If you ever struggled with having lunch at Huntsman, you probably should have heard about Nomgogo. It’s a social eating startup founded by Chen Feng (WG’18) and a couple of our classmates who had the same struggle before. They started the business on campus at the end of last year, and now you can order lunch from the app, then collect your Nombox at Huntsman, and enjoy the lunch with your classmates. We interviewed Chen on her experiences about starting a venture at Wharton.
- What inspired you to start Nomgogo?
I love food. Many of my best memories growing up were related to sharing good food with friends. To me, it’s absolutely divine when the extraordinary taste is created out of the most ordinary ingredients. I always search for this type of food, and I want to share it with others. When I was working in asset management in Geneva before Wharton, I was the go-to person for my colleagues and friends when they wanted to find the perfect restaurant for special occasions. I always had the underlying yearning to connect and bring people together to the present moment through food.
What really pushed me to put this yearning into action was a problem I had at Wharton. I had lunch class at 12 and my morning classes usually ended at 11:50. My options then were energy bars or mediocre sandwiches, and that was when the MBA Café didn’t have a long line. I quickly got fed up. We, as students, definitely deserved tasty, well-balanced meals so we could spend our time working effectively at school.
So I started to get lunch delivered to school from quality restaurants around Philly and used a google form for people who wanted to order with me to hare delivery cost. It became popular and in 3 days I reached over 60 people.
That was when the logistics became overbearing. I had to build my first website over one weekend all on my own. It was so rudimentary that it had only food pictures and an “order” button. I’ll look back one day, laughing at this experience, and I promised my friends that when my business becomes big, I’ll post “How I learned coding at Wharton” on Medium.
Every night I published what I would order for next day, word of mouth spreads over campus and this little system became even more popular.Yet my favorite moments during this whole process is connecting people through the food. To me that’s a small but authentic connection that I always aspired to deliver, that’s why I decided to spend the summer working on the venture and expanding my operation.
- What does Nomgogo mean? How did you come up with the name?
When I had to come up with a brand name, I wanted it to have this convivial feeling of a small hole in the wall restaurant in a local community where people can all share a quick, easy, delicious meal together.
My childhood revolved around Japanese manga and I remember all the scenes where some master chef would own a hole in the wall place in a remote location, who was the legend but only known by a close community.
So “Nom Nom” were the words that come to my mind immediately. When I moved to Philadelphia, one day I run into a Japanese noodle shop called Nom Nom Ramen. It was small, easy, delicious and cheap. It was a great spot for a quick 20-minute satisfying meal that you could enjoy with friends. My craving for local culinary gems was satisfied and so was my earning to share that joy with the people I love.
- What have been some major wins for Nomgogo so far and how did you achieve it?
There were a couple of things I am proud of.
First, commercially speaking, we grew really fast: our users increased by 400 percent in September without any marketing costs. More importantly, 70% of our users were repeat customers. All this made us believe that our product was really solving a problem. Every time, when classmates told me that they could finally get a quick easy delicious meal, I felt really happy. This feeling of being able to make a small difference in people’s everyday life is absolutely rewarding. On the other hand, Nomgogo is helping local, small food business where people care about what they do and what they deliver. I am glad that our orders bring those local businesses more revenue and assist their growth.
- What have been the major challenges to Nomgogo so far?
Running a start-up has its challenges. But the hardest one being that I only have a limited amount of time! Things you never expected happen. I have a very tight schedule but I want to find the best restaurant and and operate this business to the best of my ability. It is so tough. I’m looking for partners; Nomgogo is also actively recruiting interns, please apply!
- How do you choose the restaurants and the menu?
A couple of criteria. Most importantly is, of course, the quality of food: I am a foodie I eat for joy. I go out and taste a lot of the food. I also have friends I trust personally go tasting around local shops and decide if any dish can be part of our menu.
Secondly, our mission aims at supporting local restaurants run by good people. All the restaurants we selected are family operations whose owners dedicate their life in creating good meals for the community. Many of them are also immigrants who moved here to start their American dream. I want to support their growth, aspiration, and service to the Philadelphia community.
- Any interesting/surprising moments in running the business?
Interestingly, many people in our team were having troubles with their girlfriend or boyfriend and trying to recover when they joined the team! Maybe food does have the magic power of healing! We often joke about turning Nomgogo into a dating app one day!
- In what ways did Wharton help you in growing Nomgogo?
I developed a concrete idea of Nomgogo during my Entrepreneurship class, MGMT801 with Professor Laura Huang. Professor Karl Ulrich also helped me a great deal to shape my idea and to start my startup journey. Professor Edward George is also very supportive. Now I’m working with Professor David Bell to develop our branding and marketing strategy. Professors at Wharton are absolutely the best and they all provide me invaluable advice.
Also I was able to assemble a great team at Wharton and through the Lipman Family Prize fellowship. Without Wharton, I would not have done all these within such short period of time.
- What’s your immediate goal/ long-term vision for Nomgogo?
I want to develop more ‘Nomspots’, the locations people can pick up their meals, all over Penn, by the end of this year. In longer term, I want to expand to other neighborhoods in Philadelphia and major east coast cities within the next three years. Eventually, I hope Nomgogo can be a conduit that allow any one to quickly get delicious and well balanced meals and share the present moment with other people.
- If you would start Nomgogo again, is there anything that you would like to change?
It has been a thrilling, challenging and transforming the experience from the start. It was challenging, but I have grown tremendously as an entrepreneur and community connector with the incredible help from everyone I know. To be honest, I wouldn’t have done much different if I were to start all over again. But still there were a few important lessons learned. Building a new venture, we geniously appreciate all kinds of inputs and feedback. At times, we did feel like we lost our true identity. In the end, there are so many different ways of doing this business, but we had to stay true to ourselves. We have to be honest with ourselves: what we are truly passionate about and what kind of change we want to bring to this world.
- What would be your advice to the fellow classmates who want to start a company while at school?
You should think critically about what problem you are solving. Are you really solving a problem? Think critically about what is the simplest and easiest solution you can deliver. Having bright ideas and beautiful pitch decks is great, but to change the world, you have to start from where you can deliver.