Sharing photos, charity involvement and foodie culture: the triumvirate that rules the lives of many millennials — at least in the popular imagination — has come together in the startup GiftAMeal, a company co-founded by Aidan Folbe ’19 that has expanded rapidly since its launch last October.
Folbe, GiftAMeal’s chief operating officer, first met the other co-founder Andrew Glantz at a venture capital event two years ago. The pair created the idea for GiftAMeal — initially called FoodShare — then and built it up over the intervening months before its launch.
“We’re a social marketing platform in restaurants, but in reality we’re an app that is trying to make an impact on the community while helping local businesses,” Folbe said.
The company’s business model is three-fold: users share photos of meals, which advertises restaurants. The restaurants partnered with GiftAMeal pay a monthly fee to the company. Each time a user posts a photo of a meal, the company donates a meal to a person in need through partnered food pantries and food shelves.
“Our users love that it’s something that lets them do good,” Folbe said. “The feeling you get when you donate a meal is an awesome feeling.”
Currently, the company operates in greater St. Louis — where Glantz is a student at Washington University in St. Louis — and in Chicago, where it has begun operations over the past months. Eventually, the company’s founders want to take their app nationwide.
Today, more than 115 restaurants are partnered with GiftAMeal, over 4,700 meals have been donated and user participation is quintuple what it was in January, Glantz said.
“We don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon,” Folbe said.
Applebee’s, a restaurant chain that has joined with GiftAMeal, makes up a large portion of the duo’s restaurant partners in greater St. Louis.
Jeff Crowe ’78, a venture capitalist who met Folbe while he was speaking at the Dartmouth Entrepreneurship Network in March, said the company benefits restaurants, social media users and the hungry all at the same time, which makes its model more effective.
“I think it also responds to a desire on the side of the restaurant which is how to use social media to promote themselves, but to do it in conjunction with consumers in a way that feels good to everybody,” he said.
The use of social media photos — a major trend amongst millennials that is especially popular on photo sharing apps like Instagram — also draws in a younger demographic, something that appeals to restaurants.
Doing “some kind of social good” is something that appeals to “millennial customers who obviously would like to share good food with their friends,” Crowe said.
GiftAMeal has benefited from a high degree of startup funding and awards since its founding. In addition to winning the Pitch competition at Dartmouth in February, co-hosted by DEN and the Dali Lab, the company received a boost from Capital Innovators, a major venture capital firm that has invested in GiftAMeal.
At South By Southwest, GiftAMeal was named one of the top three student-run startups in the country.
The company also aims to take advantage of an increased interest in social entrepreneurship. Companies that aim to turn a profit while doing social good are an increasingly important facet of the American business landscape and GiftAMeal falls squarely into that model of operation.
“On the investor side, social entrepreneurship is definitely on the rise,” Folbe said.
Dali Lab director and computer science professor Lorie Loeb said social good is a key component of what makes companies attractive for investment, especially for groups like the Dali Lab, which often mentors Dartmouth-based student companies.
“We always choose projects that are well-presented, have the potential for a big impact and have the right team in place,” she said.
GiftAMeal — then FoodShare — won the Pitch largely because of its ability to check all of the boxes the competition looked for, she said. At the event, 20 groups pitch their start-up ideas to a panel of six judges and an audience. Folbe’s group won $3,000 for their first-place finish.
“We’re interested in it being entrepreneurial and being a business success, but we’re also interested in it having a social impact,” Loeb said.
The originality of GiftAMeal’s concept was another thing that caught Loeb’s eye.
By capitalizing on the trend of sharing photos of food while also engaging consumers in a social cause that also puts money into the pockets of restaurants — many of which are locally owned — the company has hit upon a major crossroads that makes it not just an app but a potentially effective business in the long term.
While Folbe and Glantz are aiming to continue expansion and grow their business, Loeb said that many student-run startups can be considered successful even if they eventually fail or are abandoned as students go on to other pursuits. The experience of pitching, running and organizing a company is invaluable, she said.
Crowe acknowledged that the odds for success for any startup are not high, but said student-run startups are just as likely as others to succeed.
“Only a few startups end up succeeding,” he said. “The odds for any startup can be long, but student-founded startups have as good odds as anybody.”
Crowe said he seeks to fund Dartmouth-run startups because he himself got his start through funding by a Dartmouth alumnus, but also because his job as a venture capitalist requires that he constantly search for the next big thing in business and technology.
“I’m always looking for the next hot startup and I would love for the next hot startup to come out of Dartmouth College,” he said.
Even though GiftAMeal is a for-profit company, its ability to contribute to those in need is one of the key drivers for its founders. Glantz said he gained motivation from the 491,000 people who are food insecure in St. Louis.
Food insecurity — meaning the lack of reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food — is a major problem throughout the United States. In 2014, almost 50 million Americans, about 14 percent of all American households, were food insecure, according to statics from the charity Feeding America.
Folbe hopes to bring GiftAMeal to Hanover and the Upper Valley in the near future as part of the company’s continued expansion.
Today, the company has many active users and targets new restaurant partners through three key statistics: 60 percent of its user base are millennials, its regular users are 60 percent more likely to choose a GiftAMeal restaurant and they are 71 percent more likely to return to one, according to Glantz.
The prospect of increased social media presence, increased food traffic and a more loyal customer base appeals to many restaurants, Folbe said.