I’ve had the pleasure of working with many startups in the Biggest Little City for more than 20 years—too many to enumerate. Most have been cool little lifestyle businesses, and they have had varying degrees of success. Many have gone on to be very successful, creating a lifestyle for their founders that is enviable.
Once in a while, I come across a founder who strikes a chord with me. Its usually a combination of things—the glimmer in the eye when talking about their idea, or the passionate way in which they articulate the solution they’ve come up with. It’s often the story of how they got here—and such is the case of the founder you are about to meet.
Five years or so ago, a young man requested a waiver to get into the startup class I began teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2011. It came out of another class I built for out-of-work professionals back in 2002 after the dotcom implosion. There were thousands of out-of-work professionals who were sure that their lives were over. As a contrarian, I tried to impart the idea to them that since their high-flying “jobby job” was never coming back, why not build their own future instead of other people’s dreams and futures? I built a curriculum for startups, step-by-step on how to build a business with little money while mitigating risk.
Tristen Houston was a freshman at the College of Business who had an idea for a business that he wished to build in my classroom. However, my class is for upper-classmen and graduate students, but I usually allow one savvy freshman to take the class if they have a legit idea or have already started building a company.
Tristen was a wide-eyed kid who had an idea for new ride app called Don’t Drive. The premise was that folks who drink too much need to get home, but their car is often left behind, staying overnight at the bar until the poor hungover soul gets a ride back to their car in the morning. Tristen thought: What if we could create a service whereby the intoxicated customer is driven home safely, and so is their car? That way, the customer doesn’t have to take an Uber back to their car in the morning—to perhaps find it broken into, or worse yet, stolen.
In my New Venture Creation class, we start with ideation and build real companies in 14 weeks. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are committed, tenacious and coachable, we have rock-solid strategies. The secret is to be able to create something from nothing without resources under their control. Oh, the resources are out there—but the founder doesn’t have them. Yet.
Don’t Drive made many mistakes and pivots in the first few years, but Tristen never gave up. He and his partners flipped the company into Chauffeur, with some new investors—and a new strategy, to also have drivers ready to take people and their vehicle home from the hospital or doctor’s office after a procedure. They got some traction with both companies, but never reached critical mass.
Then that little thing called the pandemic hit. No one was going anywhere; rides stopped, taking Uber, Lyft and the other ridesharing apps down a dark road.
Tristen and his team knew that he had to do something different and drastic. He and long-time business partner Derek Sornson started chalkboarding new ideas. (It’s good to have a sound partner in a startup!) The delivery model had been too flooded, with many companies vying for small slices left over by the big boys. The partners realized in 2021 that there were very few choices for quality home delivery of upscale foods, gourmet burgers, salads and meals—especially late at night. Furthermore, once the pandemic began to wane, people started going out again—and they started hating the delivery fees.
Enter Vistro, a late night “ghost kitchen” with a dozen brands of gourmet choices, all under one roof, serving Reno until 3 a.m. some nights—with no delivery fee! The founders created brands that they own. A ghost kitchen is a restaurant with no seating; it strictly prepares meals to go or to be delivered by the Uber Eats and Grubhubs of the world. These guys have flipped the script and have UberEats delivering food for them instead of competing against them.
Restaurants all over the United States went under during the pandemic, and some of these facilities remain empty today. The Vistro boys negotiated a sweet lease deal on an old Mexican restaurant that was sitting idle by the ballpark, at 250 Evans Ave.—and the rest is history.
When I visited the gang recently, the kitchen was rockin’, with Randall (the chef) spinning around the kitchen filling orders. While chatting with the founders, several people came in to pick up food. The founders split the front-of-house load, with one taking the afternoon shift, and the other running the night shift.
They have been killing it. Sales are booming, and they’ve gotten a couple of rounds of funding from local investors. My friends at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development invested in them, too. Vistro has now been accepted into a national accelerator to scale across the country in a big way, utilizing abandoned restaurant spaces to create a new paradigm for the industry.
Of course, Vistro (ordervistro.com) still needs all of us to support them, as well other local restaurants and startups, to keep this vibrant community ahead of the curve and the rest of the United States.
Next month, we’ll discuss bringing in foreign startups—to create high-paying jobs for Nevada.