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Talking Business with Nick Holzherr: About Whisk.com

We caught up with The Apprentice finalist, Aston graduate and CEO of Whisk.com

Nick Holzherr

Nick created Whisk a free, smart app that turns recipes into handy shopping lists that you can access anywhere, anytime.

Q: Could you describe your inspiration for Whisk? What drove you to step outside the everyday and try something different?

A: High level, I think that people have very different food tastes and if you can understand those food tastes in an automated way, I think you can use technology to enhance the way people search, buy and enjoy food. I think food is so important in all our lives. It affects how much money we spend. We spend a lot of our money on food. It’s important for health; what’s the nutritional content of what you are eating? It’s also a source, for many people, and myself in particular, of enjoyment.

I absolutely love food. I’d much rather have brilliant meals than drinks in the pub or something.  On that kind of basis, I believe we can build amazing experiences in food. Yes, we have a shopping list now. I think there’s a load of other things we can do on top of the shopping list tool that we have. I think that’s what makes me excited about coming to work every day and building what we’re doing.

 

Q: So your app is free – in what ways do you manage to generate revenue without asking users to pay a fee?

A: Whisk is free. It’s free in the App Stores. It’s free online at Whisk.com. We generate revenue form advertising. Brands like food manufacturing brands advertise what we call purchase intent. Purchase intent is you’re on a recipe, you want some food content and your product is required to cook that recipe.

So an example would be that you sell stock cubes. You want to advertise to people looking for stock cubes. We have loads of different recipes that our technology is on. So third party recipe sites, and a brand can target that purchase intent on those recipe sites through Whisk.

We then have something called the path to purchase which is essentially, when you see an advert, how do you go and buy that product? We’re obviously a shopping list, so we’re ideally suited to that. So when you see an advert on a recipe site you can click it and it opens up a shopping list. You can then send that shopping list into an online store or you can take it physically into a store with you and we charge brands to place their adverts for their products into the recipe and along that path to purchase. As a result, our advertising opportunities are about ten times more effective than what you would see on the market.

Q: Where do you see Whisk going next – what’s the future for the app?

A: So, half a year ago, we were only live in England. We’re now available in five languages, eight countries. So you can now find Whisk on big recipe sites in Australia, the US, France, Germany, Poland, Quebec, Argentina, Mexico and other places all over the world. 

It’s about doing exactly what we’ve done here, doing it better, so with better UX with better recommendations to the users but doing it in more places. Working with a lot more publishers so you can come across our technology in a lot more different recipe publishers, and having a lot more advertisers and brands working with us to promote their products so we can grow revenues. 

 

Q: Whisk has grown considerably in the past few years  – how did you build your business so quickly? What advice would you give to others based on your experience of building Whisk?

A: I think it’s absolutely critical to plan your business before you do it.  So making sure there’s a market for it. Making sure that the market is big enough to be interesting from a business point of view as well. It’s sounds very obvious but it’s actually pretty easy to get wrong.

Once you’ve got that there are lots of investor ready to back you. There’s loads of money out there but you do need to have a good concept that is scalable, for yourself actually as much as for the investors because you don’t want to be wasting years of your life building a business that doesn’t make sense.

The way we scaled was through investment form Angel Investors and from institutional investors. We’ve raised about £2 million to date. About £1.2 million has come from a variety of investors, some in Birmingham, some in London, and some larger companies. It’s allowed us to hire some brilliant people who can help us grow the business much more quickly and that’s absolutely critical. 

 

Q: Obviously, you have a personal love of food which has informed Whisk. What are your favourite dishes? - And if you are being honest, are you a good cook?

A: I think it’s very hard to be your own judge of whether you are a good cook. I think I am a good cook. I’m being very biased here. People around me tell me I’m really good at cooking. My favourite dishes vary massively depending on what the weather is and the weather has a big impact on what you eat as well; especially the seasons.

On a more macro level, I’m half Swiss so I love Swiss food.  In the winter, I love slow cooked food. Especially at the moment we’ve got a massive craze in England where we’ve got pulled pork everywhere and great hoppy beers and that’s fantastic. I love the concept of pairing beer and wine with food as well. I think that’s another thing I love doing.

 

Q: What were your first steps in establishing Whisk? What were the major challenges you faced initially?

A: The first step in building Whisk was a lot of research, building a business plan, showing the business plan to lots of different people and getting feedback from them. Often, them telling me what was wrong with it, what wouldn’t work with it and then going back and finding out a different way of doing it. It made sure I had a solid concept of what I should do, what the market looks like now and in the future, and what the opportunity is in actually building this business. Would this business make money? Would it be valuable? Would it be able to turn into something that I’d be passionate about and that I’d find exciting?

