Follow a maze of stairs underneath Pike Place Market to the tucked away ChefSteps workshop. The "experimental kitchen" for the online culinary school sits near tchotchke shops below the market's main corridor, and on any given day is buzzing with staff clicking on keyboards and testing recipes using wonderfully geeky, high-end gadgets.
The space is quintessential Seattle, with creaky wooden floors, unfinished edges, a heavily used office espresso machine, and easy access to the produce stands and butchers serving an unending stream of tourists above. Eater sat down with founders Chris Young and Grant Crilly at ChefSteps HQ to talk about how the startup's equal parts ambitious and risky business model works by building social capital.
Young (founder of Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen with Heston Blumenthal,) Crilly, and photographer Ryan Matthew Smith met while working with Nathan Myrhvold on the epic cookbook Modernist Cuisine. After four years of collaborating on what would become a quintessential guide to contemporary cooking—and catching what Crilly calls "shiny object syndrome"—the partners launched ChefSteps.com.
"There's a lot of diversity in ChefSteps," Young says. "Unlike most startups we're not a bunch of 20-year-olds. Our oldest employee is 65 and is one of our most valuable people. Our youngest employee I believe is 21. And that actually seems to be about true with our community, too."
In less than three years years, ChefSteps has grown into a team of nearly 30 chefs, filmmakers, and engineers developing classes, techniques, recipes, and an ingredient wiki to a user base of 500,000 food-obsessed professional and home cooks.
According to Young, ChefSteps provides an alternative to food media's culture of "virtual consumption." Rather than watching cooking shows without trying recipes, ChefSteps allows to users to educate themselves and improve culinary skills. Classes range from whipping siphons and spherification to knife skills and barbecue. "There's a whole bunch of other startups that are about ways to get you to cook less," Young says. "We're a place where you're going to cook more."
People who want convenience aren't going to waste hours on ChefSteps, but Young says novice and pro chefs seeking to improve kitchen techniques have gravitated to the site. "They're makers and builders," Crilly says.
"If you start to nickel and dime people and stop them from unsubscribing, people don't trust you and they start to hate you and you become incredibly evil and they start calling you Comcast," Young says. "That's a bad outcome. So ChefSteps doesn't do that. The good news is, it actually works. It's scary as hell because it means it's going to be a long time before the revenue becomes truly significant, but what you do discover is you get this great growth rate, you're growing five percent a week plus, and that your community gets bigger."
By building social capital and loyal subscribers, ChefSteps has been able to offer select content for a fee. "Our community completely trusts us that we're not going to screw them," Young says, "and when we say it's $9 or $34 or a couple hundred dollars they'll trust us."
Crilly says that for ChefSteps, social capital "comes before growth and revenue. That has to be the priority." Growing a startup by aggregating an active social network can be a tough sell to investors, but Young says that giving users access to valuable information has become the company's "engine of growth." The problem, he explains, "is that's a very hard pitch to make to venture capitalists, because it's saying, 'trust us that this is going to take years.' When you're making people really happy they're willing to pay for it."
"Creating value in community and building trust is the more appropriate long-term vision," Crilly says. "We're very conscious of making sure we're giving a lot of value when we do ask for their money."