Building and scaling a tech platform is no easy task even for someone with a background and years of experience in software development, let alone a recent college grad with no formal tech education. But that’s exactly what Sarah Adler did when she co-founded Spoon University with her good friend and business partner.
Setting out to build an online media platform featuring food and cooking-related content created by and for college students, Adler taught herself to code and created the first several versions of the website out of her tiny New York City apartment. The tech continued to evolve as Spoon University grew, and the platform now includes content from nearly 250 universities across the country. Scripps Network Interactive acquired the company in May, and it’s now part of the Food Network media family.
As the CTO of Spoon University, Adler has become an expert on scaling online tech platforms and managing content creators. I met with her at the Spoon University offices in New York to learn all about her experiences launching and growing the company, and our conversation covered topics like how to evolve a platform consistent with user needs and how to help users create compelling, high-performing content. We even touched on the importance of meditating and making time for yourself to maintain your sanity while leading a high-growth company.
In this episode with Sarah Adler, you’ll learn:
- How meditation and taking time for yourself can help you be a better entrepreneur (8:54)
- How to scale your tech product by delivering what your customers want (21:32)
- Spoon University’s secret strategy for helping users generate great content (27:49)
- Ideas for making video content less intimidating for content producers (34:19)
- Reasons why you might want to stick to a niche audience rather than broaden it (40:15)
- The resources and community New York City can offer entrepreneurs and startups (44:33)
Please enjoy this conversation with Sarah Adler!
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Sarah Adler Quotes from This Episode of Powderkeg:
“As a media company, we’re looking for the most impactful stories we can tell.” — @saraheadler on @PowderkegHQ
“Having a physical presence was so important to making Spoon feel like a thing, especially before it was a thing.” — @saraheadler on @PowderkegHQ
“The best way to control the quality of user-generated content is through education and training.” — @saraheadler on @PowderkegHQ
“To be purposeful and creative, you need to create space for yourself.” — @saraheadler on @PowderkegHQ
Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode:
Companies and Organizations:
Sarah Adler (@saraheadler)
Mackenzie Barth (@mackenziebarth)
Jeremy Gilbert (LinkedIn)
Miranda Mulligan (LinkedIn)
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This episode of Powderkeg is brought to you by MVP launch partners, an amazing product development and consulting firm. I’ve worked with these guys myself, and I can tell you, what sets them apart is that they really partner with you to provide product leadership and advice. They take ownership of building a great product, whether it’s a website or a mobile app or a software product. And for a limited time, MVP launch partners offering up to six hours of free consulting for powderkeg podcast subscribers. It’s an incredible deal. So go to MVP launch partners.com/powderkeg. To get started, I was
working so much and I realized that I was working so much because I had this fear that I would look back on a year and think that I could have done more. And then I sat down, and I looked back, and I knew that I couldn’t have done more. But I knew that I could have done better if I had been smarter. And if I wanted to be smarter, that took time.
That’s Sarah Adler, co founder of spoon University, which is a Food Network for millennials where the content is produced by college students. Sara is spoon University’s chief technology officer, and she’s grown their tech platform from inception through their eventual acquisition by Scripps in the Food Network family, which happened back in May of 2017. Sara still leads tech and design today at Spoon where their platform empowers more than 10,000 contributors who submit high quality engaging content. I’m your host, Matt Hunckler. And you’re listening to Episode 45 of powderkeg igniting startups, which is a show for entrepreneurs, leaders and innovators who are building remarkable tech companies in areas decidedly outside of Silicon Valley. I traveled to Midtown in New York City to meet up with today’s guest. And I’m pretty pumped to share this conversation with Sarah Adler, because her story is so unique. Of course, you’re gonna hear all about it for yourself in this episode. But we go from Austin, Texas, to meditation monasteries in India, to Northwestern University where Sarah did her undergrad. Yeah, like we’re going all over the place. In this interview, we go from the night lab and Northwestern to college campuses around the country. Sarah experienced a ton before she and her co founder Mackenzie Barth joined the TechStars accelerator program in New York City. Today post acquisition of her company, Sara still handles all things tech and design at spoon, and she’s primarily responsible for the site itself, you can find that at Spoon university.com I recommend the avocado toast recipe. Her responsibilities include their internal analytics based training tools that allow them to train, monitor and provide feedback to their national member network and even God content creators to create unique, high performing videos and articles all about food and cooking. The thing I think is particularly awesome about it is that Sara has no formal education, software development, and taught herself to code by necessity, creating the first several versions of the site on her own. In this episode, we cover a lot, including how to scale a tech platform with your users from inception. through acquisition and beyond. We also talk about how to stay mindful and keep your sense of sanity and self while leading a high growth business. And we’re going to talk about how to empower your users and customers to create content for your website that will attract even more users and customers. And we get into so so much more. It’s a great story with plenty of lessons to be learned. So let’s just set this thing off. Thank you so much for being here, sir. Really excited to talk to you about Spoon University, everything you’ve been able to accomplish here. But before we dive into the company that you’re leading right now, tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I am from Austin, Texas,
Austin, Texas. And you moved to New York City directly from Austin, or did you go I think he went by way of the Midwest, right?