Once I had that, once I had the business concept, once I had the business plan in place, the next stage was to find funding for it. It is an expensive business to run. We employed lots of very intelligent people and as part of that it’s obviously expensive to pay everyone’s wages. So I went to Business Angels. I went to Venture Capital Investors and asked them if they wanted to invest in the company. The process takes about six months. You’re talking to loads of people about your business; you’re pitching the idea, you get loads of input which is fascinating because everyone’s got a different view on your business and where it might go. Pulling all that together, it took about six months to have enough people saying yes they’ll invest.

The problem then is that everyone generally who invests is quite wealthy which means they go on holiday all the time which means they are never available when you actually come to ask, "can I have the cash now, please". That process of "can I have the cash now please", and "can you sign this document to say that you agree to invest in this many shares", takes about the same amount of time again. So it’s about a year to get the full amount of money in the bank.

After that, it’s pretty simple. You just hire the people, pull them together, and make sure you obviously manage them well which is an entirely new learning experience in itself and then build the business.

 

Q: What was the hardest aspect(s) of raising funding for Whisk initially? How did you convince investors? Did your appearance on the Apprentice help or hinder you?

A: One of the big challenges for every business is getting enough exposure for what you’re doing especially in our kind of business which is essentially a product sold to the average consumer. Working with big brands and big retailers is really hard because they are big and they basically want to talk to other people that are big who they know and trust. So the Apprentice helped us massively in marketing both to the public but also in actually building those B2B relationships.

Convincing investors of the business plan was I think one of the most fascinating and fun experiences but also at times quite demoralising because you’re essentially talking to people about whether they want to give you money and everyone who doesn’t tells you why. Why they think you’ll fail or why it won’t work. So in that process, it’s kind of almost a due diligence for yourself as well, to make sure it’s the business you want to run. Because, you get loads of input from everyone about whether they think it’ll work, what won’t work, what the risks are, what the opportunities are. A lot of people will tell you what they think you should do instead. 

Obviously, these people are successful people. They are people that invest in tech companies all the time. So having to gather all that input and work out who’s right and who’s wrong. Am I right? Is this actually going to work? Am I going to waste two, three, four five years of my life on this? It’s kind of a really interesting six to twelve months to go through.

I still really enjoy it now. Whenever I go and speak to a venture capital investor, I love it because of the input they give me in terms of the perspective as well. They’re not interested in investing in a business that’s worth a couple of million. I remember my first meeting that went down with a big London VC. He said, "how much do you think it’ll be work Nick?", and I said, "I don’t know…I think it could be worth 20 or 30 million".

He said, "I’m not interested". I said, "what do you mean?" and he said, "that’s not interesting for me. We only invest in businesses that are worth over a 100 million". I then said, "how do you find those businesses?" Then he says, "well we’ve invested in Skype, we’ve invested in…" and he goes on to list them. "Oh ok I understand now."

But when you first are exposed to that, then you think that they’re almost crazy. To think as a student out of university that your business could be worth over a £100 million, you even think of yourself as a bit of crazy. I love speaking to venture capital investors because they have a very macro, very aggressive way of looking at business and appraising them. So every now and again, even though I’m not pulling money, I’ll arrange a coffee with a VC just to kind of get more input and see what they think.

Q: You were runner-up in the Apprentice – do you think Lord Sugar regrets his decision now considering the success you’ve had?

A: I don’t think Lord Sugar necessarily regrets his decision. I think form his point of view, he has to invest in businesses he understands, that he’s able to give advice to, and he’s able to support with follow on money as well. So he genuinely has to understand it and believe in that idea. It is his personal money he invests on the show.

So I think the decision that he made to go with the Recruitment Consultancy was for him absolutely the right one. I think that the Recruitment Consultancy has done quite well and I’m sure he doesn’t regret that decision as all. I think he’s got bigger thing’s to think about than whether he missed the right opportunity. I think…I hope one day when we’ve made it really big, he might hear about us and he might think, ‘oh it would’ve been good to be involved in that’. But he’s a nice guy. He’s had enough success himself so it’s time he shares his success out with a few other people as well.


Q: How did you first come up with the concept for Whisk? Did you see the early potential of app technology?

