Tock and the ORD Camp playbook

Yesterday, Squarespace acquired the restaurant services startup Tock for $400MM.

Tock is really interesting to me because it’s the first startup that I’ve felt go all the way from founding to exit. The CTO, Brian Fitzpatrick (“Fitz”), and the original director of engineering, Robin Anil, both worked at Google Chicago at the same time that I was there. Fitz was the site lead for a time and Robin was a staff software engineer on my ad forecasting team while I was more junior. I knew Robin a lot better than I knew Fitz, but I know both well enough to know that they were superstars: Robin was an amazing engineer, and Fitz was an amazing engineering manager and networker.

From my understanding, Tock was conceived as a parternship between Fitz and Nick Kokonas to polish and productionize the reservation system that Kokonas had built internally for his 3 Michelin star restaurant Alinea.

Tock’s core product insight was that restaurant reservations were broken. Reservations were free to make for potential visitors but carried a very real opportunity cost for restaurants, who might turn away walk-ins or real reservations in favor of an earlier-made reservation who never intended to show up.

Tock solved this problem by making diners prepay at least a portion of the bill up-front: the diners then had something to lose by not showing up, and the restaurants got paid regardless. In short, it aligned the interests of the restaurants and the diners and, in doing so, made the restaurant ecosystem healthier.

This company is a great example of a common startup playbook: you find someone thoughtful who has deep insight into a specific vertical (restaurants), give them superpowers through technology (by partnering with a former Google site lead), and see what happens.

There’s a saying that goes something like “Most innovation happens from mapping concepts from one domain onto another domain”, and I think that certainly applies to Tock.

How can we reproduce this kind of innovation?

The tricky thing about this form of innovation is that it doesn’t happen by default. Restauranteurs mostly associate with their employees and other restauranteurs. Engineers at Google mostly associate with other engineers from Google.

It seems like the ideal thing to do here is to take a whole bunch of really smart people doing interesting things in their respective fields, put them in a giant lottery ball tumbler, spin it around a few times and see what ideas and relationships pop out.

Interestingly, this is exactly what Fitz has been doing for years with ORD Camp.

I’ll cherry-pick the camp’s description from their website:

ORD Camp is a two day, invitation-only, gathering of – 350 hand picked attendees. It’s a time to collect together the best minds in the midwest and beyond, to spark new ideas and spread old ideas. People from many different fields, many different walks of life, get together and share, teach, and learn about uniquely interesting topics

Sound familiar?

Interestingly, the one problem with ORD Camp’s invite-only nature is that it doesn’t generate a heck of a lot of value for you unless you’re invited. However, by founding ORD Camp, Fitz basically made sure he was invited and was a central node in this network that would hopefully produce a lot of cross-pollination between fields. Pretty genius in my opinion.

Every year, ORD Camp would seek out volunteers from Google Chicago to help out with the conference. It’s a major regret of mine that I was too busy hitting the local bars on Friday night to take the time to volunteer and see how the camp worked up close: I heard amazing things about the conference from the people who did help out.

With that being said, I think Fitz’s ORD Camp playbook is a good one for anyone trying to innovate: become a central node in a network of people doing really interesting things by being the person that brings them together.

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