I did. I went to school just outside Chicago and Northwestern. And then as soon as we graduated, we moved up here, me and my co founder.
So what was your first sort of inkling that you might have entrepreneurial DNA? I
am not even sure we will actually i mean i hindsight being 2020 I can tell you the story about when I when my mom’s boss paid me to make all the business cards for their appraising company. How old are you? 12 yourself. You were 12 I knew how to design things on PowerPoint. And surprisingly, that was a good enough tool to use to make business cards. Pretty awesome. But
turn it into a business where you just kind of like raking in the dough making business cards.
I made like a couple $100 And for me as a 12 year old that was pretty world. Yeah, it was funny, massive. I also like in college didn’t think that I was going to immediately start a company like that wasn’t the goal. Yeah, it was just that when McKenzie and I started spoon it was originally in print magazine at Northwestern. And we did it just for fun kind of on a whim to make something fun with our friends and good vibes to start a company. It was cool. And by the University New Year we had a Like over 100 kids on staff for this print magazine. We were selling ads to local businesses to fund actually printing it and it was making money. And you had some background in publishing, right? Yeah. I majored in journalism and was editor in chief of the other magazine on campus at the time. And so I poached a lot of people, which made people mad. And by the University, New Year, we had all these people who were graduating and getting jobs, because of their experience it’s been so they had built a portfolio or learn new skills or planned events that they used as talking points, when they were in interviews. And so they got their dream jobs after college and came to me and Kenzie and said, like it was because of this experience that I that I was able to do what I want what I wanted to do next. And I think for us, that was the coolest part of it all. And people were telling their friends and other campuses, like I had this amazing experience, I learned so much, you should do it, too. So then people were reaching out to me and McKenzie, asking for help and starting something similar on their campus.
How old are you at this time?
We were seniors, seniors in college, so like 21, or 22. So we decided to take the summer to see if we could find more people to do it to like, want to start chapters. And if I could build a website that would let them all kind of like, share content between them and work together. Is that something you’d done before? I had done a bunch of like front end stuff, mostly just to make money in college,
classic PowerPoint, business cards. Model.
Yeah, pretty, pretty scrappy. But it was like an easy, fun thing to like, you know, learn and still make some money and have a good time when I was in college. And but I’d never done backend stuff. So I think that was a pretty steep learning curve. Yeah. On the deep end, yeah, a lot of Code Academy. It was php. So that was anti fun. Yeah. And yeah, by the end of the summer, we had just enough progress had been made, that we felt like we should keep going and keep doing it, despite all of our friends saying that. We could go get real jobs if we wanted. And so we moved to New York, nobody thought we were crazy, and moved into a teeny, tiny little apartment and worked on spoon all day.
Why did you move to New York, because
we won as a media company. This is a really great place for media companies, or a lot of media companies here that could advise us or acquire US. And a lot of the brands that we want to work with to make money. We’re all here. And from a from a venture capital standpoint, this is a really good place to raise money for media companies.
Is this something that you kind of came to on your own? Or did you have some mentorship in college along the way, a
lot of mentors in college, and I was part of this group called the night Lab, which is
this thing? I ght, right,
yeah, my lab. And it’s funded by the Knight Foundation. And they had it was it was this group on campus that was half engineering kids and half journalism kids that build products together was one of the ways that I like learned the front end stuff that I learned
journalism kid that became a half engineering Exactly. The
dirt, like a lot of the people in that program were really helpful. One of the people who two of the people who ran that program, Jeremy Gilbert, and random Oregon, were both like advisor, early advisors in a way and set us up with the Entrepreneurship Center in downtown Chicago that’s associated with Northwestern. So we worked out of 1871. And that’s where TechStars Chicago was based. And so like, like, I think we were we were all of a sudden kind of inserting ourselves into this world and trying to learn all we could about like, who we should talk to and how we bootstrapped versus fundraise and what that means and what you need to do that. And I think we were just trying to navigate everything. And a lot of people gave us advice that we should go to New York.
So that’s great. If you’re getting consistent advice, usually from smart people, it’s good to take it. Yeah. But before you went to the crazy city of New York, that’s busy, lots of traffic, lots of energy, lots of media companies, to your point, you went overseas to India, right. And my I did do that to a monastery. I studied like the antithesis to New York City.
Very true. I, when I was I double majored in religious studies in college and I focused on Eastern Asian philosophy. So I studied abroad, and Bodhgaya, which is a tiny town in northern India, where the Buddha was enlightened. Wow. And it’s kind of like the United Nations of Buddhism, like a bunch of Buddhist nations have temples there. They represent their country and they, it’s like just tons and tons of beautiful Buddhist temples. Sounds amazing. And a small little Hindu community that runs the runs of town. And it was it was a really amazing experience. I lived in a Burmese monastery for like three months and then lived in Varanasi for
another month. What was your biggest lesson that you learned in India?
