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GrubHub co-founder on native vs. HTML5 and why “forcing a channel is a mistake”

by Brad Spirrison

As some of the smartest people in technology continue to debate whether we are living in an app-driven bubble, it might be tempting for somebody like GrubHub co-founder Mike Evans to oversell the impact mobile media has on his company.

Founded in 2004, Chicago-based GrubHub is the leader in fulfilling online food and delivery orders, serving more than 13,000 restaurants in 300 markets across North America. Having raised about $84 million from the likes of Benchmark Capital, DAG Ventures and Lightspeed Ventures, GrubHub is an IPO candidate that could have better long-term prospects than Chicago’s other interactive icon that begins with a “Gr”. (Talk about a steak versus sizzle dichotomy).

Further, the GrubHub’s product seems tailor-made for a mobile pivot as it appeals to urban commuters and college students who can easily order dinner on their way home from work or class. Although I’ve been an avid user of the website since 2004, I find myself using GrubHub’s iPhone app (launched in February 2009) and Android app (launched in October 2010) now almost exclusively. This is true even when placing orders from home.

Alas, Evans tells me that only 20 percent of GrubHub’s orders come in via mobile devices (the company also diverts non iOS and Android orders to a mobile site). He added that even if the company were to start today – four years after the debut of the iTunes App Store rather than four years before – Evans would still build GrubHub the same way.

“Forcing a channel is a mistake,” he explains. “The reality is that while mobile is growing really fast, what we are focused on is connecting with (consumers) in ways they want to connect with us.”

Mobile still permeates everything

This is not to say that Evans and his partner, GrubHub co-founder Matt Maloney, don’t constantly think about how mobile apps and products. He said every one of the company’s 250 employees “touches” mobile.

And of course not all of GrubHub’s mobile initiatives are consumer-facing. Today the company is debuting OrderHub, a native Android app that runs on dedicated tablets that allows restaurants in its network to automate away from in-house fulfillment systems typically predicated on phones and fax machines.

“OrderHub allows restaurants to spend more time preparing food instead of taking orders,” Maloney said to somebody drafting a press release.

Went native early and often

Although Evans acknowledges that it would have been a lot cheaper to focus on HTML5 development from the beginning rather than dedicated native apps for each platform (GrubHub does not have custom apps for Windows or BlackBerry devices), the performance and user experience benefits “trumped any cost decision”.

Still, Evans acknowledges that for many companies like his, that “native versus HTML is almost a religious debate. We chose native, but I can’t say it’s the right choice for every company.”

While Evans regularly tracks apps in the food and restaurant industries, one non-competitive service that he is spending a lot of time with as of late is Uber, which lets users reserve private drivers online and via iPhone and Android apps, oftentimes in a matter of minutes.

“There is something disruptive about the process,” he said, adding that Uber is also funded by Benchmark. “It’s where discovery and fulfillment was broke, and they fixed it. I get interested in the culture and development of new ideas.”

Regarding app darling Instagram, Evans says the company’s lightning in a bottle success and 10-figure exit was not just the result of its technology or presence in a frothy sector.

“[Instagram’s success] is not about whether it was HTML5 or native,” he said. “Not every app is worth a billion dollars. They had a deep commitment to user experience with a product that really works well.”

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