Social media has a bad rap. The adverse outcomes associated with overuse are now well documented, and the negativity that sometimes dominates these digital spaces can quickly turn into bullying. While these platforms were once relatively closed spaces where users could share pictures or updates with friends, they are now controlled by advanced algorithms designed to hold attention by showing news and advertisements of interest to a much bigger audience. Furthermore, the option to edit pictures heavily means they can set unrealistic beauty standards creating enormous social pressure on users.
However, the next era of social media could look very different. Recon Food, a new app designed for people who wish to share their experiences in the kitchen, aims to bring people only content they truly want and allow them to become part of a supportive, healthy community.
In this episode of Women in Family Business, Sophia Rascoff, co-founder and CEO of Recon Food, talks about starting a brand-new social media platform with her father, being an entrepreneur in her teens and establishing a healthy work/life balance. She also addresses some of the issues surrounding other social media platforms and how these can be managed by creating a stronger sense of community.
- Separating work from family: When working with relatives, finding the balance between family life and work is essential. If there is no separation between the two, it can become all-encompassing and overwhelming. Roles and responsibilities should be defined to avoid overlap and disagreements regarding decision-making.
- Balancing entrepreneurship and personal life: Passion is the key. Starting a business and being an entrepreneur is time-consuming and stressful, so without the passion behind the project, it could begin to feel like a burden. However, working on something you genuinely believe in – and have some background knowledge in – establishes it as a positive part of life.
- Creating a community: Connecting people across the globe, regardless of age, ethnicity, or social status, and providing a platform for people to form friendships based on shared interests allows for a strong community. This, in turn, helps manage the pessimism and negativity often seen on the most popular social media platforms.
- Finding a solution to a problem: Although existing social media platforms have many issues, the answer is not to stop using them. Social media is a powerful tool that allows people to connect across the globe, so entrepreneurs must work to find solutions and directly address the issues. Creating a sense of community without competition is just one way of doing so.
R: I’m so happy that you’re on this show with us. You are, of course, I do have to say it, without being ages, you are clearly the youngest interviewee we’ve ever had. Super welcome to the Women in Family Business podcast. It’s really nice to have you with us today.
S: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
R: What was the reason that you felt compelled to pursue your startup at this early stage? Why not wait for instance until you graduated? What was the impulse? Why the sense of urgency?
S: Well, with startup ideas especially, they can just go away so quickly as fast as you think of them. We thought of our idea, which was a social media app centered around food with less of the negativity of mainstream social media. But that idea at the end of the day eventually will have more people trying to solve it, and so it really felt like one of those things where if we wanted to jump on this idea, it had to be now. Which so far has totally paid off because it’s been an amazing experience and I’ve been able to work on it as well as school, of course.
R: So maybe you can tell our listeners a little bit more about what actually was the impetus behind Recon and why you wanted to combat the perceived negativity that you saw happening on social media. Maybe you can tell us a little bit more about that.
S: Of course. In my world, social media can be a pretty negative thing, honestly. First of all, there’s a lot of news and politics on social media, which can be really stressful seeing that every day, looking at that all. Secondly, social media can be pretty toxic when you see pictures of other people living perfect lives and that can just make you sad. So even if it’s not a problem with social media, it’s still a problem if you go on social media and you end up feeling sad. That’s not good.
So the way that we want to solve that is by creating a social media platform that is just for food. The platform is called Recon Food. It’s available in the iOS app store for now and on Android coming soon. It is a social media site that’s just focused around food. So when you open the app, you know that it’s going to be 100% food. You can scroll for as long as you want and you won’t see anything political, anything edited, nothing that causes a lot of the toxicity on social media. So it’s a really fun app to use and scroll through and play with.
R: So can you tell us a little bit more about what your journey was like from that vision that you had, something has to be done about this toxicity, it’s very negative for everyone, to creating the actual app? Tell us a little bit about what was your next step. Did you go to your parents and tell them, “Guys, I’m quitting school. This is what I need to do”? What did you do? How did you approach it?
S: We started thinking about the idea together as a family, mostly with my dad. A large part of the idea was his originally, he wanted to create an app that was helping people discover restaurants and hotels, which is adjacent to what we’re doing. But as COVID happened and we were in lockdown, our family was cooking at home a lot and the home cooking element became quite large, especially when we couldn’t go out to restaurants. So it started shifting a little bit and I shifted it this way a lot to be more about the food social media, to try to highlight food, give food its own platform, and also serve as that new vertical social media app that is less or more sectionalized than mainstream social media apps like Facebook and Instagram.
