Brad Baer is the co-founder and chief product manager of Zokos.com. Baer is a designer and an architect with degrees from Yale University and Iowa State University.
Zokos gets its name from the txokos in the Basque region of Spain. These gastronomical societies have existed for hundreds of years and basically involve a group of people pitching their money together so they can meet several times a week to take turns cooking for each other. Coincidentally, the word "zoko" literally means nook, cozy corner or bargain.
Zokos.com is the dinner party "Kickstarter" that uses social media to help people connect.
Watch Brad answer a couple of my questions over Skype, and read more afterward!
Sam's Dream Blog: Why should people get involved with Zokos?
Brad Baer: We think food is the world's favorite reason to get together, so what better way to do this than by helping people have parties in real life. If you've ever hosted a party you know that the financial burden is all on you. Whether it's a tailgate, a wine-tasting party or a corporate fundraiser, the host is the one that does all the work and ends up spending all the money. Our goal is to make it easier to have better parties more often. We like to use the expression "fearless entertainment," meaning that we want hosts and guests to be assured that they can host and attend parties without any worries. We eliminate the fears of there being not enough or too many people at the party by having the host set a minimum and maximum number of people. We don't charge any membership costs, and the guests and hosts only pay a small percentage on the transaction.
SDB: What's the key to hosting a good party
Brad Baer: We think the key to any great party is having a good mix of people you know and people you'd like to know. The way we accomplish this is by allowing what we call "friends-of-friends." This means that anybody attending the party as a guest can invite friends of their own. That way you have some new people in your home, but they're connected back to someone else at the party. The second thing we think is key is sharing the burdens both in cost and in work. We have a chip-in feature that allows guests to chip-in money so the host doesn't get stuck with the bill. We also have a co-hosting feature that allows a host to invite people as DJs, dishwashers, table-setters or bartenders in exchange for not having to pay the chip-in.
SDB: How did Zokos get started?
Brad Baer: Two of my co-founders and I were involved with a group as grad students at Yale called Veggie Dinner. The premise was simple: each member cooked for 10 people once each semester and in exchange was able to attend dinners at someone else's apartment every other week of the semester. The concept really caught on quickly and in not much time grew to more than 400 people, which meant more than 20 meals to choose from every week. It was great because you could choose based on time, location, guests, host or cuisine. It helped save money by cooking in bulk and also gave students the time to interact with people outside of their specific area of study. My co-founders and I ended up enjoying the idea so much that we came together to write a business plan for a course at Yale. We ended up winning the Connecticut Business Plan Competition, getting an investment from a business accelerator in Providence, R.I., and eventually running a successful closed beta test where 900 people threw more than 400 parties.
SDB: You said you are living your dream. How? What's your ultimate dream for Zokos?
Brad Baer: For the last 12 years I've been practicing architecture. I love the idea of building things, and I thought the best way to do this was to literally shape the environment. I was able to work on a project at MoMA in New York, design sports stadiums around the U.S. and work on literally planning entire new cities in China, but I knew something wasn't quite right.
The reason Zokos has allowed me to live my dream is that it's something I truly believe in. It has the power of bringing people back to the table in real life instead of just interacting over the Internet.
I know a lot of entrepreneurs that run businesses that have nothing to do with them personally, but my co-founders and I are all avid party hosts. We love meeting new people and eating great food, so being involved with something that has the power to change the way the world socializes while involving those two things is pretty amazing. We say it in somewhat of a joking manner, but our goal is to make it just as easy to go to a party with friends as it is to grab food in a drive through and eat alone. In other words, we'd love it if people would check zokos.com and have the possibility of a different dinner party every night of the week.
SDB: It's a unique idea to have a start up where hosting parties is your business. How do you land clients?
Brad Baer: Our focus is strongly on university students, and in particular, graduate students. They typically are searching for venues to socialize, don't live in dorms and are looking to save some money. We also plan on working with the various environmental and cooking clubs at schools around the country. We're creating a campus ambassador program that allows early users to get some great rewards if they help us spread the word at their university. In addition to universities, we're also reaching out to young professionals, foodies and people with various food preferences and allergies. We would love to see vegetarian zokos, weight management zokos and themed zokos like "fresh fish Fridays" pop up everywhere. Other than that, we hope to get users who are already having a dinner party, be it with friends from church, co-workers from their business or classmates in their alumni-group. As we always say, we aren't necessarily creating something totally new - we're just trying to help make something that already occurs better.
SDB: Tell me a Zokos party story.
Brad Baer: Parties are often, but not always, themed. We've had everything from "anything in crust" to "pinch your own pierogi" to "everything must be local" and even a "party in the dark." One of my favorite examples was a group of people who decided they would like to have a Sunday afternoon "soup group." The original kickoff meal eventually turned into 16 meals and after a couple of months the number of people trying to RSVP to the events had almost doubled. Each zoko had some of the same people, but toward the end there were also several new people from local design firms that had heard about the group and wanted to be involved. This gave the designers from the community a chance to find out what was going on in academia and inversely allowed the students to pick the brains of the young professionals. The second benefit of the growing group meant there were even more diverse choices of soups, stews and gumbos from all around the world, which served as a great platform to discuss everyone's hometown or home country.