“We took everything we knew about digital products, and applied it to cooking”

Failed startups teach us many valuable lessons. Our co-founder John Chang, passionately interested in all things related to foodtech and sustainability, shares a few of them.

"You come up with a solution, build it and think everybody is going to want it, but that’s not the case."
Has food has always been an interest of yours?

I’ve been interested in food since I lived in California and was surrounded by great food, and I became interested in environmental sustainability as well. I wanted to work in that area, although I didn’t have a specific plan. But then I went on a trip with a friend that changed things. We went to Singapore so we could escape the winter in Sweden and, by the end of the trip, we had a company.

The idea was to make recipes come to life. Usually recipes are composed by text and nice photos, showing what it could look like, but we thought could do so much more to enable people to actually visualize and interact with the recipes.

How did it work?

Google Maps tells you to go from point A to point B not by text, but by visually showing you and taking you step by step. We thought we could do the same thing with recipes. The underlying idea would be that if you make something easier, then more people would do it, and there’s a lot of value in getting people back to their kitchens to cook. Food isn’t just about nutrients. Food stands at the core of all human cultures. Food, specifically cooking food, is part of what makes us human.

In the modern world, however, cooking is seen as a chore. It takes time, energy, and know-how. At the end of a busy day, even for those who like to cook, it can be tempting to reach for easier options.

We cared about cooking because it is economical, it puts us in control of our diets, it brings people together, it roots us in our identities, it connects us to the natural world, it activates all our senses, it is a creative act, it ultimately makes us more human.

This is why we truly believed that making cooking easier can make the world a better place.

Basically, if we made cooking easier, more people would do it. So we took everything we knew about building digital products and making them easier to use, and applied that to cooking.

What steps did you take?

We started a company! It was the first I created. The first problem was immediate. My co-founder was working in a startup which got bought and contractually he still had to be there for several months, so he couldn’t commit to our startup full time. Additionally, he had another company he had started years ago with another friend that needed his help at the time. So over time he lost interest in our idea. Truth is I would never have started the company by myself, but ended up trying to do almost everything alone, which was not an ideal situation.

So how did you advance the idea?

We came up with a proof of concept and ended up changing the idea into an API for buying groceries. It was designed to be a middle layer between supermarkets and cooking websites. You could be looking at a recipe and order the ingredients to be delivered through the API.

Opposed to micro-level decisions about products and brands, what people really care about are higher level goals such as being healthier, or losing weight. The original idea was the computer understanding recipes and visualizing and transforming them. From that we went to programatically ordering groceries for the recipes. We wanted to enable developers to be doing much more innovative and interesting stuff for retailers - like meal kits, personalization… all to make cooking and getting groceries that much easier.

And it didn’t work - what do you think were the factors in play?

Being an only founder was hard, and I learned that selling and hustling are really important and hard, but it's not something that I enjoy. Another thing was the mindset. As engineers you come up with a solution, build it and think everybody is going to want it, but that’s not the case. I learned the hard way the importance of doing market validation, customer development, and so on. I also learned the importance of having a solid co-founder and how hard it is to recruit and build a team. Ideas are worthless if you can't execute.

But would you try to create a company again?

Yes, I'm passionate about food and sustainability, specifically with the climate crisis, and I'm keen to doing everything I can about it.

"You come up with a solution, build it and think everybody is going to want it, but that’s not the case."