Back in 2011, while following a recipe on her iPad, Santiago Merea’s wife found herself repeatedly washing her hands to keep brownie batter from staining the tablet. He tucked it into a Ziploc bag, began researching plastics, and not long afterward The Orange Chef Company (formerly Chef Sleeve) was born. Sales of its first product, the Chef Sleeve took off, and a cutting board and tablet stand soon followed. Now, the San Francisco startup is taking pre-orders for the first of its products that will talk to devices: Prep Pad, a Bluetooth-enabled scale that works with the company’s iOS Countertop app. Merea, 30, the company’s CEO and an Argentinean transplant, had a few false starts at entrepreneurship before hitting on a successful idea for a company–it’s one he believes will radically change the way people cook.
Tell me about Prep Pad. This is the company’s first foray into making a product that talks to mobile devices.
We ran a Kickstarter campaign that went really well and sold 500 scales. We also got a lot of retailers interested–I can’t name them yet–so that campaign was our way of letting people know what we’re doing.
So you place an ingredient on it, and within the app it displays all these things about the food, like how it relates to other food. This will create a new way of doing recipes visually. This Prep Pad serves as a way to see your individualized balance of fats, proteins, and carbs in a meal. As we progress, we’re already hinting at this leading to recipes 2.0.
That’s pretty high tech for a company that’s made plastic sleeves, cutting boards, and mobile device stands.
We’re not a tech company. We use technology, but the same way a manufacturing company would use it to make something like a hammer. We focus on the experience. Sure, we’ll use sensors and Bluetooth and wireless, but it’s going to be so we can create products customers want. We want to be the smart brand for the kitchen, the Cuisinart of the 21st century.
You studied economics and public policy in school, then worked at a number of jobs that had nothing to do with cooking. How does that all tie in with what you’re doing now?
I have always loved economics as a science, but I never wanted to be a desk economist. I didn’t do the typical thing, which would have been to go into a PhD program. I went to a masters program. Behavioral economics gave me the basis for my thinking. Right now, it’s very important to our customer development because that’s based on rationality, human behavior, and the ergonomics of things.
You weren’t always in consumer electronics. In fact you’ve done everything but.
I worked on political campaigns and for the State Department, nonprofits and for profits. I think my friends and family in Argentina are not surprised at what I’m doing now because I was always very much into doing a lot of things at the same time. They were surprised when I told them about researching plastics for Chef Sleeve. Even my wife was like, “Why are you buying all these plastic bags?”
You’ve tried your hand at so many things. Do you have any experience with failure?
My wife and I met online, and we talked about how it would be great if couples could meet other couples who met online. So we opened OnlineCouples.com and it got a lot of attention early on. At that time, I also started a consulting firm, so we had a lot on our plates. I wasn’t committed to the website 100%, and we had a lot of problems with development. To succeed, we would have had to scale the team really fast and had no interest in doing that. So we let OnlineCouples.com die. I think that taught me a lesson. At that point, we had invested our own money and it represented a lot for us. Letting go is one of the most difficult things. It was important for me to let go and say this isn’t it; things aren’t coming together.
What are some of the first and last things you do every day?
I have breakfast with my wife and play with my dog a little bit. The first website I read is a soccer website from Argentina. If my team is playing, I want to know immediately. At night, I do an email catchup from about 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. The last thing I do: Check the soccer website again and then go to sleep at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. I only sleep about four hours a night, so usually I’m up again at 7 a.m.