This is something of a family business.
In 2005, serial entrepreneur Joseph Segel, a 1951 Wharton graduate who made a name for himself launching the Franklin Mint and the multibillion dollar home-shopping behemoth QVC, decided Philadelphia needed a database for its restaurants.
He started with his own personal Excel spreadsheets, detailing restaurant information, offerings and accomodations, but he wanted to expand it online.
So he turned to his 29-year-old, more tech-savvy granddaughter, Devon Segel, for help. She was busy building people-search databases for the American Red Cross with Comcast and Google during the melee of Hurricane Katrina, so occasional help and direction was all she could give.
Before Devon came aboard, her grandfather, the legendary founder of QVC Joseph Segel, launched publicly in spring 2006 a Philly-only version of the site called BYOPhilly.com and was soon after called “a why-didn’t-I-think-of-this tool for Philly oenophiles” by Philadelphia magazine. At that point, though, their database accounted for a touch more than 1,110 restaurants, including fewer than half (471, to be exact) without liquor licenses, a small slice of what it does today.
He launched in spring 2006 an early incarnation of his idea, not just reviews or food writing but a comprehensive collection of information backed by deep data sets about the Philadelphia dining scene, which, of course, has a lot to do with BYO-style neighborhood restaurants.
But Joseph, now 78, wanted Devon to bring her design and development background to what he aimed to be another in a more-than-two-dozen-long list of business ventures.
“He and I have always had a great relationship. He’s a very serious and focused businessman. I am a young woman whom he tries to groom into a serious and focused businesswoman,” says Devon, now CEO of Voorhees, N.J.-based Dining Info LLC, which operates GoBYO.com and DiningInfo.com with plans of launching more. “He calls himself my ‘part-time adviser.'”
It wasn’t until 2007 that she took the job with pop pop, who splits his time between Bryn Mawr on the Main Line and Florida. Now, three years after first launching, their sites use a database that has some 100 data fields on 52,000 restaurants, including 17,000 BYOs, from 10 metro areas and growing.
Devon is sitting on a four-tiered revenue model, the funding to get there and, with a blurb mention due for the August issue of O Magazine, buzz surrounding a new look and focus.
THE PRODUCT AND ITS FUTURE
“My grandfather will say to me, ‘de gustibus non est disputandum – there is no disputing tastes,” she says. “So we’re trying to make the objective out of subjective.”
For GoBYO.com, which Devon, 29, calls their “crown jewel” and a pattern for their future expansion, they are doing that with their “quartet of ratings,” which includes aggregating ratings from their secret stash of Web restaurant guides, a wine-friendly ratings list, Yelp ratings and a most popular list.
The Cherry Hill-native says her company is also doing restaurant listings differently with its “patent-pending find-reviews process for each restaurant.”
Searching for a restaurant in a search engine will bring you a lot more choices “and a lot more noise” than you need, Devon says, so searching on Dining Info sites will more effectively help you find what restaurant you want and know if you want it. While the Web is chock full of restaurant ratings and listings, few are as complete, deep and growing as DiningInfo, she says, which brings returns from the 33,000 table-service restaurants its database has, or GoBYO.com, which pulls from the 17,000 BYO listings of its 52,000 database total.
And that’s just why GoBYO has become the lead project. Their vision for a major part of the company’s growth, Devon says, is expanding on its full database of restaurants to feed more niche-specific sites — like ones for sports bars, karaoke joints or family-friendly restaurants.
When Devon joined her grandfather at DiningInfo in 2007, one of the first corporate events they attended together was a conference on search engine optimization. With that SEO knowledge and a strategy for expansion online, they squirreled away nearly 500 domains. While some are waiting to house new projects, others are currently pointing to their primary sites, with the hopes that search engines will pick up on those keywords and drive traffic. Below, see some examples of domains they’ve stockpiled.
But first, Devon says, the focus is to make their current products, which are still operating on the elder Segel’s startup funding, profitable.
To do that, four primary revenue streams have been identified: merchandising, like the stealth wine caddie the company introduced today; offering their restaurant data to third party Web sites like community-focused sites; sponsorships with wine merchants, distributors and other industry players, and information and development-based sales like their iPhone application they say is being reviewed by Apple now. For $2.99, Devon says, it lets users find nearby restaurants based on dozens of data fields like offering wi-fi or being pet-friendly or a combination thereof.
“We have a lot going on,” she says.
DEVON THE ENTREPRENEUR
If this all seems pretty involved, don’t think Devon just walked into a sweet job from a deep-pocketed relative.
“My grandfather made me earn my position,” she says with a laugh.
She certainly has serious Web entrepreneur credentials. She has a design background with a fine arts degree from Muhlenberg College, a Master’s in marketing from Wharton, an MBA from Drexel and coding experience from her time with the Red Cross.
“We can develop an authority on restaurants,” she says. “We want anyone who wants to find the best places to savor wine or information on the best restaurants out there to do it with us.
That’s a long way from her grandfather’s Excel spreadsheets.
“Philadelphia has to be at the top of the list of the most BYO friendly restaurants in the country,” she says. “That’s where we started… I hope to grow together.”
Watch Devon on an April episode of podcast StartupsLive.TV, hosted by a very energetic young woman.