The hospitality and foodservice industry is a demanding business sector. A hospitality business, be it a bar or restaurant, requires capital and a large number of staff to operate efficiently. Managers of such establishments have a multitude of tasks, among which is the preparation of the weekly roster. Not an easy task, especially in large establishments, as the employee requests must be met as well.

The Cypriot startup, Blend, has been designed to make employee scheduling and team management tasks as easy as possible, with timesaving as the overriding priority. It rids managers of the cumbersome task of managing their team with old-fashioned paper or largely ineffective excel sheets. Although launched with the hospitality and leisure industry in mind, Blend is targeted at any business managing weekly rosters.

Blend is in its early stages of growth and, with a newly formed distribution partnership with Bacardi, has shown potential for international growth.

Blend is the brainchild of Constantinos Samuel, who since his school days had an interest in the world of business and technology and aspired to create his own start-up. His first contact with the industry came in 2014, after participating in the Web Summit, one of the biggest startup conferences.

Following his civil engineering studies in London, he went on to work in Athens for 1.5 years in a real estate fund that dealt with hotel developments.

‘There I came in contact with other people who had created start-ups and were operating in the hospitality sector. Yiannis Gavrielides, who has a start-up in Athens, Covve, and Dinos Constantinides, a restaurant entrepreneur with several successful bars and restaurants in Nicosia’ Samuel says.

‘After two years of working as a civil engineer I was looking for my idea to set up a startup. I wanted to do something. So I quit my job to create Blend."

The quest for an idea in hospitality came from his exposure to the industry. He saw how a hospitality business worked and started looking for a solution to organize work shifts.

Samuel recounts how the idea came about when talking to Mr. Constantinides. He noticed that although in terms of organization and concept his bar, ‘Lost and Found’ in Nicosia, was novel and innovative, many of the processes were carried out manually, specifically in team management.

‘One of the tasks that the manager had to do every week was to come up with the weekly work schedule of the staff, the shifts. A task that took quite a while, at least an hour. And it was still done on paper. The manager had to gather all the requests from the employees for the hours they wanted to work and then, either on paper or on an excel sheet, fill out the work schedule and take a screenshot of the excel and share it via WhatsApp. So, we set out to solve this problem in the organisation of staff in food service outlets," says Samuel.

In large workgroups there is usually one person responsible for setting up the schedule. By using Blend, this task is entirely automated, saving resources and time. The work schedule is automatically exported, using an algorithm, and then the manager can edit it if necessary. The key differentiator with Blend’s competition is that it’s all done through a mobile app, with lower pricing.

Teams of up to five people can use Blend for free, meanwhile a team of up to 20 people is charged $39 a month, up to 35 people $59, up to 50 $79 and for larger groups prices are customised.

Employees can log in with their own profile and use the app by submitting requests based on their availability for the week being scheduled. The manager receives the requests, which they can either approve or reject, and the schedule is published with the rest of the team being notified of their weekly roster. Blend is not limited to rostering, however, with team communication and announcements forming another key feature of the app. An internal chat room, bulletin and note board are also available.

Blend’s application development team is currently preparing additional features, further increasing the app’s capabilities. Primarily, greater attention has been dedicated to a task management feature, which Blend hopes will eliminate the need for printed task lists, which staff have to sign once completed. The feature will allow managers to assign tasks, along with shifts, to their team members. Employees will receive notifications for tasks they’ve been assigned, with managers receiving live progress updates. Alongside task management, a ‘clock in, clock out’ feature is being developed where staff will register their arrival and departure automatically when their phone connects or disconnects from their workplace’s Wi-Fi.

The app is available on all mobile phones, tablets, and as a Mac application, however, it’s currently not supported on Window PCs.

The first objective for Blend was to create a minimum viable product, which was tested in two outlets in late 2018, and proceeded with the first round of funding. ‘We were showing the project to investors and explaining what we were going to do. The first version was very basic. With the basic version we achieved the first round of €200,000 of funding in early 2019. This amount allowed us to set up a proper team, developers were recruited, and the project started on the substance’ Samuel notes.

