5Qs with Strict Chef’s Matthew Rideout
1. [CMGC] You’ve built an impressive background in digital marketing and software development. Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?[Matthew Rideout] I have always felt like an entrepreneur. From the time I was old enough to understand money and business, I’ve known that I wanted to be “The Boss”, and to own a technology-based company (I wanted to be Bill Gates).
As a kid, this started with lemonade stands. Later, in high school, I would buy “knockoff” Louis Vuitton purses and Oakley sunglasses from China to sell locally and online. In college, I tried to create a better version of MySpace (lol). Shortly after, riding on the new “subscription economy”, I started an automatic undershirt delivery company. I ended up shutting this down after doing about $15,000 in sales when it became clear to me that scaling a clothing company would not bring me joy.
I’m kind of a weird guy. For starters, I don’t drink and I like to go to bed early. In high school, college, and even now, my free time is spent experimenting with new business ideas, learning about and performing market research, and learning new software development technologies.
My leap into being a full-time entrepreneur took place during the Fall of 2017. I had been working on Strict Chef part-time for over a year while also working a full time position. The progress on Strict Chef moved slowly while I was working full time. I knew I needed to go full time on Strict Chef if I had any chance at bringing it to market. It took me a year of working on it full time and a lot of market research and iteration to launch something that people wanted to use.
2. Tell us a bit about StrictChef. How does it set itself apart from other recipe-based apps?
First, for a bit of background, I have an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. If left untreated, Ankylosing Spondylitis causes painful inflammatory arthritis, and will slowly fuse your spine and SI joint. When things got really bad, I found a large online community of people treating this disease with dietary change. I tried this out of pure desperation. At the time, I thought “food as medicine” was hippie mumbo jumbo. But within days I was able to use the stairs more easily, and I could bend over without having to hold onto something. Within a year I was off medication. After 2 years I was symptom free! It truly gave me my life back.
But changing my way of eating was an extremely difficult journey, filled with mistakes and setbacks. I also found that many people were not finding success, so I used my market research background to understand why.
My research revealed 3 groups of people:
- Those whose disease can be managed with dietary change, who find success
- Those whose disease can be managed with dietary change, who fail
- Those whose disease cannot be managed with dietary change
Because of how this way of eating has changed my life, it became my passion and mission to help as many people as possible in group 2 find success.
We’re Fundamentally Different In Our Approach
Strict Chef takes dietary restrictions and preferences to the next level. No other apps come close to the granularity and control we give users. Strict Chef was built from the ground up on the premise that no two people have the same dietary requirements. Even people with the same disease diagnosis may have very different food and nutrient tolerances and symptom triggers.
Other apps are based on general wellness, and place users into groups with similar needs (whether that be a disease diagnosis, a goal of weight loss, preferences like veganism, or a particular diet like “The Whole 30”). Other apps have limited ability to combine restrictions for those with multiple problems, or for those cooking for a family where multiple members have different requirements. Other apps usually don’t get into more detail than tracking macronutrients.
Strict Chef has no groups. Every time a user checks a food for compliance, and every time we analyze a recipe for a user, it is 100% based on their unique way of eating profile. We give each food and recipe a color-coded compliance score, making it easy to understand if a food or recipe is bad, safe, or ok with limited consumption. All of this data is calculated in real time with every user’s interaction. Each user’s recipe feed is completely unique to them.
Why Strict Chef Is Not A “Tracker”
Most competing apps are mainly “trackers”. I believe all tracker apps are all fundamentally flawed. They only tell you you’ve messed up after you’ve made a mistake, after you’ve eaten the food and tracked it. You may have accidentally used your entire daily allowance by the end of breakfast. Then you’re screwed for the rest of the day. People using trackers feel deprived, they are starving themselves, they are unhappy, and ultimately they “cheat” and fail.
My market research also revealed that most people with trackers forget to use them, or by the time they go to track, they can’t remember what they’ve eaten.
Strict Chef helps you make real-time decisions in the real world before you eat (while grocery shopping, while reviewing a menu at a restaurant, while checking out new recipes online, etc.). If you’re only eating the right foods, you don’t have to track anything. Our app is designed to help people transition to a new sustainable way of eating, to help users overhaul their fridge and pantry with foods compliant with their dietary requirements – trackers on the other hand, essentially force users limit their old way of eating.
We help users discover new compliant foods and highly-rated recipes, that allow them to eat satisfying delicious meals without their symptoms returning, while accomplishing their wellness goals. Our users never need to starve or feel deprived.
Every day thousands of new recipes are published to the internet. Someone, somewhere out there has tested and published a recipe that will work for even the most complex combination of dietary requirements. Strict Chef will find that recipe and send it to people with matching dietary profiles.
