In celebration of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we chat with Jason Wang, founding partner of Beluga Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage technology companies.
Jason has been a food and tech entrepreneur since 2011. He was the founding CEO of Caviar, a popular food delivery app that Square acquired in 2014. Before Caviar, he cofounded Munch On Me in 2011, a daily deals platform that was part of the Summer 2011 batch at Y Combinator. He’s also held various roles at Google, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and Microsoft.
Jason was born in China, but his family came to the US when he was just one year old. He grew up in Texas but moved to the Bay Area when he was eight, and this is where he spent most of his life. Although Jason studied accounting and ended up in finance and banking, he had always wanted to study business.
In this episode, Jason shares how he got into entrepreneurship, specifically in the food and tech industry, launching Caviar and selling it after two years, and becoming a franchise owner of The Halal Guys Inc.
Jason also talks about how he got into the investment space and launched Beluga Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage technology companies.
Finally, Jason let us in on his travel adventures, having been to 107 UN-recognized countries and his goal of climbing the Seven Summits.
Selling Caviar to Square
“The whole experience was like a whirlwind because we were the first on-demand food delivery app. We launched a week apart us and Postmates. We’re the first couple of years before DoorDash and Uber Eats even existed. So, I remember there’s just so much happening all the time. There’s not much competition. We were getting all these restaurants and users and different markets. And it was just hard to keep up. We’re drowning in our own growth week after week. We kept hitting our targets. But we were coming to a point where we’re about to break because our growth just cannot keep up with human physical ability to route orders on a screen. And it started happening for all of our early markets that would become really successful. The acquisition came at a really good time.”
Why they started Beluga Capital
“Even when we were at Caviar, my co-founders and I, we just started getting a lot more inbound interest from entrepreneurs. And we thought one of the best ways we can help them is not only advice but also give them some capital. That way, we’d be more vested into their companies. So, with some of that exit liquidity we had, we decided, hey, we’re not going to raise any outside capital, it’s all going to be personal. And we’re just going to invest in startups. It’s our way of giving back. Because going through a startup is, essentially, no buy-ins in the beginning, right out of college. We had so much help. And without that help, we could never have succeeded in the way we did. And so, we wanted to do something like that for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
On pursuing different interests and passions
“I see it as different stages of my life. Starting out, I would not go into venture investing, I want to be more an operation role. Because that was more fun to me, like I had the best time of my life. Just looking back, while I was in it, I was like, “Wow, it’s a constant stress and hard work.” But looking back on it, I would only do that in my 20s. I don’t want to be in my 40s or 50s and have that same—if I didn’t have to go through the same thing again, so that I’m more geared towards investing. And I love it. I guess, for me, it’s like different phases of my life there’s different roles or areas that I enjoyed more.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Jason Wang. Jason, you may have heard of. He is currently the Founding Partner of Beluga Capital, which invests in the Web2 space, and also general partner at Lunatic Capital, which invests in the Web3 space. Jason is an undergrad graduate class of 2009 out of Haas. So, first off, welcome to the podcast, Jason.
[00:33] Jason: Thank you for having me here.
[00:34] Sean: One thing I left off in your intro is that you were Founding CEO of Caviar, which everybody should have heard of. But you also have so much else on your LinkedIn that just fascinates me, that you’ve been, in my opinion, all kinds of entrepreneur—from a tech entrepreneur to a traditional licensee, franchisee entrepreneur. But before we get on and solve that, I’d love to hear about your background, your upbringing, Jason. Share your origin story.
[01:05] Jason: Sure. I was actually born in China, but came over with my parents to the United States at age one. And we grew up in Houston, Texas where my dad went to school, studying optometry. And now, he’s actually working at Haas. He’s been working there for quite some time.
[01:24] Sean: Really?
[01:25] Jason: But before then, yeah, he was in an optometry school before we moved to the Bay Area when I was age eight or so. And then he pivoted from optometry to doing programming and tech, all self-taught. And he couldn’t find a job after he graduated because his education level was too high. And he went to Berkeley even for a post-doctorate degree in the school of optometry. So, he has a book that’s still in the library there.
[01:58] Sean: Right next to Haas as well.
[01:59] Jason: Yeah, right next to Haas. I used to pass by it as a student walking at Haas every day from the south side of campus. So, then grew up in the Bay Area ever since, I literally just moved a couple of towns from Albany, which is a one-square mile town right next to Berkeley. I moved over to Berkeley. And after I graduated I moved to Oakland. So, I’ve been in the Bay more or less my entire life.
[02:27] Sean: So, why did you study at Haas?
