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Founder Interviews: David Rabie of Tovala

Tovala is making healthy, inexpensive, tasty, and fast homecooked meals a reality. Learn how David and his team raised over $250k on Kickstarter to successfully overcome the hurdle of creating a food company, software company, and hardware company simultaneously.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on? What is Tovala?

I’m David Rabie, the co-founder and CEO of Tovala. I’ve been obsessed with healthy eating since I was a freshman in college. I spent my career in food and business — and always knew I would start my own company. As someone who loves to cook, but doesn’t have time, the “dinner problem” plagued me, so I set about trying to solve it. We want to make it easier for everyone to eat well, regardless of their schedule or circumstance.

We asked ourselves — “why do we have to sacrifice quality for convenience”? How can we give people the option to have something as convenient as a microwave meal, but with the quality and freshness of a home-cooked meal?

Think about all the options — takeout, frozen food, meal kits, delivery, cooking for yourself, restaurants, etc. They all require you to “give” on something — taste, health, time, energy, freshness. We built Tovala to solve for all of those.

The challenge, we realized, was that to ensure something was of the highest quality and convenience, we’d need to control the “full stack”. So we built a food company, a software company and a hardware company. From a consumer standpoint, that takes the shape of a countertop steam oven and a fresh, chef-prepped meal delivery service.

Turns out, a lot of people want delicious, freshly cooked meals without any of the work. We launched in mid-2017 and were shipping hundreds of meals within a matter of weeks. We’re now shipping more than 10X what we were shipping in those first few months.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

It was a Sunday afternoon and I had been cooking for three hours. I was using multiple appliances (steamer, oven and stovetop) to try to make several meals for the week. If only, I thought, there was one appliance that could cook many different types of foods all at once. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. And as I spoke to others, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one that had come up with a series of hacks to make sure I was eating well every week.

The more I dove into the idea, though, the more I realized the problem wasn’t just in the “cooking.” It started with planning, then shopping, then prepping and, of course, cleaning. So the solution I had envisioned slowly transformed into a full-stack solution where we would control everything from sourcing of ingredients all the way to cleanup.

I interviewed dozens upon dozens of people about their behaviors in the early days. And I told even more people about my idea. Most people thought it sounded too good to be true — and thought it would be impossible to build. But people were excited about it.

We built our prototypes by buying appliances on Amazon and hacking them together. For a couple months, we made meals in our own kitchen (or local kitchens), delivered them ourselves and gathered feedback that way. Even in those early days (early 2016) with cobbled-together ovens and mediocre recipes, something about scanning a barcode and getting a fresh-cooked meal resonated with people. We knew we were on to something.

What went into building the initial product?

Well — our first “real” prototype consisted of buying an oven on Amazon, putting in our own circuit board, 3D-printing some parts to create Tovala branding, and adding a barcode scanner. It was quick and dirty, but allowed us to walk into a room, scan a QR code and cook a meal automatically.

The first oven that we ended up shipping into paying customers’ homes was significantly more complicated. It had the same fundamentals as the prototype (bake, broil and steam capabilities), barcode scanner, electronics, etc., but with a more sophisticated UI and lots of customized parts that needed a lot of testing.

My co-founder, Bryan, and our first employee, Peter, were really the guys that built the first oven. We didn’t have a huge team, we didn’t have a ton of money — but we had a clear understanding of our MVP that we wanted to ship. It needed to cook food safely and consistently — and it was on the chefs to make sure that food was delicious.

From start to finish, it was about a one-year process to get to market. We leveraged as much existing technology, tools, products, etc. as we could to not only speed up our time to market, but also de-risk things and lower our costs.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

This has been (and continues to be) a learning process. The first set of users we attracted came from three places:

1 — friends & family that wanted to support us

2 — product demos leading up to our Kickstarter campaign. We went to tons of offices, homes, events, etc. in order to get the word out and get our food in people’s mouths.

3 — Press. We got a lot of press for our Kickstarter campaign — and that drove a lot of early sales. The Kickstarter campaign raised over $250k on a goal of only $100k.

Since then, we’ve found three other viable acquisition channels (so far):

1 — Word of mouth. This is an incredibly powerful driver for us. Our customers love our product and are eager to tell others how it has changed their life.

2 — Facebook is a great tool for us to get emails, sell ovens, open up new audiences and retarget people that have expressed interest.

