How This Freelance Web Developer Turned Global Pizza Parties Into a $1.4 Million Startup

Ah, pizza. Is there a more universally-loved food? Not according to a survey of 24 different countries, there isn’t. And capitalizing on this tomatoey, cheesy delight is Joshua Gross, serial entrepreneur and founder of Pizzatime, a bootstrapped startup helping remote teams connect through shared, virtual experiences – and a slice of the world’s favorite pie. 

Does Josh toss dough in the kitchen of his own pizzeria then? Not quite. Josh is a thirty-something, Brooklyn-based founder of a digital agency called Planetary. Having freelanced since the age of twelve, Josh wanted to bring his distributed team together with a pizza-themed party they could enjoy from the comfort of their own homes. 

What began as a logistical nightmare – a four-hour pie-hunt across different countries, timezones, and languages – now generates annual revenue of $1.4 million. As well as pizza, you can now order booze, coffee, and entertainers like DJs and comedians. Amazon, Nike, and Spotify are just a few of the household brands whose teams have shared a slice online. 

Unifying a Pandemic-Hit, Isolated Workforce with Food

Of course, it’s not all been plain sailing. Pizzatime almost shut its doors in 2019 only to reopen again in 2020 as pandemic-induced lockdowns forced much of the global workforce to stay at home. Having worked remotely for much of his career, Josh was only too aware of the struggles facing those who’d never experienced the isolation of working in their living room.  

“When I started the agency,” Josh said, “I wanted folks to be able to work wherever they were comfortable. Location was irrelevant as long as they did good work. The bigger issue was how to keep loneliness at bay. How could we help people feel part of a team? That’s when we started exploring fun ways we could get the team together.”

Josh’s first ever remote pizza party for Planetary got big smiles from his remote team

Why pizza? The answer is two-fold, Josh argues: “Food is one of the great unifiers. It’s probably the most social activity humans do. So first we asked how we could bring people together with food, and then, which food was the most deliverable. The answer was pizza. You can find pizza delivery in almost every country.” 

The Challenge of Automating a Global Pizza Delivery Service 

It was still two years before the success of Josh’s trial run with Planetary became Pizzatime. First, he gathered feedback from friends and entrepreneurs. The response was mixed. “Some people thought it was fun, others questioned the logistics,” Josh said. And having spent half a day syncing pizza delivery for his remote team, Josh knew this was the hard part. 

How do you deliver pizza to fifty people in fifty different countries at the same time? “I knew what we wanted to do, but I couldn’t spend all my time on the web ordering pizzas with Google translate,” Josh said. While food delivery apps like Grubhub have made things easier, catering to customized orders and special dietary needs stressed the need for an automated process. 

“When I was a child,” Josh said, “I used to pull stuff apart and reassemble it to see how it worked. At first, I didn’t have a clue how Pizzatime would work. But once I’d mapped out the processes and automated the time-consuming stuff, everything fell into place.” A small team of humans helps fulfill orders, Josh admits, but ordering, validation, and tracking are all automated. 

From Minimum Viable Product to $1.4 Million Annual Revenue

Every bootstrapped founder is racing to prove product-market fit. Planetary supplied enough funding for the Pizzatime MVP which was little more than a website (built on Webflow) and Typeform with an Airtable database on the backend. “We cobbled it together with spit and gum but it held long enough for us to prove people wanted it. We wrote very little code.”

For the first six months, Pizzatime lost a few dollars on every order while Josh figured out pricing and refined the service. “Our first few months were all about testing pricing, automation, cost reduction, and so on. Slowly, we found ways of doing things a bit cheaper, a bit smarter, and over time, went from a net negative run-rate to turning a profit.” 

With virtually zero marketing budget, Josh launched Pizzatime on ProductHunt to acclaim from Ryan Hoover. Quartz and Zapier also ran with the story. Those backlinks alone ranked Pizzatime top of “virtual pizza party” search results on Google. Over 2,000 paying customers and $1.4 million in revenue later, Josh is looking beyond SEO to help Pizzatime scale. 

“Pizzatime might seem like a novelty and sort of started as one but it’s not just about remote teambuilding,” Josh said. “Sales and conferencing might’ve gone virtual but still has an attendance problem. But would you turn down a webinar or sales demo with free pizza? We see huge potential and we’ll probably hire a growth marketer soon to exploit this opportunity.”

Josh has also considered offering a subscription service as well as building a network of “pizza partners” to grease the logistics rails, but is still working on the details. Also on the cards is an extended lunch menu that goes beyond pizza to lighter, healthier meals. 

Josh, top and center, enjoying coffee and pastry with his Pizzatime team

How Josh Overcame The Time Constraints of Bootstrapping

Josh and his team worked long hours at Planetary to fund Pizzatime’s launch. There were only so many hours in the day and time was precious. With little funding and few staff, Josh had to be extremely picky, working on only a handful of tasks per week. While outside investment would’ve solved this problem, bootstrapping forced Pizzatime to be an agile, efficient startup.

“Every week, I had to choose one or two priorities, which usually meant understading what the outcome of that thing would be. And that’s not easy when you have a hundred things crying for attention. Usually, I just picked what I thought was best and then dropped it if I didn’t see results. It brought focus but I was always worrying whether or not I was focusing on the right things.”

Running a digital agency to organizing virtual pizza parties is one helluva pivot. But this is what builders do. A natural programmer, Josh started coding Visual Basic as a teenager and then progressed to HTML and JavaScript. At just 12 years old, he was building and maintaining several softball league websites, earning an adolescent’s fortune doing what he enjoyed.

“After college, I worked at a SaaS startup for about a year but hated it. Freelancing was just too much fun. I then stopped stressing about what I ought to be doing and instead just did what I enjoyed. That’s how Planetary started, and it was the same with Pizzatime. Did I ever expect to run a virtual catering business? Hell no. But when you’re having fun, who cares?”

We couldn’t agree more. 

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