then and now

Houston e-commerce innovators analyze the city's tech and innovation evolution

Jay Steinfeld (left) looks back at his successful Blinds.com exit, and Omair Tariq shares how Cart.com is growing. Photos courtesy

When Blinds.com was acquired by Home Depot in 2014, it was a big moment for Houston's nascent tech and innovation ecosystem. However, Jay Steinfeld will be the first to tell you he did not expect to go through a major exit when he founded what he describes as a marketing experiment for his interior design store.

"I heard about something called 'the World Wide Web,' and I thought for $1,500, I'll create a website," Steinfeld says. "I wanted to see what it was and if I could attract people to my store. Next year, Amazon started selling books, and in 1996, I thought I'd see if I could sell this stuff."

However initially unintentional, Steinfeld created a profitable business and very intentionally grew his team with the addition of entrepreneurial-minded individuals, which included Omair Tariq. Tariq is now the founder and CEO, Cart.com, an ecommerce company that's raised $380 million in funding and is providing a suite of software services for merchants. The two sat down to discuss their entrepreneurial journeys with Scott Gale of Halliburton Labs at a Houston Tech Rodeo fireside chat.

Both entrepreneurs credit business success on creating an unparalleled employee culture that fostered a positive workplace environment that reduces turnover.

"We were very deliberate at making people knew that they were important and consequential," says Steinfeld, who recently wrote a book about creating a core culture. "We were doing consequential things by helping people become consequential. ... It really comes down to being respectful to people."

Tariq says setting up Cart.com's culture was a task he dedicated a significant amount of time to. Cart.com grew from 0 to 1,000 employees in just 14 months, so maintaining that culture at that rate of scaling was going to be difficult without the right structure in place. Tariq and his team created six core values, and decisions get put through the lens of these values.

"Building a culture — while you have to be intentional and deliberate about it — the reality is it just happens, if you get the framework right," Tariq says.

And it's not just about putting your core values in the employee handbook or on a wall in the office, but actually celebrating employees who are excelling at the execution of the values. Tariq gives the example of Cart.com's slack channel dedicated to this type of shoutouts.

In terms of hiring at such a quick pace, Tariq explains his mentality when it comes to making sure employees are a fit for the company.

"You've got to be coherent in the way you execute," Tariq says, adding that a lack of coherency leads to major mistakes in a nearly $400 million-backed tech company. "We have a very intentional policy — hire fast, fire faster, promote fastest."

Another ingredient in a successful business is developing a brand. Tariq says this is something that's more crucial than ever — especially for Cart.com, which is competing with the likes of Amazon.

"In today's world, the importance of brand is exponentially more than it was in the pre-Amazon world," Tariq says, explaining that a brand can include exceptional customer service or a best-in-class product.

Cart.com's brand and culture were intentional from inception, but the actual business plan pivoted, Tariq shares with the audience. Originally envisioned as a marketplace, Cart.com's first acquisition was a cardboard box company, which in retrospect Tariq says wasn't the best move. But, the business accounted for the majority of Cart.com's revenue, which showed promise to potential investors, he says. The business did evolve to what it is now — merchant enablement technology — but that didn't happen overnight and came with time.

"You rarely know how to get to C, until you get to B," Tariq says. "If you spend all your energy trying to figure out how to get to C, you're never going to get to B. Sometimes you have to make really dumb moves or mistakes and just pivot and iterate and improve."

The latter half of the discussion included a question from Gale about the role the city of Houston played on business success. For Steinfeld, he says the lack of competition allowed him to attract the best team members.

"While all the investors outside of Houston said, 'you can't run a tech company out of Houston — there's no talent,'" Steinfeld says. "Any talent there was came to us. We weren't competing with Facebook or any other companies."

He continues saying he wishes there were more venture funding and activity coming into Houston, but the people in town are so entrepreneurial, that he says it's confusing how the city's innovation ecosystem hasn't taken off more than it already has.

Tariq has a different perspective of hiring out of Houston. While he says he loves Houston and has no plans to relocate himself or his family, being headquartered in Houston was difficult and the city's lack of appeal in terms of recruiting is what led to him moving his HQ to Austin.

"It's an amazing city with the most amount of diversity I've seen than anywhere in the country. Every third person is a minority or an immigrant, and that is valuable. It brings different perspectives and allows you to get people with different ideas to contribute," Tariq says, adding that the cost of living, tax incentives, academic institutions, capital, are all huge appeals.

"Why is there not more innovation happening here?" Tariq asks. "The things we struggled with at Cart.com is people didn't have the right perception of Houston. What I mean that is people never think of Houston (as a really cool place to move to). It sounds really shallow, but there are little things that I think other cities do better than us that create a good perception of a city is what we need."

Regardless of HQ location, Tariq says Cart.com is a remote-first business and is continuing to grow its team with plans to IPO within the next year.

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Building Houston

 
 

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. Courtesy of BioBQ

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

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