On Developing Web App That Allows Users To Create Customized Dietary Guidance
Health is something I used to never worry about, that is until my immune system started attacking my own body. When I was 22, my doctor told me I have something called Ankylosing Spondylitis, a type of inflammatory arthritis that would slowly fuse my spine together, and that there was no cure. Fast forward a few years, and I am in so much pain that I can hardly walk. The powerful anti-inflammatories I was prescribed lost their effectiveness, and day to day activities had become nearly impossible.
I never thought I would be one of those people on a “special diet” but it turns out that the food I was eating had a direct impact on the symptoms and the progression of this disease. Over time, I learned of a new way of eating that halted the autoimmune response in my body and it changed my life.
My name is Matthew Rideout. I am the founder of Strict Chef. We help people succeed when changing their way of eating because it’s hard. It’s really hard! How do you know where to start? How do you know what foods are good and what foods are bad? How do you keep track of all of the rules you are supposed to follow?
Two years ago I quit my job to focus full time on building tools that help people succeed when changing their way of eating. What started as a tool for people with Ankylosing Spondylitis grew into something to help the forgotten masses of people that have complex dietary requirements, who don’t fit into the cookie-cutter dietary guidance currently available.
Strict Chef is React based web app that allows users to create customized dietary profiles with granular settings for food categories and specific nutrients. There are no “presets” for mass-market or trend diets, dietary requirements can be completely customized to each individual user based on their own sensitivities and tolerances.
Strict Chef is still pre-revenue, however, I’ve had some very promising signs of success that keeps me focused on growth, and the development of features that help Strict Chef work for more people.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I’m originally from Canada, but I’ve lived in Maine for most of my life.
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 own a technology company (I wanted to be Bill Gates).
As a kid, this started with lemonade stands. Later, in high school, I would buy “knockoff” purses and 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. I have a Bachelor of Science in Marketing (with a concentration on Consumer Behavior and Market Research). Computer programming has been a hobby of mine since I was a teenager.
After college, I held “entrepreneurial” roles at two small companies, each with about 12 employees. I spent about 3.5 years at each. The first was a PR firm, and the second was a website development firm. At both of these companies, I started the digital marketing department and scaled the website development and digital marketing departments to become the profit centers of the companies. I also became a Scrum Alliance Certified Product Owner. My career experience was great because I got to test out a lot of different marketing and web strategies with other people’s money (successfully!). We worked with a lot of small companies that had received grants, who needed to maximize their tight budgets to create a profitable digital marketing strategy and funnel as quickly as possible. I also learned a LOT about how I wanted to run my own company someday, and how I wanted to treat my future employees.
I was making very good money, I had a nice house, a nice car, and great benefits. But Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) was ruining my life. I could no longer ski or run. I could no longer wrench on my jeep. The idea of taking a vacation or leaving the house became a chore. Eventually, I was having trouble getting in and out of my car, and I couldn’t even continue with physical therapy. AS stole nearly all of the joy from my life.
I had an appointment with a rheumatologist to discuss immune suppressant drugs, but that was three weeks away. I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I couldn’t sleep. I was never at peace. There was nothing I could do to find relief. The night I googled “diets for ankylosing spondylitis”, I was at my wit's end. This was absolutely a last resort to me. I had always conflated the “food as medicine” movement with anti-vaxxers and hippies. The way society made fun of people for going gluten-free made that mindset easy.
That search led me to a way of eating called the “London AS Diet”, and a book by Carol Sinclair titled “The IBS Low-Starch Diet: Why Starchy Food May Be Hazardous to Your Health”. I immediately identified that almost everything in my fridge and pantry was not compliant with this way of eating. I went to the store and purchased a few things that were recommended as “safe” and proceeded to only eat those things for an entire week.
Then it happened - a short week later, my symptoms had noticeably improved. I could walk up and down stairs more easily. I could do a squat. This was emotionally overwhelming and I started crying. I felt so stupid. How the hell was this actually working? How was this simple solution here all along? Why did I need to hit rock bottom before I would try looking for it?
Two weeks later I had that appointment with the Rheumatologist. Based on the state of my symptoms and pain, he said he did not believe I had AS. When I tried to explain that I was in pain until I started this new diet, he laughed. He said, “diet cannot help with Arthritis, maybe it’s all in your head.” (the history of how disease with unknown pathogenesis is attributed to insanity by medical professionals is a story for another day). I walked out of that appointment doubling down on my dietary changes. Three years later, an MRI revealed the bone changes caused by early disease progression, but no active inflammation. I had halted AS in its tracks. I am now pain-free (as long as I stick to this way of eating).
