1. The Harvard Common Press recently announced plans to open an office in San Francisco to become more closely aligned with the food startup community. The food industry probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of startups. Can you give us an example of some of the exciting startup activity you’re seeing in this space?
There’s a lot going on in food right now, and it’s a great time to be talking about food + technology. As you say, I don’t think food is the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of innovation and startup entrepreneurship, but unsurprisingly it is happening all around us. I bet many of those same people are avid users of Foodspotting (which, coincidentally, was recently acquired by OpenTable for $10M) or GrubHub or any number of other apps and digital platforms that make it easier, more efficient, or fun to discover and try new foods.
We’ve been seeing a lot of opportunity in different segments of the food marketplace, and there seem to be a lot of companies trying to solve some of the same issues for consumers. One example is in the delivery of weekly “dinner kits” that have all the ingredients you need to make a meal for 2 or 4 (or 6, if you like). Companies like Plated.com, Blue Apron and ChefDay are all offering products that service this space.
Another example is the restaurant space. GrubHub and Seamless feel like they’ve been around forever, offering a compelling platform to connect consumers with an online ordering platform. But there are also new companies coming on the scene that are challenging that model. Caviar, based in San Francisco is one of them, offering delivery infrastructure to restaurants that don’t have their own drivers. It opens up a broad market of consumer interest to restaurants that want to expand and grow into a larger audience base.
2. What sort of interest has your move sparked with the food startup community? What are the benefits they see in aligning their efforts with those of a publisher?
While I can’t say that we should take credit for this movement, we are part of it and indicative of the next wave of investing…which is to say that entrepreneurs are realizing they need “smart money.” By that I mean, investment that is strategic, partnership-based and brings something more to the table besides just dollars. What do we bring to the table? A host of things, including access to food and cooking content (from our books) and content guidance (from over 30 years of cookbook publishing), a network of investors, entrepreneurs and potential strategic partners, as well as an understanding of the opportunity in food and who else is out there building new businesses. In embarking on this new path, we’ve had the chance to meet with 50-100 food start-ups and so have a really good understanding of the landscape, and also what some of the challenges are that these new companies are facing.
That’s not to say that every publisher makes a good investor, but it just so happens that given our place in the cookbook publishing world, we are a strategic investor and that’s what makes us stand out from everyone else who is looking at food. We bring knowledge and understanding in a way that those who haven’t worked in food for 30+ years just can’t.
3. In the press release you talk about The Harvard Common Press growing into something that’s much more than a book publisher. As our industry evolves I think this is an important lesson for all publishers. How do you see your business evolving over the next couple of years as a result of this move?
Speaking of the publishing world directly, I think one of the ways our business will evolve is in the way we think of digital content and delivery. We’ve always tried to be at the forefront of this movement, aligning ourselves as a vertical content publisher (perhaps before it was the norm), following the trends in digital and more. But, by partnering with food startups that are working in the tech and digital space, I imagine we’ll also see ways in which we can continue to innovate our own business, whether with new content delivery systems and platforms, new avenues for content generation, or by working with companies who can help further push our product and brand out to the marketplace through strategic partnership.
I also think advising and investing in startups will continue to grow over time, which will help us bring together an even broader network of people who we can and want to work with. That will tie into the publishing program in a number of ways that as yet I cannot define because there is just so much possibility.