EatStreet acquires UNI student start up
Russel Karim (Computer Science & Entrepreneurship '15) has always been a problem solver, and he saw a problem in the Cedar Valley food scene.
It was a simple revelation: When people want to order food for delivery, they don’t have many options. Pizza. Perhaps Chinese food. A sandwich here or there. Not much else.
So, Karim, a University of Northern Iowa alumnus, went to work tackling the issue, with the help of UNIBusiness' John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). The result was the Cedar Valley Food Runner, a business that delivers meals to its customers from restaurants that don’t normally offer that service.
That was in early 2016. Three years later, the business had about 65 restaurant partners and had delivered tens of thousands of meals throughout the Cedar Valley. This May, it was acquired by EatStreet, a larger, regional food-delivery company with a presence in about 250 cities.
It was an ideal end to an entrepreneurial endeavor, and Karim credits much of his success to UNI and the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
“(The JPEC) has helped us throughout the process in terms of making decisions and mentoring us,” Karim said. “Without them and the help of the university, we wouldn’t flourish the way we have.”
Karim is no stranger to starting a business, and, while he was a student, he took full advantage of the many resources the JPEC offers to students looking to launch their start-ups.
He was accepted into the RJ McElroy Student Business Incubator program located in the JPEC in 2013 and started a mobile application development company called 4axizUSA. Participating in a StartUp Weekend event, he was part of a team that developed Fan Food, a mobile application that delivered food to stadiums so fans could avoid waiting in concession lines.
After graduating in 2015, he accepted a job at UNI, where he is now an application administrator for the university customer relations management system. But he didn’t want to the leave the world of start-ups behind.
“As an entrepreneur, you always want to do something,” Karim said. “I wanted to do something on the side at night.”
So, he got together with two of his friends, Jacob Beyer and Chris Aguero, and enrolled in Venture School, a program offered by the JPEC in collaboration with the University of Iowa that helps community members and students fast track their business ideas.
There, the Cedar Valley Food Runner was born, and, through the program, the group was given the resources and support to get out into the community and survey dozens of restaurants and hundreds of potential customers.
“Once we did that market research, we were able to identify a clear gap in service,” Karim said.
That research translated into a successful business, and soon the company expanded to Council Bluffs and St. Cloud, Minnesota.
The business was growing, but so was the food-delivery market. Competition was increasing. By late 2018, Karim and his partners were looking for an exit strategy, but they wanted to make sure they were leaving the company in good hands.
“We wanted to make the right partnership for the community,” Karim said. “We felt like we built a business, but also built relationships with local restaurants. We wanted to hand it to the right partner.”
They considered several offers, but Karim felt the strongest connection with EatStreet, feeling a kinship through their similar stories – EatStreet was started by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“They had the same Midwest values we had,” Karim said. “They know the value of small businesses in the Midwest. We felt the same.”
EatStreet hired Beyer to be the manager for the Cedar Valley and Karim moved on. But he’ll bring to his next endeavor the lessons he learned through the Cedar Valley Food Runner and Venture School.
“When I was in college, one of the things we learned is the best practices,” Karim said. “The JPEC does a great job teaching us the right processes and showing us the right tools. Venture School makes you confident in building things up. Now that I have done this, this is just a preparation for me to get to the next level.”
Where Karim goes from here is uncertain. But one thing remains unchanged: There are always problems to solve.