What started three years ago as a plan to help guests mix and mingle at weddings has germinated into a fast-growing technology company that is shaking up the hospitality industry. Social Tables makes planning events, conferences and meetings easier by enabling planners and their clients to design, organize and collaborate in real-time online.
The seed for Social Tables was planted when the company’s Chairman and CEO Dan Berger was invited to a destination wedding where he didn’t know anyone but the bride and groom. Berger says he wished there were a way to leverage technology and social media to help him connect with like-minded guests at the wedding—and that sparked his interest in developing a product to deliver just that.
Berger started the company with this goal in mind, but he found that clients were most interested in the operational side of the business—the actual designing, planning and executing of events. Deciding to put the client’s needs first, the operational side is what Social Tables now focuses on. But the company’s mission—using technology to inspire face-to-face experiences—still resonates with Berger’s original idea.
From the start, Berger used a disciplined and persistent approach to determine the right business model for his company and how to make it scalable. Berger, now 32, is a “tremendous example for young entrepreneurs,” says 1776 cofounder Evan Burfield. Burfield noted that once Berger jumped those hurdles, he also figured out “how to put the pedal to the metal and start to drive growth.”
In 2013, 1776 provided Social Tables the home it needed to be able to grow—and grow it has. According to Berger, Social Tables gained 1,200 clients in the past 14 months, including big names such as Hyatt Hotels and House of Blues, and increased its staff from seven to 25 in the last year. There are plans to hire 11 more people in the first quarter of 2014.
Berger says he believes startup incubators can be crucial for helping new companies get off the ground. “There is a tremendous real estate need for growing companies. The problem is that growing companies don’t have the money and don’t have the models to predict where they are going to be [once they grow],” he said. Incubators like 1776 can meet this need, in addition to providing access to mentorship and leaders in the field.
Working alongside other new companies also has its advantages. “When you have an ecosystem with so many startups […] you essentially have customers in your class,” Berger said. “You can find customers, you can find early adopters, you can find paying users by just literally swiveling your chair around. So you can essentially run your business from products that are around you.”
Yet, Berger advises other startups to be aware of the risks of working alongside other companies. Establishing your company’s identity in a space occupied by other startups can be challenging.
But overcoming that obstacle is critical to success, he says.
“Really going through an exercise of understanding your values—which can change as you grow—and understanding your teammates and defining your culture is even more critical when you don’t have physical artifacts [that come with having your own office environment] to push that,” he said.
To define the company’s values, staff members at Social Tables brainstormed words and phrases on sticky notes and then narrowed everyone’s ideas down to the company’s current nine core values, the most important of which is customer service. The team has also come up with slogans to represent the company’s culture, including, “No because… Yes, if” and “Fail fast and often.”
In Berger’s opinion, “Culture is the predecessor to attracting great talent and attracting great talent is the ingredient for building a great company.”
Berger believes that finding skilled and committed employees has been made easier by being located in Washington, D.C., a city that attracts many highly educated and motivated young people. That the city is also headquarters for the hospitality industry and is quickly becoming a hub for technology startups doesn’t hurt either.
“For all of these reasons, D.C. is an amazing place to start a company and grow,” said Berger.
But if growing a great company is largely dependent on great talent, Social Tables can attribute much of its success to Berger. Fortify Ventures, an early stage technology investment fund, is Social Tables’ first and largest investor outside of Berger. Managing Director Jonathon Perrelli initially encouraged Berger to pitch to Fortify because he saw potential not only in the company’s mission, but also in Berger’s ability to execute his plan.
“The guy is one of those unique founders that’s [a] visionary, manager and leader,” Perrelli said. “Just to have ‘manager’ is great. Just to have ‘leader’ is great. But to have those plus vision is an incredible mix.”
And about the company? “The key word there is disruption,” Perrelli said. “What Dan has done is genius, because he broke into an industry that was kind of stagnant with technology and has now created a brand that is award-winning within that industry.”
Berger is excited about what is coming next for his company: He and his team are looking forward to having their own space in Chinatown and expanding the services and products that Social Tables offers. Yet he remains thankful for the people and resources at 1776 and Fortify Ventures that made it possible for Social Tables to grow.
“At the end of the day, we wouldn’t be where we are today without their support,” said Berger. “That’s just a fact.”
Sarah DeLucia is a freelance writer and editor based in D.C.