Origin Story Interview W/ Vanessa Westphal, Choosy

Origin Story Interview W/ Vanessa Westphal, Choosy

Brighter Future

 / 

Feb 1, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #HealthyEating #FoodTech #HealthAndWellness #sustainableeatinghabits #mealplan

Brighter Future

For this Origin Story interview, we are joined by Vanessa Westphal, co-founder of the sustainable and healthy eating startup, Choosy.

Thanks so much for being here, Vanessa. Could you please tell us a little about yourself and your company?

I'm Vanessa Westphal, the COO and one of three co-founders of Choosy. We want to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through an app that helps people plan their meals and weekly grocery shopping, so that they might become more conscious about these things. We launched the app a couple of months ago, and we’re happy with the results it’s generating.

What are you trying to achieve with Choosy, and why do you think it matters?

With Choosy, we are trying to change eating habits for good. With ‘for good’ we mean to both better the health of our society and the health of our planet as we help people stick to their new eating habits long term. It’s relevant because much of what we eat today destroys our planet and our health. That’s why it requires a ‘mass action change’. But changing eating behaviour is tough - everyone who has tried to stick to a diet before knows that. Therefore Choosy takes personal taste as preference and helps people transition their eating habits over time so that their gut has time to adjust.

That sounds great. Do you think you could tell us what life was like before you worked on Choosy?

I was in the corporate world for quite a long time— almost ten years— during which I studied electrical engineering and management. My first job was as a Solution Architect at Siemens. Stepping out of the corporate sphere and into the entrepreneurial world definitely took some time getting used to. However, I have always been interested in entrepreneurship— and when I think about my role models, they’re mainly entrepreneurs.

What inspired you to create a food- and diet-tracking app like Choosy?

There are a few aspects or parts to the story. First, at my last job at Siemens, I developed a program for entrepreneurship that helped intrapreneurs build their corporate startups. From this, I began to think about starting my own side project, and then coincidentally dreamt one night of a food app that would help me fill my fridge with personalised, healthy foods in one click, and how it might feel to use it. I had never dreamt of anything in such detail before, so I was quite surprised. I thought I needed to do this for myself, and I started working on it with two friends as a side project— “Freddieats”— in parallel to our jobs.

My friends and I saw the app as a side project, but as time passed, I realised I should either quit the side project or take it more seriously. I considered my options for quitting the corporate world, and joined Y Combinator's co-founder matching platform.

To be honest, I did not know what to expect because the platform had just launched. I did not even enter my idea, as I was just curious to meet other people and see what other ideas they might have. I spoke to various people, and within these conversations, I found my two co-founders.

The biggest coincidence: my two co-founders were working on a similar idea and had the exact skillsets I was lacking. Julius is an excellent designer with a background as CPO in the games industry who could also work with the motivational aspect of making good food choices. Hauke is an experienced developer who had even previously researched how to apply a Spotify-like algorithm to food choices. For my part, I’ve been passionate about sales, growing and developing the business, as well as people engagement. After just one week of working together I quit my job. To be honest, it was a gut decision.

Good for you! Did your co-founders also leave their jobs?

Yes, they actually had already left their jobs before we met via YCombinator.

What inspired you to work on something with a sustainability angle?

Food and sustainability go hand-in-hand. I’ve been interested in food since I was younger, so it has always been a conscious choice. My brother has had strong neurodermatitis and asthma since he was a child. As a family, we had to pay close attention to what we ate, and I saw how much of a difference his food choices made in his life.

The other part that made a huge difference in his health was the climate, so we spent a lot of time at the coast, by the sea, to help his skin and asthma improve. This is when I started getting interested in this topic, and my interest has always remained strong.

I read a lot of studies about how our food choices impact the body. The studies confirmed my thinking about the impact on climate that results from what we eat. A recent study revealed that it is the biggest lever for climate change. It is also the most cost-efficient lever! Thankfully, we can start today. This motivates me so much on an everyday basis.

What’s the most fulfilling part of your work?

