This week we spoke with David Rabie of Tovala, the smart oven that makes it easy to create delicious meals at home. Learn more about how his team developed their product, how they prepared for the Kickstarter project and how they quickly hit their $100,000 goal.

Tovala: The Smart Oven That Makes Home Cooking Easy

Key Crowdfunding Takeaways

  • How to include a subscription model for products that backers will buy later in your rewards
  • How to utilize the crowd after your crowdfunding campaign ends
  • How accelerator programs can help with crowdfunding and product development
  • How to build up a community before launching a crowdfunding campaign
  • How to ramp up press coverage before your campaign begins
  • Why it’s important to test your messaging before your crowdfunding campaign

Links

Connect with Tovala

Transcript

View this episode's transcript

Roy Morejon:

Welcome to Art of the Kickstart, your source for crowdfunding campaign success. I’m your host, Roy Morejon, president of Command Partners, the top crowdfunding marketing agency in the world. Each week I interview a crowdfunding success story, an inspirational entrepreneur, or a business expert in order to help you take your startup to the next level with crowdfunding. Now let’s get on with the show.

Welcome to another edition of Art of the Kickstart. Today I am with David Rabie with Tovala. David, thank you for joining us.

David Rabie:

Well, it’s my pleasure, Roy. Thanks for having me.

Roy Morejon:

The smart oven that makes home cooking easy. Tell us all about the product.

David Rabie:

Sure, so Tovala is a smart counter top oven, and it’s paired with a companion meal delivery service, so it’s super simple. You buy the smart oven, it replaces your toaster oven, replaces your microwave, and then when you want to order our meals, you subscribe to our service. Meals get delivered once a week, totally fresh and pre-prepped and ready to cook. When you’re ready to eat, all you do is take the meal, scan a label that’s on the meal under the barcode reader on the appliance, and just push start. The appliance knows exactly how to cook that meal.

Let’s say it’s a miso-glazed salmon with forbidden rice and broccoli. It will steam and bake that meal for 3 minutes at 350° Fahrenheit, and then finish it with a broil for 10 minutes at 550 to crisp and char the salmon and broccoli just right. Every meal has it’s own unique recipe profile to cook it to perfection every single time, and there’s no clean up that’s required.

Roy Morejon:

It sounds too good to be true, David.

David Rabie:

It works. We have many units out in the wild in people’s homes being tested. We’ve served over 2,000 meals to this point, and we have 1 final production ready unit already that we’re testing and is working.

Roy Morejon:

That’s great. Yeah, we were able to watch, there’s a great interview, or article with you guys on TechCrunch. I saw you brought the product into their offices. That looked pretty successful.

David Rabie:

Yeah, it was a fun interview, and the food tasted really good, as it does. People tend to be a little skeptical until they actually try our meals, but the food surprises people, and that’s what converts them.

Roy Morejon:

This is a unique campaign where basically you have a physical product that you obviously want the folks to own, but then you also have the food prep option as well. How come you didn’t include reward options in your campaign for the precooked meals?

David Rabie:

We went back and forth on that, and because the meal service is complementary to the product, we didn’t want to overly complicate our rewards. To be honest, I don’t know if that was the right decision or not, and there wasn’t a template for us to follow, so we decided to go this direction, and then once we’re in the market, we’ll hopefully have people start ordering the meals then.

Roy Morejon:

Very interesting, so let’s jump back a little bit in terms of talking about where did the product start. What’s the back story there?

David Rabie:

I’ve been really into food since I was about 18 years old, and I spent the first 5 years after undergrad working in the food industry. Then I went to get my MBA, and when I was in business school I was very, very busy. I was time strapped. I didn’t have time to make my own meals anymore, and I started resorting to options like delivery and frozen food and fast, casual restaurants like Chipotle. I thought, “There has to be a better solution here, where I can get the home cooked meals that I’m used to, fresh, piping hot, but without having to do any of the work.” That was the genesis of the idea, and then I saw so much innovation happening, not just in the home and the smart kitchen, but also in the fresh food delivery space. Companies like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Instacart, Munchery, all innovating and finding ways to get fresh ingredients and fresh cooked meals to people very quickly and very efficiently. I thought there was an opportunity there to merge 2 very interesting trends and business models.

Roy Morejon:

You guys have built a complementary app to go along with the physical product itself. What have been some of the struggles with that?

