Olivia Sibony

Olivia is one the brilliant brains behind GrubClub - London’s only shared dining marketplace where chefs and foodies come together at amazing venues to meet new people and sample food cooked by some of the best chefs in the UK. 

Prior to GrubClub, Olivia spent nearly seven years at Goldman Sachs, and before that she spent some time as the sous chef for an events catering company. Given GrubClub’s recent pivot into corporate event catering, Olivia as a master in her field, clearly has the know-how to pull it off.  We sat down with her to talk about her experience as a female entrepreneur, the idea and the tech behind GrubClub and to discuss some of her tips for aspirating female tech founders. 

N: What are some of the recent success stories that have come out of GrubClub? 

O: Just last month, James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy, launched Pidgin, an Asian-inspired restaurant in Hackney. They tested their concept "The Secret Larder" and generated a big following through supperclubs on GrubClub. They have also since been awarded a Michelin Star. The food is incredible, I really recommend it and it is testament to the type of success that can come from GrubClub's concept. 

N: I imagine you’re a foodie, how often do you dine with GrubClub? 

O: For the longest time I went at least once week, however its become physically impossible to do this with my current schedule and to find a balance between work and my personal life. Now I try to go when I can and it is usually no less than once a month. 

N: Totally understandable, it's challenging to balance everything! I'm curious to know, what is the average price of dining experiences on GrubClub? 

O: The public facing dinner is around £40; and it’s slightly more for group dining at around £65 per head. Most of the GrubClubs are BYOB, though. So for the quality of the food you’re getting in addition to the whole experience, it works out to be significantly better value than it would be otherwise.

N: Tell me a bit more about the tech aspect of it?

O: Initially we built an MVP and imagined that we would scrap it soon after, but it actually worked for us for much longer than expected, particularly while we were trying to keep things lean. Having an MVP that works is great because it allows you to save costs upfront, but it's about knowing when to scrap that and develop something that is going to increase the user experience and be functional enough to adapt as the business model changes. 

Now that our business model has changed, focusing a lot of our attention on the much-coveted 'Private Dining' experiences, we are changing the tech around, and developing new features to fit in with it. For the time being, we have put development on a hold until we have figured out exactly what our users want. The whole idea of GrubClub is to help diners discover and attend amazing dining experiences in a way that hasn't been done before, so for us it is about figuring out how to balance both experiences from both the chefs and consumers’ perspective. The considerations are around building the processes to be streamlined and efficient, as well as designing a front end and User Experience that is seamless as well as exciting and engaging. 

N: Sounds exciting! So, where did you find your tech team and how has the team changed since GrubClub’s inception?

O: Our tech team was initially an all-female 3-person team. One of them was a brilliant developer based in the US who worked for us remotely. She has been on maternity leave for the past couple of months, but I was excited to hear this morning that she’s excited to return to work in the next month. For her it's been brilliant as she gets to work from home and has full-flexibility with her time. She has consistently delivered despite us not even knowing exactly what hours she works. We discussed what she needed to achieve, and she would do the work in the hours she wanted and made it work for her around what she needed to get done as a mum. If she needed to pick her kids up from school, she did so, and if she wanted to spend a day hanging out with her family, she would work at night. That is one of the benefits of being a coder as a woman who has family responsibilities. You can make it work for you, as long as the company you are working for are able to offer you that flexibility, and more often than not, your employees are happier and more productive.  

Now, we’ve changed it up a bit. We are working with a CTO who is very experienced in building start-ups from the ground up who is leading a team based outside of London. It's been a very conscious decision as this CTO has great experience both as a technologist and as a CEO. 

Outsourcing the tech is a new thing for us as we have always had the tech team in-house, but from a resource perspective it has been really interesting to outsource this build as it's a 6-12 month, very specialized project, and it feels better to have this happen because of the flexibility and varied set of specialized skills it offers without having feeling the need to hire a whole team in for a fixed period of time. 

We will have Swati, our developer in the US, work alongside our London-based CTO, as soon as she is back from maternity leave. This will give us the continuity of build, in addition to having additional and more specialized resource for the big build we are working on.  

