Thumbtack Never Misses a Beat
What happens when a software engineer wants a change of pace? They buy a restaurant, of course. At least, that’s what John Ha did.
Now CEO of Bear Robotics, Ha spent more than 15 years with companies like Intel and Google before he bought the Kang Nam Tofu House in Milpitas, California — and discovered a whole new set of problems to solve.
“Restaurants provide memorable moments people enjoy and celebrate,” Ha said. “But behind the curtain, you’ll find hard workers with low salaries. And fast, stressful operations. It’s a tough business.”
Robots make a tough business easier—and more profitable
Ha founded Bear Robotics in 2017 to design a robot that could make the job easier. By automating most of the running and heavy lifting, Ha hoped to help restaurant staff serve more customers while spending more time with each table—improving customer experience, increasing tips, and raising profit margins to the point that restaurants could provide benefits for their workers, like insurance plans and 401(k)s.
But building a robot that can carry food and drinks to designated tables and bus dirty dishes away while navigating smoothly around chairs and moving human beings takes a lot of work. Bear Robotics started limited testing in a single location of Amici’s Pizza near the close of 2017. They spent the next two years perfecting the robot, getting it ready for mass-market rollout.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Juan Higueros, Bear Robotics co-founder and COO, explains.
“Because of the COVID pandemic, a lot of our customers are now about 30% understaffed. Our solution helps them manage the load, saving restaurant workers as much as 25 miles of walking each week. That’s basically a full marathon.”
From early adopters to global market
The robot, originally named Penny after the character in The Big Bang Theory and now named Servi, is becoming wildly popular—and not just in the US. Several thousand of them have already been deployed in restaurants that include household names like Denny’s and Chili’s as well as markets in Japan, Korea, and Singapore.
With sales growing on both sides of the globe, the company had to ramp up fast. Bear Robotics needed a top finance team to modernize the back office, not just for their own organization but to satisfy investors.
Today, Nikki Sanchez is their Global Controller, helping the Silicon Valley startup become an international sensation.
“It’s always a challenging transition,” Sanchez told us, “getting from those early adopters to a global market. It’s not just a marketing problem. It’s a back-office problem. You have to manage a whole new level of spending and income, with ready answers when the C-suite needs them. It’s exciting, but it’s a struggle if you don’t have the right technology.”
Seeking a payment solution, for speed and control
Even as Bear Robotics was dipping its mechanical toe into global expansion, the back office was still using the same manual processes they had started with. Invoices came in and went out by mail or email. All their accounting records and payments were entered by hand, with very little visibility into real-time spend, let alone future cash flows.
That kind of manual system wasn’t sustainable, and the team knew it.
“Most startups are set up that way,” Sanchez said, “but an ad hoc system doesn’t scale when a team moves beyond development into production. Manual invoices, whether they’re coming in or going out, take too many people-hours. It isn’t efficient. And the sheer volume makes oversight and approvals hard to manage.”
Higueros agreed. “We realized early on that we needed to get our spending under control,” he said. “Not so much the amounts as the process. We needed to work fast, but we couldn’t let that urgency keep us from being thorough with our financial oversight. We needed both. We needed speed and control.”
For Bear Robotics, the problem wasn’t just about day-to-day operations. Taking the company to the next level would require new funding—the kind of funding that would demand clear transparency into the numbers, with strong oversight and accountability.
“As we started raising our series A, our lead investor told us to begin the process of formalizing internal controls and preparing our finances for audit,” Higueros said. “We needed a good view on where spend was going and we needed the right levels of approvals so things didn’t get out of hand. At this crucial time, we turned to Bill.com.”
Automation that transforms markets
From the beginning, Bear Robotics has been a company with a lot of moving parts. Literally. What they’re selling isn’t only a robot but the software that goes with it—from the AI that helps the robot do its job to the tracking system that proves just how much time and effort each machine is saving busy restaurant teams.
“We have several different departments procuring goods. We needed to provide an audit trail to understand who was doing what,” Higueros explained. “Bill.com helps with our controls. It shows us who’s procuring what, who’s reviewing what. If you have a $200k invoice, you can feel comfortable knowing it has all the right eyes on it.”
“We won’t process an invoice unless it goes through Bill.com.”
— Juan Higueros, COO, Bear Robotics
Centralizing their invoices and payments in the cloud has had a huge impact on the efficiency of their back office during audits as well as day-day operations.
Bill.com: changing the way Bear Robotics does business
“Before Bill.com, going through audits involved a lot of time trying to find invoices that were scattered throughout the organization in people’s inboxes,” Sanchez added. “Now, Bill.com serves as a central repository for our global team. When I’m sleeping, our people in India can process invoices that I see on the other side of the world.”
And, with digital approvals routed automatically to the right people no matter where they are, that same invoice can span the globe in a heartbeat to keep their supply line moving.
“The Bill.com mobile app has changed the way I work,” Higueros said. “Our accountants can ask me to approve something, and no matter where I am, I can open the app on my phone and approve it.”
Once an invoice has been approved, paying it is as easy as a few clicks.
“Bill.com has a plethora of payments! It’s great having different forms available to us on one platform: we send out checks, do a lot of ACH, and a lot of international wires too,” Sanchez told us. “Just the other day our sales team received an invoice that was higher than the limit on our credit card. With Bill.com, making that payment was easy.”
The future of Bear Robotics
So what does Bear Robotics plan to do next?
“We’re launching robots in key franchise restaurants,” Higueros told us, “proving Servi’s ROI for franchise rollouts across the US. We’re expanding our presence in Japan and Korea. We’re expanding into southeast Asia and Australia. We’re going wherever we’re needed.
"We’re also migrating to NetSuite,” Higueros continued. “Of course, we're going to keep using Bill.com because it's such a great tool for our organization. It's been terrific since the beginning—from the time we were 20 people to where we are now. And it will scale with us for the future that lies ahead."
In a few short years, Bear Robotics has come a long way from that tofu restaurant in Milpitas, California, and now has the foundation to continue to expand.
“We’re focused on growing,” Sanchez notes.
“Our time shouldn’t be spent on processing administrative mundane tasks,
but on value-added activities. I’ve always been a strong proponent of automation.
Let’s focus on what counts and adds value to the company. What we’re doing for restaurants, Bill.com helps us do for our own back office.”
— Nicole Sanchez, Global Controller, Bear Robotics