That’s where the idea started and because we were iterating on it together, it was a very collaborative process from the beginning. We’re co-founders of the app, but even from the beginning, we were talking out the idea together and flushing it out, and deciding where to go next.
R: What was it like for you to work with your dad? Did you discover anything new about him? Were you like, “Oh my God. I did not know you could be like this”? What was it like to work with him on the app?
S: I think I had a glimpse of what he was like as a business person because honestly, that’s where a lot of my business knowledge has come from and I feel like I’ve been educated on this my whole life. But it was really great to get that opportunity to actually finally work with him. We can have pretty similar personality styles sometimes, so I think we knew that going in. I don’t think there were any big surprises coming into the project, but it was definitely a bit of a shift with when to work on it and when to not because I do feel bombarded sometimes if it’s at the breakfast table. So it’s finding that balance. I think that’s the biggest, not surprise, but the thing that I’ve noticed that’s come out of it.
R: How did you make sure that for you this didn’t become a huge burden and how did you find your balance?
S: For me, I think the most important thing about finding that balance has just been the fact that I’m passionate about the project. It does take a lot of work and it’s all-consuming like you mentioned, but because I’m so passionate about the problem that we’re trying to solve, it doesn’t feel like a burden. It feels like I really want to. When I feel success in some small aspect of what we’re doing, like something worked, it’s the greatest feeling because it’s something that I’m so passionate about, so interested in and that’s really important because if it’s not something that you care about, it’s not going to be fun. But because it is something that was largely my idea to pull it in this way and something that I am well versed in, experienced in, and passionate about, it’s become much easier to balance.
R: Do you get support from people outside or have you felt resistance from others who were like, “Well, she’s too young, – I’m sorry to put it this way – she’s a young woman”? We are usually accused of incompetence for some reason in entrepreneurship. What was the feedback you got from the community? Have you had any experiences where you were like, “I did not expect that to happen”?
S: I think it’s been mostly positive where people are interested or excited and very supportive, which is so great, I’m so grateful for. Early on I noticed there was one tweet on Twitter when we launched. It wasn’t directly about me, but it was saying stuff like when Forbes calls people the first self-made billionaire but then they clearly had a large start with their family. I think I had a large start due to my family and that’s so great and I love being in business with my family. It’s a super great experience that I’m grateful for and so they’re not wrong. But I think that first bit felt like perhaps negativity towards me. It was a bit scary because I didn’t know what that would become or turn into but I haven’t really had anything like that thankfully.
R: How has the feedback been from people experiencing the app? What has surprised you about what they take away from it? What has that been like?
S: I think that’s been very positive. We’ve managed to create such a strong community on the app, which people are very grateful for. You’ll see people who have become friends on the app, basically commenting on each other’s posts, sharing recipes, all of that. It’s been a great tool for us. We’ve connected cultures. Our development team is based in Ukraine and they always post their Ukrainian traditional dishes, and we’ve had people who live in the States like in San Francisco who have tried making those dishes, and it’s become this whole thing of… It’s amazing to see the food travel literally across the globe. So I think that people have reacted to the app really positively. Everyone who’s on it loves it. In fact, it’s become such a problem for us because people haven’t even wanted to share the app with their friends. At first, that was concerning, but once asking them about it, we realized it was just because they didn’t want to share this secret community that they’ve found. They were telling us, “When a stranger comments on my meal, I feel so special and I feel like it’s worthy. But if my friends were on my app, it would just feel like they were obligated to.” That’s been a bit of an issue we ran into but it’s a great thing to hear that the community that you’ve built is so special and so great that people don’t want to mess it up with their real-world friends.”
R: Have you guys been very decisive about community guidelines and stuff like that? Are you very strict about these things and are you enforcing these things or have you had to enforce them or is everyone just super happy around food at the moment on Recon Food?
S: So far we haven’t had to do anything like that yet. There have been some edge cases of people posting food art on the app, but we were like, “It doesn’t matter.” The whole point is about positivity. Eventually, we’ll get to the point perhaps but for now, it hasn’t been a priority or worth it. We haven’t had anything that was crazy shocking or anything that wasn’t totally okay. At the end of the day, it’s about positivity. So even if it’s an edge case or something, if it doesn’t make people feel sad and it’s just a cool thing, then we’re not going to take it down. We have been pretty intentional. My dad and I post a lot on the app and so with what we post, how we post, that’s been setting a guideline almost. I’d say guideline and not rule because it’s not a rule. So that’s some of the demo. But again, it’s not really about the fact that only food can be posted. It’s about the fact that this is a positive platform and we don’t want negativity and stress and toxicity and drama. So I think that’s where the issue would lie, but we haven’t had anything in that case yet.
