In 2014 I started a company called FastBar with the goal to solve the problem of long bar lines at events.
At the time, I had a side business, Bonza Bash, throwing large social events in Seattle. We'd host big Halloween and New Year's Eve parties, along with summer parties and some other events throughout the year. These events would range in size from 1,000-3,500 or so people. Dealing with a large volume of people like that, there was one key problem we faced over and over again: long bar lines… and everyone hated them.
For attendees, long lines compromised their experience at the event. People don’t go to a Halloween party to wait in line for 20 minutes to grab a beer - they're there to enjoy the entertainment, to spend time with their friends and to make new ones - perhaps lifelong friends, or perhaps just for the night.
Venues don't like long lines either. Long lines mean they're losing out on sales and it's harming their reputation. No venue wants to be known as the place where it takes 20 minutes to get anything at the bar.
And finally, for us as the event organizer, it sucked as well. We'd get complaints from attendees who were understandably upset, and typically we'd be signed up for a food and beverage minimum with the venue. If sales didn't hit a certain level, we'd be responsible for making up the difference, and when the event is already running on thin margins, that's a real issue.
Everyone hates long bar lines at events
We'd tried everything we could to solve the problem:
Cash only - this was generally quicker than credit cards at the bar, and would work even when internet connectivity sucked, which was most of the time. However, there were many challenges with using cash as the only payment mechanism. For instance, people were starting to carry less and less cash with them, we'd need to hire extra security to deal with all of the cash drops and securely transporting cash, we'd usually need to dedicated 1/3rd of the labor behind the bar to managing the cash, ie 2 bartenders per 1 cashier. We even had times when the ATM would run out of money, leaving people unable to get more cash, and unable to buy anything.
Credit card machines - old school credit card machines would be expensive to rent, and would require a phone line (more common 5 years ago, less common these days), or reliable WiFi for payment processing, none of which were typically available to us at events. Phone-based or iPad based point of sale systems like Square were starting to gain in popularity, but they too needed a reliable WiFi connection, and couldn’t deal with working offline. In our event environments, internet connectivity would range from non-existent to poor. Typically, accepting a credit card would take around 45-90 seconds, if the device worked at all
Drink tickets - these were quite efficient at the bar, but had their own issues. Attendees could quickly exchange the ticket for a drink, streamlining the process at the bar, however, we'd need different color drink tickets for different drinks (eg green = beer, blue = wine, white = spirits), we'd need to group all of the prices together to try and make it simpler for attendees and bartenders (doesn't make sense for anyone to be dealing with 12 different colors of drink tickets), and they were a total hassle for the attendee. You need to line up, buy the tickets you thought you needed, and then go to the bar. If you get to the front of the line and had a green ticket, but wanted a wine which needed a blue ticket, you'd have to get back in the drink ticket line, then back in the bar line. If you overbought drink tickets, the venue usually would not provide a refund, so you're wasting money. If you under bought drink tickets, you'd need to go back to the drink ticket line to get more tickets, then line up at the bar. It was a crappy experience
Adding more staff - this was a common mitigation strategy, but it increased the cost pretty substantially and sometimes there just wasn't any more room to physically add more bartenders behind a given bar
None of these "solutions" (I use the term loosely) were any good. There had to be a better way.
Digitizing the drink ticket
Drink tickets were the closest to a viable solution, so I started thinking about how I could digitize them. What is there was a way I could create some kind of electronic wristband and have the drink tickets pre-loaded on there? Could I eliminate cash and credit card handling at the bar and make the payment process super quick so the only thing the bartenders needed to worry about was making drinks?
This idea bubbled around in the back of my head for a few years. Somewhere around early 2014 I read an article about the Disney Magic Band. Disney World in Orlando had rolled out this new technology: after you booked your holiday, you'd receive a wristband in the mail, you'd then use that wristband to check-in to your hotel, open your hotel door, gain access to the park and pay for stuff while inside. Not only that, but it also acted like a localized GPS within the park so Disney knew where guests were at any time, and how they moved through the park. This enabled cool scenarios like quickly tracking down lost kids, or if you'd booked into Space Mountain at 1pm, but were walking near it at say 11am and it was empty, Disney could send a push notification to your phone to see if you wanted to go to Space Mountain right then, instead of waiting until 1pm.
At the time, I read Disney spent around $1.5B on implementing this, so I'm sure that figure has gone up substantially over the past 5 years. This got me thinking - what if there was a way to create a similar concept, but heavily focus it on payments, and make the technology cheap and broadly accessible to events all around the world.
I started asking some of my other friends who also produced events if they had similar problems with long lines at the bar and poor mechanisms for payment. They did. I described the solution I was envisaging and got their feedback. They loved it, and based on feedback, I started to refine the idea.
In March 2014 I decided to pitch this idea at Startup Weekend. I wanted to work on the idea for a weekend to see if it had legs, and determine if I should bother devoting any more time to it. I remember standing there in the pitch line, waiting for my turn to pitch, holding a large piece of paper and a marker. Everyone who was pitching needed to write the name of their "company" on the piece of paper, which people would later vote on by placing sticky notes on said large piece of paper. While I was standing there a dozen or so people deep waiting to pitch, the name "FastBar" popped into my head, so I wrote it down.
Long story short, I pitched the idea, built a team and we worked on it for the weekend. When it came time for the final pitches on Sunday, we came in 2nd of around a dozen teams.
After Startup Weekend, I continued to work on the idea with a couple of guys from the team. We went through a 6 week program called Startup Next run by Dave Parker. It was an awesome program, really cheap (I think it was around $200 either for the team or per person - regardless, a steal for what we got out of it), super valuable and ultimately provided us with some great education that helped us navigate the early stages of starting a company.
9 Mile Labs and the Official Start of FastBar
After Next, we applied for an accelerator in Seattle, 9 Mile Labs. Around this time, we had to decide if we were all serious about pursuing FastBar full time or not. The guys who I was working with at the time decided it wasn't for them, so we parted ways, and I continued on.
I ended up getting into 9 Mile Labs as a solo founder, a whole other topic I'll save for a future post, and FastBar was born.