Alexa Andrzjewski, Foodspotting

Alexa Andrzejewski is the founder and CEO of Foodspotting (acquired by OpenTable), an app for discovering and sharing photos of dishes from restaurants that has over 4 million downloads. While a user experience designer at Adaptive Path, she came up with the idea for Foodspotting after a food-filled visit to Japan in 2009. She attracted her co-founder and first angel investment using a one-page experience map poster and eventually raised over $3M in funding.

Can you talk about your background? You mentioned you were homeschooled?

I was homeschooled because the nearest school was forty-five minutes from the small town in Pennsylvania where we lived. Also my mom thought I would be bored in regular school. I was always busy as a kid, like working on a project or making a magazine. In junior high school I actually started a web design business. I made good money for a kid.

How did you come to even use technology or the web as an expression?

I’m 28 now and grew up as the Internet was growing up. My parents were early adopters and we always had computers around. I learned how to hack DOS and then to hack Windows. I taught myself how to design websites by looking at the code of other websites. I also learned a lot from organizations I was involved in, like a SIGGRAPH group for students that was in Pittsburgh. They reviewed my sites and taught me how to make a table-based layout, which was the rage at the time before CSS.

How did you find out about SIGGRAPH?

In homeschooling you always look for opportunities to exercise your interests and work with other people. We researched it because I was into visual, graphic type stuff. The local organization was called TeleCommunity and every weekend we would get together and basically hack on things with other students.

By the time I graduated from high school I was bored with designing websites, though. I heard about industrial design from the famous IDEO [Nightline] video of them redesigning the shopping cart. So many designers were bred from seeing that video. It was on TV and I was like, “Wow! You can really create products that make people’s lives better.” It made IDEO look super cool with the bikes hanging from the ceiling and stuff. I wanted to work at a company like that someday.

Then I looked up IDSA, the Industrial Design Association, and ended up at Ohio State, which was the nearest, best accredited industrial design school. I majored in Visual Communication when I realized it was more me, creating things that communicate. It included everything from how to create websites and interactive experiences to how to create a logo with a clear message. I learned a lot of the skills needed in a startup, more than just web design or visual design. At Foodspotting, for example, we recently did a big logo redesign ourselves. People keep asking who did it, assuming we hired someone else. So because of my background I can do logo and brand work, but I also work on wireframes and interaction design for the site.

Design means a lot of things; there are so many possible definitions of designer. And I think that’s a good thing. You need to understand what kind of design a person does: do they craft pixels or do strategy? They could be skilled in everything from project management to branding. For example, I would never sell myself as a pure visual designer. I avoid Photoshop and detail work; I’m more high-level, focused on process and interaction.

Design means a lot of things; there are so many possible definitions of designer. And I think that’s a good thing.

Were there any inspirations or mentors during school that served as guideposts?

Absolutely. My program had roots in traditional visual communication and graphic design, but I had this one professor—Brian Stone—who was always trying to push Ohio State into the future. I took his interaction design class, and he helped me get my first internship at a research strategy and design firm called Lextant in Columbus, which is like the IDEO of the Midwest. I wouldn’t have gotten that first job without him pushing for me. He knew that I wasn’t going to learn the real world skills of consulting and managing and interaction design and wireframing just from the program.

My very first project at Lextant was redesigning enterprise software for HP. I had no clue what the software was supposed to do. I had never used Visio before to make wireframes. It was great because I was dropped right in and learned by doing. I created my own methods and processes.

That’s how homeschooling was too. I would pick the course I wanted, and a lot of time I would do college courses or distance learning courses or online learning courses. I often had to figure out how to complete the course and meet all the state requirements in 180 days. And with interaction design, you often are inventing your own methods. When I went on to Adaptive Path, it was the same way.

Did you continue working at Lextant after your internship?

After school I moved with my husband to California because he was going to Berkeley, and Lextant offered me a job working from home. I did that for a year. I was inventing methods, which helped further Lextant’s practice. Like I learned to make Flash software and Flash prototypes, which now is kind of old school because there are so many better tools for doing it. Like with InVision, you can put a button on anything and link your wireframes better. But back then, I used Flash to hook things up, so like if you click this and your name is that it will go here and here. I then started speaking about it and teaching Flash techniques to other people.

Inventing your own methods, developing something, and then sharing that with others is pretty critical to the progress of our community.

That’s the thing about being a designer—you design your process. And I think that’s really important in a startup because designing the product is just one very small part of it.

How did you get to Adaptive Path?