[02:30] Jason: So, my intention even at high school, I wanted to go to a business school. I’m looking at all the business programs around the country, but ended up taking a bet because when you do apply to Haas as undergrad, it’s not right away. So, when you enter as a freshman in the college, it’s not guaranteed. You have to go there another two years and then apply again.
[02:55] Sean: That’s right.
[02:56] Jason: But I really wanted to go to Berkeley. It was close to home and it had a great name. And I wanted to attend Haas. So, even before getting into Berkeley, I knew I wanted to study business. And more specifically, it was a county because my mom really pushed that into me, like, “Oh, you should be an accountant. It’s a very stable job. And every company in the America needs an accountant. So, you’ll never not have a job.” My dad, when he pivoted from optometry to programming, he went into startups, actually. This was 1998 before the whole dot-com bubble. So, they were scarred from that. And they wanted me to take a more stable path.
[03:42] Sean: Did you study accounting at all?
[03:44] Jason: I did. I got all of the units I needed to become a CPA. I also did an externship at Deloitte. And at junior year, my internship was at Microsoft in one of the internal audit divisions because I told them, “Look, I want to get more accounting experience.” So, did everything I needed to become the CPA that my mom wanted me to become.
[04:09] Sean: Then, what happened?
[04:11] Jason: Well, I remember recruiting in 2008 and ’09. That’s when the financial crisis happened. That’s probably the toughest year. All of these roles were getting diminished and companies going bankrupt or not existing anymore. So, I went out and interviewed and decided, look, I wanted to stay in the Bay. I had a job offer with Microsoft. But that was back in the Seattle, Redmond, Washington area. But I really wanted to continue living and working in the Bay Area. Just took whatever available role that I could recruit for. Ended up in banking, which was very different from accounting. So, then I started studying for the CFA, the Chartered Financial Analyst, while doing that, shifted my focus more into finance and banking rather than accounting. So, I ended up only lasting nine months, though, after I graduated in that world before I had to move on and do something else.
[05:14] Sean: How did you jump ship to become an entrepreneur?
[05:17] Jason: I remember my first month we got sent to training for banking with BofA Merrill Lynch out in Charlotte where the BofA headquarters is. In just my first week, I was like, “Man, this sucks. I want to get out of here already.” I left tech. So, I wanted to go work at a tech company but I’m not really an engineer. So, I was already starting to look at different roles outside of the financial industry, and then to tech. But it took about nine months before I got really serious and decided that it’s now time to leave. And that nine months was also good timing because they just paid my first year of bonuses the month before. And landed a very entry-level operational role at Google. I was like, “This is great. I’m getting my feet wet. This is my entry into a tech company.” And I can eventually move around. I wasn’t going to stay hopefully in entry-level operational role on Google forever. But I loved being there because it was just everything that I envisioned, a cool company that really values their workers to be. They give out a lot of free stuff. They gave me a ride to work, free food. And I could wear whatever I wanted. Because in the banking world, you come in a suit every day, even though you’re just studying on a cubicle with no windows. I love that tech culture and just being around innovative people and a company that’s innovative.
But then, again, being an entry-level operational role at Google, there’s not that much actual work to do every day. I remember, because I still lived in Oakland at the time and I would have to commute to Mountain View, so that was an hour bus ride on the Google bus. They had Wi-Fi on that bus, so you’re able to work. And by the time I actually got to Google every day, I already finished my entire day worth of work every single day. So, I had really so much free time when I was at actual work. And that was cool because it gave me a lot of free time to think about business ideas, which sparked this whole entrepreneurship journey.
[07:23] Sean: And how did you get into food?
[07:27] Jason: So, if you know me, I’m one of the biggest foodies. I love food. I would only, for the longest time, travel only to go eat at a restaurant. And I love to try different restaurants. For example, it all started back in college. I think I tried almost every single restaurant that was available as students within that Berkeley campus when I was an undergrad. And I don’t even cook. I don’t know how. I eat out every meal. So, food is my passion. It’s what I love. And I knew I wanted to do something in the food space, but combine that with tech in some way. My first company was a food tech company. That was before Caviar. But it didn’t quite work. And then we tried again with Caviar after that.
[08:16] Sean: So, what’s the origin story of Caviar?
