Chris Meaux speaks much more confidently about his techie restaurant delivery company these days than he did four years ago when announcing Waitr's launch in Acadiana.
There's a good reason for that. Meaux only had success in a single market, Lake Charles, before launching Waitr in Lafayette. He had no way of knowing that hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment early on would one day be worth billions when the company went public on Nov. 16, 2018.
"That was the day I could stand in front of a group and say, 'OK, I'm no longer a failed entrepreneur,'" Meaux told a crowd Thursday morning during the Broussard Chamber of Commerce's Business Over Breakfast. "Investors who invested in Waitr have made money."
How much money?
Some of Waitr's first investors — all from Louisiana because venture capitalists in Boston, Austin and Silicon Valley refused to back Waitr if Meaux launched in Lake Charles — turned a $10,000 investment into $1.6 million when Waitr was listed on the Nasdaq.
"It was a win for me and for my family personally and a win for the company," Meaux said. "But most importantly, it was a win for our home."
Meaux, a native of Estherwood in Acadia Parish, stressed the importance of making his tech start-up work in south Louisiana during his inspirational presentation at Fezzo's Broussard location.
He'd spent 20 years after college moving from Dallas to Silicon Valley to Europe to work in the technology industry. In the middle of it all, he'd lost his entrepreneurial spirit after investing "almost every penny" into a cloud computing start-up.
"When the internet bubble burst, it crashed miserably," Meaux said. "And when it crashed, I crashed with it."
After recovering from the loss and learning he couldn't stand working for corporate America, Meaux rebounded with restaurant ventures in Texas. He eventually moved with his family to Lake Charles to run the Louisiana Swashbucklers professional indoor football team until it ceased operations in 2013.
Meaux was ready to move back to Dallas, but his family didn't want to move away from south Louisiana. Instead, Meaux focused on bringing an event called Startup Weekend to Lake Charles, but he was told he would need to participate in one before he could host one.
It was at a Startup Weekend event in Gainesville, Florida — where Meaux borrowed his father's RV to sleep in since money was too tight for a hotel room — that Waitr was born. He planned to pitch Foogle — "Google for food; this is no joke" — to try to answer the question he and his wife had every evening after a long day: What's for dinner?
Instead of pitching Foogle, however, Meaux teamed up with a 20-year-old pitching Waitr, a concept that would allow a user to order and pay for food and drinks at a restaurant without speaking to a waiter.
"So now you know how we got our name," Meaux said.
His team won the October 2013 competition, and instead of focusing on bringing Startup Weekend to Lake Charles, Meaux focused on bringing the idea to life.
With the help of local investors and recent college graduates, Waitr launched in Lake Charles at the end of 2014. The app made a debut in Lafayette in mid-2015.
In 2016, the company averaged 1,000 orders per day in 11 cities in Louisiana, Texas and California. By 2017, Waitr averaged 5,000 orders a day and Saints Quarterback Drew Brees invested $10 million in the company.
Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets and Landry's, purchased Waitr for $308 million a year ago with the intention of making the company public.
"That boy from Estherwood, Louisiana, that builds this startup without Silicon Valley venture capital help, gets Drew Brees to invest in the company and sells the company to Tilman Fertitta, you just can't write this stuff," Meaux said. "Even still today talking about it, it kind of amazes me that this was my life — that this is my life."
Today, Waitr provides delivery service from more than 25,000 restaurants in 750 cities across the country. The company employs more than 18,000 people, including drivers. About 6,000 of those are based in Louisiana, and 1,300 of them are corporate employees.
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