events, news, and truck directory. You can see it at www.mobilenom.com/pittsburgh