So I was in San Francisco, a tech center, where IDEO is, but I worked from home. I really wanted to get in touch with the local community, so I browsed websites of design companies in the area. When I saw Adaptive Path’s, I just knew it was the one. I loved the way they talked about education, like teaching each other, speaking and writing, and furthering the practice of experience design. I loved their focus on creating experiences and thinking holistically.

I looked at the pictures of everyone on their site and after thinking about who would be most interested to talk to me, I personally emailed Dan Saffer.

Instead of presenting my ideas in a deck, I pulled out a stack of nicely printed paper slides, mostly visual, to create a conversation with investors that was much more natural and got them excited.

When I interviewed there, instead of a traditional design portfolio, I made a printed set of photographs of different areas of my life that I thought showed what makes a good designer. I had snapshots of work for an information design project spread all over my dorm room and snapshots of cities because I was really into Urban Form and how cities affect people’s experiences. Later when pitching the startup, I used a similar technique. Instead of presenting my ideas in a deck, I pulled out a stack of nicely printed paper slides, mostly visual, to create a conversation with investors that was much more natural and got them excited.

Why did you ultimately leave consulting and start Foodspotting?

When I was in school, we didn’t really talk about doing startups. Majoring in design you get trained to be a consultant. Although one of my professors used to say, “Never work for anybody but yourself,” that meant start your own consulting business. They did encourage entrepreneurship but just weren’t that connected to the startup scene at the time. I didn’t dream of being an entrepreneur or know much about that world.

I had the idea for Foodspotting on Martin Luther King day in 2009. I had recently traveled to Japan and learned about Osaka cuisine. I discovered all these new dishes like okonomiyaki and takoyaki and started to think about how there are so many dishes out there that people don’t know about. So my idea was to create an interactive book that would be a field guide to dishes. You’d flip through the book and see a dish with a picture and some basic info, like a bird guide. Because it was MLK day, I had the day off so I went to Borders, and when I couldn’t find any books like it, I bought one on how to write a book proposal instead.

I started working on one that day. Over the next couple of weekends I fleshed out the book idea and shared it with people. Through that I realized it would be really cool if the book had an app or a web component. Like, what if there was a QR code in the book so you could look up the dish and find it locally? A mash-up where you take a picture of the dish and search Yelp and find it sounded really cool. But you couldn’t actually search for a dish on Yelp. Like I tried searching for okonomiyaki and only one or two places came up and their okonomiyaki wasn’t even that good. I thought, “Man, I can’t create this book with this connected app if there’s no app that does that.” The more I shared the idea with people, the more people advised me to build the app first and then go back and do the book. I naively thought it would be a weekend project to build the app.

So you started working on Foodspotting while you were still at Adaptive Path?

Yeah, so meanwhile at Adaptive Path, I was growing into leading projects. I loved my first project because I got to feel like part of the startup team. I had as much motivation to make it work as the client team did. Oftentimes with consulting, you don’t get to make your ideas real whereas with a startup, you build towards a real thing. Even just from leading the project, I got this energy and excitement of ownership, feelings I had never experienced before.

Even just from leading the project [as a consultant for a startup], I got this energy and excitement of ownership, feelings I had never exprienced before.

On that project I also developed methods. One of them was an experience poster. I had to come up with three possible design directions. That’s very vague–what does a design direction look like? So we created one-page posters to show the experiences of our different concepts and used them to present our ideas.

Did your work as a consultant for a startup translate to your work on Foodspotting?

Aside from the book proposal, the very first thing I did for Foodspotting, before wireframes or mockups or anything, was a one-page poster. It summarized all of the key points about the concept. It had the elevator pitch—what is it, why is it different, what problem does it solve—and the tagline, a list of metaphors, and also characteristics. Instead of sketching interfaces, I illustrated aspects of the app experience. For example, imagine being in a restaurant and turning on your phone and it’s the menu. Or imagine having a passport to keep track of all the foods you’ve tried around the world.

I printed that out on an 11 x 17 sheet of paper and folded it up and took it everywhere. Every time I had the chance to talk about it and get feedback, I’d be like, “Look at this idea, what do you think?” I remember sharing it with people at our company picnic. Like I showed it to Jesse James Garrett sitting on a blanket, and I remember he said, “I don’t want you to leave, but that’s a really good idea.” Even though I was still working for them, they encouraged and supported me. That’s rare because a lot of companies you have to moonlight what you’re doing, otherwise your company will own it. Adaptive Path had a policy that whatever you came up with on the side and the methods you create were yours, so you retain a lot of your intellectual property.

I was looking for how to make the app real. I didn’t know any developers because the consulting world and the tech world don’t intersect that much, even today. I needed to break into this new community, so I was going to a lot of events. Every time I heard a developer talking, I told them I had an idea and asked them what they thought.