R: So your friends presumably are all on social media as well; what was their response to you building this platform?
S: Also largely supportive. I think Gen Z is hard because I think it takes a lot of us to get people to use an app like this. I always see these trends of everyone’s on this app this week and then next week no one. So we haven’t had that moment yet where it’s like everyone I know is on the app now. But when we were announcing it and stuff, a lot of people that I do know downloaded it and it was super cool to see them create accounts and I was texting people about it. So that’s been great. Then just to me as an entrepreneur in general, super supportive again. My school has an entrepreneurship organization that I’m a leader of. We run an incubator program, host speakers, do lots of stuff to try to inspire and support our school community in the entrepreneurship world, which is so amazing and so great to be a part of. So that’s also obviously very supportive of any students who are starting their own entrepreneurial ventures and that’s been so great to be a part of that and have that built-in support network.
R: It’s amazing. I think the reason why you built this though these are not easy topics to talk about, talking about how people get affected by social media and talking about it being negative. I see it a lot. There’s a lot of resistance to that as well. So a lot of people will say clearly we’re causing mental health problems for people through these platforms, but it’s not a popular opinion to have, I would say. It’s not necessarily something people want to hear.
S: We all know that social media has problems. And when I say social media here, Instagram, Facebook obviously have their problems, but the solution to that isn’t just quitting social media and I think that’s the issue with a lot of what we hear nowadays in this day and age. People don’t like talking about why social media is bad because especially younger generations, if you say social media is bad, then the response that you hear isn’t “Let’s fix it.” The response that you hear is “Then get off social media.” That’s not really the solution because it’s such a powerful tool. I use it to connect with my friends and family who live across the country, across the world. I use it to share things that I’m proud of and achievements and exciting moments in my life. I use it to get a glimpse and catch up with people who I haven’t talked to in a while, which is so nice. So there’s a lot of great things about social media and so that’s part of why I think it’s really important that we address the actual problems instead of just being scared away.
R: So where are you in the process with recon where you’re like, “You know what? Actually from this initial idea where it’s just a safe haven and it’s vertical and goes very deep into this one subject matter”, what is it slowly transforming into? What can you see it becoming? Do you want it to stay strictly as it is or do you feel like, “You know what? There’s actually expansion possibilities for us into becoming more and more and more”? Or are you thinking of new verticals? What’s your plan, Sophia? Keep us posted, please. What’s happening?
S: Totally. I think we really want to stay in the food vertical at least for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to narrow down an idea, but part of what makes this work is that it is vertical because instead of getting the top 5% of photos, the very best photos on Instagram across every topic, you get like 95% of the food photos. Personally, I love that. The bar is set intentionally so low that anyone can post anything they want all the time. You can double-post, triple-post in a single day. No one cares. That’s part of what makes the community so special. So really diving into that food, what else can we do around food? Maybe expanding. We have a feature where you can post a recipe with your meal so you can share the recipe with your friends. So a little bit more about that. I think we’re thinking about a feature right now where you can remake with some different modifications the same recipe, which would be super cool. We’re looking at ways to partner or work with cooking services or meal services like Blue Apron. So a lot more are expanding around food and then just whatever virality feature hack we come up with to try to get the word out.
R: What about the influencers? So how do you deal with that on Recon? Do you think it’s going to naturally emerge, influencers naturally emerge? Will you be incentivizing it? Do you feel like it’s one of those things that you’d actually prefer not to incentivize in order to keep it equal for everyone? How will you deal with the influencer question?
S: At first, we tried to bring influencers over desperately. We did lots of paid promotions where they would shout out the platform on their Instagram and try to get users for us. But then they wouldn’t use the app and I was like, “This is stupid. The whole point is that it’s an awesome app and it’s an awesome community and you’re telling people to use it but you’re not even on it. So they can’t even follow you here.” So that was an absolute no for me. As we kept going, we realized that influencers wouldn’t join the platform because if you already have hundreds of thousands of followers or posting food on Instagram, why would you post food on an app that has less total users than the number of followers? It doesn’t make sense. That’s true and that’s fair and that’s fine.
But the app isn’t built for influencers who have social media followings for posting food. The app is built for people who feel like their food isn’t good enough to post on Instagram because there are so many perfect pictures of influencer food on Instagram. Here’s the thing about social media. I get that anyone can post their food on social media. That’s the thing we’re trying to solve. Is people like me who feel like they want to share what they’re cooking but they don’t want to share it on Instagram.
There’s a lot of vertical social media networks like this too. There’s Strava, which is a great example of a platform for running. On Strava, you post 100% of your runs. You can record or run right in the app and then post it and then all of your running friends get to see your run. And I don’t think that influencers fit into that very well.