That’s hard. I learned a lot of things. But I think what was so interesting for me was that I had been academically interested in Buddhism I was I had read a lot of Buddhist philosophy, but I had never actually meditated before I wanted the program. And as part of the program, we meditated for, like two and a half hours a day,
like just know, meditating to tune in for two and a half hours a day.
Yeah, but it was split into two chunks. But it was a pretty steep learning curve, very frustrating in the beginning. Yeah. And I think that I went into the program, thinking that I was pretty like, like, relatively self aware, and knew who I was and knew what I wanted, and knew how my brain worked. And I quickly learned that I was not nearly as self aware, as I thought, and I did not know who I was. And I had a lot of work to do.
What was that? Enlightenment? Like? What, like, how were you discovering this? Are you just
meant, but I guess, I guess it’s kind of the same thing? Sure. I think that it was it’s just, it’s really interesting. I was always raised and taught that the only thing that you can control is yourself. And you can control your mind and how you react to things. And I think that, that that’s a really empowering way to grow up. And when you start meditating, one of the things that a lot of people experience is that you learn that you don’t actually, you can’t control the thing like, like, what how you’re reacting to things, and how you’re responding to things are, so many of those things are so much more automatic than you realized. And I think that I found that in the beginning. Frustrating and disempowering, until you realize that that’s like the first step and actually trying to make that a reality and actually trying to figure out how to control those things. So it was a very long process. And it was very trying. We, you know, it was like, I was living in a basically cement box sleeping on a basically wooden board with a mat on it and sounds nice. I had 110 bowl and a 10 spoon that I had to wash. And if they couldn’t dry, then they would be covered in illnesses because the water is dirty. So it was it was it was testing. Yeah.
Did you get some foodborne illness? several, several. So part of
the experience was all part of the experience. I don’t think that you can possibly go there and live and live there for that long and not get some consequences.
Sure. So it sounds like the whole experience was a growing experience. And you’re probably having some breakthroughs every day, where you’re being broken down, building yourself back up, where there are some big breakthrough moments there that were were sort of almost like, transcendent.
I remember the first time that I felt like I actually had a really amazing sit, a really amazing, like meditative experience was almost at the very end of the program I had I had really frustrating experiences meditating. And we had a bunch of different instructors who were trying to help us think through things. And I think I got to a place where I was like, you know, maybe maybe this just isn’t for me, maybe this is too hard. And so I took a break when I was living in Varanasi, and wasn’t meditating. And then I think that I had some time to stop trying so hard, stop trying to figure out how I could make that work. And and I think that I learned a lot about what that means to be trying so hard all the time, and how that can almost get in your way. And when we finally got back to book guy after the end of the program, I just had this really amazing experience where I felt like I kind of let go of trying to do something in a really like, like, just just trying so hard. It’s hard to explain. But I think that that taught me a lot about, like, how I can try to understand that you don’t need to change everything. Does that make sense?
It doesn’t make sense. Yeah, it really does. I appreciate you sharing that because I’m sure it’s a pretty personal experience. And I imagine it informs how you operate today as an entrepreneur.
It definitely does. And I think that while I and I knew I knew when I was there that I was that I felt like I was in this totally separate place that almost was unrelated to my experience at home. And I knew that I was going to come home and forget some of the things that I thought that I learned and then so in a lot of ways I tried really hard to retain those things and keep meditating and put into practice the things that I’ve learned but I especially being an entrepreneur and starting a company and like like there’s there’s nothing that is more like it’s Very effortful, and trying and competitive and anxiety ridden for a lot of people to do this. And I forgot a lot of those things. And I actually had this really amazing moment, about like six months ago, where I realized and I was I was working a lot, it was working, like, you know, 14 to 16 hour days, most weekends. I was working so much. And I realized that I was working so much because I had this fear that I would look back on a year, and think that I could have done more. And, and that that was the one thing that I knew that I could do, I could I could control how much time I was spending Yep. And so if I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to be able to look back and say that I could have done more. And then I sat down, and I looked back. And I knew that I couldn’t have done more. But I knew that I could have done better if I had been smarter. And if I wanted to be smarter, that took time. And if I was so busy doing things all the time, if I was so busy executing and all these, and all these things that I was trying to do, I wasn’t actually picking what things I was executing on, I was reacting to the things around me and not actually being purposeful and the things that I was doing and that to be purposeful and to be creative. You need to create space for yourself to do that. And I felt like I was relearned that, after having learned that in a very different way. When I was in India, I felt like it I saw like a manifestation of that in my own life in a way that was it felt really good to realize that again, and I’ve tried to to get back to my previous alignment. But
how have you gone about doing that? I mean, that I can relate to that on so many levels have a very similar experience of college and fresh out of college and just like feeling like, I’m like fighting this demon that is like, how many hours am I putting in? And like, how am I optimizing every minute of every day? And the entrepreneurial culture feeds that? Absolutely, almost
were like a badge of honor. Oh, the glorification of busy
is terrible. How have you shifted out of that? Or what ways have you tried to shift out of that?
