Mackenzie Barth, Co-Founder & CEO of Spoon University
With a network of over 5,000 contributors across 150+ college campuses, Spoon University is giving The Food Network a run for its money. The millennial media platform was cooked up by cofounders Mackenzie Barth and Sarah Adler at Northwestern University when they were first left to fend for themselves in the kitchen after moving off campus.
Today, Spoon publishes hundreds of articles and videos every day about food, wellness, and lifestyle. Their content is created by and for millennials, and their unique "Secret Sauce" programming offers a set of invaluable tools to help contributors develop real-world skills such as SEO strategy and food photography.
As our Millennial Maker, Mackenzie shares some of the lessons she's learned growing Spoon University from a campus passion project to a TechStars success story and her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
What inspired you to start Spoon University?
My cofounder Sarah and I started Spoon when we were undergrads at Northwestern, after moving off campus for the first time and facing the reality of having to figure out how to cook and eat on our own for the first time. There was no resource to help us navigate our kitchens -- I was watching Food Network and subscribed to Bon Appetit -- but they weren't speaking to us. We realized there were so many other students on campus going through the same thing, and we wanted to build a community of people to figure out food together, in a way that made sense to us.
We wanted to build a community of people to figure out food together, in a way that made sense to us.
So we created a campus food publication that grew to a staff of 100 by senior year, at which point students at other schools started reaching out asking for our help in starting something similar at their schools. We realized this need was much greater than just Northwestern, and we wanted to help people on campuses around the world explore food together, so when we graduated, we committed to bringing the Spoon experience to other schools, and now we have chapters at 200 campuses!
How does Spoon's content cater to millennial preferences when it comes to food and media consumption?
What's unique about Spoon is that the consumer is same as the creator. With a lot of traditional media publications, the editors and writers are creating content for an audience that looks a lot different from them. With Spoon, students are creating articles and videos that explore food exactly as their friends are experiencing them, so it feels more authentic and resonates with real students. This generation values transparency and authenticity, and Spoon is the only platform that allows people to discuss their real discoveries, questions and curiosity around food to achieve that.
Tell us about the "Secret Sauce" program and how Spoon's commitment to skill development goes beyond food.
We have a commitment to education and empowerment, and Secret Sauce is a big part of that. It's a program we've developed to help teach Spoon members best practices in digital media and leadership so they can be successful on their Spoon chapters and in future jobs and internships. Each position on Spoon has a suite of tools we've developed to help them learn. Writers, for example, go through skills including SEO strategy, headline writing tips, food photography and social media promotion to help them create better work and get it seen by the audience that wants so see it. Secret Sauce also includes analytics, so writers can immediately see how their work is being received, so they can learn from it and improve in the future. We think that by arming students with the skills necessary to be successful in the work force, they have a leg up against competition for jobs and internships -- it's been so cool to see so many members graduate with incredible jobs in media and journalism.
What role does community play in helping you scale your business?
Community is everything at Spoon! We believe in helping people build tight-knit, local communities around a passion and helping connect people through technology to create a much larger, international community as well. Community to us is about respecting others, working towards a common goal, and believing that the work created by a community is stronger than the work created by an individual. Building communities of people that live and breathe Spoon has been an amazing driver of growth for us. Because they feel so passionately about the brand, they tell their friends, and we've been able to expand because of word of mouth.
Community is about respecting others, working towards a common goal, and believing that the work created by a community is stronger than that of an individual.
What advice would you give future Millennial Makers?
I would always advise people to take risks. You learn from putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and it helps you grow so much, so quickly. Spoon wouldn't be where it is today if Sarah and I didn't take the leap of faith after we graduated. While we don't always know the future holds, taking this huge risk has given us new perspectives, introduced us to new people and experiences, and we've learned more about the world and ourselves in the last three years than we could have ever imagined.
Most memorable startup moment?
Moving into our first office!
Favorite Thanksgiving tradition or recipe?
My grandma's strawberry banana jello.
Current food obsession?
Butternut squash with cinnamon and salt.
Words to live by?
Everything happens for a reason.