We’ve all been frustrated by the experience of splitting a restaurant check or having to wait for a server to close a tab before you can pay. All of us have gone out with a group of friends, then struggled to divide up the tab fairly at the end of the night. That’s assuming you can even track down your server, and that he or she’s willing to split the check multiple ways. If only there was a way to make the whole restaurant payment process simple, easy and fast.

Thanks to The Coca-Cola Company, there is now a way to make group dining easy and fun. BillBoss, a free smartphone app, gives users the freedom to split the bill how and when they want. Even better, users can settle up faster in a busy restaurant without the awkward “air scribble” to summon a server.

With BillBoss, restaurant patrons can pay from their mobile phones and leave whenever they need to. If you’ve ever been out to eat with a child in mid-tantrum, you know how valuable that freedom can be.

But why would Coke build a mobile payment platform for restaurants?

“As a company, we are focused on building strong brands, driving system capabilities and creating value for our customers,” explains Chief Financial Officer Kathy Waller, one of several executive sponsors of BillBoss. “BillBoss is a small, but innovative example of the last. And by scaling the app through our vast network of foodservice partners, BillBoss has the potential to drive efficiency, collect valuable feedback and enhance targeted marketing capabilities for both Coca-Cola and our restaurant partners.”

BillBoss

The BillBoss smartphone app gives restaurant patrons the freedom to split the check how and when they want.

Amy Sparks

Whitney Hagan, a member of Coca-Cola’s Mergers & Acquisitions department, who dreamed up BillBoss based on her own personal frustrations when dining out with friends, says BillBoss is also an engagement tool for Millennials. “If Coke can use its massive network to solve a very annoying and recurring problem for this demographic, that’s a huge step in earning brand admiration and loyalty,” she says. “And since BillBoss is only available at Coke restaurants, consumers will also start to naturally associate a positive food and beverage experience with Coca-Cola.”

Hagan’s inspiration came shortly after she graduated from Cornell University and began her job as an analyst in the M&A department at age 22. She dined out with friends multiple times per week and was puzzled by the lack of a mobile solution that could make the payment experience easier, faster and fun.

Her frustration came to a head when a friend chose to celebrate her birthday with a small happy hour instead of a big group dinner simply because she didn’t want to deal with the buzzkill of a large bill at the end of the night. “The idea that someone would change their plans because of the awkwardness of splitting the bill seemed crazy to me,” says Hagan.

After a few weeks of research, she concluded that while several competitive apps existed, many were cumbersome and lacked the core functionality of splitting the bill by item, or even dividing the cost of a menu item (like an appetizer) with a fellow diner.

That’s when a light went off. “I realized through the work I was doing in M&A that I worked at a company that had the sales force and merchant relationships to scale this app overnight,” Hagan said.

Many inside Coke say the BillBoss project shows that even the smallest ideas can go a long way with the right stewardship and support. 

 

Amy Sparks

But Hagan was working in corporate finance – not software development. Enter Marie Quintero-Johnson, vice president and director of Mergers & Acquisitions, a member of Coke’s Innovation Steering Committee, and the BillBoss project’s first supporter. With Quintero-Johnson’s backing, Hagan received a very small amount of seed funding from Coke as well as the freedom and “air cover” to pitch her idea across multiple functions and businesses within the company, including Food Service, IT and Marketing.

Selling the concept internally wasn’t easy. “I pitched BillBoss to over 70 people over the course of 18 months,” Hagan said. “It took a while to find someone who would take a chance on a different kind of innovation project.”

With the help and guidance of Quintero-Johnson and others in the M&A department, including Shellie Davis, Hagan refined her pitch and ultimately landed Alex Cummings, Coke’s chief administrative officer, who backed the idea on its merits but also as a means to encourage innovation at Coke.

“I was struck by the fact that she had this frustrating journey,” says Cummings, who retired earlier this year. “But I was also impressed by Whitney’s passion and determination to get an answer – one way or another.”  

Cummings was intrigued, not only with the BillBoss idea, but with the process of driving a project from concept to pilot within the company. For him, these learnings were as important as the deliverable. 

Hagan pulled together a volunteer team including two fellow members of Coke’s Millennial Voices group, Georges Durot and Marty Styles. Durot crafted BillBoss’ marketing campaign, and Styles helped manage the app development process and submission to the Apple App Store. “There is no way I could have done this alone or without the support of my managers and the 20 or so members of the BillBoss team who were critical to the success of the project,” Hagan said. Atlanta-based Bluefletch Mobile handled the app development.

Greg Chambers, a digital architect in Coke’s IT department, heard Hagan’s pitch and decided to help. “There are a lot of places where customers are time sensitive,” he said. “Anyone who has traveled for business knows the urgency of needing to catch a plane while waiting for your check. I thought that building an offering to address that space could be very powerful.”

One key differentiator (and challenge) of developing BillBoss as a mobile payment platform for restaurants is that it ties directly into a restaurant’s point-of-sale system. The upside is that users can see their table’s itemized order from within their app, select what’s theirs, split individual items any numbers of ways, and pay right from their phone. 

According to Styles, “Many users have indicated that the visual drag-and-split features through which they claim their portion of the bill actually make the process of paying fun.” 

All data, including consumer ratings and comments, will flow back to Coke and the restaurants that utilize BillBoss. And Coke benefits in many ways. 

“BillBoss has the potential to uncover which dishes appeal to various demographics, and which ones drive the purchase of Coke products more than others,” adds Durot. 

BillBoss is currently being tested with La Parrilla, a Mexican restaurant with 21 locations in the Southeast. Matt Zlotnick, an account manager and sales rep for Coca-Cola, helped secure La Parilla’s Howell Mill location for the pilot. “La Parrilla was everything the BillBoss team was looking for,” says Zlotnick, noting the restaurant’s appeal to large groups of diners, which tend to create complicated bill-splitting scenarios.

Enoc Perez, chief information officer at La Parrilla, was drawn to the opportunity because BillBoss allows La Parrilla to offer its guests a convenient payment tool while potentially speeding up table turnover, increasing tips, collecting feedback and driving traffic for the restaurant.

Many hope that the BillBoss project can serve as an internal innovation case study, demonstrating the fact that even the smallest ideas can go a long way with the right stewardship and support. Coke’s management also sees BillBoss as a step towards a more entrepreneurial culture; one that is designed to harness valuable ideas generated by passionate employees worldwide.

“Internal innovation is very important because the alternative is to pay billions of dollars for new brands and products because we haven’t experimented enough internally,” Cummings said.  

Employees and Atlanta-area diners are encouraged to visit La Parrilla’s Howell Mill location in Atlanta and try BillBoss during the next month. The app is currently only available for iOS, and can be downloaded in the app store for free