David Rabie:

That is a good question. The app is not incredibly complex, it’s more the firmware, so making the app connect to the oven and control each of the individual elements accurately is a technical challenge, and have temperature control within just a few degrees, that’s something that has taken us a while to get to, but we now have a quote unquote developer kit that our chefs use to create recipes, and it works. It works really well.

Roy Morejon:

You also allow folks to kind of curate their own recipes as well. How would something like that work utilizing your system?

David Rabie:

Yeah, so that’s one of the pieces of this that we’re most excited about. With the app, you’ll be able to control every individual heating element, so the bottom broiler, the top broiler, the fan, as well as the steamer and the temperature within the chamber to create your own amazing recipes. Let’s say you come up with something great, you can upload it to our website with beautiful pictures of the end product and explanation for how you prepped the meal and measurements and all of that. If enough people vote that meal up and recreate it and say that it’s great, we will then come to you, the chef, and say, “Listen, if you’re interested, we can produce this meal in our kitchens. Put your brand on it, distribute it across the country, so get you name recognition, and then also pay you a royalty on every meal that’s sold.” We think we’ll be able to empower home chefs and really build up a community of people that are creating recipes for our platform.

Roy Morejon:

Yeah, I think that’s a brilliant angle, especially taking the product to crowdfunding and then utilizing the crowd thereafter. What were some of the guidance, I mean potentially, talk about how Y Combinator has helped you guys accelerate into crowdfunding and into the product development side.

David Rabie:

The best thing about Y Combinator has been the focus. Our company moved from Chicago to the Bay Area for the 3 months of YC and we’re living in the same house that we’re working in. We eat all our meals together, and we’re hyper-focused on just a few things: getting our product right, beta testing, getting feedback, and building up to this Kickstarter campaign, and I think being able to eliminate distractions has really allowed us to move incredibly fast and make more progress in 3 months than we would have expected to make in 9 to 12 months.

Roy Morejon:

Would you recommend other startups or entrepreneurs in a similar, not necessarily category, but to really look into the accelerator programs that are available out on the West Coast?

David Rabie:

I think it depends on the accelerators. I can only speak to the 2 that we’ve been a part of, and each one provided an immense amount of value and was hugely beneficial to us for multiple reasons, so if it’s 1 of those 2, then I would highly, highly recommend them.

Roy Morejon:

Got it, so what’s been your favorite meal or food so far that you guys have been able to produce?

David Rabie:

Well, that’s a great question. We have been eating the last, like, 4 or 5 days we’ve had some extra, we’ve got this amazing stuffed chicken recipe. It’s cleanly made, dry brined stuffed chicken, stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and Asiago cheese, and then it comes with a side of either roasted asparagus with lemon pesto or, for the more indulgent people in our group, mac and cheese, and we’ve been feasting on that for the last 4 or 5 days. It’s phenomenal.

Roy Morejon:

I think our listeners are salivating now. Give me an idea of, on the marketing side, it’s always interesting to hear some of the things that companies did in terms of leading up to launching the crowdfunding campaign. Can you touch on some of that?

David Rabie:

Sure. We did a whole bunch of different things. I think probably the 2 most powerful ones were, we really did our best to build up a community of evangelists before we launched our campaign. I think I mentioned we served about 2,000 meals over the last 3 months, and I had been working on this business, really full boar, since May of 2015, and so a lot of people knew about the product. They knew about the idea, and it just made it easier to hit the ground running, and, I think, was 1 reason why we had such a great start. Then the second piece of that was, we spent some time cultivating relationships with the press, securing warm introductions, and really fine tuning our product demo so that when we met with them, we were in a good place. The machine was making delicious meals and it looked really good, and that whole thing was nice and made for a compelling story, which led to a lot of the press that we got, which, in turn, led to a lot of traffic on the page.

Roy Morejon:

Awesome. Yeah, you guys have obviously secured some great coverage, and it’s great to hear that, 1, you involved the community early on, which I think is critical to the overall success of companies on launch day, but also that you were already talking to the media and getting engagement from potential fans and purchasers of the product before it ever went live. I think you guys obviously saw great success on launch day, where you did over 100K on launch. Great work on that.

Were there any other pitfalls or potential tidbits or nuggets that you want to lend our community, of things to be aware of while doing your pre-campaign efforts?