The money came from a group of Cypriot angel investors, approached following recommendations from other partners of Samuel.

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, Blend’s team was in talks with Bacardi to join a loyalty programme offered to its partners. As well as Blend’s services, the programme will include seven other companies, and is expected to launch in April 2022 in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

‘The contact with Bacardi happened by chance. They started looking for companies like ours, we made the call and closed the deal. Bacardi is creating its own app which it calls BarBac. It will work along the lines of a loyalty program for its restaurant and bar customers, offering discounted services. One of the services will be ours and we are the only app that is related to staff management," Samuel notes.

Although Blend’s app was launched in the summer of 2021, during the pandemic when the hospitality industry was still rebounding, it managed to accumulate over 80 customers in its first six months of operation. So far, two thirds of its customers are from Cyprus and Greece, with the remaining scattered across the globe, with a substantial proportion in the US. Their average customer employs between 20 to 25 people, with their largest one having a team of over 50.

‘We see that in the target we focus they still use paper and excel. We don't go to someone who is already using an app and we want to convince them to switch platforms. We try to prove to them that there is something better than excel. We don't focus on large teams because we know that in large teams there is a person, a manager, behind a computer doing the work. We focus on smaller groups of 20-25 people’ he explains.

He goes on to say ‘In practice it is not just about restaurants and bars, but generally all workplaces where there is a need to formulate a weekly work schedule, from small shops such as dry cleaners and golf courses to large hotels. We have seen that we have customers not only from restaurants and bars, but also from other places, e.g. a small mini market, cleaners, a nursing home from the US and a golf course. The name of the application is ‘Employee Scheduling by Blend’, so whoever searches the internet for ‘employee scheduling’ we are first. Our competitors are web first, we are mobile first and we offer a very mobile friendly app.’

The first customers were approached through direct sales. Samuel says that "at one point it was difficult to grow the app at a larger scale through direct sales and by leveraging introductions. It also cost too much. We also have to keep in mind that the hospitality industry is difficult to approach for selling products and services. You need to persevere a lot to be able to talk to someone in charge and finally close a deal."

‘Along the way,’ he adds, ‘we saw that our app and site were getting a lot of traffic from the United States. There was interest in what we were doing, and we found that the product we were developing had a market. We knew there was demand in general as there were other similar solutions. We differentiated ourselves by being the only one to offer a mobile solution. You can do everything from mobile phones. We're the only solution where you can take a work schedule from your mobile phone and send it to your work colleagues. In competing solutions, the programme comes out on a computer."

The company currently employs seven people (including the CEO), six full-time and one part-time, three of which are developers, one designer and the remaining two involved with sales and marketing.

Driven by the Bacardi deal, the company aims to grow sales so that in a year's time it can move on to a new larger round of funding, between €800,000 and €1m, at a higher valuation. A smaller interim funding round of €200,000 is also planned.

A recent report on workforce management software by Research and Markets, an Irish-based market research firm, pointed towards the potential such solutions have to offer in a variety of sectors. Overall, market growth is expected to have a CAGR of over 6%, gaining even greater importance following the pandemic, especially in sectors such as health care, where full-time and part-time nursing staff have to be managed effectively. Highlighted by Samuel too, the report stressed that old-fashioned ways of scheduling staff, namely through spreadsheets or manually, will tempt many businesses, particularly SMEs, to adopt workforce management software, with timesaving as the main attraction. The market’s growth will partly be driven by new features, such as task management and further automation, areas where Blend is involved through its development of its abovementioned planned features.

Although the market is largely fragmented, companies offering similar services to Blend have gained significant traction, particularly in the North American and Western European markets. Companies such as the Netherlands-based Shiftbase and restaurant-only platform 7shifts of Canada offer workforce time management solutions, as well as additional related features for staff and task management. Such startups have gained significant market share in the regions they operate, as well as attracting large investments, including aforementioned 7shifts which has raised over $80m. With a footprint in Cyprus and Greece, Blend is in a position to capitalise in largely untapped markets and with future funding rounds planned, it hopes to go against the bigger players in larger markets across Europe and the US.