LUNCH:ON partners with restaurants to offer office workers a selection of curated meals at discounted prices. It was founded by Mohammad Al Zaben and Dana Baki in early 2016. The company recently closed its Series A round worth $5.5 million led by Wamda Capital.
Before founding LUNCH:ON, Baki worked for P&G in Washington DC for seven and a half years in the marketing insights and corporate strategy groups across the conglomerate’s global brands.
She then moved to the UAE with her husband and founded a business within the food sector which quickly failed. We spoke with Baki about her entrepreneurial journey.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I had absolutely no ambition to start my own company. I didn’t see myself in that world while I was at P&G but then I was done with the corporate scene. As an over-achiever, I felt there was so much more out there. I was always passionate about moving back to the region and in the first few months I looked at things I was passionate about – the entrepreneurial ecosystem, empowerment of women through financial systems and ultimately wanted to start my own business.
What was your first business idea?
I wanted to bring the concept of food trucks to the UAE. I had secured investment and put the business plan together but after doing that for a few months, I realised it wouldn’t work, the municipality regulations wouldn’t have made it profitable. You had to pay rental for the food truck but do the food prep in a central kitchen.
It was disappointing in the beginning. I had put a lot of work into it, but at the same time I was relieved that I figured it out early than actually spending the money, so I gave it back to the investors who offered me a job.
I worked with them for two years and learned about a lot of different business and financial models. But I always had the itch to start my own business and food was always my passion.
How did LUNCH:ON come about?
A friend introduced me to Zaben in May 2015 and we decided the day we met we wanted to do something together. We quit our jobs in July 2015. It was the worst time to start a business, my son was 4-months old, but when you find the right partner and the idea and are passionate about it, you have to go for it.
We knew people wanted good food without paying high delivery fees and that’s what we’re solving for.
For several months we experimented with different financial models and ideas and started testing with a restaurant. We did it manually and pretended to be a chatbot ourselves. We took orders like that for several months and delivered food ourselves. It was crazy and a lot of fun and we saw enormous traction. That’s when we started investing in the technology.
Have you made any sacrifices in becoming entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is a crazy journey. In the beginning there were a lot of bad days, but there was a kind of no turning back. We were in it and we knew we would find a way to make this work.
Personal time is definitely gone. You definitely have a lot of stress you wouldn’t have if you were an employee. You can never switch off, even when I’m on vacation I’m working, I’m always responding to emails. Part of it is self-inflicted and part of it comes with the territory.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned?
Get something out into the market and test it as quickly as possible. You shouldn’t spend too much time perfecting your product because there will be so much to learn from testing. You waste time perfecting and it’s not ultimately where the product will end up.
What will your industry look like in the next decade?
There will be a lot consolidation happening in our industry, different companies will start partnering and serving customers more holistically. There is currently a lot of focus on dinner and that will change to other meal times because there’s only so much you can do with one meal period. There’s going to be a lot built around convenience and price. People are used to convenience and price will become more and more of an important factor, which is where we are well-positioned.