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Berlin has grown dramatically as a tech hub in the past decade and Doreen Huber, founder and CEO of business catering startup Lemoncat, has an explanation for this: the affordable cost of living for potential employees.
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People do not have to be rich to live in the city centre, she said. “What I like about Berlin is that it is one of the most comfortable European capitals for people in the tech industry to live in. Compared to Paris and London, people can still live in the city centre. There are big universities, thousands of students in the city, many international people.
“It is very attractive for startups because they can find affordable people that speak many different languages. This means they can go international easily.”
Huber’s previous role was at Delivery Hero, which had staff fluent in 40 languages and so could run all its international operations from Berlin. “This would cost three times or maybe five times as much in Paris or London,” she said.
Lemoncat’s disruptive goal is to own the business catering space. Just as companies such as Deliveroo, Delivery Hero and Just Eat have become go-to aggregation portals for consumer catering in Europe, so Lemoncat aims to be the primary portal for business catering services, which might be anything from seminar lunches to full-on entertainment events.
This is a challenging ambition. “B2B is more complicated [than B2C] because you have to make sure your processes are applicable to corporate clients,” said Huber. “It’s more complex than selling pizza to consumers.”
Lemoncat’s operation is run out of a fourth-floor office near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. There is no server room, no cables running everywhere, no racks of computers with LEDs flashing furiously. It’s just a calm office space with a surprisingly small number of people working at desktops and laptops. Yet the company is driven by technology.
“We keep saying we are a technology company, not an events company,” said Huber. “We do have some offline event managers, but we try to transform this thinking, this process, into the technology.”
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Huber has a history of transforming offline businesses into the online world. She was CSO at Ekomi and then COO at Delivery Hero, providing an app and online payment that allowed consumers to order food from resolutely offline restaurants. That business went to an IPO (initial public offering) in mid-2017 for more than €4bn.
“At the beginning of 2016, when my daughter turned one, she was old enough for me to get started [with Lemoncat] – I couldn’t have done it before,” said Huber. “In September 2016, we went live. Now in Germany we have more than 500 catering partners in 280 cities – full German coverage. We are the only platform 100% focused on business customers. We don’t do weddings, birthdays or anything like that.”
Huber wants to build a company that empowers users to compare all business catering options and make an educated choice. She compares it with a travel agency: “We used to have travel brochures, but now have services like booking.com where everything is digitised, it’s easy to book, there are lots of photos, customer feedback and so on. You can compare, and that’s what we need for the business catering industry too.”
This requires a full end-to-end platform with ratings, rankings, feedback, photos and videos – everything required to help customers make the right decision, she said. “If you’re throwing a good event, you need good catering.”
But it has not been easy to disrupt such a firmly offline market. It was a similar case with Delivery Hero in the consumer arena – typified by local pizza firms stuffing menus through letterboxes – and Lemoncat has had to work with people for whom technology is a foreign language. “The most that these caterers had was a website, really just an online business card,” said Huber. “There were no tech options for their customers.”
Lemoncat’s aim is to drag this industry into the 21st century, and make it more accountable in the process. “There was no oversight, no feedback, no ratings for caterers, good or bad,” said Huber. “On the bad side, if caterers delivered poor-quality food or didn’t show up, it didn’t really affect their business.”
But there is a positive aspect too, she said. “I know a woman from Israel who makes delicious cakes and gets wonderful feedback now, and a guy from Argentina who makes great empanadas. This is amazing catering, not soggy open sandwiches with cheese.
“It’s about discovering these people and giving them the opportunity to be seen, as they don’t have restaurants, no walk-in space. It’s hard for them to acquire new business and our platform is giving them that, so it’s a great benefit for both sides.”
Lemoncat depends on cloud services for nearly all its tech operations. “We are fully in the cloud,” said Huber. “We work a lot with AWS [Amazon Web Services] because it’s great for startups like us. When you are small, it’s affordable but it grows quickly with you and you don’t need anything in-house.
“The cloud is something I like more and more because my laptop was stolen recently, and I was back up and working again within 30 minutes. The cloud is good for our business as a whole. We have no servers, no huge electricity bills. We haven’t been down for a single day so far.”
Lemoncat also works a lot with Salesforce.com, not just for customer relationship management (CRM) but as a core database. Automated processes are triggered from Salesforce. “We use it to the max,” said Huber.
As with many other tech startups, a conspicuous factor with Lemoncat is the separation of growth from payroll. “We don’t want to grow with headcount,” said Huber. “That’s not a KPI [key performance indicator]. The fewer people we have in order to achieve our mission, the better.
“The technology must work for us. Any repetitive task can be automated and replicated. Even the portal for the caterers’ side is self-service, so we don’t even need people doing menu upload.”
No mobile apps
The interface is web-based and there are no mobile apps for Lemoncat, said Huber. “Our target group is mainly office managers and assistants, and they order business catering using their main work tool – the desktop. Google analytics confirms this.”
But presentation and user experience are vital, she added. “The interface, the user experience, is key for us. It’s not just the core tech in terms of the service, but also the whole design part, how we can make the most of the user experience.”
Despite the benefits for tech companies in Berlin, Huber criticised the city’s IT infrastructure. “In Germany, the internet service could be better,” she said. “A business colleague visiting from Tel Aviv was complaining recently about the lack of free Wi-Fi here. Tel Aviv is also a tech hub, but it’s better connected.”
Free city-wide Wi-Fi might seem like a luxury, but Berlin has more fundamental connectivity issues, said Huber. “This is an office building, but getting a good connection from Deutsche Telekom can take a long time,” she said. “In my previous business, the mobile phones often didn’t work, as there was no reception. So if Germany wants to play a bigger role [in tech], the government really needs to invest more in infrastructure – everywhere.”
Driven by scalable tech, Huber’s ultimate goal with Lemoncat is to repeat her Delivery Hero success story. “We have similar investors on board, we see that there is a huge market and we would really like to become the biggest player in Europe and worldwide,” she said. “It’s still a long journey, but that is the plan.”