Since I left corporate, I feel I don't work anymore— because I love what I do. Firstly, working on a global problem regarding sustainability and health aspects makes me happy. When our users reach out and say, "You're really helping me," it's especially rewarding— sometimes they’re mums with children who have allergies, which reminds me a lot of my brother and how my mum struggled with his allergies.

With our recipe creators, our mission is to become the “Spotify for food,” and seeing people enjoy their work motivates me. They are so happy to contribute to this project and be the first creators to earn money with us under a recurring revenue stream. That makes me very happy.

It’s wonderful that it’s working so well. What’s your target audience?

Our primary user group is families with young children who still need a recipe bank, and might have trouble deciding what to eat. On a broad scale, people who want to eat healthily and struggle with planning are our main users; we're doing the weekly shopping for them.

Our users are mainly female, which makes me a bit sad; I would love to see more dads on our platform. The age range is between 30-35. Users have a broad range of jobs, want to eat healthily, and hate grocery shopping (like me).

We talk to food influencers and delivery partners, including one of the biggest delivery providers in Germany. We are onboarding more and more delivery providers so people can trust it’s a platform where they have the choice of where they want to buy their food transparently.

We have food brands to help our app users find new and exciting foods and how to use them in their cooking. For example, sometimes people want to try foods like egg powder or tofu but don't know how to get the best out of their ingredients.

That sounds really useful. It’s not always easy knowing what to do with a novel ingredient in your refrigerator. Did anything novel come up in the course of launching your business? Did you have to make any unexpected adjustments?

Regarding our overall mission to help people eat healthy and sustainably, no, nothing unexpected arose— but on a smaller scale, yes. We’re always thinking about what we can focus on in the future. For instance, we made significant changes to our business model once we learned which pricing works better. Does our pricing incentivise the behaviour that we want to see from all parties of the platform? Concerning the app, we frequently change the user experience and monitor whether it positively contributes to the behaviour we want to see or if it doesn't. With regard to social media strategy and content creation, there’s still a lot that we can learn through experiments to see what works or not.

That’s great. The best way to learn is through doing. Have you had any major challenges so far?

As a team, our biggest challenge was the initial fundraising round that we had planned. We were all first-time founders, so we learned a lot during that time. For example, we wanted to fundraise during the market downturn and realised it was a very unwise idea, which stressed us out quite a bit. But in the end, it was very beneficial because we changed our strategy and it brought us closer as a team.

On a smaller scale, if a partner or potential customer says they're not interested or don't have the budget, they postpone things. So there are these small things that add up during a week or month and can take your mood down. But it helps to shift the perspective to realise that so much more is going in a positive direction.

For me however, the biggest challenge was making that complete shift— from a corporate job to becoming an entrepreneur and switching industries. The most challenging part was letting go of my old identity. This felt like a big thing, because I was very good at engineering. I couldn't seem to leave that behind. On the corporate aspect, I had successfully climbed the career ladder. There were many opportunities in my new direction, but my parents were not helpful— they said, "You really want to leave everything behind?". They thought I was insane.

Joining a new industry, I felt very insecure about posting on LinkedIn. I was displaying this new identity and had to explain myself a lot. As a result, I quit my job at the beginning of March 2022 and it’s taken me the better part of the year to come to the point where I don't care if people still worry that I am switching professions anymore.

It must not be easy, making a shift like you did. Was there some way you managed the low moods that came with some of your challenges?

Meditation was beneficial because it took time for me to reflect on my insecurities. Seeing where these insecurities come from has been particularly important in my role of being responsible for partnerships. I must be confident and clear about what I want and not allow insecurity to interfere. Thinking I must give up all my time to create the startup has not been a positive outlook; experience has shown me that it doesn’t work in the long term, and leads to a misplaced focus.

Studies have proven the benefits of meditation, certainly! It’s great that you’ve overcome some negative perspectives because of it. Have you learned from any problems or failures that might have arisen?

It always depends on how you set the context and whether you want to call it a failure. What feels like a failure for me might not feel so bad for someone else. So it's always a matter of perspective. For example, my biggest failure in my last job was that I planned to set up an incubator. It was successful, but I didn’t get the budget and focus from the organization that I wanted, which meant it wasn't as good as I had imagined. This was a massive failure for me, and I felt terrible about it. But from a broader perspective, it definitely was not a failure.