[08:18] Jason: Definitely, it was not the idea originally. The original idea was to build a Groupon for food, like you would be able to go on our website or app and get 50 to 70% of dishes at restaurants. And it all started when I was at Google because all this free time that I had working there. So, one of my friends that I went to college with, he would come down every evening. He used to work at Electronic Arts in the peninsula. And he would come down to get free food at Google, because I worked at Google and I can invite friends to come in and hang out and eat. He was also getting bored at work and wanted to do something different. So, we just started, every night, we would just talk about different business ideas. And at the time, we saw that the fastest growing company of all time was Groupon, this coupon company. And we thought, they do so many things. What if we take Groupon and slice it up and only focus on restaurants and food and dishes at these restaurants? That’s how it all started.
And I went back to college and assemble a team. So, I ended up with at one point more than 10 co-founders. We didn’t know what we’re doing. And we just took on everybody I wanted to help with our project. This was back in 2010, 2011. So, right when the iPhone came out, when mobile started to come out. I just grew from there. We became more serious. We whittled down to team four co-founders, which was more appropriate. And we have heard about this little incubator down in Mountain View called Y Combinator. And they’ve only been around for not too long at the time, but they were touring various different college campuses. So, as an alum, a newly alum of Berkeley, I would still go back to some events at school. And I heard about this Y Combinator talk that the founder Paul Graham was getting. So, I was like, “Oh, I have to go to and hear what it’s all about.”
So, I remember that evening, the co-founders and I, we sat in the audience and we heard Paul give a great talk about startups and why students should get more into entrepreneurship. And at the end of it, he was like, “It’s pitch time. Who wants to stand up and pitch me their startup?” So, I immediately just got up and gave him a pitch. He was like, “Oh, I like that. Would you email me later?” So, I did. And he told us to apply for Y Combinator. And we did. Eventually got an interview and then got in. And that changed everything, because one of my co-founders was actually a freshman that just got into Berkeley. So, he dropped out of school. And my other co-founder was a graduating senior with a job already lined up. And then I was still at Google. And then my other co-founder is still at Electronic Arts. So, we both left our jobs. We got together and took $18,000 for 7% of the company. And that was more money than we’ve ever seen. It’s laughable in today’s world.
[11:39] Sean: that’s what the terms were back then?
[11:40] Jason: Yeah.
[11:42] Sean: 18,000?
[11:43] Jason: We made that last a long time. We were super frugal with our spending.
[11:47] Sean: How long did that last? I have to wonder.
[11:49] Jason: Oh, it lasted a year. We only raised from one angel investor the whole time. He gave us a $25,000 check.
[11:59] Sean: Wow, that’s amazing.
[12:01] Jason: And we got the money from Y Combinator. We ran it for about a year before we’re really low on money. And we were able to use that to launch in a dozens of cities across the United States for that Groupon for food idea.
[12:19] Sean: So, from Caviar, it seems like your journey there was relatively short. You guys were acquired in two years, which is amazing. And then you did stay on, you had mentioned, for a couple of years, right?
[12:32] Jason: Another two years, yeah.
[12:33] Sean: What was it like selling your company in two years?
[12:38] Jason: The whole experience was like a whirlwind because we were the first on-demand food delivery app. We launched a week apart us and Postmates. We’re the first couple of years before DoorDash and Uber Eats even existed. So, I remember there’s just so much happening all the time. There’s not much competition. So, we were getting all these restaurants and users and different markets. And it was just hard to keep up. We’re drowning in our own growth week after week. We kept hitting our targets. And it came to a certain point, as a user, you wouldn’t notice, but we have almost no tech behind the scenes.
So, if you’re a user, you’d download our app. It looks like it’s all magical. You look at photos. You place an order for food. And then, boom, a courier appears on the map. And it starts moving towards you. But behind the scene, it’s like there is no routing program or any algorithms. It was me and our operation team. We were looking at a spreadsheet. Sometimes, we had to call a restaurant and read out the orders or tell them to go check their fax machine because we would send faxes to some. And then we had another spreadsheet with a list of our drivers. And we’d have to text our drivers and say, “Hey, can you go pick up this order at this time?” And it was all manual. And we did that for tens of thousands of orders. You wouldn’t know it if you ever used the app, because we were really good at operations. But we were coming to a point where we’re about to break because our growth just cannot keep up with human physical ability to route orders on a screen.
And it started happening for all of our early markets that would become really successful. And the acquisition came at a really good time because, for Square, they wanted to get into more of a consumer’s plate because they were actually making an app called Square Order, where it allows pickup from any merchant. And we will complement them with the delivery aspect. And also, Square, at the time, had trouble selling their POS system into restaurants. Most of their users were not restaurants. So, the synergies were there. And they also had a massive tech and engineering team. And it was like, here on day one, we can send you a dozen engineers straight to your office, and they can start coding and getting to work and knocking out all of these things that you’re looking for. So, it just became super attractive to us to partner with them, and then, eventually, came at acquisition.
