For more than a decade I’ve been in the non-profit / public sector, working on a variety of issues – anti-racism, fair housing, education, technology, and data analysis. I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing people on some outstanding projects that made a real difference. It has been incredibly rewarding and gratifying work, and I will miss it dearly.
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how technology and data can be used to help people make better decisions. For years, savvy companies have crunched their numbers through expensive and complicated business analytics packages to improve their market position – and, until recently, they were among the only folks who could afford to exploit data in this way. For the average Jane or Joe, using massive amounts of data to make every day decisions was next to impossible. There were barriers of access, technology, connectivity, and ease-of-use.
But things are changing quickly. Very quickly. Just about anyone with basic computer literacy is now able to tap into massive databases to make all sorts of choices, from choosing which car to buy to deciding on the next book to read. As smartphones grow more and more ubiquitous, there is an enormous opportunity to bring the insight and intelligence of data to bear on an incredibly wide array of decisions.
For almost three years (’07-’10) my work focused on MoveSmart.org, a tool to provide housing seekers a way to find neighborhoods of opportunity and diversity. There is a plethora of research addressing how most Americans make poor housing decisions, clouded by ignorance and prejudice. Our goal was simple: expose the data-based realities of neighborhoods, connect people to housing opportunities, and empower anyone to make a smarter move. Reflecting on the experience, we met with moderate success; a few foundations and organizations gave MoveSmart.org small grants, bloggers said nice things about the project, NetSquared selected us a finalist, and more than 7,000 people used the site to explore neighborhoods.
For better or worse, I made the decision early-on that MoveSmart.org would be a non-profit organization. We went through the entire process of incorporating, establishing 501(c)3 status with the IRS, developing a board of directors, applying for foundation and government grants, conducting fundraising campaigns, etc. It was a mountain of work, but the entire team behind the project thought it was a pre-requisite for funding. We’d had a number of preliminary meetings with foundations and HUD officials, folks were excited about the project, and there was a mountain of research to back us up.
After three years of banging our heads against the wall, MoveSmart.org went largely dormant. I was exhausted and had a kid on the way. The Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) had offered me a fulltime job that was almost too good to be true. When I learned that we didn’t receive a large HUD grant because I neglected to explain why I set our travel per diem at $40/day instead of the regular $60/day, it felt like a sign that it was time to move on.
Just a few weeks before we got the news from HUD, I saw a demo of the Food Genome at the amazing NPDev Summit in Oakland. I spent the plane ride home sketching and brainstorming and, a few days later, emailed Eric to start noodling on ideas together.
While each American generation is more mobile than the prior one, most of us will only move a handful of times in our lives. But food is an entirely different story; most Americans eat out more than a few time every week (or for most of their meals, depending on location). Eric and I started wondering what would happen if we could apply the same approach to food that MoveSmart.org took with neighborhoods…
After a few months of tossing ideas back and forth, we came up with the core concept in April 2010. What if we could make individual dish suggestions not based on the social graph or unreliable website reviews, but on their actual ingredients and the user’s tastebuds? Food Genius was born.
Until we started working on our Excelerate Labs application, Food Genius was a hobby. In my wildest dreams, I thought that maybe one day, far in the future, we might get lucky and it could turn into a job. But the Excelerate process compels you to think deeply about your endeavor; a question on the initial application asks who is going to go fulltime and when. With a 10-month old daughter at home and a stable job that I loved, making the leap to becoming an entrepreneur should have been scary as hell. Throw in that I’ve been in the non-profit sector for more than a decade, and some might say I need to have my head examined.
There are still two weeks before we start the program, but I already know that jumping head-first into entrepreneurship through Excelerate Labs is one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Food Genius has been able to marshall more resources and funding in three months than I was able to assemble after nearly three years in the non-profit sector for an analogous project.
It’s time to do more, faster.