N: Besides offering flexible working hours and being supportive of your female employees on maternity leave for example, how do you think we can go about encouraging more women to be retained in the tech sector? 

O: I think it's really important to have more female role models in the tech industry. From a young age, society is conditioned to accept the status quo of the gender divide. So neither men nor women question it, because it's such an ingrained belief. In fact, there are a lot of amazing pioneering women in STEM and we need to celebrate them more, to help the next generation of women believe that they can do it to. For example:

  • Ada Lovelace is considered to be the found of scientific computing and the first computer programmer.

  • As part of a secret World War Two project, six young women programmed the first all-electronic programmable computer. When the project was eventually introduced to the public in 1946, the women were never introduced or credited for their hard work -- both because computer science was not well understood as an emerging field, and because the public's focus was on the machine itself.

  • Edith Clarke was a pioneering electrical engineer at the turn of the 20th century. She worked as a “computer,” someone who performed difficult mathematical calculations before modern-day computers and calculators were invented

The list goes on!

It's also great news that the US Chief Technology Officer is a woman (Megan Smith) , and we have women entrepreneurs in the UK such as Martha Lane Fox and Sherry Coutu, who are pioneers in the field of Tech, and working hard to inspire the next generation of women to be involved in tech. It's not hard, you just have to believe in yourself and abolish the stereotypes we've all grown up with. 

N: From your own experience at Goldman Sachs and now at GrubClub, has the hiring and retention of women been a conscious decision, or more of an organic experience; and do you think that in order to bridge the gender gap in technology (and finance) we need to be thinking more consciously about how to do this? 

O: I think it's a balance between the two. Ultimately, it's about having the best person for the job, regardless of gender, race, age or social background. But equally, men are generally better conditioned and more confident in interview situations and in applying for jobs. So I do proactively seek out women to apply because often it's not a lack of ability, so much as a lack of confidence. And if you can help a woman believe in herself, she has great ability to shine, even though she may not have originally believed it. We women offer suffer from the classic "impostor syndrome" and so we need to remove that initial barrier in order to really get to the core of the skills. The initial appearance always gives men an advantage as they come across as more confident. So I try to give practical exercises, case studies to get them to work through and try to give them a "real life" scenario to work through, so that I can actually test their competency rather than their immediate responses which could more easily be rehearsed or theoretical. 

N: As a very successful founder, what would you advise other female founders to leverage early on? 

O: Your network. Everyone around you is super supportive and it creates a layer of trust where you can honestly discuss the problems you’re encountering and get help from those who have experienced similar problems. Don't be afraid to ask. It's amazing how much good will there is around, and my personal experience is that women founders are extra supportive of other women founders, as we all feel that by helping each other out, we can better succeed together and encourage more women to step up. 

N: Given how much support you've given me, I can see how this works in practice. Thank you, Liv!  Back to GrubClub, you’re pivoting at the moment. Tell me a bit more about that. 

O: After consistently delivering great dining experiences to the public as individuals we started being approached by corporates to host group dining experiences.  I’m sure all of us have experienced the problem of ‘there are 20 of us, where will we even begin to look for a venue to host us, and how far in advance are we going to need to book this?’. 

After a number of requests from companies like Nike, Deliveroo and Spotify we noticed that there is both increased demand for ‘cool’ and quality group dining, and that’s exactly that gap that we’re going to fill. Not only because we have the capabilities to fill it, but because we are perfectly placed in the market to do so because not only does it serve groups that are looking for venues to host them, but it serves our chefs who are looking to showcase their talent to the ‘corporate’ audience. 

N: Besides corporate exposure and an opportunity to ‘test’ the market on a pretty diverse range of consumers; how else are the chefs benefiting? 