I was exploring the question, “Is this a startup or just a side project?” Because at first I thought we could build it in a weekend at iPhoneDevCamp. Over time I realized that the real question was, “Well, what do you want it to be?” Like “Do you want this to be something bigger?” And I did. I wanted it to be the picture menu for every restaurant. So it needed to be more than a side project if we were to achieve our mission of cataloging all the best food in the world and where to find it.

So how did you end up finding your technical co-founder for Foodspotting?

At happy hour one day I heard Ted [Grubb] talking about a recipe app he was working on, and I didn’t even know him, but I went up and said, “I have a food app idea, too. Look at my poster!” Ted was really impressed with it and all of the thinking behind it, and he agreed to help me find a developer, or rather screen and interview developers. I didn’t even know what to look for. I knew I needed to find a developer who could do more than HTML and CSS, but I didn’t know exactly what I needed. A systems ops person? An internet application programmer?

Over time I realized how much I liked talking to him about the idea and how passionate he was about it. Ted really believed that it could be a startup, as well. So I asked him if he wanted to be my developer co-founder. He was leaving his job at a startup, Get Satisfaction, and he eventually agreed.

And I stayed at Adaptive Path for six more months after that. A lot of people say if you don’t quit your job then you’re not taking a risk. But because I kept my day job, we were able to pay rent, to hire an iPhone developer, to build the whole website and the first version of the Foodspotting app, and to get some initial traction with users. That was critical for attracting investors as first-time founders. When we started to fundraise, it got out of hand having all those conversations. I was taking too many lunch breaks during work and knew it was time to take the leap.

How did you know Ted was the right fit? Was it particular qualities or skills he has?

Ted was a front-end developer, which is why he was originally hesitant to co-found with me, because he didn’t have a lot of Rails experience. He hadn’t built an iPhone app. He had single-handedly designed and built a mobile web app. And he had been teaching himself Ruby on Rails on the side.

The fact that he was entrepreneurial stuck out to me, and that he was building this whole thing on his own. In my mind that trumped being able to build an iPhone app by yourself. He was motivated to learn and build up his skills…he just believed he could do it. His confidence impressed me, and the confidence of other developers that I met! They all believed they could do anything! [laughs]

It would have been easy to pick the first developer that came along  as a co-founder and we could have started. But other people wanted to take Foodspotting in different directions—more recipe-focused, more product/brand-focused, or whatever. But sharing the core vision was the most important thing; skills were almost secondary. I felt confident that Ted could do it, and obviously we have since hired people to fill in various gaps. Sharing that vision is the thing not to compromise on.

Are there other lessons about the early stages of startups that you learned?

I always talk about the importance of communicating your idea clearly. That’s how I found out if my co-founder was on the same page and how we met our first marketing people and investors. Instead of building a prototype, we focused on how to communicate the idea really well in five slides for Women 2.0 Startup Weekend. That’s when Dan Martell invested, and he later introduced us to our first investors. Ted agreed to co-found soon after. That was the beginning of the team and the day the company came together. If I had kept the idea to myself because I thought that someone might steal it, then a lot of this wouldn’t have happened. Sharing the idea was ultimately how we raised our round, established partnerships, and so on. It’s so key.

Do you have advice particularly for women founders?

Don’t think of being a woman as a disadvantage. In some ways you get more attention, like people go out of their way for you. Maybe others disagree, but I feel that it has been more of an advantage—almost an unfair advantage—in fundraising among other things. Why was I on Inc.’s list of 30 Under 30 [in 2011]? It’s odd that they have to call that out, not that it offends me. There are fewer women founders, but there also is a lot of attention drawn towards them.

How do your strengths as a designer come into the play as you lead product development at Foodspotting?

The biggest difference between running your own startup and consulting is that consulting usually happens early in the process. You’re laying out the vision, the groundwork, and giving people the wireframes. Then you leave and say bye, good luck building this. There’s a lot more detail and planning that goes into figuring out the strategy for how to build something. Every moment you’ve got to decide what’s the most important thing we should be focusing on right now. It’s challenging to have all these ideas and this big vision of what Foodspotting could be, but also scale back and decide what we need to try right now.

Every moment you’ve got to decide what’s the most important thing we should be focusing on right now.

Prioritization is key.

With prioritization, you win some and lose some; you try things out and they don’t have the impact you’d expect.

We try to involve the entire team and give everyone a voice, but the important thing is to not waver from the underlying vision. I know pivoting is trendy, and I would be fine pivoting to another means of solving the problem, of finding good food and good dishes, but I would not pivot away from our core problem. Somebody once told us that if we had listened to our users we would have built Instagram first because we would have realized that people want a general photo sharing app, not just one for food. But that would not have solved our problem, which is finding great dishes.