I started building Strict Chef for myself and for other people with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). The way of eating for AS is very strict, it was really hard for me to remember what foods were safe for me to eat. One screw up would mean a few days of pain. I was having success at improving my symptoms but I was still frequently having setbacks as I’d forget which foods I was supposed to avoid - or I’d encountered an unknown food or mystery ingredient that was not explicitly listed in my guides. There are a lot of foods and ingredients, and it’s impossible to remember them all or to carry a book everywhere.
I validated that my market was having similar issues through classic market research. Starting with a large quantitative survey and then a qualitative study of in-person interviews and phone calls. I identified three 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 in life to help as many people as possible in group 2 find success.
This market research also revealed that everyone I interviewed who was trying to stick to a strict way of eating had varying sensitivities to certain foods compared to their peers. They had developed their own dietary rules through years of trial and error. There was no “one size fits all” set of dietary parameters that would ever work for everyone. This was the fatal problem for this segment of the market that no other apps were addressing; the lack of dietary customization. The line I heard over and over was “That diet didn’t work for me because I can’t have X and I also have Y allergy” or “that app doesn’t let you exclude X so I couldn’t use it.”
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
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 in digital marketing and web development. The progress on Strict Chef moved slowly while I was working full time. I knew I needed to go full time if I had any chance of bringing it to market.
Talk to customers more!
I took out a home equity line of credit that would float my mortgage payments for around a year, I sold my loaded Jeep Grand Cherokee for a 12-year-old Honda, and I filled my house with roommates. It took me a year of working on Strict Chef full time and a lot of market research and iteration to launch something that was helpful, not confusing, and that people would repeatedly use and not forget about.
Strict Chef started as a tool that allowed people to look up foods to check them for compliance with their way of eating. People were excited about this functionality, but they forgot about it and did not use it more than once or twice. It’s hard to change people’s routines. Getting people to take out their phones and perform a search is a lot of work.
Strict Chef’s “killer feature” came later as a suggestion from a research participant. I was interviewing them for feedback on their app experience. “Can it recommend recipes?” The Strict Chef recipe feed automatically searches the internet for new compliant recipes for our users and sends them notifications when it finds matches. The recipe notifications keep Strict Chef top of mind and provide exciting new content and ideas for people that are used to feeling like there is no variety with their restricted way of eating.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today I consider Strict Chef to be a successful validation of its concept, and proof of the need for this unique approach to dietary guidance. These validations come from:
- A continuous trickle of new account signups from people I have never met (and who I have verified are not bots). Beyond entering an email - people are verifying their email address and setting up a way of eating profiles.
- Users are interacting with my repeat engagement strategy - and do not appear to churn even after long long periods of time - even after 6 to 12 months. Of course, it helps that Strict Chef is currently free - however, getting to a point where people used my app more than once took a lot of user testing and iteration.
- I receive a lot of enthusiastic feedback from my users that none of the other apps have worked for them, and that they are grateful for this solution.
Strict Chef is not profitable yet, fortunately, my overhead costs are quite low. Strict Chef is running on Google’s Firebase platform, with an Elasticsearch instance on Google Compute Engine. I will be testing revenue models once my user base grows to a level where I can generate statistically significant test data.
Since validating that Strict Chef is meeting the needs of my MVP audience with long-term repeat use, I am focusing on search engine optimization, social media, and content marketing. My customer acquisition costs are currently the cost of my time to implement these strategies.
Today my time is mainly focused on driving new user accounts for people who are a way of eating fits within the existing dietary parameters that Strict Chef offers. I am also working on implementing features that help make Strict Chef more viral and shareable. My roadmap is filled with features that will help Strict Chef become relevant to more ways of eating, and thus a larger audience.
In the future, Strict Chef will help people identify their food symptom triggers by correlating the foods they eat with pain levels. This will automatically build out their way of eating profile. This feature is for a large part of this market that has no idea where to start and is struggling to get a diagnosis.
Strict Chef has the opportunity to collect and share epidemiological data about how cohorts tend to react to certain foods, and what their tolerance levels are. For example, if you have AS, it could be helpful to know that X% of people with AS who are HLA-B27 positive find casein protein inflammatory.
Strict Chef will also serve as a content platform where people can share their way of eating with others who have similar symptoms or health conditions. Building a community of people that can help each other.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I made a lot of mistakes that slowed down this journey - but Strict Chef has become what it is today because of these mistakes.
