Entrepreneur shares start up-to-sale story with SU students

Geoff Johnson

WINCHESTER – Geoff Johnson, founder of the tablet-based food and beverage ordering company Parametric, later acquired by Bypass, was the final entrepreneur to share his experience with students at the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business at Shenandoah University Thursday.

Johnson offered not only his insight into developing an idea, acquiring investments and launching a business, but also in ultimately selling that business to a larger company. Or, as Johnson put it, “letting go of your baby.”

Johnson’s idea for Parametric was formed at the University of Pennsylvania when he was a student. He had always been a hands-on learner, and was initially frustrated by the theoretical and rote nature of his classes. His first dip into  business was as a kid with his own lawn mowing business, which was profitable enough that Johnson paid back his parents for the lawn mower they bought him.

“If you have a chance to do manual work in your life, take it,” Johnson said. “Those are skills you can’t teach and it really drives kind of a grit into you that I think is pretty valuable.”

At Penn, Johnson gravitated toward a professor who focused on the actual implementation of engineering principles. His   guidance combined with many miles spent driving up and down the East Coast to seek out new investors allowed Johnson  to launch his business.

The initial idea behind Parametric was to replace paper bills at restaurants with a tablet interface.

“So imagine you go out to a meal and you’re with six friends — very common in college — the bill comes, it’s a piece of paper, and it has one number on it,” Johnson said. “So, you need to flip it over, you’re writing what people owe and trying to do some calculations in your calculator — and we thought that that whole process was really slow and cumbersome.”

Under the Parametric system, customers were handed a tablet rather than a receipt and they could select which items from the bill were theirs.

Nowadays, there are multiple companies offering this same service, notably Ziosk, whose table-ordering tablets appear in Olive Garden, Chili’s, Red Robin, TGI Fridays and Applebee’s restaurants. However, Johnson doesn’t feel resentment when he considers these competitors — they only represent a tiny piece of the full value chain, Johnson said, because they did nothing to change the industry.

“The differentiating factor for us wasn’t really against Ziosk, it was more against other, very large, multi-billion-dollar companies that traditionally were the ones selling point of sale (systems) to large sports venues, in that the sports teams were using like hotel systems to operate these corporate suites,” Johnson said. “No one had really ever built a great system for them to operate those suites with, and we came in and really figured a lot of their fundamental problems with some pretty simple workflows and technology pieces that ended up being useful not just for them but for lots of other merchants.”

Essentially, the Parametric team had built a generalized system that could be applied to a number of business models.

“I want the business to contribute positively to our species, not just create money but create value,” Johnson said. “I think we need less apps, I think we need more businesses that really change the fundamentals of how our species works.”

Bypass acquired Parametric in 2016 and Johnson now serves as chief innovation officer and vice president of product.

Johnson tries not to look back and re-evaluate whether selling his company was the right decision, saying it’s not healthy, and “it might not have worked out as well as I might think in some moment it would have.”

Since selling his brainchild, Johnson’s aspirations have climbed much higher than food and beverage ordering. Johnson waxed philosophical toward the end of the discussion and considered the future of the human race.

“There’s some pretty fundamental things that our species needs to really push, in terms of developing technologies that are going to allow us to live for a much longer period of time than what seems we’re probably on the path to do today,” Johnson said. “I’m nervous every day about things like global warming, and food, energy production.”

Whether it’s an asteroid, a catastrophic disease or some other tragedy, Johnson envisions a future in which humanity will be forced to leave earth.

“We’ve discovered every place on the planet, pretty much colonized all of it. And we’ve created nuclear weapons, so we can’t battle anymore,” Johnson said. “So I think this is a true inflection point in our species that we will look back on, and say, ‘wow.’ Those two things, coupled with the birth of the internet, and really the proliferation of digital technologies, will either be our doom or our ultimate victory in being able to escape the physical bounds of our planet and be able to make our species last a lot longer than even our solar system.”

Shenandoah University’s Entrepreneurship Week ended with a social networking event Friday at the Bright Box Theater at 15 N. Loudoun St.