Brandon Stephens already runs a successful burrito chain. But now he’s turning his attention to a new events app. We caught up with him to find out more about how to make the transition from food to tech.
The thought of launching burrito chain Tortilla, like many ideas, first came from a chat with a friend over a pint. “It was second year of business school and we had to write a thesis on something,” Stephens explains. “I’d been thinking about it and stewing on the idea of looking at Mexican fast casual restaurant chains – nothing like that existed in London at the time – when I went for a pint with a friend from school. We were about three pints in when I said we should do the thesis together. And then we sobered up, but we still thought it was a good idea.”
Once the thesis was written, they found that they actually had some good ideas and some friends suggested they take it forward – even offering money toward the venture if they did. It took some time to get there but in 2007 they opened their first location in Angel and the brand has grown ever since.
The food scene in the UK has changed significantly since 2007 and now it seems that there’s a burrito place on every corner of big cities. But Stephens says that hasn’t had a significant impact on business. “At the beginning of introducing burritos, no-one knows what a burrito is. Your whole effort is around education, not just of consumers but of landlords - why this is a good gap in the market that they should have in a shopping centre to go alongside sushi and burgers,” he explains. “So in large measures Bar Burrito, which is up north, have done a lot of effort to educate the consumer but we then go into Nottingham or Glasgow where the consumers more familiar with the concept so I think that has helped in essence. Although there is more competition so your slice of the pie is a little bit smaller than it might otherwise be, the pie is bigger. So we'd rather have that situation.”
Now that Tortilla is a success, Stephens is looking to the future, which could involve going out a whole lot more. “The Revl idea was born predominantly out of a basic consumer need so when I was working my tail off in 2010, missing out on all the festivals that were going on, I started missing out on things multiple years in a row - specifically festivals. And I realised that I wanted to get my life in order and just be aware of when these things were taking place,” he explains. “So I subscribed to newsletters and magazines and so forth and I just realised there was no one place for a consumer to go to keep track of everything going on.”
It’s not just about consumers though, he wants to help brands get the word out about their events too. So he set out to create something that would bring together all the events that are happening. He wanted something that would not be limited by curation or access to tickets, but more like a market place for every single event where promoters can connect with consumers. “No-one’s ever done that. There is no dedicated events platform where all these brands could go and publish their events.”
So how did Stephens manage his change of direction into tech? Well it wasn’t so much as a pivot to a new direction, but a return to a former experience, he says. “I grew up in Silicon Valley so after I got my electrical engineering degree I went back there and worked in some start-ups in a range of tech roles.”
However, he says that he grew disillusioned with the tech scene in the Valley. “A lot of the approach is technology for technology’s sake and often people lose sight of needing to solve real world problems.”
That’s why he was attracted to the food industry in the first place – there was a gap in the market and he was solving a real world problem. “That seemed like the right jump at the time,” he says. “But then I got through eight years of being in restaurants and I decided I wanted a change of pace so I figured maybe I’ll go back into technology. But it was really less led by wanting to be in an industry but by identifying a real world problem – people want to have one place to find out what’s going on and so we’ve built it.”