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Inspiration came for Jason Finger and Paul Appelbaum in a shabby pile of late-night restaurant delivery receipts. Law school classmates with shared entrepreneurial ambitions, Finger and Appelbaum started their careers as associates at O’Sullivan Graev & Karabell and Dewey Ballantine, respectively. But they continued to brainstorm frequently for business ideas. And as they looked around their offices and settled on the greasy, largely illegible restaurant receipts that associates seem to accumulate like pocket lint, it occurred to them that there had to be a better way. What if, they began to think, there was a place to use the Internet to organize the process of ordering meals and eliminate the tidal wave of paper that exasperates lawyers and their firms? Now there is. Finger and Appelbaum began linking law firms with a network of restaurants in December 1999, in a single Web-based application designed to save attorneys time, relieve firms’ accounting headaches and provide restaurants with new and steady streams of customers. Little more than a year later, the business they founded — SeamlessWeb Professional Solutions (http://www.seamlessweb.com/) — has as clients some 60 of Manhattan’s top 100 law firms, plus a handful of accounting firms and investment banks, and roughly 450 restaurants and catering companies as vendors. Law firm administrators and accounting departments are giving thanks. “I think it was just a brilliant idea on their part,” said Phyllis Bonsignore, the director of administration in the 90-lawyer New York office of Salans. “It really takes a load off of me. I don’t have to worry about going around and opening accounts at 500 restaurants just to please everybody. Our accounting staff is very happy about it. And it’s obviously a convenience to attorneys who are working late.” Finger, 28, and Appelbaum, 27, met in a study group in their first days of law school at New York University and immediately became friends. Appelbaum moved on to Dewey Ballantine after graduating in 1999, while Finger started at O’Sullivan Graev the following year, after completing his JD/MBA program. Both men said they enjoyed their short stint in practice, but that they were always on the lookout for something of their own. “Firm life was great, it was challenging and collegial,” Appelbaum explained. “But I wanted a little more of an entrepreneurial challenge, something where you walk into the office every day and there’s a new opportunity.” During Appelbaum’s days as an associate, Dewey Ballantine, like many firms, provided a velobound book of restaurant menus for lawyers and staff to use when ordering dinner. And he recalled his frustration at not knowing when restaurants in the book had gone out of business or changed their menus. “From the lawyer’s perspective, it’s so annoying not to know what vendors are open or closed,” Appelbaum said. “And we thought that this would provide a valuable service to both firms and their employees.” In addition, many firms allow their attorneys to use personal or corporate credit cards to pay for meals, and then submit the receipts for reimbursement, a process that involves a significant time commitment both for lawyers and the firm’s accounting staff. And as Finger and Appelbaum discussed the issue with administrators at their own and other firms, they got the same response. Administrators lamented the deluge of paper as hopelessly inefficient and a waste of time and money. “From the firm’s perspective,” Finger said, “SeamlessWeb eliminates an enormous, needless expense.” And the final link in the business plan — restaurants — had a natural interest in increasing their customer base. “The more we analyzed how the business would work, the more we realized that everyone would benefit,” Finger said. PILOT CLIENT The two men left their firms last March and began serving firms shortly thereafter, with O’Sullivan Graev as the first pilot client. Working as a two-man operation at first, the pair outsourced the technology work on the venture and worked on improving the site’s look and ease of use. SeamlessWeb’s current incarnation is appealingly simple to use. Employees at a firm, who are given a password into the system, choose a time of delivery and then view the range of available restaurants. Once they click on a restaurant, the entire menu appears and they simply click through it to complete the order, including details of preparation and special requests. The firm’s dollar limit for the meal comes up automatically. The chosen items are added against it and attorneys type in the appropriate client code to eliminate confusion. Within minutes, SeamlessWeb has passed on the order to the restaurant and sent a confirmation e-mail to the lawyer with the time of delivery. There is also a 24-hour customer service line for help. “I was going to be prejudiced in favor of the site [anyway] but I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said John Keiserman, a law school classmate of Finger and Appelbaum who is now an associate at Dewey Ballantine. “It’s really easy. You go on, you click on it, you hit send/order and you’re done.” For firms, the savings in terms of time and money are significant. They receive a single bill from SeamlessWeb, rather than a slew of invoices from various restaurants. And the sheer legibility of the client codes on the orders means that the firms’ efforts to recover the money from clients are greatly expedited. “It’s so much easier for accounting purposes,” said Liz Broadbent, assistant office administrator in the New York office of Morrison & Foerster. “It saves a lot of paperwork and it saves a lot of time.” Bonsignore of Salans said that her firm will be phasing out its pre-existing house accounts in the next few months and doing all of its ordering through SeamlessWeb. For restaurants and catering companies that have signed on as vendors — the list includes establishments such as Burger Heaven, Burritoville, Tossed and Joe’s Shanghai, to name a few — the clear appeal is access to new sources of customers. “It’s been helpful to me because it’s brought our company, our business and our food to law firms with which we had not done business and who I don’t know if we would have been able to approach,” said Manhattan Chili Company owner Bruce Sterman, whose two midtown Manhattan restaurants deal with about 20 law firms through SeamlessWeb. He said his main concern now is to make sure that the increase in his business occurs gradually enough that he can bring on the staff to handle it. INCREMENTAL STEPS To that end, Finger and Appelbaum have made a point of expanding in incremental steps. SeamlessWeb has focused on the midtown and Wall Street areas to date, although there are now plans to expand into other areas. That restraint — and the ability to make money now from contracts with firms and vendors — has been to the company’s benefit as the climate for startups has soured in recent months. As dot-coms continue to go up in smoke, SeamlessWeb has just gone through a second round of venture capital financing. The company now has 13 full-time employees in offices on Sixth Avenue near Bryant Park. “One of the nice things about it is we’re not one of the technology companies of old, where we have to lose money to gain market share and make money later,” Finger said. “We make money on every transaction. We’re here to stay.”

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