Marie Schneegans got her introduction to the work world through an internship at financial giant UBS in Switzerland in 2012. Initially excited, she quickly found herself lost in its sea of workers.
“At lunch, I would always eat alone,” she says, recalling many sandwiches eaten at her desk. “I felt very unhappy and isolated in that work environment.”
Schneegans decided to shake things up. She began knocking on doors to find lunch companions and scheduled breakfast meetings with team members. The result? “People were surprised, but most of the time they said yes,” and Schneegans began feeling more engaged with her colleagues — and with the work itself. She even found herself dining with the company’s CEO.
Realizing she had identified a real need in the modern workplace, Schneegans soon decided to bring her remedy to the corporate masses. In 2015, she launched Never Eat Alone, an app that helps employees at large companies connect with one another over a meal.
Today, her company — which has 17 employees, and offices in Paris and New York City — works with more than 70 firms with at least 500 employees each. It currently pulls in under $1 million in revenue annually, and has raised about $1.5 million in investment capital for expansion. Now, Schneegans plans to grow her venture internationally and promote community within companies everywhere she goes.
“I always wanted to make a big impact,” she says, even if she didn’t know how. “When I saw the problem, I wanted to create a solution.”
A Lonely Fish in a Giant Pond
Schneegans was born and raised in Switzerland, then educated in France at the Université Paris Dauphine. It was toward the end of her schooling that she took on the internship in UBS’s wealth management department.
When she began sharing meals with co-workers in an effort to get to know people, she quickly discovered benefits beyond expanding her social circle. “I started learning more about the company, improving my network and jumpstarting my projects.”
That experience greatly informed her concept for Never Eat Alone. Here’s how it works: Employees of participating companies can, if they want to, sign up to join their company network within the app. Participants fill out a form that asks about things like their skills and interests, and then matches them with other employees who have commonalities. The co-workers can schedule meals or simply keep in touch by chatting through the app.
With a detailed plan mapped out, Schneegans took part in a startup competition held by StartupBus in Germany and won a spot in its sister incubator, StartupHouse in San Francisco. There, she developed her concept further, before moving to Paris and turning it into a full-fledged business. Once Never Eat Alone was available for both iPhone and Android users, she got to work securing clients — early wins included insurance giant Allianz, energy company Engie and infrastructure firm Vinci.
As she built her client roster, Schneegans also dedicated time to building the sort of friendly corporate culture that she hopes to bring to her clients. Never Eat Alone operates out of a house with a garden “where we walk around in slippers,” she says. It also offers free food and yoga.
But more importantly, it also offers transparency and a free flow of communication. “We keep sharing our vision and mission with the team, and I really feel that this is the true reason why they are engaged. The perks are nice, but it’s the soul of the company that makes them come to work every day.”
Getting Major Players On Board
Schneegans always knew she was onto something with Never Eat Alone — and that all she needed to do was convince other companies that her idea was worth their investment. “Frankly, it just required a lot of hustling and hard work.”
Currently in her mid-20s, she says her age was something of a barrier at the start, though not for long. “As soon as I showed I was totally dedicated to this, it actually turned into an advantage,” she says. “People started to understand that my motivation was very genuine. And as companies really care about attracting millennials, they felt it made sense that a millennial would be leading this company.”
She also reminds clients that forging relationships with and between colleagues is about much more than making friends. It’s about increasing productivity, improving the quality of everyone’s work output and promoting employee retention — all corporate goals that can be undermined by isolation, she says.
Research backs these claims. A 2015 study led by associate professor Jessica Methot of Rutgers University found that having office friends improves job performance.
Overall, Never Eat Alone’s approach has proven effective at bringing employees together, she says. Some executives have even used the app to keep themselves connected to the rank and file, for example using it to facilitate monthly meetings with an employee selected at random.
Improving the Quality of Corporate Life
Schneegans isn’t stopping at lunch appointments. She and her team are now developing a new platform called Workwell that will centralize employee access to services available at their workplace, such as cafeteria menus, meeting-room booking and carpooling options. A beta version is already being implemented by several clients, she says.
She also wants to bring her products to as many people and places as possible. Her ultimate purpose is to help “employees of large corporations be happier and more connected at work,” so that everyone — from employees to managers to whole companies — may reap the benefits.
After all, young professionals like her are driving the creation of a new business world where the staid office environments of days gone by are shunned in favor of livelier workplaces, she says. “There is no way people are going to keep working for large corporations in the future unless work conditions improve.”