Conversation with Jess Dang, Founder of Cook Smarts
Empowering Cooks in the Kitchen
September 12, 2018
1. What is your business?
My business is called Cook Smarts, and for the past seven years, we’ve focused on helping people become more confident in the kitchen. Because Home Economics is not being taught in schools anymore, there’s no real place for people to learn essential cooking skills. I feel that with all the health issues we have–like obesity and diabetes–that bringing cooking back into people’s lives is important.
Our main product is a meal planning and recipe service. We figured that we could help subscribers solve the problem of getting dinner on the table and deliver a mini cooking lesson at the same time. Every week our subscribers get a Cook Smarts online meal plan, they can pick from an array of mains and side dishes and serving sizes, and they can select all or some of the meal recipes we have planned. Cook Smarts offer four dinners every week and each dinner has gluten-free, paleo, and vegetarian options. You can switch back-and-forth between these options however you please. We are not delivering ingredients, but we do translate our subscribers’ chosen recipes into a grocery list that works on Instacart. Did you know people spend 40% more at the grocery store when they don’t have a list? A meal plan makes a huge difference so you don’t spend money on food that you don’t need.
We also create videos that show you key prep and cooking skills like how to chop an onion properly or how to prepare a butternut squash for roasting. And we are known for our infographics that give overviews on spices and cooking theory.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I started Cook Smarts when I turned 30. When I was 17 years old, I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. I was donating blood for a school blood in ’98, and I got a letter a couple weeks later saying they couldn’t take my blood donation because I tested positive for Hepatitis C. The diagnosis opened up a totally different path for me because at that point Hepatitis C was still relatively unknown. Turns out, that I got the virus from a blood transfusion that I had when I was born in ‘81 because they weren’t testing for that virus in donation samples. I started going to the doctor a lot once I learned I had Hepatitis C and had a liver biopsy. I ended up on chemotherapy for a year when I was 19. The disease changed my life completely.
It changed my perspective on health and what I can do to control it. Hepatitis C is completely uncontrollable for me, but there are things I can control. I can decide what to eat and how I take care of my body. I was deemed cured at the end of my year of treatment, and I went on with my life with annual check-ups. But, always looming in the back of my mind was the possibility of the disease returning. There wasn’t much data about the length of time of the cure. I didn’t know if I’d live to be 25 or 80 so I promised myself that whatever was going on that if I made it to 30, I’d stop doing whatever I was doing and do something in health.
The month after I turned 30, I quit my corporate job and started Cook Smarts. I didn’t really know what it was going to be, but I knew I loved cooking, that we needed to get more people in the kitchen to give them skills to take control of their health. The first year was a lot of experimentation, and it ended up being a great time to figure out a business.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
The first year I taught in-home cooking classes. I taught mainly two different demographics: a class of teenage moms and in-home personalized lessons for mothers. Across the whole spectrum, it didn’t matter your income level, everyone had the same three challenges.
The first is that everyone is busy and has limited time. People don’t have time to sit and think of a plan. But in the working world, we sit and make a plan to do something–I feel like that same concept needed to be applied at home to make things run efficiently. The second is that nobody had the knowledge. We aren’t taught how to cook in school, and somehow we expect to go into the kitchen and know what to do. Lots of people need to get dinner on the table but don’t have time to take an online cooking course, so I wanted to create a meal planning service. There are lots of meal delivery services that require people to do the cooking, so it felt to me like what I was envisioning was possible and would have demand. Lastly, because people don’t have time, they are rushed and they don’t have the skills, their time in the kitchen just feels like really stressful. They don’t find their time in the kitchen to be very pleasant.
In the early days when Blue Apron was gaining steam, I wondered if these companies would put me out of business. But, interestingly, the meal delivery companies actually became a lead generator for us. People who used them got in the habit of cooking, but the plans either became too expensive to continue or burdensome in some way. Our demographic is classic middle-class families who care about budgets, and when they have a grocery list they stick to it. Most of these folks are dedicated to cooking to save money.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
We live in Silicon Valley, so when I was getting the business off the ground, I assumed I would go the startup route and try to get funding. My husband was already working at a venture-backed company, and his advice to me was that our family shouldn’t have two venture-backed employers due to the pressure. So, I own 100% of the business and have boot-strapped it all the way.
