left one of the Triangle’s most promising digital startups to launch his own company, and it’s a return to an original love: food.
Perlowin was in business development at Youth Digital
, where he spent two years developing important partnerships with Amazon, Target, Groupon and Minecraft, all to help the Chapel Hill online education company move toward its big goal of teaching more than a million kids to code.
“My time at Youth Digital reinforced the notion of how important it is to work on something that is meaningful,” Perlowin says.
Now he’s channeling that energy into his own startup that helps people plan meals so they’re able to eat well and affordably. Perlowin began My Happy Plates as a solution to his own problems. Now he hopes to bring it to the masses through (what he hopes will be) a successful Kickstarter campaign
and public launch.
Solving a personal problem with food
Perlowin and his girlfriend (now fianceé) Britney came up with the idea when they realized they weren’t eating as healthy as they’d like, and it wasn’t for lack of knowledge or access to healthy food options or even financial constraints.
“We were spending far too much money on groceries,” says Perlowin, “and while the food we were eating was fine, it wasn’t out of this world.”
They were curious why they weren’t having a happier experience with food so they took a step back to examine their habits when it came to shopping, preparation, cooking, eating and more.
It all came down to planning, they realized. Or a lack thereof. Without a plan in place, the whole process of meal preparation was extremely inefficient.
Consider that a local grocery store carries more than 30,000 different products. Just a quick scan of a single aisle in the grocery store reveals more choice between brands, product categories and styles of cooking and preparation. Walking into a grocery store without a plan can be overwhelming. Perlowin figured many people had been in that situation before.
More research showed that 90 percent of consumers
regularly searched for meals and recipes online (in 2012), and 91 percent of consumers trusted online recipe sites (only 73 percent trusted mobile applications). Social proof plays a role as well, but not nearly as much—recipes shared on Facebook were trusted by just 53 percent of consumers, and on Pinterest, just 41 percent.
But that was 2012, and the market continues to grow and shift. A study in 2014 by the Food Marketing Institute showed different approaches to grocery shopping and meal planning between generations. That study, summarized by the Washington Post in three revealing charts
, showed that Millennials and Gen Xers were much more likely to build shopping trips around a particular recipe, often taking a “last minute” approach to grocery shopping.
This matches Perlowin’s experience. He and his fianceé often found themselves spending way too much time on Pinterest searching for recipes, and then at the store with too many options to choose from. And the result was often frustrating and expensive.
That same study from the Food Marketing Institute showed that all consumers, regardless of age, are more interested than ever before in finding and purchasing healthy food options, and that loyalty to a particular grocery store or brand is beginning to fade.
Food and tech are converging.
Amazon Now recently launched in the Triangle
. Instacart is reporting incredible growth numbers. Both services provide on-demand grocery deliveries to your door. Companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Purple Carrot have sprung up
and raised hundreds of millions in venture capital to do the shopping for you, delivering perfectly proportioned ingredients and recipes to your door each week.
The whole experience of grocery shopping is changing before our plates, as is the whole experience of meal preparation.
Perlowin asks, why not make this a happy experience?
My Happy Plates began slowly, with a sample size of one: himself.
“We started taking 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of each week and writing out the meals we were going to eat for the week,” Perlowin explains.
Results came instantly, and they were significant.
“We went from spending around $700 a month on food and drink to $450,” Perlowin says, “We stopped wasting food. We spent way less time stressing in the aisles of the grocery store, and we were cooking better tasting, healthier meals than we had in a really long time.”
Perlowin continued this practice, and after nearly a year of developing meals, decided that if it was working for him, he ought to at least consider seeing if it would work for other people. Perhaps others would pay for customized meal plans focused on creating a better experience in the kitchen, especially if they were more affordable than popular options like Blue Apron and HelloFresh (which cost $10-12/meal).
So he launched a minimum viable product with virtually no design or development work—a weekly email that curated meal plans in three categories: everyday, vegetarian and paleo.
“The thesis was that most people don’t like – or don’t have the time – searching for hours on end for what to cook for dinner,” Perlowin says, “Too many options actually makes things more difficult. We introduced structure. Would people pay for this?”
The answer: yes. The company quickly had a few hundred paying customers sign up for the service. Perlowin leveraged a partnership with Groupon (thanks to his Youth Digital connections) to test possible distribution channels and determine the length of membership subscriptions that would be most appealing to customers.
After a few months of testing, Perlowin decided on a 30-day free trial period to introduce people to the platform with no risk, and a monthly membership fee of $6.95. In working with Groupon, the company also discovered that four, six and 12-month subscriptions at a discounted price appealed to customers ($20, $30 and $60, respectively). More than half of those that sign up for the free trial convert into paying subscribers, and both groups of users act similarly in their use of the service, says Perlowin.
“I love what Ryan's working on, primarily because he's creating significant value by solving an everyday problem,” says Jim Kitchen, a local serial entrepreneur, professor at Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill, and founder of Launch UNC and 1789 Venture Lab. “We all eat dinner every day, and struggle with deciding what's for dinner tonight."
Big market but big opportunity
Perlowin understands the immense size of the market, and all of the competitors that exist now, whether known or unknown. He’s the first to tell people that there are a lot of really great services that already exist, services that often cater to specific dietary needs or preferences.
“The value that we add is for the everyday shopper,” Perlowin says. “A lot of people wish they were eating better, but don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to making it happen.”
Perlowin senses an opportunity to capitalize on an emerging trend: on-demand services. He envisions a future product launch for My Happy Plates that will enable users to view their custom meal plan and in one-click from the website, order the groceries they need for the week and either have them delivered via Instacart or Amazon or pick them up at the store using services like Harris Teeter’s Express Lane or Kroger ClickList.
This is the trend Perlowin bets will continue
as he builds his startup. It’s a trend that other entrepreneurs in the Triangle are taking advantage of as well.
“We are finding that consumers really engage with and use on-demand services,” says Scot Wingo, chairman of ChannelAdvisor and co-founder of Get Spiffy, an on-demand car washing service.
That’s despite the big challenge of meeting and exceeding customer expectations, which happens frequently in any business-to-consumer marketplace.
Wingo is bullish anyway. From a top-level view of our national economy, 20 percent of our GDP is comprised of “goods,” and 80 percent comprised of “services.” E-commerce has captured roughly 10 percent of the “goods” market, says Wingo.
“I think on-demand captures a similar, if not larger, portion of services,” he adds.
Crowdfunding to grab attention, add features
Perlowin has one partner, Nick Bodner, and they have yet to take investment, though they say that investors have taken an early interest in their MVP and results.
Based on customer feedback, Perlowin and Bodner are planning to launch new features on the My Happy Plates website later this summer.
“The most important one,” says Perlowin, “is that we’ll now be able to customize a meal plan based on each member’s eating profile.”
The product will source recipes from across the Internet, and will reduce the time customers would otherwise need to spend to identify recipes that fit their family’s eating profile.
To fuel and fund this effort, the team is managing a Kickstarter campaign, which is nearly 60 percent funded to a goal of $10,000 with two weeks to go. The campaign rewards include lifetime access to the company’s products, and a few other fun perks provided by Perlowin and Bodnar.
The long-term plan is to build partnerships with delivery providers so the company can provide on-demand service for its users. Best case scenario, says Perlowin, the company will launch this feature set in late 2016.
“With My Happy Plates, we’re working at the intersection of food and technology and we’re building something really special,” says Perlowin, “a scalable business that makes people happy.”