And all of this happened—so, this was 2014. In March of 2014, I had just went out and raised our series A. So, we got fresh $10 million or so in the bank series A. And we barely even spent most of our seed money. We’re super conservative. So, we stand a lot of money in the bank. And then Square comes a month later. So, the acquisition happened from start to close just several months after we close out our series A. Super quick.
[15:54] Sean: That’s incredible. Did you guys have an engineer on your team? Who was building the product?
[16:00] Jason: A few, only a few. My co-founders, and then we had only two other employees really that were engineers.
[16:08] Sean: Who was doing sales?
[16:09] Jason: Me and two of my other co-founders. We did all the sales, marketing, and operations.
[16:15] Sean: Do you mind me asking how you guys figure it out or how did you guys find help when you guys had shortcomings or things you didn’t know?
[16:23] Jason: Yeah. I had to call my mom a few times to do deliveries when we ran out of drivers. Because there was no way to shut off on early days a restaurant order. Or if it came in, it came in. We couldn’t say, “Sorry, we canceled it.”
[16:38] Sean: Someone is hungry.
[16:40] Jason: Yeah. So, we had to manage a ton of operations that way. But it was fine because in the beginning we ramped up slowly. And then, suddenly, it just became ton of orders. But we got really good at operations. And our first operation fleet was actually one of our drivers. We actually hired a few of our drivers directly onto our team. They helped us a lot with our operations, and also sales, too.
[17:09] Sean: I know there’s a story behind Halal Guys. You’re franchise owner there. And you were a franchise owner in the very early days of when Halal Guys—I remember very distinctly when Halal Guys started opening across the country and everybody was just waiting for one to open up in their city. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?
[17:32] Jason: Yeah. So, I became a franchise owner by accident. I wasn’t going out and trying to become Halal Guys franchise owner. But what I wanted to do, I was still working at Caviar at the time when Halal Guys started franchising. And I really wanted Halal Guys to partner with Caviar to do deliveries, because in 2015, they did not partner with anyone. They didn’t do any deliveries. But their food is perfect for it. We thought it would be a great partnership. And they didn’t respond to any of my phone calls or emails. I can never get ahold of someone at Halal Guys to talk to me about a partnership.
So, I would constantly be on their website and figuring out, I hustled really hard to try to get this partnership going, but one day I saw a new button that magically appeared that said, “Become a franchise owner.” And I’m like, “That’s new.” I clicked on it. And I filled out the form. And lo and behold, someone reaches out to me same day and says, “We’d like to talk to you.” And in my head, I’m like, well, I’m only talking to you because I want you to do deliveries. But they ended up convincing me and my co-founder to become a franchise owner. So, we flew out to New York and did the whole interview and created a pitch deck. And at the same time, we’re telling them, “You guys need to do delivery.” So, they got us become franchise owners, and we got them to do deliveries on Caviar. So, I guess it worked out.
[19:02] Sean: That’s a win-win, for sure.
[19:04] Jason: Yeah.
[19:04] Sean: Do you mind me asking, I imagine Caviar was down here in California, how did you end up opening up a Halal Guys in Seattle, Washington?
[19:14] Jason: Yeah. It wasn’t by choice. It was just the only market left, because they already sold hundreds of different locations for Halal Guys. So, it was either Seattle or Miami. And I didn’t know anyone in Miami. Only been there once. So, Seattle, I lived there before I did an internship at Microsoft back in college. And I had connections there. And it was much closer to Califia. So, I could go there pretty often as needed. And so, that was just a natural choice.
[19:48] Sean: So, after Caviar, you left in 2016. Aside from restaurant businesses that seemed like more of a pastime than anything, so you will always have access to food, how did you get into venture capital?
[20:03] Jason: Even when we were at Caviar, my co-founders and I, we just started getting a lot more inbound interest from entrepreneurs. And we thought one of the best ways we can help them is not only advice but also give them some capital. That way, we’d be more vested into their companies. So, with some of that exit liquidity we had, we decided, hey, we’re not going to raise any outside capital, it’s all going to be personal. And we’re just going to invest in startups. It’s our way of giving back. Because going through a startup is, essentially, no buy-ins in the beginning, right out of college. We had so much help. And without that help, we could never have succeeded in the way we did. And so, we wanted to do something like that for the next generation of entrepreneurs. So, we started the fund, Beluga Capital, around 2015. And it doesn’t really have a thesis. It’s like whenever we come across a company that we like, we share it. If we all want to invest in the company, we’ll go ahead and do that. So, now, we’ve made over 40 investments since then.