I started building Strict Chef as a Native Android app. This solution really limited my market’s reach, it was really slow and time-consuming. It was hard to iterate. Switching to React based web app really accelerated development, helped with search engine optimization, and allowed anyone with a web browser to try it.
The first few iterations of Strict Chef assumed that users would fit within predefined dietary profiles based on disease diagnosis. It was not until I really dug into qualitative research and user testing that I understood how heavily each user would need to customize their dietary profiles. The infrastructure I initially built pre-calculated food compliance based on predefined dietary settings that users could associate with. I had to rebuild my compliance engine from the ground up based on the principle that food compliance would need to be calculated in real-time for each user during each interaction - because their dietary profile could change at any time. I could have come to this realization much earlier had I done a bit more comprehensive research.
What I did right was the continuous market research for each feature and each iteration. It’s really tempting to just build your vision and hope people will use it once it’s out there. Instead, I met with my users in real life (usually at a Starbucks) to talk about their experience, what was working, what wasn’t working, show them ideas for new features, new ways of displaying information, and new user-interface concepts. It’s surprisingly hard to build a user interface that does not confuse or frustrate people. Only a few of the many ideas I had made people go “WOW! I want that feature!”
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Strict Chef’s current technology stack makes use of the following platforms frameworks:
Google’s Firebase - this includes our database (Firestore), user accounts and authentication, app hosting, and cloud functions. This platform really cuts down on the time required to build an app. There is no tech infrastructure or servers to manage. Just deploy your app and it will scale.
Elasticsearch - this allowed me to build a custom food search engine algorithm. This is also a major component of our recipe compliance engine.
ReactJS powers the front-end of our app - though the new Strict Chef client is being built using Flutter. Flutter is allowing me to build the new iOS, Android, and Web interfaces from a single codebase which is huge cost saving and logistical simplification.
Amazon SES delivers our recipe emails. I’ve had a really great deliverability rates and reliability with this system. And it’s dirt cheap.
I use Trello for project management. In my past career, I used Jira which is overkill for me. Trello has really come a long way and makes it easy to organize and prioritize everything from my feature development roadmap to my content marketing tasks.
Adobe XD has helped me build interactive prototypes and rapidly iterate user interface concepts without having to code them. This is a huge time and money saver.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams - this book really helped me understand how to develop a lean user interface for Strict Chef, in collaboration with my prospective customers. It provides an action-oriented framework and exercises you can implement as part of your design process.
Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time - I read this book before becoming a Scrum Alliance Certified Product Owner. It’s an important shift in mindset for anyone that is building a new product, who is used to traditional project management processes. If you’ve been part of an “agile” team before, scrum is much more than your morning stand up and kanban board. This book will supercharge your prototyping and research efficiency.
Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World (Exponential Technology Series) - Strict Chef started as a tool for people with one specific disease. This book helped me think about Strict Chef in a larger way, expanded my concept to capture an entire forgotten market of individuals with complex dietary requirements. The additional investment in developing the technology to be relevant to an exponentially larger market was minimal, but it did require a shift in thinking and my approach to problem-solving.
Maine Center for Entrepreneurs Top Gun Program - this is a business accelerator program that I participated in early in Strict Chef’s development. I had access to amazing mentors that helped me think about my customers and Strict Chef’s technology in new ways. The process really helped refine my story and the marketing messages I use with my audience. I would highly recommend finding a local business accelerator program to participate in. Getting experienced people to poke holes in your ideas is really soul-crushing, but also really important.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Talk to customers more! Get as much of your app prototype validated and ready before writing a single line of code. There are so many great tools available today that allow one to build high-fidelity prototypes. One can rapidly iterate their app concept by demoing these prototypes on-device with prospective customers very affordably.
You’d be amazed at how readily strangers will meet you at Starbucks and spend 20 minutes discussing your app concept, for the price of a coffee. Keep doing this until your prospects are begging for your prototype to be real, until they are saying “wow, when can I get this!?”
Keeping your idea a secret is not going to get you anywhere. You’ll end up building something no one needs. Customer interviews and market research are the most critical part of app development.
Remember to bake customer re-engagement strategies into your app from the start. Every time your customer re-engages with your app it’s an opportunity to generate revenue. If people forget about your app or find it frustrating, they won’t use it again.
Where can we go to learn more?
Create a Strict Chef account and get your personalized recipe feed.
You can contact me on my Email.
Follow me on Twitter.
Follow me on Instagram.
You can follow Strict Chef on social media:
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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