How a media company founded by two 23-year-olds wants to take on the Food Network with an army of college students

Spoon university foundersSpoon UniversityFrom left to right: Spoon University cofounder Mackenzie Barth, Spoon University COO Nathaniel Harley, and Spoon University cofounder Sarah Adler.

When Mackenzie Barth was studying communications at Northwestern University, she found herself living in an off-campus apartment for the first time, completely lost, with no idea how to cook for herself.

“The only thing we could spend our money on was going to eat out with friends at restaurants nearby, but we didn’t really know where to go or had the resources to figure it out, except for talking with our friends,” she told Business Insider.

Along with her friend Sarah Adler, Barth decided to start her own website — a place where anyone form Northwestern could talk about food. Spoon University — a website to share recipes, health and lifestyle stories, restaurant reviews, BuzzFeed-esque quizzes, and other food-related content — launched in March 2014 and grew to a 100-person student staff at Northwestern’s campus.

Spoon University caters specifically to millennials, offering both localised and more general stories about food, wellness, and lifestyle that are relatable and accessible to young people. The website has a national main page, as well as individual verticals for every participating college campus. Barth says she wants Spoon University to “emphasise the real, authentic, raw fun side of food that you don’t really get with other companies like Food Network.”

Students at other schools saw Spoon University and came to Barth and Adler, telling the cofounders that they wanted a similar publication at their own campuses.

“We replicated what we built at Northwestern to about five other schools to kind of test it out,” Barth says. “And the requests just kept coming.”

Spoon universityScreenshotIn addition to food-related stories, Spoon University provides health and lifestyle news too.

A year later, 23-year-old Barth and Adler have moved to New York City, where Spoon University is the only media company going through Techstars NYC‘s accelerator program. The company will present at Techstars’ Demo Day this Friday.

Spoon University now attracts 2 million unique visitors every month — 10x growth from 200,000 uniques just five months ago. Spoon University has 120 participating college campuses, including schools like Penn, NYU, Dartmouth, and Michigan, with 3,000 students actively contributing stories, photos, and videos to the website. Spoon University’s advisors include digital media startup talents like Bryan Goldberg, the CEO and founder of Bustle and Bleacher Report, and Chris Altchek, the CEO of Mic. Its readership is 75% female.

Barth tells Business Insider that Spoon University’s growth has been completely organic: students see Spoon University’s stories and videos online, and write in to ask how they can start their own campus chapter. When a student expresses interest on campus, they go through a series of steps to prove that there’s enough demand for Spoon University.

Spoon universityScreenshotSpoon University offers localised restaurant reviews, created and curated by its writers on 120 college campuses across the country.

Spoon University’s staff appoints a leadership group for each campus, which includes an editor in chief, a marketing director and a photo director. Those students are the ones to maintain their team, and they can receive credit as you would for an internship. Spoon University rigorously vets the students who apply for the leadership roles, and writers are also interviewed and vetted to ensure the quality of writing remains consistently good.

“We empower our editors in chief to really produce better content, to lead their editorial vision for their chapter, because every school is so different,” Barth says. “But then we curate the best content on Spoon’s national homepage, and we give people analytics feedback so they know what’s performing well. There’s constant learning going on. For having 3,000 contributors, the content overall is pretty strong, which is great.”

In about a month’s time, Spoon University can completely jumpstart a campus chapter. Every campus’s leadership team guides its staff to write better stories and to measure results. The students who write for Spoon University are unpaid, like students at most campus newspapers and magazines.

Unlike campus publications, however, Spoon University has a proprietary backend product, appropriately called “Secret Sauce.” It onboards and trains all of Spoon University’s contributors, and it serves as a place for writers to track their progress, their analytics, and feedback on all their stories.

Students who write stories or produce video for Spoon University learn skills they might not be getting in the classroom that can help them out in the real world, especially if they’re interested in digital journalism: contributors learn how to optimise headlines, how to promote things on social media, and how to take better photos.

“There’s this constant information, skill-building and help and resources you have access to with Spoon University,” Barth says.

Spoon universityScreenshotTrending stories on Spoon University’s national main page.

Writers on Spoon University get national and international exposure. Spoon University had syndication partnerships with big-name media companies like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Yahoo Food, and USA Today College.

“With a campus publication you might only have your content seen by people on your campus. but publishing on Spoon University means the reach is so much greater,” Barth tells Business Insider. “You can actually feel like your piece of work you’ve put a lot of effort into is being seen by a lot of people.”

To monetise, Barth says Spoon University has worked on experimental campaigns with Whole Foods and other brands, consisting of sponsored content, social advertising and experiential marketing.

“We’re looking for innovative ways to create awesome content and experiences for brands that our audience will love,” Barth says.

Spoon University is looking to grow its 7-person staff this year. The company plans to wrap up its seed round of funding after Techstars’ Demo Day, and will continue to focus not only on the written content on Spoon University’s website, but its videos too.

Spoon universityScreenshotSpoon University is focused on expanding its video presence.

“We want to help our contributors create video content because it’s really exciting for people to watch food video content online, and give them the tools to become video producers too.” she says.

Spoon University also wants to ‘create more premium content in-house, to really emphasise the real, authentic, raw fun side of food that you don’t really get with other companies like Food Network.”

Barth says she wants millennials to recognise Spoon University as a food-lifestyle brand for them.

“Despite what a lot of people believe, even college students really care what they’re putting into their bodies, and I think there’s a real generational shift where millennials especially are more aware about food and where your food comes from and how your body reacts to different things,” Barth says. “It’s a food movement of sorts.”

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