3. How does your experience with Agile, LEAN, and Scrum inform and benefit your development of StrictChef?
Learning agile software development was critical in helping me get to where I am today. I am a Scrum Alliance Certified Product Owner. The agile / scrum / lean software development philosophies are based rapid launch, testing, and iteration cycles. The goal is to test each iteration and feature with your market as soon as it is ready. The framework helps you stay nimble to changes as you receive feedback, and focus your resources on things that will make a big impact with your audience.
Using Facebook groups and networking, I was able to build a large pool of individuals struggling to change their way of eating for disease management. All of them graciously helped me understand how this app could fit into their lives and address their needs across a wide variety of diseases and dietary requirements.
Strict Chef started as paper sketch drawings. I reviewed these in-person and over video chat with my target audience. It soon progressed to photoshop mockups of what the real app might look like, followed by more interviews. I then started building interactive prototypes of the app that users could tap and swipe through.
I knew I was on the right track when my testers started saying “oh my god, where has this been all my life! I really need this!”
As key features were ready, I started launching them to the usable production app, and refining them with feedback from my audience.
Had someone given me $100,000 to just build my initial vision for Strict Chef, it would have been a spectacular failure. Each of the small iterations and each round of feedback changed the course of development, and changed the features I was working on. What Strict Chef is today is completely different from my initial vision. Even small adjustments to the user interface (like how the compliance graph looks) have had a huge impact on usability, and a user’s ability to understand what they are looking at. Boiling down complex dietary requirements to a simple visualization was quite a challenge. Minor changes can make the difference between “I don’t get it” and “it’s so simple!”
People will not take time to learn something new. If an app is frustrating or confusing, even in the slightest, people just will not use it. The world is full of talented programmers, the app store is filled with millions of well-coded apps that are used once and forgotten about. The hardest part of app development is not coding or technology, it’s making something people actually want to use, especially something people will use more than once.
For these reasons, I believe app development isn’t for technical people, it’s actually for people who are passionate about making an impact, who are willing to do the painstaking groundwork of customer discovery and market research. Using tools like Adobe XD, anyone can build an interactive app prototype to test with their market. The coding comes last, and with each tech evolution, coding gets easier and easier.
4. You were selected to participate in the 2018 cohort of the Top Gun program. What were two important takeaways you learned from the program?
Top Gun was an amazing experience. I had access to incredible mentors and other entrepreneurs. I learned a lot. My two big takeaways are as follows:
- Top Gun re-affirmed the need to completely understand your audience and customers, before investing time in building anything, and to continuously re-evaluate what you are building with customer feedback. Many of us learned about fundamental flaws with the solutions we were developing because we didn’t spend enough time with customers. There were even flaws with how we were performing research (research that supported what we were building rather than poking holes in what we were building). It’s easy to have a mindset of “if I can just get it out there, I know people will use it.” Market research and customer discovery are painful. It opens us up to rejection, it makes us feel stupid, it forces us to look at all of the reasons we are wrong. It might make us realize we need to throw away everything we’ve done and start again, to work on the solution from a different angle.
- Top Gun illustrated the importance of storytelling and rhetoric. Whether you are pitching investors or potential customers, the way you tell your story has a dramatic impact on product acceptance and your audience’s enthusiasm.
Top Gun helps you to evolve your story to help you connect better with your audience. At the beginning, all of us had fragmented, confusing, and boring stories. By the end, each presenter was able to develop an emotional connection with the audience, eliciting laughter, tears, and incredible enthusiasm for their product.
In a competitive entrepreneurial environment, you might assume the “best product” will win in the marketplace. If you look at history, this is never really the case. Frequently, an inferior product is adopted by the masses because it tells a better story and gets more attention. Even in traditional corporate environments, in board meetings, with banks and analysts, seemingly rational decisions are heavily swayed by emotional appeal and rhetoric.
Just look at what Elizabeth Holmes was able to do with story alone for Theranos! (I realize this is a morbid example). The right story and vision can get your ideas anywhere.
5. We’re excited for your Tech Talk at Central Maine Tech Night on Oct. 10th. Can you give us a quick preview of what you’ll be talking about?
I’ll be talking about my background, my struggles with autoimmune disease, and what ultimately led me to quit my job and found Strict Chef. I’ll also be talking about Strict Chef as a business, where I am at today, and where I hope to be in the future.
Strict Chef uses the latest cutting edge technology and I’m excited to discuss that as well. From a “techie” standpoint, I’ll be reviewing everything that makes Strict Chef function.
I hope I’ll be able to paint a picture of everything that goes into making an app, and making an app into a business, because it’s so much more than code.