Well, I wrote myself a letter, the five things that I was going to do to be more purposeful letter, a physical letter, and write a lot of physical letters. No, this was a special circumstance, special letter, a special letter to myself to remind myself that I needed to take time. And I tried to think about the ways that that previous approach, like was like were manifested in my life. So I was thinking about, like, how I thought about work life balance, how I thought about strategy, from a company perspective, how I thought about the example that I set for the people who work at the company, how I thought about the relationships that I have, and how I prioritize them, and tried to think of actionable ways in each of those areas that I could alter how I was approaching those things. With this in mind, like if okay, if if my idea is that I need to take space to approach these things more purposefully. What does that look like for each of these areas? And I think about that all the time.
That’s great. Did you post that somewhere? Do you refer back to that letter frequently?
I shared it with my co founder, and I still have it on my computer. And I kind of like I haven’t pretty solidly memorized at this point. I don’t need to refer back to it. But I think about it often.
That’s great. That’s really cool. Probably comes in handy to being in the environment that New York is. I don’t know if you had this experience when you first came here. But I shared with you earlier, I’ve been traveling here a lot last six months. And it’s like, I don’t recognize that I’m ramping up to the anxiety level of this city. But what every time I get off a plane, you know, back to Indianapolis or to Raleigh or wherever I’m visiting. I’m like, Oh my gosh, like grass trees. Yeah. And like,
like, lobster in a pot. Yeah. Exactly. I realized what’s going on.
Exactly. So I imagine that was really helpful. Right has been really helpful.
I think so. And I feel like I’m being more effective. You can ask my team.
On the way out, you mentioned your co founder. And I want to get back to the part, the part in the story where you have just moved to New York, but you moved to New York with your co founder, right, and shared a space with her. I still live with her. You still live with your co founder for all these years. I mean, that’s a good sign. Where you guys like besties from the start.
Yeah, we were friends throughout college and like in the same sorority and like our whole group of friends from college is really close. And that has been close since freshman year. So it’s been great. But now we still live together.
And you big lessons you needed to start out in college before you guys decided to live together here in New York.
I think that it’s so It’s so the cofounder relationship is so hard and in so interesting, and I think that there’s, there are very few people, if almost anyone else on the planet who I could work with and live with, like I do with Kenzi. And that’s not to say that we, you know, agree all the time and get along all the time. But I think that we’re uniquely good at letting things go with each other, like, we’re really good about, like, trying to listen to each other, take feedback and move on constructively, and not not get held up on things. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that causes issues and a lot of co founder relationships. Yeah. Because you and it’s hard, because like, that’s not like, a thing that two people can just be good at, generally. But I think that between two people, that is a thing that you have to figure out how to navigate in a very, like, personal way. And it’s different for everybody. And I think that we navigate that really well.
That’s great. Do you attribute that to anything or just personal chemistry?
I think that, that we think about a lot of things in this in the same way, in the areas that matter. We think about a lot of things really differently. Yeah. But we think about the same things. Similarly, similar values. It’s almost less about values and more about conflict resolution. That’s great. I think that we resolve conflicts similarly. And we’re like equally direct.
That’s helpful. direct, direct feedback can be helpful. The time that you in that time that you’ve like, moved to New York, Are you actively working on the software platform at this point? Yeah. Okay. Very different. How many contributors did you have on the platform at that point in time?
Oh, gosh. I feel like numbers like that. It’s probably it’s probably embarrassingly small. We probably I think, at the time we moved to New York, we were only on five campuses, I think, okay. And
you told me a little bit about the model at that point in time, because you talked about the magazine that you had started. And these other campuses are like, we want to start our own zine. And that’s when you started to think, you know, hey, maybe we shouldn’t have a website for all of these campuses, because that might be easier to manage.
publishing a magazine is really hard and really expensive. And so they wanted to start a publication, but they really didn’t want to make a magazine. And honestly, we were like, That’s really hard. I don’t know if we can help you do that, because that’s really hard. But we can help you run a publication, because that was really valuable for us. And we can do that better, virtually. Also, yes. So we built separate websites for each of them and connected them all if the original site was actually a WordPress, like multi site. So it had separate databases for each of the schools. And every, every member could log into their own, like instance of spoon specific for their campus that would have all of their articles on it. And we helped them build a structure for, like how the editorial director or the editor in chief would work with the students on the campus and like how their meetings would work and how their publishing schedules like schedule would work and how often they would publish content, things like that, is that
the way you would structure it today, if you didn’t do it over again, with everything you’ve learned? Since then,
a lot of those things haven’t really changed. Because I think that we figured out something that worked at Northwestern. And that’s why that’s why it worked. Because we did it there. And we we felt like on the ground how we needed to structure something to make it work.
What was it about that that made it work so much better than anything else that they could have done themselves?
