Every day, people around the world are faced with the same dilemma: What are they going to eat? On this episode of the What's NEXT podcast, I spoke with Whisk founder Nick Holzherr about how he turned his love of cooking into a platform for inspiring people to discover and experiment with new meals.
For people tired of cooking the same go-to recipes week after week, Whisk is a way to gain inspiration and easily turn online recipes into actual meals. With integrations across thousands of global recipe and cooking sites, Whisk introduces consumers to new publishers and recipes while streamlining the process of shopping for the food they need to create those meals.
Behind the scenes, Whisk uses deep learning and natural language processing tools to power its powerful "food genome." As a result, it can help open new revenue streams for publishers and enable brands to connect more effectively with customers.
Whisk was recently acquired by Samsung NEXT, so I caught up with Nick to discuss how he came up with the concept for Whisk, how he built a business around his love of food, and what he's learned so far as a founder.
Getting started with Whisk
Nick grew up in Switzerland, cooking Swiss food with his mother when he was young. As a kid, he was also fascinated by solving problems. Whisk combines his passion for cooking with his skills as a problem-solver.
Nick began building websites and applications when he was 10, but it wasn't until he went to university and had to do his own grocery shopping that he understood the need for a better way to plan and shop for meals.
"We know that people spend hours looking at recipe sites being inspired with what they want to eat," Nick said. "But there's a lot of tedious manual tasks between that and actually having a meal on the table."
Whisk helps automate the process of going from meal planning to meal prep. Users can save recipes from publishers all over the web, as well as from offline sources, into personal recipe boxes. They can access those lists through a mobile or web app while shopping at their local grocery store, or they can purchase directly from local grocery retailers who are partnered with Whisk. Brands and merchants can also offer discounts and suggest products to consumers using the app to find ingredients on their shopping list.
Early on, Nick decided not to make Whisk a recipe publisher due to all the thousands of recipe sites online already. Instead, Whisk offers APIs that let web publishers, app developers, IoT device makers, and health applications integrate its technology into their own platforms.
A recipe for B2B success
While consumers can use it to save recipes and shop for ingredients, Whisk is more than just a consumer-facing app. On the B2B side, the company caters to publishers, retailers, consumer packaged-goods brands, IoT companies, and health companies.
In addition to connecting to a shopping list, publishers get new ways to monetize their sites via contextual advertising. For example, if someone is looking at a recipe for spaghetti bolognese, a brand that makes chorizo might pay to show that shopper a message suggesting that he or she should try spicy sausage in the dish. Or a brand that makes low-fat sour cream could suggest substituting a healthier choice for the full-fat version in a macaroni-and-cheese recipe.
Once retailers integrate Whisk, they are connected to every market currently using the service. The app can identify if someone is looking at a recipe from a specific location, and show them an ad from a local retailer that has a current special on a key ingredient.
"By aggregating all of this user intent essentially into one place, we can deliver ads that are suddenly much more useful to users, because they are targeted to the occasion," Nick said. "And we can offer a lot more value back to the advertiser—the person paying for it—so, we can actually create revenue that's higher than a standard run-of-the-mill ad on a publisher site."
Companies that make IoT devices can also use Whisk's data on food to help people access recipes and use connected appliances to cook. What's more, health and wellness companies can use data from Whisk to better understand the nutritional value of every recipe, and then recommend the most healthy recipes for their customers.
The secret sauce
The data generated by Whisk is extremely robust—and it's the company's secret sauce. Over the past eight years, Whisk has used natural language processing to map content from all of its publishers onto its own ontology, called the Food Genome.
Information about each product includes not only nutrition facts, but perishability, flavor, and availability. The Food Genome also connects with retailers around the world that sell the product. For every recipe, the Whisk wizard can determine the nutritional information, amount of ingredients needed for a recipe, how much it will cost to make a a particular dish, and where to shop for the fixings.
At the same time, the platform is constantly learning about the consumers who use it. That means data about personal preferences, behavior, and context — such as the weather — can be used to deliver personalized content recommendations. "Whisk helps businesses build their own smart food experiences," said Nick.
Whisk launched in the UK in 2012, working with small blogs. It took a year to land its first major publisher: Food Network UK. "That was a long sales process, maybe six months, and the traffic was small compared to what we're working with today, but, for us, at the time it was huge," Nick recalled.
The Food Network deal helped the company land other major accounts. Today, with half a billion recipe impressions on its platform — compared to half a million at launch — the graph of Whisk's growth is a hockey stick.
Nick said the pattern of very slow growth for many years surprised him. "Going back to the days of university, I thought it would be relatively straightforward to build a business and make some money, and grow it," he said. "And the reality is that at every single stage of that growth journey there have been different challenges," Nick said.
Looking ahead, Nick envisions Whisk as part of a future in which we waste less food and eat a healthier diet—without being bored cooking the same old things.
To learn more about how Whisk gets consumers out of their cooking rut, you can listen to the full episode in the embedded player above, or subscribe through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, RSS or your favorite podcast app.