Aaron KnapeCo-founder and CEO, sEATz
After one year in operation, Aaron Knape [MBA, ’08], CEO of Houston-based Seatz, expects employment to increase by approximately 1,100 percent in the [fall of 2019] — from 10 people to around 120.
The reason, he said, is because there is a high demand for Seatz, a smartphone application that provides in-seat service at stadiums and concert halls. The company first kicked off during Rice University’s football season in fall 2018.
Knape met with the Houston Business Journal to talk about how his platform has grown within a year, next steps and the challenges he and his partners faced.
How did you get sEATz started?
We started out as an in-seat ordering delivery platform for stadiums. The idea came when my partner was at game 3 of the World Series back in 2017. He and his family waited for the Dodgers to bat through, and then they ran up top to grab food because the kids were hungry. They waited for 45 minutes. In that time, the Astros came back up to bat and Yuli Gurriel hit a home run. The ball went so close to where they would have been sitting that if you watch the highlights, you can actually see their empty seats.
He texted me from the stadium that night and said, “We have to fix this. Why does in-seat ordering and delivery not exist?” I told him that idea has to exist, because it’s too obvious. He convinced me the next morning that there was a need and Seatz was born.
How does sEATz work?
On the back end, we have a few ways. The primary way is that we have our runners and a micro kitchen. Fans can’t walk up and get food from it because it’s an express lane for the runners. The concessionaires will stock up our micro kitchen, and we’ll run it to the attendees.
We’ve got a logistical model that goes along with the software. A lot of people have software, but nobody is marrying that software to the execution. They’re not helping concessionaires integrate the software with their staffing or anything. We put a tremendous amount of emphasis on that.
Are runners part of your team?
Right now, yes. We’ve gone from 10 people on our team from that first Rice football game to around 120 employees this fall. We’re hiring development staff and runners. We’re in the middle of a pretty extensive software rebuild to smooth out the application. It’s going to be an entirely new platform in the fall.
Where are you guys now?
By August 2018, I started visiting with Rice University’s athletic department and told them we wanted to do this. They were amazing and gave us a chance. I give so much credit to Rice and the athletic department. We started working games there and the platform did really well. From there, we landed Sugar Land’s minor league team, the Skeeters.
We then had an opportunity to get in front of the Texans through The Cannon. We were one of the lead presentations for a sports technology event The Cannon hosted and Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, happened to be there. My partner’s wife introduced me to him, so I gave him a little pitch. He asked me to meet with him the following week and Seatz got to implement the platform for the last four games of their season. By the end of it, we got a lot of really great validation and data, along with a relationship with Aramark.
Now we’ve worked the CONCACAF soccer game, we’re going to do the Rolling Stones concert this month and now we’re at the Corpus Christi Hooks.
Do you have other contracts in the works?
We’re working on getting a contract with the Round Rock Express. We’re expanding to a few entertainment venues down in Corpus, which have concerts, hockey and all kinds of other things. We’ve also got the University of Houston’s football games now. We’re doing all of the college football games at NRG Stadium and all of the college bowl games there, too. We’re trying to add the University of Mississippi.
Our goal is to keep chipping away and expanding to prove our model, which is to show that we can execute at any venue.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
At the beginning, when we were pitching the idea, a lot of people would say it’s a really good idea, but thought there were way too many people doing it. We found people were excited, but not many who were engaged. That impacted us on the fundraising side. It was tough to get the initial capital to build this thing. It was hard to find the first investment dollars.
The biggest challenge was that everyone was waiting for someone else to invest. No one wanted to take that first step. But, once we raised our first quarter-million dollars, the fundraising got really easy. Now we’re planning to have more money than we expected by the end of July. We’re trying to match that to our growth.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur?
Don’t give up because someone tells you it’s not a good idea, and find people who can help you build your dream. An example of that is Craig Ceccanti, who helped us develop the software for Seatz. We were living together in the Heights and he told me his idea to build a paint and sip studio. I told him it was a bad idea, but he went off and built Pinot’s Palette. Now he’s doing tremendously well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article was originally written by Jonathan Adams in the Houston Business Journal.