Under the Arc with Lev Berlin, solo founder of ReciPal

Our fourth installment of Under the Arc features guest and Founder Lev Berlin a bootstrapped founder himself who is tackling mission critical challenges in the ever-evolving market of food & nutrition.

To kick us off, tell us your story from college through to ReciPal:

I’m the solo founder of ReciPal, a small, bootstrapped software company that primarily helps food companies create their own nutritional labels. I wasn’t always a food or even software person. I can start back at college as that’s where my journey begins that eventually, very slowly, led to ReciPal. 

I went to Princeton, and if you google my name plus “Princeton admissions”, there’s a fun story, which may have involved help from the high school lunch lady. 

At Princeton, I studied operations research and financial engineering, which is a combination of economics, math, statistics, and computer science. Most of the graduates end up at hedge funds, investment banks, or consulting firms, which honestly wasn’t all that different from the general Princeton graduating class at the time.

Like a lot of 20 year olds, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Lots of folks at Princeton were, at that time, going into banking and investing, so I spent a summer at Deutsche Bank interning. I wasn’t given much to do and wasn’t proactive about finding projects to work on, probably because I wasn’t that interested in what my group was doing. I was willing to do anything asked of me, up to and including getting coffee or running errands, but didn’t even get asked to do that. While I realize the internship wasn’t ideal, a lot of this was my fault, and I wasn’t asked back. This was a little shocking because 90%+ of interns got full time jobs at the time! It felt like a big time whiff, and it was more than a little embarrassing.

After graduating, I got a job at a management consulting firm called Oliver Wyman. While there, I got to travel and work on lots of different projects with different teams. It was a great place to learn about all aspects of work very quickly with all the variety – whether or not you liked traveling for work, what type of city you like, what types of work you preferred, team size, work personalities you work well with, and what parts of professional life you enjoy. Incredibly useful as a first job in that respect.

I quickly knew that becoming a partner there wasn’t my end game.

Why not? That seems like a pretty incredible career trajectory, at least on paper for most folks.

First off, you are traveling non-stop. Both as a junior who actually is doing lots of the work, and even more so when you climb the ranks and have multiple projects at different clients potentially around the country that you have to visit every week or two. While junior consultants typically travel to the client Monday through Thursday and are home Friday through Sunday, partners would often fly daily to their various clients. You rack up the sky miles, but it can be rough.

Besides the lifestyle piece of the job, a lot of the work in consulting was unenjoyable to me. I’m a pretty heads-down, introverted person when at work. Making decks and meetings were not my thing.

While I did enjoy the relationships and learning from clients, my real strengths were in tool building. That’s where I would lose track of time and find flow, and not surprisingly where I did my best work and got strong reviews. And although I have a family now, I definitely have a bit of a lone wolf and minimalist mentality, where I don’t want to be overly responsible for too many people or things and just try to keep things relatively simple. I value individual contribution and, now that I’m running a small, bootstrapped business with employees, this expresses itself in a very autonomous culture, where everyone knows their responsibilities and where there isn’t loads of heavy management.

So you are living in NYC, working for a management consulting firm, flying all over the country on projects. It sounds incredibly busy. How in the midst of all that did you found ReciPal?

Although I was very busy during my four years there, I was always doing some side project or another. Along the way, I had a friend who was given a dehydrator for Christmas and started making jerky and bringing it to parties. My eyes lit up at the idea that you could make your own jerky, as did a bunch of other friends, and we literally couldn’t help ourselves from learning more and becoming involved. We basically begged to contribute in whatever ways we could. Before anyone knew it, this jerky hobby became a ten-person project with friends from the finance, PR, engineering, and culinary worlds all collaborating. At some point it became a proper business called SlantShack Jerky. 

It was a great mix of talents and creativity doing all the projects related to manufacturing and marketing jerky. Josh, the friend with the dehydrator, was great at motivating and delegating. We all had full-time jobs, Josh included, and it’s a bit mind boggling honestly how he of all of us did it – I can hardly handle staying on top of a few people at ReciPal, and Josh was managing 10 of us as a side gig!

Share with us how SlantShack developed, and how it led you to ReciPal.

First, while we had some success in the end, I wouldn’t start a meat snack product again. It’s an expensive product, meat, that you can’t really manufacture yourself without huge capital costs of a USDA meat production facility, so if your selling point is the flavor and unique quality, you only have so much control since you almost always have to outsource production initially. Then, once you get the meat, you dehydrate it and you have a fraction of the original weight as a sellable product. Not to mention you are competing with giants, the Oberto’s of the world, who have true scale economies in everything from costs to advertising to distribution.

That said, we were initially making our jerky ourselves and getting popular around the New York City area. We did some underground food vendor events – farmers’ Market type things – that helped us get some notoriety. We were picked up by some great food bloggers, and even got featured in Maxim Magazine as one of the top 10 Jerky’s of America. We were having a ton of fun making jerky, hanging out with our friends, eating copious samples, being extremely silly, and feeling good about building something we cared about. 

We even made what we thought would be a viral video, with the help of film student friend, about the many uses of jerky – as a stand-in for a tissue to dry a stranger’s tears, a jerky bowtie, and so on – I showed up to help with the day of shooting and ended up having to act when the actual actor couldn’t make it! It might be on YouTube…another embarrassing moment for very different reasons. But super fun and hilarious to look back on. There were a lot of fun projects like that we tried, in addition to the more mundane elements of building a business.

Back to food…Now, some foods, like jams and cookies, are reasonably acceptable to sell from home. But dehydrated raw meat…less so. So we got to the point of having to either shut it down or run things properly. We had to find a USDA production facility and secure proper labeling, distribution, and quality control. 

