Amanda Hesser is Changing The Online Food Community

6 years ago

If you were to put Game Changer Amanda Hesser’s life on a timeline, you would notice that food, specifically good food, is a constant presence. From growing up in rural Pennsylvania to a successful career as a food writer for The New York Times (over 750 stories!), food as both subject and object has had a profound impact on Amanda’s life.

Photo credit --Sarah Shatz

Amanda harnessed her relationship with food and created Food52, a community of “cooks and people who love food”.

I chat with Amanda about writing, community building, and the power of scrappiness

Better to see writing as part of a more personally-crafted career that will allow you to pursue an array of interests -- and a career that you will need to treat in an entrepreneurial way, inventing and reinventing what you do along the way. Your lifestyle may still not be that lavish, but it will at least be yours to shape. You will have the chance to have a much more varied and engaging career; I wish mine had begun this way. Amanda on writing as a career in the Food52 Blog

You’re a very successful food editor (over 750 stories for the New York Times), who could have just rested on her laurels. So, why start a start-up?

Resting on your laurels suggests that it's the laurels that you were after all along, rather than the work itself. I really enjoy working and especially creating. I loved being a reporter and editor at the New York Times, and I sort of grew up there, but there were other creative endeavors I wanted to pursue. I had a lot of ideas and wanted to see if I could strike out on my own and make them happen.

The first start-up I did actually had nothing do to with food. My co-founders and I worked on a prototype for a dynamic timeline of your digital life -- think of the Facebook timeline but with all of the threads of your digital life (your music, news, Tumblr, Twitter, Foursquare, etc.), compiled into a visual timeline. We built a prototype, and then decided it was too ambitious, so we decided to play around with using Twitter to track things in your life, and ended up launching a Twitter app called Plodt.

We spent about a year working on these ideas before deciding there wasn't a business in them. That's when my friend Merrill and I decided to start Food52.

What is Food52? What’s the story behind the idea?

We're a community of cooks and people who love food. Together, we are working to create the best cooking site there is. We vet recipes, create cookbooks and apps, answer food and cooking questions, get together for potlucks to learn new skills, and share our best sources for ingredients, cookware, and tableware. We call ourselves a constructive community. Anyone in our community can take part in curating the content, and we do a lot of curating and writing as well.

My friend Merrill and I started Food52 because we wanted to create a singular site where we'd like to hang out. It occurred to us that much of what we loved about food and cooking -- the sharing and socializing -- wasn’t yet possible online. While poker enthusiasts and fashion-lovers ran together in packs, we were left to surf for recipes alone. We wanted to give people from all over the world a way to exchange their ideas and to celebrate each other’s talents. And we wanted to create a buzzing place for others who do what we do all day long: talk about food!

While there were a few giant recipe database sites and there were a great number of excellent blogs -- hello, BlogHer! -- we felt there were a huge number of people who were left out of the conversation: all those cooks and food people who didn't have blogs but had information to share, and more importantly, who wanted to connect with each other.

Our goal was to create a social hub for cooks, a place where they can not only connect with each other but collectively create a wonderful food site.

What was the response from your colleagues at NYT, when you told them you were going to start a company?

My colleagues at the NYT might have thought it was crazy for me to leave such a great perch, but I don't think they were that surprised! They could see that I was restless, and not entirely cut out for the life of a staff reporter.

My situation is no different from my husband's, except that no one worries about how he balances it all.

There’s a belief that only 25 year old dudes can create and run successful start ups. As a mom and as an entrepreneur how do you balance your home life with the life of the start-up?

My situation is no different from my husband's, except that no one worries about how he balances it all. I do worry that when only women get asked this question, it perpetuates the myth that women have more trouble working and parenting -- and also perpetuates the belief that women should take on more of the responsibilities of parenting.

I just think of myself as a parent who has a career, and who loves her job. My husband and I both work very long days, and most evenings after our kids go to bed. We split all of our parenting and household responsibilities evenly, and I encourage all parents to do this with their partners and spouses. There's not a lot of extra time for either of us, but I don't desire "down time." I chose to have a career and children because I find them both fulfilling.

As for the 25 year old dudes (or women), I think everyone who's further along in their careers knows that there are great advantages to having both experience and contacts. I may have had more free time when I was 25, but now I'm way more efficient with my work because I know what I'm doing and make fewer mistakes.

What was a “Game Changing” moment in your life?

Deciding, during college, that I wasn't going to follow the path to Wall Street I thought I would take -- that instead, I would study cooking and see where it led. And then I planned my own "immersion course" -- I got introductions to restaurant and bakery owners in 4 European countries, mapped out a plan and proposal -- and was awarded a grant to go. Making that happen, after following a fairly typical college path, was empowering. It confirmed my can-do scrappiness.

For more thoughts on women, technology and business, please follow Kathryn on Twitter at @KathrynFinney

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