Foodies, want to book your own MasterChef in the comfort of your home for the evening? Gone are the days that access to private chefs are just for a select few considered to be in-the-know. Startup ChefXChange offers food enthusiasts an online platform to search for chefs who’ll cook for you, manage everything from the menu to the grocery shopping, and even the washing up.
Both amateurs and professional chefs offer a variety of cuisines and menus for virtually any occasion. Each menu comes timed per guest, meaning that if you request a meal for six, you are told how much time each course takes to prepare per head.
Co-founder and Managing Director Karl Naim said that the idea of ChefXChange came about after he felt the constant endeavor of being host and amateur cook took the enjoyment out of the dining at home experience. Maybe you’ll not have all the ingredients that you need, or you’ll be so stressed out with preparations that you don’t get to spend enough time with your guests. Naim and co-founder Marc Washington thought there could be a better alternative to this scenario, and Naim believes ChefXChange is “democratizing the [private chef] service” by bringing it to users through its marketplace, noting that the Airbnb/Uber models can also be implemented in the culinary space.
The co-founders say ChefXChange is a win for both chefs and foodies: for the foodie, the dining experience is within reach and now hassle-free via online navigation, and for chefs looking to freelance and set their own hours, it provides an alternative to just working in restaurants and professional events. It also offers them a storefront and CRM through ChefXChange, thereby increasing their reach and exposure level.
Bootstrapped by the founders, ChefXChange’s business model charges a 15% commission from the chef’s side on every booking, although chefs and foodies can sign up on the platform for free. As for the ROI, Naim stays mum on the subject: We prefernot to disclose that, and it is too early-stage anyway.” Fair enough. Regarding investments, in December 2014, ChefXChange raised a seed round of funding amounting to US$500,000 through a SAFE structure round consisting of private investors they knew via first-degree level (former colleagues or business partners), who also added financial and strategic value to the enterprise.
ChefXChange’s development process had its ups and downs. In October 2014, the startup graduated from DIG EAT ALL, a Spanish food and tech accelerator program, with a business plan that was formulated in January 2014. The co-founders’ finance backgrounds helped in the business development aspect, but they realized that skillsets in marketing and technology were lacking. They then turned to their business school alumni network (both are London Business School MBA grads), outsourcing and using free resources online.
In August 2014, the business then launched in beta with a good base number: 55 chefs and 50 foodies. Based on client feedback, three versions of the site have since been released, but onboarding users has proven to be strenuous. Chefs are artists and often IT is not their strength, explains Naim, adding that for recruiting foodies, social media, digital marketing with a limited budget, press features, and partnerships with food bloggers were key. On the ground, the co-founders themselves did some footwork to spread their platform: Marc and I even distributed flyers in some busy areas and in residential towers.
The co-founders, as a two-men show, knew their ambitions for the company required wearing multiple hats, and I even ended up as a sous chef for a private dinner booked through the platform, Naim remembers. He brings up a valuable lesson they’ve picked up in the process: the importance of surrounding yourself with talent.
Besides having a co-founder that you can rely on, Naim says, “You need to bring on board key talent, and by key talent, I do not mean superstars, or highly experienced people... You need to get hungry, driven, passionate, young people. At this stage, experience doesn’t matter. Stamina does." The startup first hired experienced team members, but felt, they were not right [for] the stage of the company, but would have been good five years down the road. As a supporter of cultivating young potential, Naim asserts the need for training and empowerment for them to give back.
The startup is fully operational in London, Washington D.C., and has just begun execution in Beirut, with a main office in Dubai Silicon Oasis. They’re also considering a regional physical office for Europe, to be based out of London. As the startup’s business model doesn’t need physical operations on the ground, Naim explains that it’s just a matter of having community managers working remotely. And how do they handle operating in different cities as a startup? “Different cultures require tweaking and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” he says, crediting technology and the company’s lean structure as extremely helpful. At the time of writing, the platform has over 300 chefs and 500 foodies, and the team is currently looking to raise US$2 million (“potentially more”) to close for their Series A round before the end of 2015.
The funds will go to expansion, marketing, better UX for their website first, after which an app is next on the agenda, and hiring key talent within the company. Besides strengthening their presence in their core markets (UAE, U.K., Washington D.C. and Lebanon) and in the GCC and Middle East region, they eventually want to bring it to new markets in Asia and Latin America.
They’re also looking into cities with higher than average GDP per capita, traffic issues, and a food culture. Similar to Airbnb, for expansion to occur, customer adoption is needed. Also in the cards is a premium ChefXChange offering called ChefXChange Black, which will bring Michelin-starred chef experience catered to high net worth individuals or corporates. More details on that when it comes- watch this space!
HOW IT WORKS A foodie can sign up and find a chef based on cuisine, price range, location and potential date. Results will show possible chef matches, and users can directly message chefs through the site’s messaging system. Once a menu and pricing are agreed upon, the chef pre-approves the booking request and the foodie can pay through the gateway system. A confirmation email with contact details of both parties is shared. The chef shows up on the appointed time and date with ingredients and equip- ment, cooks, serves (and interacts with guests if preferred), and cleans up. After 24 hours, both receive an email notification to leave a review and rating that will be made public on the chef’s profile. ChefXChange then releases the funds to the chef’s bank account via wire transfer.
CHECKS AND BALANCES After a chef builds a profile on the site, the team reviews it and interviews the chef. Before approval on the platform, the chef is asked to provide references if they signed up as a professional or an apprentice, while cuisine knowledge is tested if they signed up as an amateur. There’s also a P2P review system on the platform, so that once a booking is complete, both the chef and foodie can review and rate one another. If a chef gets a bad review, the profile is reviewed by ChefXChange, and a second bad rating would result in profile deactivation.
TAILORING EXPERIENCES Some chefs post sample menus that can be tailored to the liking of a foodie. Modifying menus with ingredients or suggested courses can change prices, and this can be done via the messaging system on the site. Bargaining has no fixed procedure per se; it’s up to the chef and the food- ie to reach an agreement. Chefs and clients both have the option of accepting or declining a booking request post-negotiation.
QUICK TIPS ON STARTING A BUSINESS: FOUNDER'S CORNER
1. ACTION IT “Don’t waste time making assumptions, test them yesterday. Get out there as early as possible, and tirelessly get consumer feedback early on to keep improving your product or service.”
2. EXPECT SETBACKS “There [is] always something that is going to go wrong; this is your new norm- don’t despair or waste your energy on things outside your circle of influence. focus on what you can be doing, and whether you like it or not, it is going to be a bumpy ride.”
3. YOUR BUSINESS MODEL CAN ALWAYS GET BETTER “Iterate, iterate, iterate. You will never get it right the first time, and there are no right and wrong answers. You are lean enough to try it all and adapt accordingly.”