Foodspotting CEO: It’s About Discovery, Not Food Porn

3/6/12Follow @e_craig

As Foodspotting founder and CEO Alexa Andrzejewski prepared for the launch of the company’s third-generation app last month, she had an interesting challenge: making potential users realize that the service is more than just a photo sharing app for serious foodies.

“It’s kind of not what we intended—it sounds very niche,” she says. “It’s not for the obsessive.”

When Andrzejewski and co-founders Ted Grubb and Soraya Darabi launched the company back in January of 2010, they joined a wave of up-and-coming mobile sharing apps like Foursquare, and then later, Instagram. “We found ourselves growing up alongside these really big trends,” she says. “We weren’t trying to start a local/social/mobile app.”

The timing was great, and helped contribute to a quick uptake among users, but Andrzejewski considered Foodspotting to be a bit different. “It wasn’t conceived as a photo-sharing thing—it was a dish sharing thing. It’s ultimately about stumbling upon great things and discovery.”

The founders saw it as an app for the hungry. If you’re craving something particular—say you’re in the mood for corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s, or want to celebrate National Pancake Day with a red velvet special—you can track down a photo of what you’re looking for on Foodspotting, then figure out where to go and get the dish. Or, diners trying out a restaurant for the first time can use Foodspotting to figure out what dishes other users like best—and see them before they even order.

Foodspotting 3.0 on the iPhone

It’s a very different model than restaurant review services like Yelp, where users essentially attach reviews to restaurant listings. For Andrzejewski, the main premise is discovering new things, and sharing them with others.

The idea came to her after a 2008 trip to Japan. As she traveled and learned about great Japanese dishes, she realized that there are “so many foods that people don’t know about growing up in the U.S.”

During her travels, she picked up two new favorites: okonomiyaki, which translates to “whatever you want fried”—a combination of your chosen ingredients mixed with flour and cabbage, then fried into a pancake—and takoyaki, little fried dough balls with octopus sticking out. While Japanese foods like sushi and Udon noodles are pretty easy to find in San Francisco, she had no idea where to find these more uncommon dishes when she got back from her trip.

At the time, she was working as a user experience designer for Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. She helped companies with digital products reinvent themselves, working on projects like the MySpace redesign.

Initially, she thought about creating a dish-centric food book with an accompanying app, but by May of 2009 she realized it would work better as a standalone app.

She though of Foodspotting in terms of metaphors, picturing it as a bakery window and then asking herself, which aspects of a bakery window are great? (You can see food and get it on impulse.) She also drew on an exercise in make believe that she had done as user experience designer, where she was given a random object (like a magnifying glass) that she had to pretend was a cell phone, and then figure out what users could do with it.

“For almost a year I was evolving this idea on my own, as a user experience team of one,” she says. “I was just kind of doing the exercises would do for a client.”

She met Grubb, who would become Foodspotting’s co-founder and CTO, in December of 2009, and they launched the startup in January of 2010, with the first apps coming out in March of that year. It was a quick launch, because Andrzejewski had spent the rest of 2009 fleshing out prototypes. Early versions looked like a typical listings site, but she kept redesigning it until it became a visual experience much more like a bakery window.

“I was learning startup 101 at the time,” she says. “But we really hit the ground running.”

In January of last year, Foodspotting raised $3 million in series A funding, with BlueRun Ventures as the lead investor. Two years after its founding, the company has grown to an office of 10, the biggest users have been promoted to “superspotters,” and the team has started to flesh out its business model.

Right now, they are working to find ways to help direct traffic towards local restaurants while avoiding the daily deal coupon audience. Andrezewski says the company wants to give restaurants a way to reach people who really care about food, as opposed to people who really cares about coupons. They have already partnered with Scoutmob to provide “specials” to their users, but instead of heavily discounted deals that users can buy, these are straight-up coupons that offer deals like 30 percent off a key lime cupcake, or 20 percent off pancakes. Scoutmob takes care of the sales and infrastructure, and when a special is redeemed, the deals site gets a commission and Foodspotting gets a piece of it.

They’re also working to highlight brands related to food to help them get discovered, the kind of companies that “might want to reach the relatively affluent dining out crowd.” Andrzejewski says it’s important for Foodspotting not to do straight advertising. Instead the company is working to create a way for brands to participate, a strategy it plans to highlight at the upcoming South by Southwest Interactive festival. Over the holidays, for example, they hid golden tickets in Foodspotting that users could find to win anything from a camera to movie tickets to Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The founders have toyed with the idea of moving beyond food to spotting other cool things, like fun places to go in a given city. One of Andrzjewski’s favorite apps, called Nextstop, did something similar, but was bought by Facebook. Other apps, like Snapette, have a Foodspotting-like function in the fashion space. The company has gone so far as to purchase domain names like goodspotting.com (sadly, spotspotting.com was already taken by a “squatter”), but for now Andrzejewski plans to stick with food. “Our focus right now is being successful in food first,” she says. “Part of the challenge is that our whole team loves food. We don’t understand fashion.”

In February, the company released version 3.0 of its app, which has been tweaked to make it easier for users to quickly flip through different dishes, highlight the ones they’re interested in, and hide ones that they aren’t.

The company also puts a big focus on building community, dedicating half of their team to the endeavor. Andrzejewski believes that the sense of community that foodspotters share really differentiates the company from competitors like Forkly.

“We get lots of downloads in bursts, but what’s important to us is people who come back and identify with being a foodspotter. That can never grow quickly enough.”

(Photo by Kevin Warnock.)

Elise Craig is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco. Follow @e_craig

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