3 — Email marketing is very powerful for us. For a good chunk of our customers, Tovala is a considered purchase. Helping people understand all the things they can do with their Tovala oven and meals takes time — and email is a great vehicle to do that.

A few lessons:

1 — Talk to your users! Find out why they are buying, where they are hearing about you, how long it’s taking them to decide to buy, what got them over the top, etc.

2 — The more you can do yourself the better. If you rely too much on outside contractors in the early days, you will lose the learning that comes with experimenting and trying new things.

3 — You cannot rely wholly on paid acquisition. You need to find ways to build viral loops or network effects, or just build a product that people really, really love and want to talk about.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Our business model is pretty simple: we sell a one-time purchase, our steam oven, and a recurring purchase, our Tovala meals. I don’t anticipate that changing for awhile.

We spent a lot of time upfront thinking about the economics of our business and making sure that we were building something that was fundamentally sound. As we scale, our model becomes increasingly attractive as well.

Our margins aren’t anything like a SAAS business, so we need to rely on high average order values — and long retention. Fortunately, both of those are inherent to our business model.

What are your goals for the future?

I’d say we have three main goals:

1 — Continue to improve our product for all of our customers. That means more recipes for people to make their own food and more types of Tovala meals for people to enjoy. We’ve gone from five items every week to eight items. We’ve added gluten-free and vegetarian options. And up to now, we’ve been focused just on dinner. I expect all of that to evolve over time.

2 — Add more customers. We have built something that people really love. And our customers cut across a really wide demographic swath — they’re young, old, married, single, urban, rural. But they all find weekly dinner to be stressful.

3 — Make our operation more efficient to improve our bottom line.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time meeting with potential partners and exploring BD opportunities in the early days. Almost none of it yielded anything of real value for us. It was a distraction for me and, sometimes, for some of the team. I had people in my ear telling me that we should focus, but oftentimes those same people would get really excited about the BD opportunities. It’s hard to manage that unless you’ve been there before.

We started shipping food nationally at day one. That brought onboard so many risks and challenges that launching locally would have avoided. There were financial reasons we opted to launch nationally, but if we could have launched locally, that would have made things way easier.

In terms of the biggest challenges, I’d say that launching three businesses (hardware, software and food) simultaneously, with a small team, was hard. Really hard.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I’m a big believer in Dan Pink’s theory that there are three motivating factors for people in the workplace: Autonomy, mastery and purpose. I keep that top of mind when managing people at Tovala and helping others manage people.

Focus is one of the hardest things to do as a company. And it’s trite to say that lack of focus kills companies — everyone knows that. But it’s really, really hard to maintain intense focus for your team. The times when we were most focused on a clear objective, the more we got done, the more fulfilled everyone felt and the more successful we were.

I’m a big believer in social psychology — understanding why people make the decisions they do, what motivates them, what keeps them happy, etc. At the end of the day, if your team isn’t happy and performing well, your business will fail. So nothing is more important than that.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

I’d distill it down to a few things:

  1. Just get started. Lots of people have ideas — most don’t even take that first step. Start with that and don’t think too far ahead.
  2. Don’t be bashful in asking for help. It is impossible to succeed as an entrepreneur on your own. Fortunately, there is a network of people that want to help you succeed — could be teachers, friends, investors, other entrepreneurs, family, you name it. But if you’re too afraid to ask for help, they can’t help you.
  3. Share your idea! Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s execution that separates people. If you’re unwilling to share your idea with others, you’ll never get feedback. And without feedback, you’re dead.
  4. Take things one step at a time. Many ideas are grandiose and ambitious — as such, it can be overwhelming to think about how you will ever get to the “finish line.” Instead, take a cue from good coaches who encourage their players to focus on one play at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time, etc. If you do that with your company, one day you will look up and marvel at what you’ve built.
  5. Focus on building product and talking to customers. If you have enough persistence and just do that, eventually you will find product-market fit. You can talk to all the investors in the world and it won’t matter if you haven’t built a product that people want.
  6. Remember you’re not alone. Many people have charted this path. And whether it’s a biotech company, a SAAS business or a food company, at the end of the day, the struggles are all similar. Read other peoples’ stories for inspiration — and try to find a cohort of other entrepreneurs that you can commiserate with.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our website! Tovala.com.

I’d also welcome any questions or comments below!

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