I think that one of the big things is that, especially with Student Publications, there’s a problem of information loss, because the leadership changes every single year. And there’s not a very good system for training people or passing down information. So it’s almost like you’re reinventing the wheel all the time. And I think that because I was the editor in chief of a magazine as a sophomore, I learned a lot early, and then had two more years to do stuff based on the stuff that I knew. And so when Kinsey and I started doing, doing spoon, I had a lot more context than people would usually have when they were doing that. And so we had two years as opposed to like, oftentimes, you almost feel like you have six months or something have to get ramped up to, like take those lessons and iterate on things and learn how to do something better. And yeah, so I think that that we just like had more time.
A lot of time to incubate. Yeah, yeah. Was there like one metric or one thing you were really trying to measure and optimize? Like, was it pageviews? Was it time to get in contributors to contribute their first post was a you know, organic search? Visitors? What was sort of like the thing you were trying to maximize for
that early on? We were not metrics driven. Okay. It was like this feels good. It could have been it was probably members and articles and views were the numbers we were tracking. Talk to me about members. What is it? Like a like a stew member of the publication, okay, I think we, the team was really big, and we’re doing events and that, like, it felt really good. It felt like a presence on campus. And then when we were expanding to the first to the first few campuses, we thought a lot about like, how they build a team, who that who’s on the team, how they organize themselves, how they structure, like, the relationships between the people. And, and so I think that, in figuring those things out, we we had kind of like, built a formula for what worked. And then we tried to help the first couple of chapters do that. And a lot of ways, like a lot of things have changed. We’ve automated a lot. We’ve built a lot of training and educational tools. And we’ve flushed out a lot of systems that are that are different elements than they were when we were at Northwestern. But I think that it’s kind of surprising how much has not changed at the same time. You know, you still
have training videos that you created in your first year in New York. Today,
actually, we don’t, that’d be really embarrassing. I’m sure the quality has significantly increased or in the materials that we have made, as we have gotten additional resources and added more amazing people to the team. So no, but the some of the like, nuggets of truth of the same. Yeah. Using
the same principles. Yeah, just a little bit nicer packaging. Yeah, gotcha. Why events? Because you started this as a publication to magazine magazine, you’re just looking at circulation, how many readers you have, why go through the hassle and headache of running events. For us
at Northwestern having a physical presence was so important to making it feel like spoon was spoon was a thing? Especially before it was a thing? Yeah. I think things are only virtual. It’s difficult, like things can go viral virtually. But it’s really hard to feel the presence of something virtual like that, unless people are actually talking about in real life. And how do you get people to actually talk about things in real life before their thing without like, physically getting people together and making them talk about something in real life? Yeah. And the physical presence has always been really important to us. And I think, also a differentiator between us and a lot of other companies and publications that look like us. Sure.
Something you continue to use to this day as a as a core piece of the value you provide. Definitely, that’s awesome. And you run all of these as almost like licensing. So you don’t have to run the events yourselves. At this point, you’ve developed systems strategies, and training, you know, flashy new training, what was the secret sauce there of like, being able to like, Take your hands off of it and say, technology can run this, or do you still have an events team that like goes and runs these.
So we actually don’t control the events much at all, we just give them the resources and the tools to do it. And the training and the the system that we built. So originally, the site was this WordPress multi site. We wanted to give people the training and tools that they would need to, like learn all the all the skills they needed. We originally created PowerPoint slides that we would
like put your first tool on,
and send it out to people. But then we had to send new PowerPoints every time we did changes, and we couldn’t tell if people completed it or not. So the first application that we built that was fully custom was a training application. And all it did was basically let us create the content instead of doing it in a PowerPoint, right. It’s basically like a PowerPoint, you can click through, but it tracks there it let all the student all the student members and all the different campuses create an account with their specific position. And then they could go through a personalized training based on their position. And we could track their progress. And there were quizzes and we could make sure that they knew the information that like all the all the information that they needed, they could access through that system. And that was the that was the first product of that is secret sauce, which is our back end, like our back end program that runs everything that is spoon awesome. It’s changed a lot. But
basically like a learning management system, specifically for the program that you’ve created.
It was originally just a learning management system, then we incorporated analytics into the system based on like just pulling information from all the content that was produced using WordPress. And then we built a custom CMS into the tool. And now it also has a photo library tool, a video scripting tool for social video content. And we also have all the user management and community management tools in there as well. And tools for like it has like a archive of all the events that have that have ever been thrown on spoon campuses. Wow. So that they can get ideas from each other and share what worked and what didn’t work. So so it’s a very, it’s a very broad tool. It now has a lot of features. But it basically covers all the ways that you can be involved in spoon.
What features get used the most. I mean, aside from obviously the training that’s helping people run spoon in their campus, but when you started looking at we want to create technology for this. What was one of the things that was most magic goal when you’re like, Oh, I just developed this piece of technology. Now I don’t have to do that anymore. And wow, like people are doing it even better than they were, when we were hands on with this.
