Venture Voice – interviews with entrepreneurs

Entertaining Entrepreneurship

Amanda Hesser of Food52

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It was a real treat to interview Food52 CEO and co-founder Amanda Hesser, who’s an old friend going back to my early days in the New York startup community. Listening to her tell the story of her entrepreneurial journey, you get the sense that she’s lived many lives — from studying food history alongside classmates like Corby Kummer and Sheryl Julian to apprenticing in a bakery in Germany (where she was the only woman in the kitchen) to sharpening her cooking and writing skills at a Chateau in Burgundy and ultimately landing at The New York Times, where she served as food editor of The New York Times Magazine. One common theme that emerges from all of these experiences is Amanda’s all-in approach. She follows her gut, immerses herself in the adventure and soaks up everything she can from it. 

You can also see how all of those lives became part of the DNA of Food52. Although Amanda told me they’ve often felt out of sync with what’s popular or cool at the moment, the truth is, they’ve always been ahead of the trends. Since its launch in 2010 as a place for people to talk about food and share recipes, Food52 has grown to 100 employees, won a prestigious James Beard Award for Publication of the Year and launched a thriving online shop, including its own line of products. In 2019, TCG Capital Management, an affiliate of The Chernin Group, acquired a majority stake in the company for $83 million. As one of the few women in the New York startup scene back when I first met her, today Amanda is a role model for a new generation of entrepreneurs.

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Highlights from this episode:

“I went to college at Boston, so getting exposed to a city was very exciting, and I spent some two semesters in London, and that was actually a really sort of transformative time for me because I got to travel around Europe. And that was when I started realizing that I was really interested in food.”

“I certainly didn’t have a clear idea of, like, what I could do with it, but I just thought, well…I’m way more captivated by this than I am by what I’m studying in school…let me see where I can take this. And so I just started.”

“I sort of follow my gut, generally. And it was telling me to just pursue this, and to kind of immerse myself learn as much as I could.”

“I realized like one one of the best ways I could get started was by just diving in and working in restaurants and bakeries and sort of immersing myself in this world that seemed new and exciting to me.”

“I think just getting to know [these food writers and academics] and seeing that, oh wait, you can have a job where you just write about food and you interview people and, you know, you report on food.”

[On deciding to move to Europe after college and intern at restaurants]: “Because, again, I have a very sort of practical side, and I think, you know, this was early signs of my kind of entrepreneurial side that I didn’t quite recognize yet, I decided that I was going to do this but I needed to fund it. I needed to find a way to fund it.”

“There was an incident that — he did literally hit someone over the head with a baguette.”

“The competitive piece [at the Times] I think kind of seeped in. And you know it was sort of both a great part and a tough part of the culture at the time.”

“I am entrepreneurial, and I felt, actually, over time kind of frustrated — and I don’t think that this is unique. It doesn’t matter if it was the times or someplace else I’m sure it would have felt this anyway — but just a little, like, stymied. There were things I wanted to do and experiment with and it’s really hard to do that when it’s a big institution and any new changes take a lot of consensus, and a lot of work behind the scenes. And I’m sort of a doer….I tend to just dive into things.”

“I had such a specialty food…You know, there were kind of limits to how much more I could really play around with…but it is hard to leave a place like The New York Times.”

“They were offering buyouts, and I took one, which felt kind of weird, honestly, and it was kind of a scary moment, but it was also exciting because I think…that was the moment that I kind of got back to who I really am, I think, and also how I started my career, which was really following my instincts and going after things that interested me as opposed to conforming to, you know, I think, kind of cultural notions of what is a respectable career.”

“I never thought about gender at the time. There were lots of women running like big departments [at The New York Times]. There were just a lot of, you know, real mix of men and women and I never it never really felt to me like I had to like I was being treated differently because of my gender. And I have to say that that was a shock [being one of the few women founders in the New York startup scene at the time].”

“Even though I was just saying I felt like an outsider, I also feel like I had found my people [in Founders Roundtable]…These are people who — they’re very different from me. Their businesses and ideas are wildly different from mine. But I felt like I shared something, this drive to like create new things and to do new things and to take risk. And so I think that is what kind of kept me going.”

“I lost my own money, but I hadn’t lost anyone else’s and that was actually, kind of, I realized now was kind of helpful because it made my next step a little bit, not easy, certainly not easier, but like less daunting to me.”

“I was also finishing a book, and I was still writing a column for the New York Times and so I had things going on that were kind of keeping me afloat. Not only financially, but, like, psychologically.”

“Another idea for a business kind of bubbled up, and I think I probably went into this one with more confidence because I had domain expertise, you know. I had experience in this world.”

“The other takeaway from that year was that I’m more of a bootstrapper. And the reason for that is, I’m not good at nor do I feel comfortable selling something before I even know what I’m selling.”

“And then we needed money, but at that point, we had a proof of concept that was launched, there was traction. We were sort of seeing where the opportunities and limitations were.”

“I will say it was really hard to raise that seed round. And I mean, everyone — everyone, you know, except for this magical few that I don’t know who they are but I hear about them occasionally, who, you know, have no problems raising money — but it was a struggle.”

“We had, you know, a lot of people interested and kind of like no one willing to write the first check.”

“Certainly in the business world, there’s a sort of sense that you’ve been validated by the, you know, the sort of journalists who write about these kinds of things.”

“We’ve never been the cool kids, and that’s fine.”

“I think that that, you know, we’ll probably be going through a lot of transformation internally as we figure out, like, how do we operate when we have 150 people as opposed to 100.”

“I think that, you know, the biggest change is kind of trying to figure out where to draw the lines of, like, I need to learn this, or I don’t need to learn this.”

“I think the biggest lesson that I have learned is just how important communication and repetition of communication is as we grow.”

“The beauty of a startup is that nothing is ever boring. There’s always new stuff that you have to react to and evolve, and I love that challenge. So to me, I’m not looking for the next thing. I’m, I’m looking to like, what’s the next thing at Food52 that we can make better.”

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