Our guest on the latest GeekWire radio show and podcast was veteran entrepreneur Steve Murch, the CEO of Seattle-based BigOven, which offers online services and apps devoted to recipes, shopping and other aspects of modern meal-making — tapping a large user-generated database of recipes.
We talked about a range of topics, including how Murch competes against much larger rivals, the latest features BigOven has been adding, the company’s mobile strategy, and the bigger aspirations Murch has for using the business to make a difference in the world.
Continue reading for edited excerpts from our conversation.
So how did you come up with the idea for BigOven?
Murch: I’m a home cook, and got tired especially of the grocery list process. It was 2 o’clock every day and you’d be looking at an empty fridge, and saying what the heck can we make. And now as a dad of three young kids, it’s pretty difficult sometimes to get out of the rut. I thought there might be an opportunity for an app that I could carry with me to the grocery store and say, what am I going to make tonight?
You’ve applied technology to really what’s an age-old problem. We’ve still got an old-fashioned recipe box in our house. How do you convince people, what do you give them in terms of technology, to improve upon what they’ve used for years?
Murch: It actually goes back to the early days of personal computing. If you look at the early ads for the Apple II+, the early ads for dBase and other applications, you see that they’re always advertising recipes in the home. There’s kind of a reason for that. One is there’s a big demand for organizing and searching your catalog of things at home. Google actually reported that about 1 percent of all their queries are on recipes.
Then there’s the issue of trying to watch your nutrition. There are a lot of people who are looking to reduce sodium intake, eat better low-carb meals or reduce fat. There’s unfortunately a pretty big epidemic of diabetes in America. Computers can really help with that. They can help recommend what you should make, they keep track of what you can make, they also can say here’s what’s fresh and what’s seasonal. And now with mobile apps you can actually be in the grocery store. You can say, ‘Hey, these avocados are on sale, what can I make?’
Speaking of the grocery store, you just came out with something that will help people plan their meals and figure out what to buy when they’re in the grocery store. What is that, and how is it working?
Murch: That’s right, we just went to beta with a new feature called Menu Planner. It is a meal calendar for figuring out what you’re going to make. And it’s a smart meal calendar. So actually there’s an iPad app that has the weather forecast built in, so it will show you the next five days. But also it does things like remember what you’ve made in the past, so you can copy date ranges and once you get to the point of planning a whole month, you can say, well, let’s just duplicate that. And then you can look back and say, how well did I eat? What sort of calorie intake did the family do? Did I use up all the ingredients? Another thing we’re trying to solve is that Americans are incredibly wasteful about the food that we buy. We throw away about 27 percent of what we buy, which is astonishing to me.
Where do you get the recipes that you feature on the site?
They’re all contributed by users around the world. Right now we have about 1.4 million members. About 1,000 people join every day. And they post recipes — we get lots of recipes — photos, ratings. People can actually say this is the very best way to make a chocolate chip cookie, and that sorts to the top. There are different arguments that happen on the site about that, because people get passionate about food. It’s a very important thing in daily life, and people like to talk about it, which is one of the reasons I chose that category.
One of the cool things that you also just launched is called RecipeScan. Can you explain what that’s all about?
Murch: One of the most frequent requests we got coming into our support desk was, hey, I really like this idea of putting my recipes in the cloud, “I love getting them at the grocery store. It would be really cool to be able to look up the magazine Fine Cooking if I had it. I’d love to look up my grandmother’s recipe for how to make this fish dish.” Our response for about a year or two was, well, hire a local college student to type them in for you and you’ll have them. Instead what we did was we released a feature where actually people on our end will type that in. So you can actually just whip out your iPhone or Android or Windows Phone, or iPad 2 if you’ve got a camera on it, and you can open up that recipe box or the magazine to the page that you want, snap a photo of it, click upload, and then in a couple hours you’ll get an email back saying it’s ready for you in the cloud. Then you can add it to the calendar, you get the calorie count, you get all kinds of useful stuff.
You worked at Microsoft and then started a company called VacationSpot.com, which was purchased by Expedia, worked at Expedia, and then came out and started BigOven up. And the thing that’s always struck me about BigOven is that it’s a true bootstrapper story. You’ve built a very successful online recipe site basically as a one-man (company). How did you do that?
Murch: Thanks. For the last year or so, I’ve had the great privilege of working with now four really exceptional contractors, but for the first seven years or so, it’s been me. … It’s fantastic. It depends on the individual, but for me, I did work at Microsoft and did start a company in 1997 called VacationSpot.com. That was really enjoyable. Joined Expedia, pretty fast-growing company at that time, with a great group of people.
I left in 2001, really wanting to have a sandbox to play in. I like to cook, and I also wanted something to force me to stay current. And a bit like the ambition of an author who wants to see a book on the shelf, I wanted to see, hey, can I write a piece of software that people will actually buy. Can I do it all by myself. It was a bit of a challenge and it was really enjoyable.
And you have big-time competitors here. You’re not just competing against a bunch of mom and pops. And yet you’ve been able to carve your niche. How have you done that? I think some of the entrepreneurs in the audience might want to hear that.
Murch: For us, I think mobile has been a very important part of that story.
Murch: We’re a really fast innovator. We were first to iPhone, first to iPad, first to Windows Phone, first to Android and hopefully first to Kindle Fire when they come out, with a mobile app for recipes.
And is that enough, just to be first?
Murch: It’s been amazing. Right now, about 60 percent of our usage is via mobile. And it’s going up, it’s doing nothing but going up, at any given moment there are probably 400, 500 people who are online with BigOven, of which about 300 are from the mobile apps. So if you look at the number of people joining and registering for the site, before we released an iPhone app in October of 2008, there were about 70 people joining a day. The day that we released it, we got 200,000 downloads and over 100,000 new registrants. So it’s pretty astonishing, the difference.
A lot of people these days are eating out, or ordering in. How do you approach that, and what kinds of things do you see in terms of usage of your recipes for more traditional family meals.
Murch: That really is one of the big goals that I have for BigOven. I do think that eating out is terrific. I enjoy it one or two nights a week. But it really is true, if you look at the data, that the nightly family meal is actually really highly correlated with success factors in a family. The National Merit Scholarship organization did some research trying to figure out, hey, what’s the highest correlation with the people, the students who are doing well on these tests. They looked at socioeconomic factors, they looked at gender issues, they looked at which schools they went to, and they couldn’t come up with anything until they asked the question, how often do you eat dinner with your family. And that turned out to be the No. 1 thing that was correlated with National Merit Scholars. It’s the No. 1 think that’s correlated with low drug use in college.
When I was at Expedia, there was a marketing research firm that presented some data that said the No. 1 thing that kids want in a vacation is more opportunities to eat with their family. If you think about the busy lifestyles that we’ve got right now, people are standing up at the counter. I think food is a special thing, and it ought to be savored and enjoyed. And if we can help move that along, that’s important to me.
[Also see this blog post by Murch on the subject of family mealtime.]
Listen to the full show here or directly via this MP3 file. You can get every episode of GeekWire using this RSS feed, or subscribe in iTunes or Zune. We’ll be back with another installment this weekend on GeekWire.com and at 7 a.m. Saturday on 97.3 KIRO-FM in the Seattle region.