I think that getting off of WordPress and onto our custom CMS was really huge, because we built a CMS for our specific workflows to help students learn as they’re creating content, have an editorial workflow, and account for things like SEO, SEO optimization, and Facebook optimization, and tagging and copyright infringement, a lot of concerns that the people would have with especially user generated content, to try to make the tool teach you those things as you go. So that so that we can just have protections in those places, I think that user generated content is, has been really hard for people to tackle in a lot of ways. And our main kind of thesis is that the best way to control the quality of user generated content, in the same way that we would control the quality of user generated events, is through education and training. And part of that is like the kind of more formal training that you go through, whether it’s like self lead through our online courses, or through workshops, and part of it is incorporating training and education into all of the tools and processes that we build. So that the information that you need is there when you need it, and you can almost accidentally learn things. So that’s always been a goal for us is to try to incorporate education throughout the entire process.
You mentioned workshops, is that like a live thing that you do in addition to some of the self paced learning?
Yeah, so we have a lot of people on the team here who work with contributors in different areas. So we have people here who are on the editorial team who work with the students when write articles, we have people here who, on the video team who work with the students who want to create video content and people who are on those social media and marketing teams who work with the students who are interested in those areas. And so, in addition to kind of helping them one on one with specific questions, we try to maximize their impact and reach by helping them find problems that are occurring are applying to a lot of the students in our community, and then create content and materials and resources for them that we can share on a larger scale.
That’s awesome. I imagine when you got to New York, and decided to raise some funding that you kind of reached into a new was a new chapter of your entrepreneurial journey. So I imagine that there were new guides and mentors along the way was Was there a mentor or two, were there a mentor or two that were really helpful in thinking through how you build up this technology product,
we had tons of very helpful mentors. And, like, the entrepreneurial community in New York is really amazing. And our investors have been invaluable in so many ways, from a tech and product perspective in terms of what the product should be and how we build it out. We’ve actually been gotten less advice externally, and builds products, just based on our understanding of how the contributors are using our products, and trying to figure out what they what else they would need to help them do things better. We’ve also heard you go about figuring that out. I think that it’s just about constantly being in contact with a lot of them. Yeah.
Would you call them up on the phone, meet up with them in person and grab drinks?
Yeah, they have less drinks. But we have chapters that are in New York that will have their meetings in our office. So that’s a really great time. We have
college students by no gravity.
We have a Slack group that they can ask those questions whenever they want. They can they emails, whenever they have questions, we have a whole team here called the Community team that works directly with our contributors so that we constantly have an understanding of like, what problems they’re facing, how we can better support them. So we just have to listen for what the challenges are, and what their roadblocks are, and then figure out what tool we could build that would help them solve that problem.
I imagined that there was some shifting gears the whole media industry had to do some shifting was sort of like user generated content was sort of in its heyday a few years ago, when you had sites like Elite Daily that just like came out of nowhere and took over the internet. And then Facebook changed its algorithm. And that changed the way a lot of media companies got traffic got users. Did you experience any of that change? And how did the company react? Or how does the company react to the changes in how social platforms are using and promoting content? And how, you know, maybe user generated content is or isn’t being promoted in search engines.
So we definitely felt all those change is I think that it’s impossible to be in media not. And it’s been a really crazy time. And it’s been really disorienting for a lot of media companies, I think. And it’s, it’s been hard for media companies, I think that one of the biggest ways that that’s impacted us is that we have, like many other media companies increased our focus on video content. And that’s our new challenge. Because user generated content for like written content, a lot of people do, you know, and there are a lot of really great tools for creating user generated written content, medium, excellent example of a fantastic user generated written content site. And I don’t know how you really make it better than that, you know. But video is really hard. And it’s hard, because it’s really hard to make video editing software is really intimidating. It’s expensive. And storytelling, and video is hard. Because there are a lot more moving pieces, you can just write something and be done with it. But to actually figure out how you’re going to combine text and visuals and audio. There’s a lot more that goes into it. And it’s really obvious if it’s really bad. Yeah. And so I think that what we’ve been trying to do here is figure out, okay, we know that we have all of these really passionate people who want to learn new skills, who want to express themselves, who want to work in digital media who want to share their story, whatever their motivation is, and we want to help them tell their story in the most impactful way possible. We believe that video is one of the most impactful ways to tell stories now. So how can we create tools for them that will help them feel less intimidated when creating video content. So that’s been for perspective, one of our most recent challenges, and we’re building we are building a tool now, that basically lets people collaborate on the scripting and visual sourcing process for videos, so that students can work together to figure out like, what visuals they’re going to use in a video, which they can pull from a lot of like places on the internet that that have like open source or like Creative Commons imagery, or we have systems that check for copyright infringement and stuff like that, so that we can help them avoid some of those pitfalls, and work together to write the script and tell a story and an attempt to try to help them feel less intimidated by that process.
That’s really cool. How’s it going?
