Fantech

Exclusive: Houston-based stadium ordering app closes near $1.3 million Seed round with plans to scale

Houston-based sEATz has closed a funding round and plans to reach more fans than ever this football season. Courtesy of sEATz

Fans across the country are headed to football stadiums this weekend to cheer on their teams, but only a few will have the luxury of ordering food, beer, and even merchandise from the comfort of their seats.

Houston-based sEATz has created a platform where fans can order just about anything their stadium has from an app. Much like any other ordering app, once the order is placed, a runner will pick up the food and deliver it to the customer for a small fee and a tip.

The startup is now preparing to scale up from seven venues to 10 before the year is over as well as launching a new version of the app thanks to an oversubscribed near $1.3 million Seed round led by Houston-based Valedor Partners. Houston-based Starboard Star Venture Capital also contributed to the round. SEATz has plans to launch its Series A round before the new year.

"We're building enterprise-level, scalable in-seat ordering, delivery, and pick-up software. We'll have all the data and validation we need this fall to really start to push that out," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

SEATz got its start when co-founder and COO Marshall Law missed a particularly amazing play by the Astros during a World Series gameduring a World Series game because he was waiting in line to get food for his family. In a world of Uber and Favor, it was time for stadiums to step up their convenience. Law and Knape had been friends for a while — they met through their wives — and they regularly bounced business ideas off each other.

"We would meet every couple weeks in the Heights for coffee and throw spaghetti at the wall. We knew we'd eventually find an idea together," Law says. "After I left that Astros game, I texted him from the parking lot and told him, 'I found it.'"

The duo teamed up with another friend, Craig Ceccanti —CEO and founder of Houston-based Pinot's Palette, which has locations across the United States — and created sEATz's parent company, Rivalry Technologies. The name's an homage to the fact that the men are from rivalry schools — Law went to the University of Texas, Knape went to Texas A&M University, and Ceccanti went to Louisiana State University.

Part of sEATz ability to grow so rapidly has been a series of key partnerships. A Rice University business master's grad, Knape got them a foot in the door at his alma mater, and sEATz's first game was at Rice last year. Then, the startup was connected to Jamey Rootes, president at the Houston Texans, at an event at The Cannon Houston. That partnership lead to an introduction with Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., a global food service and staffing company. SEATz is a member of Cannon Ventures, as well as being a member company of Capital Factory, which has its Houston outpost at The Cannon.

"At this point, we know that fans want food in their seats," Knape says. "That concerns the concessionaires because they don't want an app that just helps them sell food, because they already have long lines. What we have on the back end actually helps them divert that traffic and reduce those lines."

Aramark got sEATz into the University of Houston's basketball games, but the university then switched their food service company to Delaware North. However, sEATz had proven itself to the athletic department at UH, and wrote it in Delaware North's contract that they will work with sEATz.

At this point, the growing company has contracts in Houston with NRG Stadium, UH's TDECU Stadium and Fertitta Center, Rice Stadium, and Constellation Field. SEATz also worked 71 games of the Corpus Cristi Hooks and recently had its first out-of-state expansion to the University of Southern Mississippi. In its first game on campus, sEATz saw over 700 downloads for just the first game.

"Now that we're there, Mississippi State and Ole Miss want it too," Knape says. "Our expansion is really coming on."

The team has big ideas for sEATz and Rivalry Technologies. SEATz has applications in all types of venues — music or entertainment and even resorts.

sEATz Concession food to your seat? That's what sEATz makes possible. Courtesy of sEATz

Carolyn Rodz of Alice and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund discuss their advice for startups looking for federal grants. Courtesy photos

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.