David Rabie:

Yeah, I think 1 thing, which we spent some time on, but I would have liked to spend more time on, would be testing the specific messaging on our page. That’s a very difficult thing to do, because these things tend to be last minute, and even with us, we’d been planning this campaign for months, the page itself wasn’t done until the last few hours before launch. It’s a difficult thing to do, but as much as possible to get your messaging and your video and your iconography in front of people that are going to visit the page and don’t know much about your business, I think, can be immensely valuable, because all of a sudden you get so many people looking at your page and we don’t know what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling as they’re going through the content. If you can preempt that a little bit and figure out what are going to be the big questions, what are the real hooks here, and emphasize those before you launch your campaign, it could save you a lot of time and effort and potentially lead to a much bigger campaign.

Roy Morejon:

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. In terms of your team, how has your team been structured, in terms of balancing the promotion of the campaign as well as all of the other technical elements, from the app to the physical hardware?

David Rabie:

We have 7 full time people now, and it’s pretty equally split between our technical team and our non-technical team, and the 7 are full time. We also have chefs that are working for us in a few different places and we had some outside help with the video as well. For the first 2 or 3 days of the campaign and the day, a couple days before, it was all hands on deck, so all 7 people were hunkered down, working full time on the campaign. Then the first few days of launch, we had so much inbound that we needed help from every single person, but we’ve been able to kind of leverage the fact that we wanted to, at the same time, build up brand evangelists and get feedback on our product and the experience. The business and marketing teams were working very closely with the technical team on that piece because both of us were really benefiting from doing all of this outreach and testing in the months leading up to the campaign.

Roy Morejon:

Got it. Great advice. Now let’s jump into our launch round, where I rapidly fire questions away at you. Sound good?

David Rabie:

Okay, let’s do it.

Roy Morejon:

What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?

David Rabie:

Probably my father. He’s been an entrepreneur almost his entire life, and I don’t even remember a time when I thought I wouldn’t run and launch my own business.

Roy Morejon:

If you could make a meal for any entrepreneur throughout history, who would it be?

David Rabie:

Wow. That is a great question. Probably Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

Roy Morejon:

What would you make them?

David Rabie:

I’d make them a dry roast chicken. It is one of our best meals. It’s cleanly prepared, there’s 4 ingredients: salt, pepper, a tiny bit of sugar and a chicken breast, and it comes out incredibly juicy and crisp on the outside.

Roy Morejon:

What would be your first question?

David Rabie:

What was the biggest mistake you made in your first 5 to 10 years as an entrepreneur?

Roy Morejon:

What business book or life book would you recommend to our listeners?

David Rabie:

Wow, I’ve read so many. I recently read Good to Great again, by Jim Collins. I think it’s a pretty interesting book in terms of leadership lessons, and I’m also a huge fan of social psychology books. I think so much of business and leadership comes down to communication and understanding people’s motivations, and as much as you can educate yourself on that I think is hugely valuable.

Roy Morejon:

Yeah, I agree. Great book. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

David Rabie:

I think our product will be in some shape or form in almost every home in America.

Roy Morejon:

Last question: what do you think the future of crowdfunding looks like?

David Rabie:

I think it’ll continue to be a platform for people to prove that there is demand for ideas, and I also think, for better or for worse, crowdfunding is going to turn into a vehicle for people to take equity stakes in startups.

Roy Morejon:

Yeah, I agree. Are you going to equity crowdfund Tovala eventually, potentially?

David Rabie:

That is not in the cards right now.

Roy Morejon:

Got it, got it. Well, David, you’ve been a pleasure to have on the show. Please give us your pitch, tell our listeners what you’re all about, where people should go, and why they should purchase this Tovala.

David Rabie:

Thanks, Roy. Yeah, if you want to check us out on Kickstarter, just look up Tovala. The product is ultimately going to retail for around $329, and we still have a tier of ovens available for just $199, which is an incredible deal. Appreciate all the support, and please reach out if you guys have any questions or want to talk about the product.

Roy Morejon:

Awesome. David, thank you again for being on the show. Listeners, thank you for tuning in. Make sure to visit ArtOfTheKickstart.com for show notes and links to what we talked about and a full transcript of the episode. David, thanks again for being on the show.

David Rabie:

My pleasure. Thanks, Roy.

Roy Morejon:

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Art of the Kickstart, the show about building a better business, world, and life with crowdfunding. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, be sure to visit ArtOfTheKickstart.com and share it with your friends. If you need a more hands on crowdfunding marketing strategy, please visit our website at CommandPartners.com and request a quote. Thanks for tuning in, catch you next time.