O: Rather than being purely a promotional platform and marketplace, what we do is give the chefs the tools they would need to help them grow their own food businesses. We work very closely with them to help them promote themselves by giving them tips and start kits to launch their first event. We won’t promote anything of theirs until they’ve proven themselves in the market and run a couple events successfully. Once they’ve shown us their level of commitment, that they are able to attract a crowd and gather enough feedback from the crowd to judge the quality of the dining experience (through reviews and star ratings), then we are more than happy to promote them.

N: I can see how that worked for Pidgin! Tell me a bit more about how do you go about selecting/vetting the chefs? 

O: It's a thorough process whereby we ‘cherry-pick’ the best ones. We’ve been totally oversubscribed with both chefs that want to exhibit their talent, and venues that are looking to increase their footfall (not sure this is the right wording). The demand has really come through on this side, and although it's not necessarily ‘ideal’ to have an over-subscription, it allows us to pick only the best chefs (many of whom have worked in Michelin Star kitchens, been on Masterchef or have years of professional experience) and venues that will accompany a truly exceptional ‘shared’ dining experience.

N: What are your key tips for growing your business? 

O: My experience is that your business will go through two very key stages.  The first is starting your business, and the second is growing it; and the way you will go about these phases are totally different (if not the complete opposite). 

At first, everything is unsustainable, unstable and very detail-oriented. Everything is a priority and you are constantly learning how to do things you’ve never done before as the journey progresses. You will make loads of mistakes and it's important to embrace them, and move on quickly. Being super innovative is key when you first begin because you are still figuring things out and you can’t afford to spend money where you don’t understand the payoff. 

After a while, you start to learn what works and what doesn’t, and once you’ve figured out the basics they start to form the foundation and become habits; at which point you can start building and delivering on other processes and turning what you have learned up until this point into a structure (i.e. something that you just do everyday). 

Growing on the other hand requires a completely different mindset and attitude because as the CEO, there is no light-bulb moment.  There is no indicator that says, right, now we do things differently and turn the process on its head. It requires constant reflection and often trying to put yourself on the outside looking in. When this happened at GrubClub, I was admittedly overwhelmed with all I had to do. Some things worked, and some didn't. I just sort of realized that at this point in my business, everything needs to change. It's when I realized that the amount of detailed and manual work was unsustainable, that I was forced to take a step back, understand what's really core to our business, and - very importantly - what I had to say no to. And when you focus on what's core to your business, you zone in on that part and work to create processes that are efficient and scalable. The rest is low priority and you have to be strong about understanding what you are and what you are not. 

N: What kept you motivated? How did you surface from this and summon the energy to keep going when you are now looking at the business from what sounds like a totally fresh perspective? 

O: I think we are lucky to have found a product-market fit. The fact is that if no one wants your product, then you aren’t going to manage getting it out. Being able to flick that switch and decide when to put procedures into place and start to think in a very structured way, from what was an incredibly flexible and unstructured way of thinking in the ‘begin’ phase is key.  If you can’t manage to crack it, then you won’t be able to scale. There will be a point where you realise that you need people who are more specialized than yourself and that you cannot do everything. As a founder, you’ll tend to be a generalist doing everything in the early stage, and then in the growth phase it's crucial to find specialists that are better than yourself to do tasks that you were doing on your own previously. For instance, while you may have mocked up your MVP which was okay for the early stages, you may actually need a very skilled developer and someone (or a whole team) who can code really well to step in and take over to scale.  

N: What have you learned from this? 

O: Well, it's a constant learning journey, and it's important to remember that you don't usually get the feeling of "that's it, I get it". Don't worry about what you don't know: just be open to learning along the way. Learn fast and adapt quickly and move on to the next step. Most entrepreneurs will feel overwhelmed at many stages of the start-up journey, but it's exhilarating and something that is exciting and helps you grow and have a greater impact on society around us. 

N: Liv, you're incredible. I have no words! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. It was so useful to me and my business, and I can imagine that you'll inspire many women who are on a similar journey, and if they're not yet there, hey, at least we can all dine together and talk about how we can get there!  I wish you all the best with GrubClub's ongoing growth and success and cannot wait for our first SheCanCode Supper Club! 

You can follow Liv's journey on GrubClub's social channel below.