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Pivot Guilt

January 11, 2012

One of the unfortunate inevitabilities created by the pivoting of any web startup as it searches desperately for a business model is the complete and utter alienation and ungrateful dismissal of the few users you did manage to scrounge up in cyberspace.  Sometimes it may feel difficult to cut off a finger to save the whole arm.  What about those 1,000 early adopters who were kind enough to put up with all the bugs and work around all the limitations in your software?  Are they to be thrown to the gutter, their time and effort completely unappreciated?  What about the content they contributed to your site, shall it be wiped from disk as if it had never existed?

These questions have bounced around in my head lately, like little rubber guilt balls.

To me, it’s obvious that KitchenPC needs to become the most powerful recipe search engine on the Internet.  People search for recipes, tens of millions of them.  Powerful search algorithms are hugely valuable.  Companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft purchase powerful search technology.  KitchenPC can pivot into this market by taking advantage of several of its technical abilities such as ingredient aggregation and complete recipe normalization and allow users to intelligently find recipes and manage those search results in groups rather than one at a time.

The failed experiment of trying to build a respectable recipe database on my own taught me many lessons; chief among them was not to try to build a respectable recipe database on my own.  The Internet should be my recipe database.  Users do not want to manage recipe data themselves online, nor do they want to use a completely convoluted web-based editor that’s limited beyond reason due to a level of backend normalization that borders on digital OCD.

So, if this is the direction of KitchenPC’s future, is it possible to respect the past?  I do know for a fact that several users have typed in dozens of recipes on their own, and adore KitchenPC as a place to store their personal favorites online.  Obviously, I’m not going to just delete their content.  I’m not that kind of person.

There are a few ideas I’m considering, which I’d like to go over from worst-case scenario but completely practical to purely ideal but would cause Eric Ries to knock on my door and proceed to beat me over the head with a club.

Worst Case: Just keep everyone’s recipes in the database

At the very least, I’d like to just keep everyone’s recipes in the database.  They’ll exist just as if they’d been crawled from the web somewhere, however they won’t have any source URL.  They’ll never expire from the cache or be updated.  If you’ve uploaded a recipe to KitchenPC, it will automatically be saved in a default menu called “Favorites”, allowing you to quickly find content you’ve contributed.  However, since recipes can no longer be edited on KitchenPC (since, you know, I’m a search engine now) these recipes will just sort of “sit in limbo” forever.  Sorry if you made any typos.  As far as the 10,000 or so recipes my hired help created, I will probably be able to salvage the majority of these as they do have source URLs.  My crawler can re-import these automatically and most likely do a better job at it as well.  Basically, these recipes will be nothing more than leads for my crawler to use.  This will allow me to preserve existing user cookbooks, so any recipes you’ve saved links to on KitchenPC will hopefully still exist.

Private Recipes

Another option is to resurrect my recipe editor and allow the concept of personal recipes.  These recipes would be linked to an individual user account, and those users could access them through their own saved menus, but they wouldn’t appear on any searches or be accessible for anyone else.  This prevents potentially bad content for surfacing in search results.  The recipe editor is so awful that the majority of recipes created by users are missing lots of data or hacked into working out of pure frustration.  The problem with this is that I was truly looking forward to completely doing away with the recipe editor page.  Not only is it a usability nightmare, but it also contains an insane amount of code I have to support.  Furthermore, the second I start allowing user-created content, I go counter to my vision of re-inventing KitchenPC as a search engine.  It becomes a search engine plus a place to store your recipes online.  If I were to resurrect Steve Jobs and, as repayment for his extended life, I enslaved him as my personal business advisor, he would tell me to focus on doing one thing and doing it really well.  Zombie Jobs would be right.

The Dropbox of Recipes

This one really resonates with users well.  A huge chunk of my survey respondents store recipes, or links to recipes, on their computers.  They want some sort of centralized place to organize them.  They want to consolidate their browser links, their Word documents, their recipe emails, etc.  KitchenPC would be an awesome place to do that.  I’ve spec’ed out features that would provide exactly this ability.  Users could upload plain text (or just paste it in), Word documents, PDF files, or just plain URLs.  If KitchenPC was able to crawl or index the data, it would.  URLs would simply be added to the crawler queue, and other unformatted data would be accessible privately for that user.  Users would be able to add these private recipes to menus along with other saved search results, but features such as ingredient totals wouldn’t be available.

I think this would be a very useful feature, and I think it might be the eventual direction for KitchenPC.  However, I just can’t make myself admit that it’s important enough to launch in this first wave.  I need to be able to sell KitchenPC as a simple, easy to understand vision that anyone can grasp right away.  If I tell someone that KitchenPC is “the most powerful recipe search engine on the Internet,” they immediately understand.  They think, “Cool!  I search for recipes!” and will give it as shot.  If I sell it as a search engine that also allows private recipe collections, user content, and all sorts of other directions not relevant to the core vision, they tune out and go back to playing Angry Birds.

So Now What?

While I’m making great progress on the KitchenPC re-invention, it’s looking less and less likely that I’ll have time to do everything I want.  Fail early, fail often.  If features need to be cut, the first to go will be anything not directly related to being the most powerful recipe search engine on the Internet.  So I do apologize in advance to my users who have uploaded a few of their favorite recipes.  I promise I will keep the data at the very least, and you’ll be able to access this data!  Hopefully, down the road I’ll be able to build some scenarios around personalized recipe management and all your content will once again be fully available to you in all sorts of great ways.

I’ll end this post by apologizing for the lack of status updates recently.  I’m still working hard on KitchenPC pretty much every night, and making amazing progress.  The new interface is almost to the point where I can “leak” some screen captures or video demos of this new direction as somewhat of an appetizer for what’s to come.

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