EAT YOUR BOOKS
Talking with Jane Kelly, co-founder
"Tech entrepreneurs are generally seen as being male and young, but we have built a really valuable product from scratch that no one else has created."
AT A GLANCE
Business Start Date: Started planning, building the website, indexing books, etc., in September 2007. Launched site in September 2009.
Describe Your Business: Eat Your Books is an organizational tool that helps people with large numbers of cookbooks and magazines to easily find recipes and as a result make much greater use of their collections.
What Are You Best Known For: Eat Your Books (EYB) is the only website in the world that helps cookbook owners easily and quickly find recipes. Rather than going to the internet, they can now search their cookbooks and magazines just as easily—in fact, the results are better since EYB is a database with precise matching, not a word search like Google. And because EYB members can use the EYB indexing tools to index their personal recipes—family recipes, clippings, etc.—and any online recipe they like, their EYB search engine becomes a collection of every recipe they own, no matter the source.
Top 3 Business Statistics or Milestones:
- 1.4 million recipes indexed
- 100,000 members
- Reaching profitability
What’s Your “Secret Sauce” (Why/How have you achieved success?)
Because no one else has been mad enough to do it! We are answering a real need that cookbook owners have—people don’t cook from their cookbooks enough as it is so much easier to search the internet. Also, we care very much about customer service, responding to all customer queries on the same day (it helps that I am on the U.S. east coast and my sister and co-owner, Fiona Nugent, is in New Zealand, so we just about cover all 24 hours of the day). We are constantly looking at new features we can add and ways we can improve the user experience. We just recently launched a responsive site, so the site works perfectly on any device. And…we upgraded the server to make everything faster.
What event, experience, or collection of events/experiences compelled you to pursue this business?
It was 2007. I had 700 cookbooks, but whenever I was cooking for my husband and children, I went to epicurious.com, [which featured] tested, quality recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. I thought: This is ridiculous; I have so many cookbooks, I’m going to create my own database...I told a friend, and she asked to use it when it was done.
Did you have any experience starting or running a similar business?
Cooking and cookbooks are my passion. In the late 1990s, I had a website for selling cookbooks online. After three years, I shut it down; people liked and used the site, but I sold the books at retail price. It was too hard to compete with big sellers like Amazon that were offering discounts; price was the bottom line. But I had a recipe search engine feature called What’s in the Fridge? I featured sample cookbook recipes from publishers to help introduce people to them. The search engine allowed people to find recipes (from these samples) based on an ingredient word search.
Before that, I had spent 15 years in communications (TV, radio, music industries).
What was your first step toward making the business a reality?
In 2007, I put together an outline, a list of the functionality, what a person might get to be a member and have access to the database. I sent it to around 15 [family and friends] in the United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand. From the feedback, I realized that people would want it. I then created a business plan.
I also talked to my sister, Fiona. She had worked for Microsoft doing marketing, strategic planning. We decided to work together. She’s big picture; I’m detail oriented and operations focused.
What was the initial development period like?
We hired a web developer, but it did not go well. It cost more and took longer than we expected. It was very hard to walk away when you’ve invested so much. But we did find another developer.
In the meantime, we also had to input a lot of data. Finding people to input the cookbook indexing into a database was a challenge. In 2009, we started using students for the indexing, but they didn’t have enough culinary knowledge. We eventually hired people with culinary knowledge and a database manager.
When was the first glimmer that you were on to something?
The Boston Globe wrote a very positive article about us [on December 23, 2009, three months after launch]. We also quickly got feedback from members like, “I always wanted something like this.” It was validation that it wasn’t just us, but it was a product that people wanted.
How did/do you monetize your work? What was or became your financial strategy?
The primary revenue is from membership fees, but we also earn income from advertising (visible only to free members or visitors not signed in) and affiliate fees from book sales through Amazon or The Book Depository.
Do you have a mentor or consulting team?
In the past, we had mentors in our business careers, but in this we have each other. It helps that we know each other well and have different skill sets, and we make it work even though Fiona lives in New Zealand and I’m in Boston.
I had worked for large companies, which were very goal driven, with a lot more accountability. Working for yourself allows you to be more creative and adaptive because there is no approval process. But that also means that it’s easy to let things slide because you’re not being driven by outside accountability. [With Eat Your Books] we eventually brought in two independent people to the board—an entrepreneur and a marketing expert—to have people look objectively at what we’re doing.
What have been your company’s best moment/s so far?
In 2013, the Times of London included Eat Your Books as one of the Top 5 Websites in the World for Best Chef Recipes. We also got an award from DailyBeast.com…and feedback from our members saying, “This is genius.”
What has been your company’s worst moment so far?
Before we launched, it was taking so much time to develop the site; it was so frustrating. And there have been other frustrating moments…but I’ve never felt like giving up on it, though. We say to ourselves: we can never close this site; think of all the people that would be heartbroken.
What’s easier than you thought it would be?
Finding good people to work with us. People who love what we’re doing—they really want to be involved.
What’s harder than you thought it would be?
Keeping the site growing. Getting more paid members.
Also, it’s rare, but there have been some rude comments to deal with from people who don’t read and understand how the site works and think they’re going to get all the books’ recipes for free.
What has been the funniest/weirdest thing that has happened so far?
It is funny (but not haha) that two middle-aged women have created a tech product that is unique in the world. Tech entrepreneurs are generally seen as being male and young, but we have built a really valuable product from scratch that no one else has created.
What quote or mantra motivates you?
I think our mantra really builds from that idea—believe you can do anything. When we started, neither of us had worked in publishing or the food world, but we believed that we could succeed and went for it.
What do you hope to achieve from this point forward?
We’re looking at ways to enhance the service to members. For example, we just added the feature that members can look at the cooking notes posted by other members. We’re also looking at possibly adding the ability for members to add their own photos.
[This profile was edited for clarity.]