Editor's Note: This story is part of Bloomberg Businessweek's occasional series on the world of startups. The series focuses on MBAs and undergraduate business students who developed ideas or launched businesses while still in school, examining the many ways their schools helped them get new ventures off the ground. For a look at some business students trying to build their own businesses, check out our slide show.
One of Ben Saur's best ideas came to him on an empty stomach in front of his near-empty refrigerator. As with so many nights during his undergraduate days at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, Saur was hungry and clueless about what he could cook with the few odd ingredients he saw.
"My mom always made the same five meals every week—pasta on Wednesday, tacos on Tuesday—so my cooking creativity was low," Saur explains. "I thought: 'Why can't I find new and creative recipes based on what I have in my fridge?'"
Saur answered his own question by experimenting during his senior year with the prototype for a website that would become RecipeKey.com. He combined his ideas with inspiration from the '90s Food Network TV show Door Knock Dinners to hone the core concept behind the site. On the TV show, host Gordon Elliot—sometimes joined by a guest chef—would surprise families at their homes and prepare gourmet meals for them with the groceries they had in the pantry. Saur varied the idea by making his online guest chef a digital tool.
The first step on RecipeKey.com involves filling a digital pantry with what is in your actual larder. Users customize their food profiles by noting food allergies and dietary restrictions and then select a preferred level of recipe difficulty, type of cuisine, and most popular ingredient. The website generates a list of potential meals, noting what percentage of ingredients you already have to make the dish.
Taking on a Partner
After graduating from RPI in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in information technology, Saur moved to Boston and began working as an auditor at Ernst & Young. While there, he met current business partner Elise Melvin, who helped Saur revisit the site and attend to problems he had experienced with layout and design. They worked closely to turn a primitive prototype into a functional website. Melvin took the lead in forming the business, working on a trademark, and hiring a designer to build the current layout, as well as on taxes and accounting.
In order to bolster his business skills, Saur felt that it would be smart to get an MBA. In the fall of 2009 he enrolled at Babson College's Olin School of Business (Olin Full-Time MBA Profile). Drawn by Babson's reputation as a top school for entrepreneurial studies, Saur mentioned the website when he interviewed.
By his second year at Babson, Saur was focusing full-time on RecipeKey. He enrolled in a business-opportunity exploration class and followed that up with a business-plan implementation class. The exploration course "does a deep dive into the business opportunity, with lots of primary research like talking to customers, attending trade shows, [and] interviewing entrepreneurs," according to entrepreneurship professor Andrew Zacharakis, who teaches the course. At the end of the term, students vote on the top three ventures, each of which is presented to a venture capital panel. Zacharakis wasn't surprised that RecipeKey was one of the chosen projects. "Throughout the process, Ben refined his concept and very much impressed the VCs and others," he says.
Babson provided Saur with valuable on-campus office space and enabled him to recruit interns from the undergraduate schools during a startup career fair. Interns from the Olin School of Engineering were especially helpful in programming the RecipeKey.com site.
Staged Experiments to Build a Startup
Currently, Saur and Melvin are working to improve RecipeKey.com by integrating the issuance of coupons to local grocers, as well as selling advertising on the site to highlight specials in geographic regions. "It is hard to predict who will hit the next big concept," Zacharakis says, "but what I can say is that the process that Ben has pursued—staged experiments, [with] each subsequent experiment requiring a bit more commitment and resources—is the best way to build the business."
RecipeKey.com currently generates about 50,000 unique visitors a month, according to Saur. Revenue is generated through the use of Gourmet Ads, an online platform for food advertising, and Google Adsense. According to Saur, the team developed advertising relationships in the past but finds it more effective to use ad networks.
Saur says building the business model around the existing idea turned out to be his biggest challenge—and one of the areas in which his Babson business school education proved most helpful. "I had the idea on what I wanted to create and focused all of my energy on building the search-by-ingredient tool," Saur says. "I realized that if I wanted to create a business, I would have to create a product. I found it was very hard to try to fit the tool into the mold of a business."
In addition to the practical experience and skills that Babson instilled in Saur, he says he most appreciates the "general entrepreneurial spirit" the school provided. He recently launched Drink & Hunt, his second Web-based startup, with a fellow Babson alum. This site combines elements of a scavenger hunt and a pub crawl to create a unique event accessed via a Web-enabled phone.
As Saur puts it: "Babson helped me harness my continual drive to develop new business ideas and to see the world through an entrepreneur's eyes."
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