Specialized versions of LinkedIn are hot with VCs. Can Chef’s Roll find a seat at the table?

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Niche LinkedIns aren’t disappearing anytime soon. From scientist social network ResearchGate to healthcare social network Doximity, the eight or more vertical professional networks that have emerged over the past decade have raised over half a billion in venture funding.

The latest one to try to break into the market is Chef’s Roll; it’s a LinkedIn for chefs. It launched in October 2013 to try to make it easier for chefs to search for jobs and for hospitality companies to find them. The profiles offer features helpful for those in the food industry, such an emphasis on visual content like food porn photos and videos of the chefs at work.

Before starting Chef’s Roll, company co-founder and CEO Thomas Keslinke gained 14 years of experience in hospitality, restaurant, and catering management. “LinkedIn falls short on giving the creative industries the ability to showcase their talents,” he told me. Keslinke and his co-founder have bootstrapped the company on a freemium selling plan but tell me they’re now shopping for investors. It may be a struggle for the duo, unless they can prove that the market of chef recruiters — and the companies who want to sell equipment to chefs — are both sizeable enough to generate venture-backed returns.

Before you giggle and immediately dismiss the idea of LinkedIn for chefs, it’s worth noting that Chef’s Roll is following a trend set by some pretty big startups.

Some targeted LinkedIns are money makers

Although you might ithink that specialized LinkedIns wouldn’t attract big enough audiences for venture bets, that hasn’t been the case. One of the oldest and biggest players is Spiceworks, a social network for IT professionals. The company counts one third of the world’s IT professionals among its users, and it has raised more than $111 million in venture funds, with the last round led by none other than Goldman Sachs.

Take Doximity – LinkedIn for doctors — as another example. T. Rowe Price co-led the most recent $54 million Series C round. Doximity has more than a third of the nation’s doctors on it. It has specific features that keep its users engaged, like a secure, HIPAA compliant e-fax technology and an alert system for academic articles published on obscure topics.

Companies that build healthcare or IT tools and technologies are willing to pay big to reach Doximity and Spiceworks users. Institutions looking to hire such employees are happy to cough up the recruiting fee to post open jobs. In these industries, these targeted LinkedIns are money-makers.

Chef’s Roll is missing its magic feature

But will that be the case with Chef’s Roll? The website is early enough in its history that it hasn’t penetrated much of the market. Keslinke told me they only have 3,600 users, and are aiming for a market of “10 million” worldwide. He envisions a future much like the experience of Doximity and Spiceworks, where culinary equipment companies pay to advertise to the curated audience of chefs, or where hospitality brands cough up the big bucks for recruiting. But that day is a long way away, and there’s no evidence that the “chef” market is as big as IT, science, or healthcare industries.

Ben Boyer, Managing Director at Tenaya Capital, built one of his investment theses around vertical professional social networks, having placed bets in Spiceworks, Edmodo, and ResearchGate. Although he said he couldn’t speak to Chef’s Roll in particular since he wasn’t familiar with it, he offered insight into the key elements a company like Chef’s Roll needs to succeed from a venture perspective.

First and foremost, such a company should provide a key service to its users, such that they flock in droves. ResearchGate does that by providing an easy feature for scientists across the world to collaborate on research. Spiceworks does it by offering a free network management tool to IT pros. Both have reached huge chunks of their target markets.

On the surface, Chef’s Roll doesn’t have that key service. It’s a prettier profile than LinkedIn, with more room for showing food presentation, but it doesn’t offer a feature that’s key for a chef to do his or her job.

The second element that Boyer looks for in vertical professional social networks is the size — and selling strength — of the target market. Is the audience valuable?

“I have no knowledge or insight of chefs,” Boyer told me. “Is there a big enough need for chef hiring? How much is being spent today by restaurants and related businesses to recruit chefs?” By way of comparison, there are 115,000 chefs and head cooks in the United States, according to the Department of Labor, as opposed to 691,000 physicians and surgeons. If you widen the criteria a little, the market gets bigger: There are 2.15 million “cooks” in the United States, which would include anyone from the fry cook at the local burger joint to the sous chef at the five star French restaurant. Some of them might need Chef’s Roll’s help to apply for jobs, but others would not.

If its too niche of a market, Chef’s Roll may do better as a bootstrapped company instead of one trying to bring in VC-level scaling returns.

 

This story has been updated to include the number of cooks — not just head chefs — in the United States.

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