Recipe-swapping site BAKESPACE has been around for some time — the site launched in 2006 as the world’s first food-based social network — and has grown from a recipe-swapping site to a full-fledged multi-platform food empire, complete with a cookbook publishing tool and marketplace, a massive social following (including over a million followers on Google+), and a touring conference that hits a half dozen cities every year.
None of this has been easy, but founder Babette Pepaj wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pepaj, who directed and produced TV shows at the height of reality TV’s heyday, went to a baking class to clear her mind and bring her back from what she describes as “the dark side.” It was that cupcake class that showed her food’s inherently social nature, and in-turn sparked the idea to launch BakeSpace.
But rather than create a blog and write about her own recipes, Pepaj wanted to use the online medium to bring people together.
Says Pepaj, “I was not a blogger — I did not want to share my personal recipes, I wanted to build something that had more of a utility. People wanted to be social, but on MySpace [the dominant platform at the time], you really couldn’t connect with people who had something in common with you — it was a hodgepodge, you’d find friends, and be inundated by random people from everywhere.”
She adds that the food community is very close knit. “People who like to bake, really love to bake; people who love barbecue, love barbecue, which is cool for that social environment, when you have something in common with someone right away. I built BakeSpace so that people can enjoy that experience online.”
But there were some big guys who were about to emerge — Chowhound had publicly announced that they would soon be launching the social foodie site CHOW.com, with big backing and top talent.
So Babette sped up the launch process in order to beat them to the punch.
“Chow.com announced that they were launching on a Wednesday, so we launched that Tuesday,” just so BakeSpace could claim the title of being the world’s first food-based social network. Says Pepaj, “If I can’t be better, I can at least launch first.”
From a publicity angle, it worked. Chow.com lent credibility to the space, and Chow.com had a massive PR push. So more often than not, whenever anyone wrote about Chow, they also mentioned BakeSpace. And as it turns out, Chow focused more on restaurants, whereas BakeSpace had a more grassroots focus on its community of recipe-swappers.
All that publicity was great, except for the fact that BakeSpace had been set up on a shared server with a $7 a month hosting plan. Says Pepaj, “When we were in the Washington Post, it crashed our servers, so we were down for 10 hours — the fact that the site actually survived is a miracle!”
Soon, with the audience came the advertising, the first sponsor being the 2007 Universal movie Because I Said So.
Except there was a slight hitch — BakeSpace.com was a custom build, not built on an adjustable DIY platform like WordPress. This means she had to call a programmer every time she wanted to do something (like, you know, build out an area for ad units), and it would cost money.
So out of necessity, Pepaj built what would eventually be known in the marketing world as native advertising, by creating custom profiles for the brands, through which the brand can share editorial content (recipes) and interact with BakeSpace’s audience in a way that is organic and aligned with the site’s format.
This form of native advertising grew to include clients such as ABC’s Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy, Sony’s Julie & Julia, Disney’s The Hundred Foot Journey, and KitchenAid (whose BakeSpace experience was the brand’s first foray into social media marketing, since a lot of brands were scared of having an ad run next to some of MySpace’s more questionable content).
Says Pepaj, “Our members are always open to finding a great recipe. If it happens to come from Desperate Housewives or a brand like Chobani, and it’s a killer recipe, they’re just as eager to save, try and share that recipe with their friends and family. This in turn connects the consumer and the brand.”
And one of the unintended consequences of the branded recipes is that they often became a source of content for food sections in the local papers, which now had a reason to discuss this topical, exciting, sexy recipe in their section of the paper, thus turning the paid content on BakeSpace into earned media in the papers.
Pepaj notes the coverage the film There Will be Blood received for its branded milkshake recipe, and if you Google “Chef movie recipes,” you see a lot of articles appear in addition to the BakeSpace pages, which have themselves received a ton of organic views. The Chef movie cookbook has almost 10,000 downloads and has been featured in popular forums like Reddit.
Says Pepaj, “What better way to get consumers to talk about your brand around the dinner table than by helping them make dinner!”
Over the years, the content has evolved based on what BakeSpace’s audience wanted, and sponsors such as Reynolds, Sara Lee, Chobani, Driscoll’s Berries, and many more have come to BakeSpace as a means to reach fans of good food in a more natural, non-salesy atmosphere.
From Pepaj’s original goal of providing a destination for users to share recipes, BakeSpace has grown to host recipes, cookbooks, Google Hangouts, recipe contests, and a live touring event for food content creators to come together.
In 2010, Pepaj took BakeSpace on the road with the traveling food blogging conference called TECHmunch, connecting brands, local bloggers, and food writers with inspiration and information on content creation, technology, monetization and working with brands.