I know pivoting is trendy, and I would be fine pivoting to another means of solving the problem, of finding good food and good dishes, but I would not pivot away from our core problem.

You need something unwavering to hold onto throughout the process. We had a set of five guiding principles, which we originally published on our website: 1) it’s about dishes, not just restaurants 2) it’s positive 3) it’s visual 4) it’s not just for foodies, and 5) good food can be found anywhere. That means we are not about nutrition or cooking. We’re about good food and where to find it. Without those, we could have been pulled in so many directions. The whole team is bonded to them. I’ll hear our community manager defending why we’re only positive and pointing to them. We decided that these are what differentiate Foodspotting, and we’re going to stick to it.

There is always a degree of listening to users, but at the same time, I definitely subscribe to the philosophy that if you just listen to what your users want, you are not being visionary. Everyone is going to want something different. If we built the recipe-finding, nutrition-finding, food-finding website, Foodspotting would lose its identity. That’s part of your role as a designe you need a common framework for making decisions, your core vision, guiding principles that you can point to when you’re getting pulled in a million different directions. As a designer, you need to balance being user-centered with a vision for the product. That’s really important at a startup and also as a consultant.

It’s frustrating because you often know what you want to build, or what users want, but there are constraints, and that goes back to knowing how to prioritize.

 So I know you’ve been working on a redesign of the app. What did that teach you about balancing vision with constraints?

The current app is kind of read-only, so we are trying to engage people more. We worked on the designs for the entire app; it was a very holistic redesign. Then we took a step back to identify our number one hypothesis to test, which was that making it easier to rate dishes from the home screen would lead to more engaged users. Give people who don’t take pictures of their food something more they can do with Foodspotting. Keeping that in mind, then do we need to redesign your profile? What pages do we need to redesign? We had to scale back to the “minimum valuable redesign.”

You talked before about creating your own methods. Are there any you’ve developed that are unique to Foodspotting.

When you’re really small, the inclination is to have as few processes as possible, and not do all these silly scrum methods and what not. As we started hiring more people—now we have two iPhone developers, a visual designer, and a back-end [developer]—I realized that somebody needs to step up and do product management. Not a professional product manager, but we need a few more processes.

A lot of being a designer is designing how we work. I did one-on-ones with everybody asking about the current process and what could be better—user research on our team. I heard things like, “We don’t have a clear sense of deadlines, so it’s hard to prioritize or to know when it’s crunch time.” And that the Android app and the iPhone app teams work on similar things but there’s not very much transparency.

A lot of being a designer is designing how we work. I did one-on-ones with everybody asking about the current process and what could be better—user research on our team.

So after identifying the top five problems, the next question was what are tools to address them? I researched product management and Scrum and Agile and XP and the Kanban-style approach to planning, which is very designer friendly and similar to how we worked at Adaptive Path. I set up a big board with all the sticky notes to visualize the work as it moves along: what we are lined up to do and what we’re trying to get done in this period of time. For bigger projects, we plan it out on paper and also use a tool on the web called Trello. It’s been working really well and has solved a lot of problems.

It’s hard to introduce new processes, though. As a designer I’m always inclined to make things better and optimize and find new tools. Sometimes people get frustrated that we’re constantly changing the method. I did as much as I could to evaluate the perfect tool upfront, but every time we introduce a new method there is resistance to adopting it internally. We want to adapt and keep evolving how we work, but the trade-off is that people feel things are unstable, like every week there’s a new tool.

So my role has evolved from just the designer behind all the wireframes to helping to design how we work as a team to make people feel happy, supported, and not frustrated.

So you treat your team as if they are users you are designing for?

Yeah, and that has been a big learning experience this yea how do we keep our team happy? Sometimes Ted and I have to stand by things that others disagree with, so how do we get people to buy into the vision or to accept it? Things definitely get more complicated as you scale. There is more designing of the team and the company. Consulting was probably good training because you deal with multiple stakeholders, but in consulting you don’t actually face all the consequences of your choices. Here, if we change the methods and everybody hates it, then they’re all mad at us.

Last question. What is Foodspotting’s meaningful impact?

To expose people to new things. People shouldn’t just be eating at Applebee’s all the time. I want to open up this world of food. We also want to help restaurants. If a restaurant does something really inventive—like create the “sushiritto”—that dish has the potential to spread rapidly. We want to help people discover restaurants through their dishes and showcase what they do well. Tools for restaurants always seem to have a bad or dark side to them. If you sell too many Groupons you run out of money, and bad reviews on Yelp will make your business tank. We want to create something that is both good for users and good for restaurants.