Wining & Dining
First Person with Chris Meaux
1/31/2018 10:35:00 PM
First Person

Chris Meaux incorporated the immensely popular Waitr app along with four ambitious college students in December 2013. Waitr, if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know, is an on-demand restaurant delivery order application. After a year of development, Waitr was on the App Store. That first year, they processed 57,000 orders. Today, they manage 57,000 orders in two days. In four short years, the company soared from concept to a multimillion-dollar company that employs over 3,000 people in six states, 150 cities, 3,600 restaurants, and three million app users. How does this happen?

Meaux’s story is one of perseverance, vision, innate optimism, and unrelenting determination. Entering the budding world of technology as a computer salesman in college, he has worked for various companies in Dallas, Silicon Valley, and Europe, and has initiated a handful of his own start-ups. He was a finalist for the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Gulf Coast area. And yet, he’ll tell you (and his employees) "we’re not successful yet.”

Thrive recently sat down with Meaux in his brand new super-cool Lake Charles office in the Historic Calcasieu Marine Bank Building, where he talked about his early job experiences, the importance of listening, and the significance of starting a tech firm in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Tell me about your childhood. 
I grew up Estherwood, Louisiana. My dad was in the banking business. We lived out in the country, and I raised and showed livestock, did some rodeo. I had planned to go to school to become a veterinarian. But when I got to LSU in 1986, all that changed. I was around a lot more city folks, I joined a fraternity, and I decided business was what I wanted to pursue. 

What were some of your earliest jobs, and how did they prepare you for where you are today? 
Other than selling lemonade, which probably every kid does, the first time I had an inkling that I liked business was when my sister and I sold Christmas cards and gift wrap door-to-door to earn prizes. I held several jobs throughout high school, but what I loved most was the selling part. One of my first jobs was as a car salesman. 

What led you to the technology sector? 
In 1987, I met Michael Dell, who had started Dell Computer from his dorm room. He had just opened an office and was on his way to becoming a big company. I saw what he had done and I thought, I can do that, too. So I started building computers while at LSU and selling them to small businesses. My company was called CM Computer. While still in school, I started working at Computerland in Baton Rouge, where I sold Apple, IBM, and Compac. Computerland brought on a new lower-end home computer by Hyundai and I began selling those. Hyundai recruited me right out of college to work for them in Dallas. 

What ultimately led you to establish Waitr App? 
A friend of mine had bought the Swashbuckler’s indoor football team. He wanted me to run the operations of the team. That’s what brought me to Lake Charles. I did that for three seasons, but ultimately, it didn’t work out. So I was trying to figure out what to do next. I briefly tested a concept called Meauxs2Geaux. I never rolled it out, but I had the plan, and that was the basis for what is now Waitr. There’s an event called Start-Up Weekend. They’re held all over the world, and at that time (2013) the next available event was in Gainesville, Florida. I went to pitch my idea, which I initially called Foogle (Food + Google.) Before I got my turn to pitch, another guy pitched a similar idea. He called it Waitr. Rather than pitch my idea, I joined his team; me and four other guys. Out of 20 presenters, we won the competition. Two of the five on the team weren’t interested in pursuing the idea, but I knew I was going back to Lake Charles to make Waitr a reality. The other two guys, Addison Killebrew and Evan Diaz De Arce, who were students at the University of Florida at the time, agreed to join me and are two of Waitr’s co-founders. Once back in Lake Charles, I contacted McNeese professors and asked them if they could recommend any computer programmers. This is how I found Adam Murnane and Manuel Rivero, the fourth and fifth co-founders. I incorporated the company on Dec. 5, 2013. We set up in the SEED Center and immediately started working on the software for Waitr. The following April, we won the McNeese Business Pitch Competition, which gave us six months free rent in the SEED Center. In January 2015, we put Waitr on the App Store.

Were there kinks and hurdles to overcome initially and how did you manage that? 
There were big ones. Our first challenge was getting restaurants in Lake Charles to sign on. We had to convince them. Getting the first five restaurants to sign on, so users would have choices, almost never happened. But we didn’t give up. Once we had several restaurants on board, the second challenge was getting them customers. We went door-to-door, handed out flyers at events, convinced the restaurants to put flyers in to-go orders. We did a television commercial on KPLC. Slowly, people started to use it. But for a while, we thought it was going to fail.

You started Waitr in the SEED Center. How did this business incubator contribute to the success of Waitr?
Prior to the Florida competition, someone had invited me to tour the SEED Center soon after it opened. When I walked into the building, my first thought was, Wow, this is a great place to do a technology start-up. We had access to office equipment and resources. It gave us a meeting space to bring clients. It gave us credibility.

What has surprised you the most throughout the evolution of Waitr? 
The biggest surprise to me was that Waitr took off as quickly as it did in Lake Charles. We said, if we can make Waitr work in Lake Charles, we can make it work anywhere. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to create a technology company. You can do it Lake Charles, Louisiana. We did it.

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned over the years? 
There have been many, but I’ll tell you about two. Someone recently told me that I’m a "humble founder,” meaning I was willing to listen. That’s a new phenomenon for me since starting Waitr. I used to think I knew everything. And I’d never listen. But if you listen to people, especially those older and wiser, you’ll get valuable information that can help you avoid mistakes. The second important lesson is this: If you’re going to start a technical company, you need technical co-founders – people who have a vested interest in the success of the business. One of my strengths is my ability to recognize an idea that has merit and find the right people who can help me carry it out and make it a reality.

What other advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs? 
Find a mentor and be willing to listen to them.

Did you have a career mentor? 
I never knew how to go about finding a mentor, but I did have my father. I watched him go through struggles, but he always kept a positive attitude about what was next. He taught me to set goals, achieve them, and set new goals. He works for us now.

How do you spend your free time? 
I used to love to play golf, but I don’t play it much anymore. I try to spend my free time with family. My wife and I are empty-nesters and we’ll become grandparents in June. But otherwise, I don’t spend my free time doing anything exciting. I probably spend most of my free time thinking about the future of Waitr. 

What’s on your bucket list? 
Honestly, I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve traveled a lot of places. So my bucket list is simply to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up and do whatever they want to do.

What’s next for Chris Meaux? 
Professionally, I want to expand Waitr by 150 cities this year. I want Waitr to do well for its investors, its employees, for my family, and for Louisiana and its communities. And I want to help other companies do what we’ve done and be successful.
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