“Our goal for TECHmunch is to help give food bloggers the tools they need to succeed, and turn their passion into profit,” she adds. “Plus, the same brands that were contacting us about sponsoring the website were the same brands interested in meeting food bloggers and culinary influencers who attend and speak at our events. The conferences have become another revenue stream that also helps promote our recipe and cookbook platforms.”
The event locations have varied from Toronto, Minneapolis, New York City (during Internet Week), Chicago, Austin (during SXSW), Boston, Miami, LA, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and even Disneyland.
Panels and conversations around TECHmunch include everything from working with brands to distributing content through social platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and Vine. At the last TECHmunch event, sponsor The Laughing Cow even hosted a stop-animation tutorial for attendees to produce branded Instagram and Vine videos.
These gatherings pack a ton of information into a tiny amount of time, but leave the attendees invigorated, connected, and excited to hop back to the kitchen or on their computer.
BakeSpace’s access to millions of home cooks inspired Babette to go back to her TV roots and tap into the power of Google Hangouts. Since launching its first live show in 2012, BakeSpace TV has grown to over one million Google+ followers and become one of the most popular Google Hangout series. It covers topics ranging from gluten-free and paleo baking to wine and chocolate pairing with brands like Scharffen Berger, to more whimsical topics like the food and cocktails of Mad Men and the BakeSpace’s Screen-to-Table Awards honoring the best food scenes in this year’s Oscar contenders.
It also helps that the Google Hangouts are automatically archived on YouTube, saving a ton of editing time and making the video chat easy to access long after the live event is over.
But it’s been the cookbooks that have really taken all things BakeSpace to the next level.
What started as a scalable solution to help charities raise money, as well as help home cooks share (and even monetize) their recipes, has grown into a full-blown enterprise within the BakeSpace universe.
The company’s Cookbook Café do-it-yourself publishing platform enables any individual, brand or nonprofit to create, market and sell their very own cookbook as both an iPad app and a web-based ebook. The goal, as Pepaj declares, “is to democratize cookbook publishing.”
With Cookbook Café, BakeSpace has published more cookbooks than most traditional publishers — both as free, sponsored ebooks (see Disney’s Tinker Bell Secret of the Wings Cookbook or Chef Movie Cookbook) and as paid books produced by individuals or charities (see Invisible People’s The Social Cookbook). Indie authors who give their cookbook away for free don’t pay a cent to use the platform, while those who sell their cookbooks split revenue with BakeSpace and Apple.
What makes the Cookbook Café platform even more distinctive is its proprietary, one-click recipe indexing system. If a user searches for “chocolate chip cookies,” the system automatically finds every related recipe inside every cookbook within the Cookbook Café platform, as well as within just the cookbooks downloaded by the user. Such contextual search means users don’t have to remember which specific cookbook contains a particular recipe. It also means that branded cookbooks and even the most niche cookbooks from the most unknown indie authors can pop up in search results organically and be discovered.
Even better, once a cookbook is published, it automatically goes in a native format to the next platform BakeSpace launches without redesign or launch, which has been a huge boon to authors.
Along the way and over the years BakeSpace has earned a ton of awards, including:
More than 15 Webby honors and nominations (including nominations for “Best Social Network” competing against Twitter and Digg in consecutive years)
2014 Appy Award for “Best iPad Publishing” App
International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) New Media Award for “Best Use of New Technology”
Tasty Award Nomination for “Best Mobile App”
2012 W3 Awards for “Best Mobile App in Social Networking,” “Mobile App Innovative/Experimental” and “Mobile App Reference & eBooks”
Pepaj has accomplished all this as an extra lean startup, the byproduct of having launched shortly before 2008’s massive recession. BakeSpace has a small but scalable core team working on the site, the app, the conference and the live Google Hangouts, and ramps up with local help as needed for each TECHmunch event.
But it has been this lean entrepreneurial spirit that has kept BakeSpace going and growing, by using unique ways to address the needs of the audience and sponsors, without having to spend stupid money.
Over the years, massively-funded enterprises have come and gone, new social platforms have multiplied like rabbits, and through it all BakeSpace has evolved to serve her community best, wherever they may be.
Says Pepaj of the whole process, “Do not be afraid to put your own skin in the game. There are so many founders I meet whose limitation is, ‘We’re gonna try to get funding so we can build it.’ If you’re afraid to invest in yourself and your own product, why would anyone else? It’s okay to launch without funding. By embracing those moments of being scrappy, you’ll be able to hone in on what’s really important to your business. Not raising a round of funding is no excuse for not trying.”