I was in charge of the nutrition labelling. We offered a lot of customization, which meant that nutritional analysis was very complex and expensive due to the sheer number of options.  Especially if we had to send samples to a lab the combinations really added up. Through this process, I learned that there were software companies that could help with this, but it was similar price point to using the lab vendors, so we weren’t all too excited about our options. 

I put on my Excel modelling hat, did a lot more research, made some assumptions, and built something to solve this problem just for us, something probably thousands of people have done before and after me, spending dozens of hours each that they could have used to build their businesses!

At the same time, I was working on some other side projects which made me realize I should probably learn at least some web development, since it kept coming up and finding help in that realm was difficult and expensive at the time. One of the tutorials had me build a shopping cart, which I realized is pretty similar to a food recipe conceptually – I’d done some relational modeling in Access before, but that really made it click for me. For the nutrition labeling project, I had a well understood problem that was perfect for a basic web dev project to practice and build upon. 

How long ago did you officially start and where are you today with the business?

I’ve been working on it full-time for about 10 years now. We were ramen profitable fairly quickly, and I’ve continued to bootstrap since then.

We’re still a small team but trying to continue to be smart about what jobs to fire myself from and where we need to focus going forward, which is a tough mentality to switch to as a bootstrapper and being the only employee for so long.

What exactly did you see in the market that gave you the confidence to ultimately quit your consulting job and go to this market full-time (knowing you were running both in parallel for a while)?

The reason I started it in earnest was because there wasn’t an option that I wanted to use. There were a lot of Microsoft-Access-looking solutions, or super expensive offerings. But as I mentioned, I didn’t start it to make money or build a business, it was much more a playground for me to learn programming, web development, and mess around with marketing ideas. I spent a lot of time playing around with it just learning the various programming languages required to build a website, along with deployment and the little technologies and concepts along the way. This was alongside other projects and jobs. Along the way, I attended The Recurse Center and became a much more capable programmer – enough to solve most of my problems and figure things out.

At a certain point the nutrition label maker tool seemed good enough that people would pay for it, and after other projects fell through, I started working on it full-time with my wife’s urging. But it wasn’t something I quit my job to blindly pursue. It was a very, very slow burn that seemingly randomly became a business after there was sufficient evidence it was feasible. I quit consulting when I had money saved up for at least a year – it was a good job, and I was pretty frugal – and knew I had enough projects that would keep me entertained and busy. The plan was to figure out one of those projects knowing that if I didn’t, I could always go back and do consulting or get another job. It just happened to be ReciPal that ended up working out after a few failed businesses, projects, and side gigs over the course of 2 or 3 years.

You saw the existing players falling behind, especially on UI/UX. How have you protected your business against that same pitfall, now that you are a decade into your journey? 

I’ve always been really focused on customers, having been one myself. But no doubt, it is challenging to overhaul your software that is working well enough. Even with us being only 10 years old, there is always technical debt to cleanup and maintenance as the business and customers grow. We are redesigning a bunch of elements of our offering right now, refactoring, and developing cool tools for our bigger customers. There’s really no such thing in software as a passive business.

You are a great example of a “Micro-SaaS” team scale, which isn’t saying anything about your revenue, but only organization design. How do you organize the team and keep everyone effective?

We have a very informal structure to the organization. I give a long leash to the team. We have written up a product roadmap to guide our general efforts and to ensure we are pointed in the same direction. With our team today, we can easily communicate, but if we grow the team, we will have to be increasingly structured and intentional in terms of what we are building. In listening to customers, it should be obvious about where the product needs to go over time, but you want to think outside the box and try to innovate more than just around the margins.

Beyond Roadmap, do you own a forecast or growth targets?

No. To some extent, I think there is only so much control with such things. When I went at it full-time, I just thought, “this will be my beer and travel money”, so it feels like we are playing with house money in a lot of ways, and I try not to put too much pressure on it, but of course we want to keep growing.

What has driven you to hire, and what drives you to hire more folks despite your ability to seemingly scale for a long while without too many more people?

I’m part of a Mastermind group, with a few like-minded bootstrappers who are at a similar-ish stage of life and business, with some ahead and others behind across various vectors of life and business. Talking with those peers, I’ve become a little more business oriented with how I run ReciPal. As we’ve grown our family, I feel a bit more responsibility to take it seriously and try to keep growing, and my perspective on leverage and time has shifted. With two kids, work isn’t the sole focus of the day, and yet you can’t simply do less and expect good things to happen. To bridge that gap, I’ve tried to do more hiring and fill those gaps in my time and expertise.

Looking back, I would recommend starting to hire earlier, but I really wasn’t ready to let go of the product and codebase early on.

Why is that? What would it have brought you?

First, I’m just not a professional engineer. I can have those conversations and contribute, but there are simply much better people out there for writing good code. We had technical debt that was overwhelming for me to get done with my skillset and without a great test suite. As the business grew, the overhead of running the business took over the time to write code. With development, you need decent chunks of time to be really productive, which does not align well with talking to customers and running a small business.

Speaking of optimizing your time, how do you organize your weeks or your days? 

I have a running list of things I’m trying to get done for the week, which rarely all gets done. I’m often ambitious with the goal setting, but I know that, so I am not too hard on myself when the list inevitably doesn’t get done. I try to do time blocking when it makes sense, but the nature of my role managing the team, collaborating throughout the day, and picking up a lot of loose ends lends itself to a less predictable daily schedule. Lastly, I like to exercise and eat lunch regardless of what comes our way. I get a little antsy if I don’t move around or get outside, so I’ll try to lift weights, walk to grab lunch in town, or play basketball most days.

Thanks, Lev!