[21:11] Sean: Between venture investing, restaurant ownership, a startup tech CEO, if you were to do it all over again, where do you find yourself most interested or passionate? Just curious.
[21:26] Jason: I see it as different stages of my life. Starting out, I would not go into venture investing, I want to be more an operation role. Because that was more fun to me, like I had the best time of my life. Just looking back, while I was in it, I was like, “Wow, it’s a constant stress and hard work.” But looking back on it, I would only do that in my 20s. I don’t want to be in my 40s or 50s and have that same—if I didn’t have to go through the same thing again, so that I’m more geared towards investing. And I love it. I guess, for me, it’s like different phases of my life there’s different roles or areas that I enjoyed more.
[22:07] Sean: Personally curious, I’m sure listeners are as well, what does Jason like to do outside of the office?
[22:12] Jason: So, outside of all of this, since 2016, I’ve been traveling full time, ever since I left Square in August 2016. What started off as, maybe, I’ll go for a few months, I never really traveled or seen the world. And didn’t even like to travel back then. I remember my first trip. It was August 2016. I went straight to Rio for the Olympics. I’m like, “Wow, this is cool.” Got to see the Olympics. And this was when Zika was around. And so, nobody went. Half the stadiums were empty and tickets were cheap. And there’s Michael Phelps [inaudible 00:22:48]. It was just awesome. And then I just kept going. Now, it’s been six years almost of non-stop traveling.
[22:58] Sean: How many countries or how many places have you been to?
[23:00] Jason: So, there’s quite a lot of different numbers because some go by the number of UN countries or different territories. So, if we’re looking specifically at the number of UN-recognized country, I’m at 107 right now.
[23:14] Sean: Oh my.
[23:15] Jason: So, now my goal is to visit them all. There’s 193 UN-recognized countries. So, I’m more than halfway down.
[23:22] Sean: I know you’re in SF right now, but where were you this year?
[23:24] Jason: This year already, just in 2022, I started the year off, January 4th I was in Antarctica. So, that was my second time there. First time was on a cruise ship, right when the pandemic hit. So, I was on one of the last cruise ships before the cruising industry shut down. This was February of 2020. So, I went back to Antarctica because another goal of mine now, a personal goal is to climb the seven summits. So, that’s the tallest mountain on every continent. So, that’s actually why I’m back in the Bay, I’m training now for my next climb, which is the one at North America. But the one in Antarctica was the one I did in January. It was my fourth of the seven summits. So, I was there to climb a mountain.
[24:12] Sean: What were the prior three? I imagine Kilimanjaro had to be in one of those already.
[24:16] Jason: Yeah, that was the first. That’s the easiest. Anyone can go to that one. And you don’t really have to do much technical stuff. You just wear hiking shoes. And it could take as fast as four days up to 10 days. And you go up with a bunch of porters who help set up your tent and cook for you. But that was cool. I got my foot wet. I took Kilimanjaro in 2018.
[24:44] Sean: And then where else?
[24:45] Jason: Then I did Aconcagua, which is almost 23,000 feet, the second highest of the seven summits behind Mount Everest. I did that the year after.
[24:54] Sean: Where did you start, in Chile or in Argentina?
[24:57] Jason: Argentina. And then the third one, the year after that—no, it was the same year—went to Russia to do Elbrus, which is the tallest mountain in Europe. And then COVID happened. And I signed up for another one in Oceania called Carstensz Pyramid. And then COVID happened. I didn’t pursue any of this for a couple of years, and then got back into it this January. So, my first trip was to Antarctica to go climb that mountain.
[25:26] Sean: And then US is next.
[25:28] Jason: Yeah, that’s weaving next Sunday in about nine days to go to Alaska to climb Denali.
[25:36] Sean: That’s awesome. I could talk to you forever Jason, but I got to let you go. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and sharing your story. Do you have any parting words or wisdom for any undergrads, prospective students, current students that might be listening?
[25:52] Jason: I would say one thing I wish I had done when I was younger is to go out and travel more. And I’ve saved it until just 2016. But for me, looking back, truly, travel is the best education you can get. And I wish I had done it when I was in college, even to study abroad or something.
[26:14] Sean: Well, we’re still young. So, it’s not too late.
[26:16] Jason: Yeah, a long way to go.
[26:18] Sean: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Jason.
[26:20] Jason: Thank you for having me.
[26:24] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the One Haas Podcast. Enjoyed our show today? Please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review.
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