Gojee Finds Its Way Into the Food Spotlight, Enters Talks for First Round of Funding

8/15/11Follow @jpruth

Sometimes a startup needs to pivot a few times until it finds just the right idea. Similar to chefs trying out new dishes, Gojee co-founder Michael LaValle says his one-year-old company changed its own formula twice before its latest idea caught on this summer. The New York startup curates recipes based on the ingredients its users’ keep in their respective kitchens.

Gojee offers its subscribers links to recipes based on the ingredients they list. LaValle, 31, a West Point grad and a former analyst, says Gojee features dishes from some 80 food bloggers chosen by the staff. “It depends on how much history [the bloggers] have in writing, the quality of their photos, and how easy their recipes are to cook,” LaValle says. Gojee is geared for intrepid cooks who may not be master chefs but are not complete beginners, he says.

So far Gojee is bootstrapped, but LaValle says the company is in talks for its first outside funding, which he hopes to close within the next six weeks. He declined to specify the amount of funding being sought, and LaValle is not in a rush to grow Gojee’s staff of seven. “We’re not trying to expand,” he says. “We need runway to make sure we can keep this trajectory.”

Gojee accidentally called attention to itself this summer, according to LaValle. From March until late June, the company ran an open beta test primarily with friends and family trying out the site. That changed after a Gojee staffer simply asked designer Tina Roth Eisenberg for input, which led to a post on Eisenberg’s Swiss-Miss blog. That thrust Gojee into public view. “She really put it on the map,” LaValle says. Gojee grew to 80,000 members in one month after that blog post, he says.

That spotlight shined on Gojee shortly after its latest pivot in a twisty evolution that began last summer. “We started out building ‘Mint for food,’” LaValle says. That is, Gojee initially provided analytics and nutrition information for consumers based on their food purchases. “We entered a partnership with grocery chain D’Agostino to do this for their customers,” LaValle says.

Development of the original website lasted from June 2010 until last November. LaValle says that first version of Gojee was heavily based on charts and graphs but did not catch on with users. “We launched a product that wasn’t so good,” he says. “We just didn’t do a good job building it. It fell flat.”

Trying to improve upon the original plan, Gojee added more content such as price tracking, targeted coupons based on prior purchases, and food recall alerts. That version of Gojee also did not win any prizes with the public. “It was too much information,” LaValle says. “People didn’t know what to do with all of it.”

Still determined to work in the food sector, the company switched up again last March to focus just on recipes. Now Gojee displays photos with ingredient lists on its site and provides links back to the bloggers’ sites for the full recipes. “I don’t want you to be able to cook the whole recipe from my site,” LaValle says. Users must subscribe—for free—to get access to the content on Gojee. In addition to personal recipe links, subscribers receive a weekly e-mail that shows the most popular recipes on the site.

Michael LaValle (left) and Tian He (right) met as analysts at Morgan Stanley

LaValle says he is still sorting out how Gojee will make money for itself. Advertising and order routing are some of the options being weighed, he says. “There is also a lot of value in our e-mail list,” LaValle says. Under its relationship with D’Agostino, Gojee matches recipes with food available through the grocer—a service that LaValle says could be offered through other grocery chains as well.

Co-founder Tian He and LaValle met while both worked as analysts in Morgan Stanley’s technology investment banking group. Prior to working as an analyst, New York-native LaValle graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and served as an infantry officer in the Army, which included a tour in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004. After his discharge in 2006, he joined Morgan Stanley. Now he works full-time on Gojee.

LaValle says the company is still working on its mobile version. While the site works on the iPad, he says the iPhone edition was being taken down for an overhaul. “We’ve had a strong chorus of people ask for it on the iPhone because they want to use it when they go shopping,” Lavalle says. “We just don’t have the resources to do that well.” He hopes to have an iPhone version of Gojee back up in six months.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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