Pivotal Moves

Gojee and the Two Pivots

lavalle Gojee and the Two Pivots

Mr. Lavalle.

Last week, the recently-launched curated recipe site Gojee scored a pick-up from swissmiss, a design blog and studio run by Tina Roth Eisenberg, which called Gojee “a beautifully designed new food lover destination.” Swissmiss referred more users than a review by TechCrunch, co-founder Michael Lavelle told Betabeat this morning. “She put us up last Wednesday and it was pretty much insanity from that point on,” he said, comparing the site’s growth to the viral new music lover destination, Turntable.fm. “The post sent us 10,000 sign-ups in 24 hours, and it blew up from there.”

But Gojee wasn’t always a beautifully designed new food lover destination. 

1. Mint.com for food: Four months in development. Contract with a major New York grocery chain. Signed up 1,000 users in the first week. No one came back.

Once upon a time, Mike Lavalle and Tian He were two ordinary bankers at Morgan Stanley. They were bored, they were overworked, and they read in the news about the acquisition of Mint.com by Intuit for $170 million or so.

They decided to do the same thing for food. Mr. Lavalle met Nick D’Agostino at the gym and signed up the D’Agostino grocery chain as Gojee’s first partner. The founders quit Morgan Stanley, Mr. He taught himself Ruby on Rails and “we pretty much built Mint for food. Lots of charts and graphs, budget, expenses, nutrition profiles.” They launched and 1,000 users signed up in the first week.

“At the time we thought it was amazing,” Mr. Lavelle said. “But then no one came back so we were like, uh oh, what’s going on here… we took a big step back and said what did we do wrong?”

They decided there were three problems: people don’t relate to food as quantitatively as they do to their banks statements, the design was poor, and people didn’t like looking at the data–it didn’t say what they wanted it to say.

2. Twitter for food. Four months in development. “Everyone just pooped all over it.”

The pair decided it was time to switch things up. The data needed context, they decided.

“It was a stream of content that gives you stories or related qualitative context around your data, i.e. you went shopping for food, you bought chicken, mushrooms and onions, here’s a recipe that uses chicken, mushrooms and onions,” he said. “You bought this kind of peanut butter, here’s a coupon for another kind.”

This idea was hot, the pair thought. They’d been bootstrapping the start-up, but decided to raise a little scratch from friends and family and brought on two engineers, a designer, and a content manager and built a new site.

It bombed. There was overwhelming negative feedback from everyone they showed the site too. “This is getting pretty bad,” Mr. Lavalle recalls saying to Mr. He. “We’re nine months deep, blowing through all this money, and we have nothing to show for it. We just built two shitty products.”

mexican tortilla salad Gojee and the Two Pivots

3. A new kind of recipe site. Three months in development. “We’re afraid to touch it because people love it so much.”

“It was March 3, at 3 a.m. We’re trying to fix Twitter for food,” Mr. Lavalle recalls of the pivotal conversation with his co-founder. “It’s been nine months and we haven’t done anything well. We have to build something amazing that’s going to be fun for us too. We’re tired of building things that we aren’t excited about.

“We know we can crush recipes,” he said.

They redesigned Gojee to be a curated recipe recommendation site, that suggests recipes from a hand-picked database based on what users say they’re craving, what they don’t want to eat, what they have in the pantry, and what their recent purchases were. They’re still working with the data set they started out thinking about–food purchases from rewards cards–which Mr. Lavalle says has not been delivered to users yet in any form.

The layout is simple–it’s basically giant pictures of food–with simple drop-down menus and an obvious experience. The designer, Adam Meisel, sent a link to swissmiss, and then it got picked up by Gizmodo and other blogs. User engagement is also high, with new sign-ups returning and using the site.

The team is waiting for the user growth to settle down before iterating, although they are working on adding filters for vegetarians and gluten allergies. Gojee is currently raising a round of funding and there is significant investor interest, especially on the West Coast, Mr. Lavalle said–with any luck, this will be the company’s final pivot.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com