DINNER WITH FOUNDER OF FOOD STARTUP, DINNDINN

Jeremy Markham is barely of legal drinking age, but he works in wealth management, takes four night classes at college (which he pays for), and runs a successful food-centric start-up called DinnDinn. Unlike other food apps that serve strictly functional purposes (e.g. recipe finders, restaurant reservations), DinnDinn is purely social. The app allows users to create a social food network by customizing their food preferences, connecting with others using a feature called TasteBuds, and posting pictures of food.

DinnDinn Branding

Markham and fellow co-founder Kyler Juckins were both set on becoming lifelong auto junkies when they first met in automotive class. Markham says,“[Kyler and I] were going to become mechanics. But one day, we were in Research and Design, and we were like ‘Let’s start a tech company.’ We tossed around some ideas at first, but they weren’t there. We contacted every capitalist venture firm in California. Then we found one investor in Aspen, CO who liked the idea of [DinnDinn]. A year after we met this guy, we worked with Clique Studios to develop the website and app, and we launched on August 28, 2012.”

At the time, both were only 18 and seniors in high school. Now, both hold full-time jobs (Markham in wealth management and Juckins at Chipotle) and attend North Central College in Naperville. At my behest, Markham and I meet up for dinner at Shabu House, a small Korean hot-pot restaurant in Niles. As I wait for Markham, I peruse through the menu and find myself growing increasingly apprehensive. Fuck, why did I think some young white guy from Suburbialand would like this ethnic joint? But when Jeremy finally arrives and boldly orders the beef shabu shabu set, my shoulders relax. “My go-to is Italian or American because honestly, that’s really all Naperville has to offer. I was very picky in my teens, but now I’m willing to try anything!” Markham tells me. As our broths heat up and I hungrily munch on pickled radishes, Markham tells me that although he was  born in Boston, his parents were born in Ireland and immigrated to America in the 80s. I excitedly comment on his actual Irish heritage, to which he replies, “Thank you! Americans—they all say they’re Irish. But we have the most boring food, about as exciting as it gets is this bacon that tastes like ham. But it’s really boring—really, really boring.”

DSC_0418

our shabu shabu sets

Like most entrepreneurs, Markham is a constant seeker of opportunity. Fueled by boredom and a general dislike of cubicle straitjackets, he’s held more than 15 jobs, including gigs at grocery stores, essay writer for online service, law offices, Mercedes Benz, Subway, Jiffy Lube, and Panera.

“You know how much bread and baked goods they throw out at [Panera]? They throw it out every day. The GM will fire you if you take any, even if it’s going in the garbage. It was ridiculous. Literally, we filled these 60 gallon trash bags—5-6 bags every night—and put them in the garbage,” Markham tells me.

Given his short career stints, I ask Jeremy if DinnDinn is just another notch on his business belt.  After all, in addition to DinnDinn, he’s currently working on a photosharing startup. “I’m not saying DinnDinn isn’t my dream business—I saw an opportunity, and I’m really invested and I see great potential. But it’s not one of those businesses where I put in 100 hours, cry, and shed tears over it,” he says, adding, “I love the brand we’ve created, but I don’t know what my dream dream business is.”

DSC_0412

Inside Shabu House

And rightfully so. I forget that Markham is 21, a college student, barely on the cusp on the adulthood. “I don’t think DinnDinn is going to be the next Twitter. I’d like to do some house-flipping, maybe some real estate. I’m someone who wants to start businesses. Part of the reason why I didn’t become a mechanic is because the money isn’t there,” he tells me. Speaking of capital, I ask Markham if DinnDinn is profitable. Markham replies that although they don’t make money right from off the app, the data generated can be packaged and sold to restaurants. Regardless of DinnDinn’s economic value, Jeremy’s happy that users actually enjoy the app, particularly the virtual tongue, which allows people to input in their taste and matches them up with other users on DinnDinn. Would I use DinnDinn to find friends, I ask. “If you’re a hardcore foodie, you very well might. If you’re feeling lonely on a Saturday night, maybe. But it doesn’t have that immediate relationship-building quality,” he replies.

tastebuds

And what about Foodspotting? Or Yelp? I probe further. Markham tells me that he doesn’t concentrate on competition, instead focusing on making his app the best it can be. He works hard, and he doesn’t like charity. “When we were looking for funding, I didn’t beg my dad for money. I wanted to find it on my own; I wanted to get it because I’ve impressed somebody and because they see potential in my product.” Part of this mentality stems from Markham’s family background. For more than four decades, his immigrant father worked his way up the chain at Molex, an electronic interconnector company. Not that Jeremy wants to follow a similar path:

“I don’t want to climb the corporate ladder. I want to build something huge, and not just to make money, but to affect other people in a good way. To have an impact, to reach people.

Despite wanting to sneer with contempt at his self-glamorizing remark, I refrain. Because as much of an asshole as Markham claims he is, I can sense he’s not lying.

Because Jeremy doesn’t actually remind me of those snobby entrepreneurs I’ve met at start-up conferences and think tanks. He exhibits that self-starter and tough-skin attitude, and yes, he sounds a bit arrogant at times, but Jeremy tells me that he’s actually remarkably shy. And even though money still tops his priority list, he’s learned to value entrepreneurship in another way.  “One learning experience I’ve had in the past two years which I really appreciate is that when we first started DinnDinn, we were looking for dollars signs. But then…I don’t know when it switched,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

We continue talking about our mutual love for volleyball, snobby suburban dwellers, pet peeves (“I like to walk fast, but people in Chicago slowly waddle.”), and his Colombian girlfriend. I ask Jeremy why he’s still taking night classes in Naperville. “I’m not the biggest fan of college, but in today’s society, you have to have a college degree to go anywhere,” he replies, adding:

“I founded a company and secured an investor even before I went to college. I haven’t used anything I learned in college to run a business, and I don’t see any practical reasons for it.”

Despite my best attempt to categorize Markham as a start-up douchebag, I can’t. He reminds me of CEO Jeremy Klein from TableSavvy—optimistic, defiant in the face of rejection, and most importantly—curious. I ask Markham whether he approves of Shabu House, or whether I should’ve stuck with Maggiano’s or P.F. Chang’s. Tilting his head back in laughter, he replies, “You know, I’m so fascinated by these smaller restaurants because it’s not just the food, it’s the people. What’s the chef’s background, what did he do? Owners and their stories—that’s what makes restaurants amazing.” Perfectly said.