It’s a brand new feature. Okay, working on it right now. And so far, people I think, are really excited about it. I think it’s, I think it’s a really new thing that we’re trying to do. And so we’re working with the students to help them do
that. That’s awesome. Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that as it comes out on the spoon, website, and all your social channels. Video can be so powerful. Have you done a lot of video yourself?
I made videos when I was a journalism student in college. But that’s kind of it. I leave I leave the video creation to the video team.
Probably good call. Yeah, that makes sense. But they’re very good at it. That’s great. And how many contributors do you have now?
Like 10,000 10,000? contributors,
potential Video Creators? Potentially. That’s awesome. And so is your focus right now to get as many of those contributing as possible? Or are you looking more for quality as opposed to quantity, but both with written and video content?
We have a couple of goals. As a business. And as a media company, we’re looking for the most like impactful stories that we can tell. So that’s a quality thing. Sure. Is there an extent because we want to serve our audience with the very best content possible that is that will resonate with them the most and help solve their problems and answer their questions. And so that’s about quality. I think that when it comes to the members, and how we think about activating them, or pushing them to do things like we see all of the contributors as our primary customers, we would never like try to force them to do anything ever, under any circumstances. So we try to think about how we can create the very best experience for them to achieve whatever their goals are. So some of them want to get experience in marketing and events. And so we try to see whatever we can do to help create a space for them where they can feel competent doing that where they know what resources they have access to, and where they can share those ideas with their friends. There’s some people who are part of the community who really want to learn how to create videos. And now we can help them do that in a way that six months ago, a year ago, we couldn’t. There are a lot of students who don’t really want to create video content, and they want to write articles and be a writer. And we can also help them do that. And we can hopefully help people who just went for one of those reasons, open their mind to new opportunities and figure out that they also want to take advantage of other opportunities in the community. But I think a core tenant of kind of like how we think about the country here is that we are building a product for these community members, unlike and the trailing indicator of that success will be that it will create very, like high quality resonant content for our audience.
But I really liked the mission that you guys have. And it’s cool that it came out of the college experience. And they that it’s really, college students that are creating this content and that are creating this community, you guys as co founders aren’t in college anymore. And people in college aren’t the only people that cook. Obviously, they might be the only ones that cook, you know, avocado toast on rice cakes, but, but maybe not. That actually sounds pretty good to me. Yeah, I saw I saw the video that you guys had, we’ll link it up in the show notes. Why not grow that beyond college students.
I think that the content still applies to people beyond college students. And while the majority of our audience is between the ages of 18 and 24, they’re not all in college, I think that the systems that we built for the chapters on college campuses is pretty specific to the college space. Because it takes advantage of a lot of the infrastructures and systems that are already in place in those and colleges, I think like people are people know what it means to be a part of a student publication. And they are already having meetings for their clubs and organizations. And they are in a space and in a time in their lives when they’re looking for personal and professional development and adding to their portfolios. And I don’t think that those things that those things don’t apply outside of college, but I think that all of them existing at the same time is specific to college. It’s also been part of how we fit into so the company was acquired in May spoon University has been acquired by thanks by SCRIPPS NETWORKS interactive, which owns the Food Network and travel channel on HGTV. And they’re launching a new brand called genius kitchen, which is another food brand and the food. Like it’s kind of the the people that are a little bit more experienced than the spoon University audience, you know, it’s the people that that know a little bit more about cooking than avocado and on rice cakes, probably, but a little bit less than the the fancy things you can make on Food Network. And we fit into the Family of Brands that we’re now a part of in a very interesting way. Because of our like unique focus on this one demographic that we can reach in a more meaningful and impactful way than we could if we were to like, broaden that focus. Sure.