 

A: I’ve always been interested in app technology and in software generally. I think that the ability to automate lots of things that were done kind of manually before I find quite appealing because I hate doing things manually myself. I hate wasting my time, so if there’s any way of doing that same thing I was doing before manually really quickly with software, that’s… you’d be an idiot not to do it. That’s kind of what draws me to technology.

The new things that are suddenly possible are I think fascinating. Whether it’s ordering a taxi from your phone, or finding out…looking at photos of friends online on Facebook or…there’s so many different things now that weren’t possible that actually are really useful as well.

When I go travelling, I rent everything on Airbnb. I travel everywhere by Uber. I don’t think I’ve bought a flight in a way that’s not online. I think ever, probably. I book every hotel online. I use an online accounting system that’s in the Cloud. All my email is in the cloud. Everything is in technology. Tech is one of the most interesting areas that you could work in.

Q: You’re not from a traditional tech/programming background – did you find the more technical aspects of developing Whisk difficult and how did you overcome them?

A: Although I haven’t got a traditional tech background and I haven’t really learnt software engineering, I was building websites myself for people when I was 14/15 years old. I’ve always had an interest in technology. So when it came to actually building a tech business, I actually found people who knew what they were doing in software engineering in Birmingham.

I went to lots of networking events, met lots of different people, found people I could have convinced to come and join me because the idea was good enough and then work with them to do it. I think a tech business is actually just as much about have you got the right concept? Have you got the right route to market? As it is about let’s build some software. If you look at the team here, we spend as much time on business and marketing, and user experience, and all those different things as we do on actuating software.

 

Q: What advice would you give to the entrepreneurially minded students and graduates who are looking to create a start-up business but not quite sure how to go about it?

A: I think going about starting a business is actually pretty simple. You just start and start to get stuff done rather than talk about it, and you will make progress. You’ll find out very quickly if what you’re doing doesn’t work. 

There’s also a huge amount of material out there to teach people, to show people how they can start businesses. There’s a whole range of books that are really good at helping you start a business especially with tech. The hard thing is actually working out what business you should do, for a lot of people. A lot of people don’t have that brilliant idea, or they are not sure whether that idea works. If you’re not sure whether an idea works, I would say make sure you test it. So try it really small without investing much money at all. If you can’t test the business as a whole because it’s too difficult to build all of it, build a prototype or even build just a piece of marketing for it and see if anybody then contacts you about that product.

So test whether there is actually a genuine demand for what you’re going to build. If you don’t know what to build which is another question that comes up relatively frequent, I’d recommend you look at, what are the biggest industries around the world? Which ones are growing? Which ones are you passionate about? Then what I would do is look at, are there any businesses that are set up relatively recently that have got a lot of investment that you also feel passionate about? Then try and do something similar to them. There’ve been a number of different…what they call venture builders which essentially look at markets, really high level and drill down into them and go, “where can we make money? Where is there a business opportunity?” and then set up business in all of those; see which ones work, set up four or five businesses, see which one takes off. When they take off they fund them with huge amounts of money and with lots of different staff. Rocket Internet is a really famous example. They are worth billions now and they’ve probably been doing it for not a huge amount of time.

So the model of looking at what works in the market already and what can we copy has been out there for a while. I think if I didn’t have an idea I would definitely have a look at doing one of those because I think it would be a lot of fun.

   

Q: Obviously you work very hard. What do you do to switch off?

A: To switch off I eat food. I love going out for food. I love cooking food as well. Birmingham has become so much better over the last two to three years. It’s amazing. We had probably three or four good restaurants. I say good restaurants that are not Michelin star that are affordable in the city centre I think two, three, four years ago. Now we have ten times that and we have so many places to eat.

I realise it’s important for me to keep healthy. So going swimming after work is something I quite like to do. I try and do it two to three times a week. It helps me keep my energy up.

I love travel. Birmingham airport, it’s brilliant. It’s like a fifteen minute cab ride from here. If you can fly somewhere from Birmingham airport that’s easier to get to from the airport you are arriving at, you can actually fit in a good weekend away. So I think that’s amazing about Birmingham as well. You can literally travel fifteen minutes to your airport.

 

I do tech for fun. I do like tech hackathons. We went down to a hackathon a couple of weeks ago. We built something call a beer mail which is an app that says where your location is and you put your email address in. Every week it sends you the dish type for the weather that’s coming up that week; the recipes to cook, and what beer you should drink with it and where the deals are for beer in the supermarkets. That’s quite fun. I actually do tech in my free time too. That’s how obsessed I am with it. That’s what I do basically; food, sport, travel and tech.

 
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