Squadle Gives Big Chains a Path to Automation
Sometimes, an early startup’s solution appears so beneficial that it attracts the biggest players in an industry. That's exactly what's happening with Squadle, a startup with only a handful of employees that has already attracted the likes of Chick-Fil-A, Hyatt and Sonic.
Founded in 2013, Squadle aims to make the back-of-house operations in restaurant, retail and hotel chains more efficient.
“We’re trying to make businesses work more consistently, because keeping the operations of these stores consistent requires a ton of money,” Squadle co-founder Le Zhang says. “When your stores are more consistent, you have more customers coming back and you’re wasting less time.”
If you’re thinking, ‘Those big chains are the most efficiently run businesses on the planet,’ you’re mostly right. Although, there is one major exception.
The most glaring inefficiency is the manager’s log book, which is also referred to as “the Red Book.” A number of obscenities may follow, depending on how creatively profane the person using it is feeling.
“The Red Book” is the bane of many supervisors’ existence. It’s typically a bulking, worn out notebook. It’s the first thing they pick up in the morning and must be referred to for dozens of tasks every day.
In an effort to unshackle workers from “the Red Book,” Zhang’s company created Squadle Checklists. Checklists is an app Squadle installs on a customized tablet fitted with a third party wireless charging case and a ruggedized dock.
When a franchisee decides to partner with Squadle, the tablet is drop-shipped to the store location and supervisors are liberated from “the Red Book” forever.
According to the company’s recent case studies, Squadle Checklists can save a store approximately $1,000 a month. Zhang estimates it can save workers an average of two hours a day.
“The sell is pretty easy because everyone hates picking up the paper books every few minutes but there’s never really been an alternative,” Zhang says. “It also doesn’t usually require any training because most of our customers’ employees are millennials, so they’re used to mobile devices and touch screens.”
The super-tablet is just one of several solutions Zhang and co-founder Brendan Bencharit have developed at Squadle.
The two men first met when Bencharit hired Zhang as a consultant to help automate operations at his hookah lounge in Allston. When they decided to become partners, the pair took a similar approach to optimizing multi-location operations.
Before they could effectively erase inefficiencies, however, Zhang and Bencharit had to find them. That meant engaging in some of the most unglamorous market analysis imaginable.
For a little over a month in 2013, the founders would drive to their first client’s store, a Sonic Drive-In in Los Angeles. Zhang and Bencharit would typically arrive at the store around 6 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. The two developers would take notes on the day-to-day operations.
Factoring in L.A. traffic, which Zhang assures me is insufferable even at those hours, the pair spent near-endless hours studying the behind-the-scenes workings of chains. “We essentially lived in our first store,” Zhang remembers. “We wanted to get to know how everything works and how people think.”
Zhang comments on his and Bencharit’s appearances in the store, “I’m pretty sure the Sonic employees thought we were spying on them for corporate so store productivity probably went up just because we were there.”
As brutal of a stretch as it was, the founders gained valuable insights that they’ve used ever since to create innovative solutions for multi-store locations.
Squadle is entering its fourth year of existence, and the company already has filed two patents. The first was for a passive sensor that measures the temperature of equipment and surfaces within a store.
Last month, a second patent was announced for a handheld sensor that automatically measures internal temperatures to speed up processes like food safety checks. Zhang, a computer science buff who predictably compares the device to the tricorder from Star Trek, says it allows employees to take food and equipment temperatures 83 percent faster than they could using manual thermometers.
The data collected from the sensors goes into a dashboard that store owners can access remotely.
“Our analytics solution provides a lot of real time alerts and actionable insights,” Zhang says. “We can tell when things are starting to drift late or early, and our customers can use that data to realize when a location is being overwhelmed by traffic or something else is happening.”
Zhang and Bencharit have more plans for Squadle’s analytics, although Zhang is staying tight-lipped for now. One thing the team won’t do is thoughtlessly add features to the dashboard, a mistake Zhang says he saw often during his days of consulting.
“We dealt a lot with feature creep, because a lot of people want to add features but then they lose out because they’re not focusing,” Zhang says. “For now we really want to do one thing great, solve a problem completely, and then we’ll move on to the next thing.”
Squadle has already raised two seed rounds totaling roughly $1 million and recently entered talks with an international telecommunications company to support their products around the globe.
After recently securing their first Canadian client, the founder’s goal of world domination is already beginning to be realized.
“We want to be the data platform for all back-of-house operational data,” Zhang says. “We’re partnering with more and more equipment companies so we can track literally everything that happens in a store. If it’s back-of-house, we want to measure it and optimize it.”