Sometimes great companies are formed in a very straightforward manner. Identify a problem, come up with a solution and then implement it. Oh wait. That’s how it works in our dreams… In real life, we all know it involves many more steps, and a bunch of unexpected twists and turns. However, once in a while, the elements do come together in an exquisite case of perfect timing. This seems to be the case with the latest company I’m profiling, Plated.
I recently chatted with CEO Nick Taranto about the deceptively simple model he and his co-founder Josh Hix have developed to solve the problem of not having enough time to experience the joy of cooking good meals at home. Plated offers would-be gourmands an easy way to create home cooked recipes designed by top chefs, in under 30 minutes. Their online service offers home delivery of pre-portioned ingredients to delicious dishes, along with step-by-step instructions on how to prepare them. The selections are affordable and change weekly.
Clearly, it’s a case of the right idea at just the right moment. First of all, people have become more comfortable buying food online, and there appears to be a trend of rediscovering the value of healthy home cooking across the board. Then you have the rise of the locavore movement, and America’s incredible obsession with celebrity chefs. Into this mix comes a service that combines all of these elements in a neat and affordable package. It’s a brilliant bit of timing.
The success of the company speaks for itself. After an initial launch in June of 2012, they went through a major reboot in October. Since then they’ve seen weekly double digit growth. Currently employing ten full time staff to manage their operations throughout the northeast, from Washington, DC to north of Boston and out to the middle of Pennsylvania, they are ramping up to a nationwide expansion planned for the end of this summer.
Taranto’s background mapped a circuitous path to his current role of helping to redefine the way that America eats. After obtaining a BA from Dartmouth and spending a year in Indonesia running a microfinance group, he returned to the US to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School and an MPA at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2010. He then enlisted in the marine corps as an infantry officer where he did a year of active duty before taking a job on Wall Street. After a year in what he said was “… the wrong life choice,” he joined forces with fellow Harvard alum Hix, and they spent about four months developing the idea for Plated.
Like many other entrepreneurs before him, he cites the challenge of scaling to growth as an interesting one. “How to physically get distribution set up and on the digital side, how to acquire, retain and engage customers,” remains one of the biggest problems he grapples with on a daily basis. Nearly a year in, and it all still feels like “…just a giant lab experiment.”
In what is now becoming a strong tradition, Taranto follows a lean startup methodology that follows the familiar pattern of “hypothesize, test and either fail or succeed,” rinse, and repeat. His internal mantra is that there is “…no punishment for failing, only punishment for not taking risks.” The name of the game is innovation. Every. Single. Day.
Another thing that the Plated team has going for them is our cultural obsession with sharing food – everything from “recipes on Pinterest to food porn on Instagram” which of course is then posted on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a virtuous sharing cycle that Taranto hopes to simultaneously contribute to and monetize. It would appear that the market is ripe for expansion in this regard. According to Nick, the non-restaurant food industry is worth about $1 trillion, with only 1% of that happening online. In the UK, this figure is closer to 5%. This implies a US industry worth about $30-60 billion set to emerge over the next few years. He aims to capture a big piece of that market.
What are some of the interesting things he’s learned since Plated was launched? First off, that his company’s user demographic is largely female, between the ages of 25-35. He and his team have been dreaming up some interesting ways to expand that base, such as redefining date night. (If you ask me, I see a great opportunity here for a lot of really smart men to start cooking for their women… You’re welcome.)
Taranto’s also been really amazed by the deeply personal experiences customers have shared, “…people posting to Facebook thousand word soliloquies about how we’re improving and changing their lives and reconnecting them with friends and family over food – that’s very rewarding… and a big part of the reason behind why we continue to get up in the morning and continue to try and build this.”
In the meantime, Taranto echoes the advice of so many other successful entrepreneurs – don’t overthink, and get ready to be flexible! In the spirit of a famous 19th century military quote, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,”* he offers, “No business plan survives first contact with the customer.”
* attributed to the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891)