We have people on the app who are automatically followed by everyone who joins the app. We did that intentionally to show people what’s on the app and help them discover people to follow in an easier way. We’re right now rolling out verifications slowly to a few users at a time who have been those users who are posting a lot. So we’re building our own micro-influencers on the app who have the most followers here and who will be verified. Any influencers who want to join us are welcome to. I would love to see influencers start building a platform on here and we try to roll out ambassador programs where if they would be an active participant on Recon Food, then we would give them verification and make them automatically followed and perhaps pay them for a certain number of people they bring over, whatever the deal is.
R: What is the business model behind it in terms of how you manage the data of the users? Is that part of the value of the platform?
S: We’re not selling any data or anything. That’s a priority for us. This is going to be a better social media app, so we’re doing what I like to think of the good parts of how social media apps keep you on the platform. Like you said, there’s a reason that social media companies do this but the hope that we’re betting on here is that if we make a platform that’s fun to be on, that will eventually make people want to use it.
R: How can I advertise to these foodies on this platform? Can I advertise on Recon Food? Do you get offered that? How do you deal with that?
S: We haven’t gotten any offers for that yet. Hopefully, once we grow the community, the offers will start rolling in. Right now there isn’t an advertising feature. I think that’s something that would be easy to build in the future. I don’t really want ads on the platform. So I think we’d have to do it in a very specific way that is more or feels less like an interruption. Sometimes when I get ads on Instagram or TikTok, I’m like, “This is an interruption. This is not what I came here for.” So I think it would have to be in a certain way where it’s very specific if we did advertisements. But there are other ways for brands to get involved and what we’ve been doing right now are these challenges. We’re running one right now which is a Starbucks challenge where if you post your favorite Starbucks drink, you’ll be entered in a raffle to win a Starbucks gift card is the gist of it.
Stuff like that is super fun and it makes us feel like more of a community, which we love. But it’s always been my dream for a while once we get big enough to be able to do that with the company. Like you said, cookware or a food company where if you cook something with this brand’s food, you’ll get sent free, whatever as the prize for this challenge. It’s this thing from this company. That’d be awesome or even just get the companies that we’re doing these challenges about to advertise the challenge themselves. That’s definitely something that’s in the books or in the stars for when we grow a little bit more.
R: How do you and your dad right now share responsibilities? When you want to try something, can you just try or do you guys have a consensus type decision making? It’s like we both have to agree or we don’t do it. How do you work together today?
S: I do more of the day-to-day stuff. I’m the CEO as well. He’s in a little bit more of an advisory role where I talk to him a lot for advice and he definitely guides the project in the right direction. The small stuff is up to me and so there’s some stuff that I start or run without talking to him like the challenges, for instance. We just started the Starbucks challenge. I came up with that and implemented that on my own. Then once he saw it, he was like, “Cool idea.” So that worked for that. But obviously, for other stuff, it’s a big conversation and we do talk about it a lot, but for smaller… We’ve discussed stuff more generally like he likes the idea of doing challenges. So as we go on with that, that’s something that I can manage and run myself. So it’s more the big decisions that we talk about like product direction.
R: Are you still very much enamored as seeing yourself as an entrepreneur long-term, or do you think you will trade in the entrepreneurship hat for a corporate job for a while at some point? What do you see in your future?
S: I think being an entrepreneur really interests me because of my skill set. I just love solving problems. I love seeing problems and trying to solve them and that’s something that I do in a lot of aspects of my life. A lot of activities I do are something around that which I think is interesting. The reason it’s so appealing is when I see either something that’s gone wrong or a potential problem, I immediately want to jump in and solve it and I’m someone like that who’s just go, go, go, trying to work super hard on something to fix the situation. This comes out a lot in another activity I do where for my school’s theater program, I am the stage manager. So I’m coordinating on the headset, figuring everything out, making everything happen, calling all the cues and everything for when stuff happens. Just to give you a one-liner overview of that job, it’s just managing everything and making sure everything goes right, which is a perfect job for me and I think a very fitting job for an entrepreneur to have because the entire thing is if something happens on stage, I’m on the headset and I’m telling someone how to fix it. Before the show starts, I am running around rallying the team, getting the energy up and I think it’s just like being the CEO of a company and I know like entrepreneur-CEO is different but it’s sort of the same, I think.
R: Founder-CEO, I would say. Exactly. It just blends together.
R: Well, I’m excited for you and I’m excited to see what else you do. Thank you so much for sharing your story on the Women in Family Business podcast.
S: Thank you so much for having me.