Ten years ago, an N.C. State chemistry student set out to get people’s eyes off screens. Some 6,000 diners, two company transformations, 150 restaurant partners and three kids later, Offline CEO David Shaner is gearing up to bring his subscription-based restaurant matchmaker to markets across the Southeast.
Every month, Offline encourages subscribers to get “offline” in the Raleigh, Durham or Charlotte area by recommending two local restaurants chosen based on each individuals’ preferences.
“I just had this moment where I thought, ‘just 70 years ago, there was not a single screen.’ And humanity has existed like that forever,” Shaner said. “Then all of a sudden, snap, you’ve got this thing that everybody is glued to all day. I really felt compelled to create something that had human connection at its core.”
Subscribers don’t get to choose the restaurants, but they do receive a coupon valued between $10 and $25 that expires at the end of the month. People can even link their subscriptions with friends, so they get to try new restaurants together. At $12.99 monthly or $8.99 a month with an annual fee, the model is still a net financial gain for subscribers if they use even a fraction of the coupons.
Although restaurants foot the initial bill for the coupon, Offline guarantees that the model is profitable for restaurants, or the startup will personally pay them back. It’s a win-win-win: restaurants get paying customers, customers get delicious new experiences and Offline gets the subscription fees.
But like most good things, Shaner said Offline’s success has been a lesson in patience.
In the startup’s earliest stages after its 2012 incorporation, Shaner envisioned it as a platform to facilitate face-to-face meetups and group events. The fledgling Offline even went through Triangle Startup Factory, which closed down in 2016 (and which we wrote about in 2019).
By 2015, however, Shaner had realized a market for his product’s current form just wasn’t there.
“For about two years, we worked on that idea,” Shaner said. “That was kind of like my startup education. I didn’t know anything about business, marketing, sales, fundraising, hiring, leading–I was a chemical engineering student! I made every mistake in the book.”
So from 2015 to 2018, Offline was reborn as a food and culture media site serving the Nashville, Triangle and Charlotte markets, like Thrillist for the Southeast. With over 3 million readers a month, Offline was the fastest-growing media site in the region for people under 40. But Shaner soon found the pursuit of clicks, shares and penny-by-penny ad revenue put readers in the very position he was trying to get them out of: facing a screen.
The company had “BuzzFeed Syndrome,” and Shaner was almost ready to give up on his Offline dream–but not quite.
“There was this itch that I wanted to scratch,” Shaner said. “Everything was turning into a subscription. There was ClassPass, HelloFresh, Blue Apron, FabFitFun, everything—clothing, music, workouts, food—it was crazy. And I was looking at this whole subscription landscape, and I thought, how is there no subscription for exploring where you live? That’s such a huge part of people’s identities. People spend a ton of money that way.”
In 2018, when Shaner for a third time found himself again facing the drawing board, he found his subscription-based secret sauce. Offline circa 2022 is all about relationships, both with subscribers and with the restaurants they will visit—and that takes time and personalization.
That’s why Offline’s markets in the Triangle and Charlotte have a waiting list, Shaner said.
“We want to make sure that we have enough supply and demand at any given time, because we’re managing a marketplace,” Shaner said. “It’s almost like a bigger version of why you might have to wait for an Uber.”
With a $2 million crowd-funding raise coming to an end on Sept. 30, Offline is looking forward to a big 2023. The company will expand to three additional cities—Richmond, Nashville and Atlanta—and is also expanding its team.
It’s been a long 10 years, but Shaner is proud of the Offline he has built today, and the life he has built alongside it. His advice to young founders? Trust your own voice and be patient.
“There’s all this pressure to be a unicorn, to double and triple your revenue, and to focus on how much money you’ve raised, or how many people you’ve hired,” Shaner said. “You start to pay attention to the wrong things because you’re so impatient, and you might not see the cracks in your product, or your toxic employee, or that you actually have a bad relationship with your co-founder. People sacrifice a lot trying to move too quickly.”