What technologies are you most excited about? I mean, with so many breakthroughs in AI and machine learning, are you paying attention to some of those things? I imagine augmented and virtual reality could be pretty interesting at some point in time. Is that on your radar right now is that something you kind of like, play around with or capture ideas for
on our personal my radar, and it’s so much fun to play with? There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the space in general, like you’re seeing really fun things, AR that can actually like help you in a real way in life. And I think that we’re finding, like probably less so far in food in AR than in things this space is like home, you know, I think we’re already seeing really interesting applications around like the home space and augmented reality. I think that VR is awesome. And it’s so much fun to play with. And I’ve I’ve had a lot of fun, especially in the entertainment space with virtual reality. But I think that the technology is changing so rapidly, that it’s that you can see where it’s going. But in a lot of ways, like I think that it’s not it’s not in a place where where we have like immediate applications. So we’re not like right now investing resources in those spaces. But it’s it’s so much fun to play with and think about how down the line when that when technology does change very soon, and kind of grow to the place that we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of augmented reality with our content to be able to help people have a better experience, while grocery shopping to help them figure out recipes that they could make, or like practice things in a virtual space. I think that there’s so much potential there. And it’s so close. But it’s a fun space to play around. And definitely,
it’s a good city to be in to for that you see a lot of that stuff early. Even just going into some of those spaces like Samsung’s space where you can go and play with all their gadgets. Yeah. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be here in New York City as austin texas hailing from Austin spend some time in the Midwest in India, you know, by way in India, What’s What’s New York like, as a city and and what’s it like as a tech community
as a city, I love New York. It’s just such an amazing place with you have access to so much here and you have access to so many cultures There’s so much art and music and so many people that are so interested in such niche things. That I just, it’s, it’s such an amazing opportunity. And I try to take advantage of it as much as I can. And I think that I went through a phase where I was kind of overwhelmed by a lot of New York, as I think a lot of people do go through from time to time, but I don’t I don’t know that I’ll live here forever. But I think that while I am here, I’m going to maximize it for everything that I can. And it’s really fun. And it’s like, it’s in cities like this where, you know, I’m part of a sci fi book club. And I don’t know, like, it’s, it’s really fun. And it’s a lot of people from the the tech and like VC community and the city. And we read sci fi books, and then discuss them thoughtfully. That’s all I think that that’s, it’s like, only here, would you find things like that. And I think that will actually that’s so not true. I’m sure there’s f8 book clubs all over the world. But I think that it’s been really cool for me to learn that I can turn a corner and find things like that, and have access to them, kind of in the same breath that I have access to, like, really interesting conversations with people who curate art museums. And like, I think that that, like the density of depth here is really cool. And the tech community, I think it’s I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the New York Tech community, I think that people are, you know, always like interested in helping each other out and solving problems. And they’re there, especially like, within a lot of the VCs that invested in our seed round, have a lot of dinners and parties that they’ll plan for the people that are in the, for all the portfolio companies that are in the area. And that’s been a really valuable thing for us just to meet new people bounce, bounce ideas off of people get advice. Help people, I think it’s been, it’s been good for us.
Was it hard to connect with those investors and raise your seed round? $2 million round, right.
Yep. Yes, fundraising is always awful and never easy. When you look back on it, though, you don’t really remember exactly how painful it was. Because, you know, like, evolutionarily we block it out. But yeah.
What what was a breakthrough lesson that you learn raising capital here in New York?
I wish there was some kind of breakthrough lesson, but at the time, putting the time. I think that, you know, we learned a lot about, about the fear of missing out. I think that,
to explain that. Because I think I know what you mean,
just how important it is to create a fear of missing out in an everyone around you for fundraising. That, that that like the emotional part of the process. I think I did not fully understand until going through it. And then you learn exactly how human the whole venture capitals phases. Yep.
You don’t want to miss this opportunity. Someone else will get it if you don’t.
And that’s so much of it. It’s so much about the people. And, you know, for us, we went through the TechStars accelerator program in New York. And I think that that was massive. For us. It was credibility indicator. Yeah. And just like the program was so helpful for us, it really helped us refocus and prioritize and learn how to be metrics driven, and learn how to learn how to change from being people who executed on things to people who can run a company. Yeah. And I think that TechStars was invaluable for us. And learning those skills and still is it’s the TechStars community is great. Yeah, here in the city.
I loved I love Tech Stars, just worldwide. It’s really impressive, what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve helped entrepreneurs. Yeah. I’m glad to hear those helpful for you. Thank you so much for taking time to share some of your story. And it’s really cool what you’ve accomplished. If people want to find out more about you about Spoon where can they find you?
So spoon you can find at Spoon university.com And check out our Facebook page spoon University in Follow. Follow the videos we’re producing there. And for more on me. I am spoon so. No, I am on Twitter at Sarah Adler. Sarah with an h so, yeah. Awesome.
And we’ll put that in the show notes as well so people can find it. Thank you so much. Yeah, thank you. That’s it for our interview with Sarah Adler, but it does not have to be the end of the conversation. You can hit up Sara on Twitter at Sarah E. Adler that’s Sarah with an H. E. Adler. You can also find her work of course at Spoon university.com Check out some of the recipes, some of the information about food you might find it interesting. I know I certainly have. It’s a rabbit hole that is a lot of fun to go down so make sure you check that out. And for more stories on entrepreneurs and leaders and professional hills outside of Silicon Valley, make sure you give us a little subscribe on iTunes, you can find this at powderkeg.com/itunes. It’s a handy dandy link we created just for you. You want to subscribe there because we have some amazing guests coming up. So please don’t miss that. And while you’re at it, please please, please leave us a review on iTunes. This is how we reach new people. And the positive reviews we’ve already received have helped us dramatically grow our audience, we’ve got a helpful companion email@example.com. You can find show notes for this episode, as well as all of the past articles and interviews and even events. So if you’re interested in events and meeting me in person, or maybe some of the rest of the powderkeg community come on out to one of our powderkeg pitch nights, we have them all over the United States right now. But at those pitch nights, you can come and connect with other tech entrepreneurs, investors and professionals that are just like you we also live stream those events. So if you can’t make it out in person, or we’re not in your city yet, you can check us out at facebook.com/powder keg. Again, you can learn all about those events as well as new articles and episodes of powder keg igniting startups at powder keg.com I’ll see you there or we’ll talk to you in the next episode.