I was trying to build a web app, and I figured having a technical co-founder would be helpful. For the most part, I was meeting guys in their 20s who weren’t excited by the concept. I was literally told “This is a mom’s product” or “This isn’t super-sexy” (which it’s not). What those guys didn’t get is that Cook Smarts is a utility and something people need. After a few months of meeting with potential technical co-founders and engineers that didn’t feel productive, I decided to teach myself how to code. So, I signed up for a RailsBridge conference–RailsBridge is a nonprofit that helps women learn Ruby on Rails.
At one of their workshops, I sat next to a woman who was going through a major career change. She was an editor for Living Social, and she decided she wanted to be a software engineer. I told her about my project, and she mentioned she needed a portfolio project. So, for the next six months, she was focused on learning all the backend stuff and I was focused on learning front-end design. Six months later we kind of jammed our code together and launched the website.
5. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
I bootstrapped it. I never took out a small business loan, but as we made money we invested, hired staff and did marketing. We never had a big outlay of cash that we could use to do heavy marketing or real experimentation with. That’s the biggest resource constraint for us, marketing is really expensive and we just never had a bucket of money to play with and do some testing.
6. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
There are a number of things! In regard to service, we were voted Life Hacker number one meal planner a few years ago and that brought us a lot of good press. We were on The Today Show and showcased against companies like Hello Fresh and other larger companies that had venture funding.
But the greatest successes come from the community and our staff. When I started the company, I didn’t realize how big of a component that community would be. We have great customers who have been with us since the beginning and have seen how we started, how scrappy we were, and how we have improved. Those customers have helped grow this community, they were a part of it. Our Facebook Group “Kitchen Heroes” with thousands of enthusiastic members is a testament. People love sharing photos of their meals, their kids eating the meals, mini successes in the kitchen. They ask all sorts of questions and before you know it 20 people are answering it, it’s been a great part of the business that I didn’t expect.
And my staff, I’ve hired some really amazing people that I just love working with. A lot of them are stay-at-home moms. There is such a huge group of underutilized capital with moms–they want to get back in the workforce but the way the workforce is structure doesn’t always give them that opportunity. Since we are bootstrapped, we can’t hire a full-time marketing or customer service person so it’s been a great asset for us to have this pool of talent.
7. What are some of your current challenges?
The marketing space scares me because some of the marketing dollars we have spent seem to have no ROI. We’ve tried hiring people and paying influencers, but none of it has worked well for us. It’s one of our biggest challenges–we just haven’t found what works for us yet. I think it may have to do with our price point, its low margin and we have a sense of our average lifetime value of a customer based on subscription cycle so we have a good sense on what we can spend.
We have a good following on Instagram, but the big change in their algorithm away from chronological order became a huge pain for our engagement. It’s funny because you chose to follow people but then you never see them in your feed. The reach on Facebook is also getting lower and lower as things get buried in the newsfeed. We have 140,000 followers on Facebook but get no reach. We spent all this time getting followers, but it doesn’t really matter because the company changed the business model so that companies have to advertise to reach their followers.
8. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
The first two or three years of the business were really hard. My biggest issue was trying to get things off the ground without money to pay anyone. I was doing everything myself and so burnt out. But then we got to a point where I could hire people, and run payroll, and pay myself.
I have two young kids and so much flexibility and autonomy in my schedule. I still work really hard but at the same time I can leave early on Mondays and Thursdays to pick up my kids at 4:00pm. I don’t have to check-in, and I think that’s the same for my staff, they have the same autonomy and ability to schedule however they want. Everyone knows their deadlines and they get their work done, outside of that people have complete freedom in their schedules.
And having kids has helped me realize there will always be a to-do list and to come to peace with that and not stress out. There are always going to be so many things to get done but I’ve really been able to shift my mindset to accept that it’s always going to be there but I’m not going to let it invade every part of my life and consume my mind. It’s just life.
9. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
I would love to launch a mobile app. I would like to continue growing our team and have people dedicated to every function that needs care and someone to look after it.
The larger mission would be to help people learn to cook and find the right non-profit to work with to get our curriculum back into schools. I’d love to bring Home Ec back. We need Home Ec back but in an evolved way, where it’s not “boys go to wood shop and girls learn to cook.”
Date of conversation: June 29, 2018