I remember my conversation with one of the executives planning the following year's incubator and the goals the executive team wanted. I was lucky to get that position and truly appreciated it. But at the same time, it felt like the team and the intrapreneurs were working so hard without being appreciated for it. Yet, we still didn’t receive the budget that I had in mind and that was when I realised the incubator wasn't a big focus for the company— which was incredibly frustrating but also a wake-up call.

In hindsight, it is the best thing that could have happened. Because, this was when I had my lightbulb moment: in that very conversation with the CEO, I realised I wanted to start my own business. Although that moment was a “failure”, it pushed me in the right direction. I learned an invaluable lesson and developed a mantra from it: There is no rejection, just redirection.

Were there any “Aha!” moments with the start of your new startup?

I had many “Aha!” moments when learning about the food industry because I entered the industry as a newcomer— an outsider you might say. And not knowing anything forces you to really listen. It was surprising to see everything going wrong in the food industry.

Other “Aha!”-moments were more personal. The most significant one was when I was truly able to internalise that it does not matter what people think of me or our company. Many people have opinions about your startup, especially when you quit corporate and switch industries. Some admire you, some make fun of you and don’t take you seriously at all. I learned to not care.

That will really set a person free. Were there any books, movies, or even other people who inspired you as an entrepreneur?

I always seek out people on LinkedIn who inspire me, and I reach out to them and learn from them. It could be that they are a leader, or they are good at marketing or, in my case, the food delivery industry. So, I go out and seek them and their advice.

Regarding books, I recommend Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making by Tony Fadell.

Can you tell us a little about reaching out to people on LinkedIn?  

Literally, most of my connections come from there. Some people I contacted on LinkedIn some time ago are now founders of successful companies. At first, I used to be hesitant, but now I think, "Why not?" Most people feel very honoured when you reach out to them if you have something valuable to say. Sometimes I reach out to book authors and tell them that I find their books amazing and it often starts a conversation.

Thank you so much for that. Maybe we could all benefit from contacting people we find inspirational. Do you think you could say what some of your biggest compromises or sacrifices were to get you on your path to today?

The biggest sacrifice for me, as somebody who is used to pleasing everyone, was to give that up. Anything else was a small compromise. What I enjoyed about working in corporate was being part of a bigger community working towards the same goal. In a startup, however, you are on your own or a small team. I enjoy being around many people, so sometimes it makes me feel lonely. Even though I know that is not actually the case.

You might not be alone in feeling alone in such circumstances. How do you envision the future, and what are you trying to help create with your work?

A future where the food we eat does not destroy us as a society— and does not destroy our planet— would make me really happy.

It sounds great to us, too. Is there anything you’d like future generations to take from your journey?

Anything is possible, and you don't have to stick to one path. There isn't just one. If something feels exciting, take that step and don't worry about what other people say or think. Most people will be impressed by it deep down, and some may be envious because they aren't taking the same steps themselves.

What advice would you give someone who's starting their career?

Start learning to sell no matter what you're trying to do. Even if you don't have an idea yet and just know you want to become an entrepreneur, be patient with yourself as you get that idea that excites you. That's the most important thing: being excited about what you do. If you want to start today, try to learn to sell and use what you already know to monetise your network or skills. Doing this will increase your self-confidence which will help you discover in which direction you want to go.

Do you have any selling tips that work best for you?

Putting yourself out there and into uncomfortable situations can be intimidating. But, for me, it was going to an event and talking about my business to strangers. Even if it hasn't started yet, or even if you haven’t made any revenue from it, simply discussing it will give you a lot of insight into how you feel speaking about it, and it will push you in the right direction.

If you had one last message to give to the world, what would it be?

The choices you make daily— even the smallest— are more impactful than you think. Food is one of them.

Thank you so much, Vanessa, for telling us about Choosy. Your mission of inspiring people to eat better for themselves and for the planet is profoundly important, and we wish you the greatest possible successes on your journey.

If you would like to learn more about Vanessa, she can be found at www.vanessawestphal.com. Her project, Choosy, is at www.choosy.de.

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