Sam Nasserian: Creating Meaningful Job Opportunities for Chefs in the U.S.

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Sam Nasserian.

Sam Nasserian is the founder & CEO of Cozymeal, the leading platform in the U.S. enabling customers to easily find and book culinary experiences with local professional chefs. Cooking classes, team-building experiences and food tours are a few of the experiences the company is currently offering in 22 cities in the U.S. In 2019, the company plans to expand into 50+ new national and international cities and also plans to further broaden its offerings.

An online marketplace and sharing economy veteran, Sam has a long track record of successfully launching and growing online businesses. Prior to founding Cozymeal in San Francisco, Sam held several leadership roles at growing companies, including Upwork (as Head of the IT Category), JustAnswer (as Head of the International Business) and SAP.

Most recently, Sam was awarded as the 2018 Diana Davis Spencer Fellow (part of the Global Good Fund) for his work in creating meaningful job opportunities for Americans age 50+ through Cozymeal. Additionally, he was honored as the winner of the 2014 OPEN Forum business competition for the creation of Cozymeal.

Sam grew up in Germany before moving to the US in 2007. He has a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in Computer Science & Mathematics from RWTH Aachen University and a master’s degree in Management from Stanford University. While at university, he was a fellow of the German National Merit Foundation, which is run under the auspices of the President of Germany and is Germany’s most prestigious sponsor of intellectually outstanding students. The scholarship is awarded to <1% of top university students in Germany.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I grew up in Aachen (Germany), which is a university town at the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. Thanks to hosting one of the top European universities, Aachen has a very young and educated population.

I went to a very strict and conservative middle school and high school with a focus on both humanities and the sciences. We had to take advanced mathematics, computer science and physics classes but also philosophy, literature, art history and foreign language classes. My parents were very different in terms of setting the emphasis on my upbringing. While education was the number one priority for my father, my mom emphasized athletics and a healthy lifestyle. I would do a lot of sports and, in particular, joined a swim team early on and participated in swim competitions.

I can say this gave me a very well-rounded upbringing and I learnt early on to prioritize both education and athletics and be intellectually curious.

When did you move to the U.S. and how do you view this country’s role in your success?

I moved to this country in 2007 to go to Stanford University for my grad school and call this place home now. It’s a great place to be and I have felt welcome in this country from day one something many new immigrants in Europe, no matter how qualified and educated they are, often don’t feel. Also, I really appreciate the supportive environment this country (especially Silicon Valley) offers to entrepreneurs in a way few other countries in the world do.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

Like with many people, my parents have been a key influence on me. They did a good job splitting up the responsibilities. My father emphasized the importance of education while my mother emphasized the importance of athletics and a healthy lifestyle. This really helped me become the well-rounded person I am today.

Another important influence was a conversation I had with one of my former professors in the early years of my undergrad at the university in Germany. He was a well-respected mathematics professor who was working on very difficult mathematical problems. One day in a meeting, he started giving me life advice and told me that in life, it’s important to try to understand every single problem you come across and in the instances where you don’t understand something, you should be confident that you would understand it if you had the time to dig deeper.

While this was a very simple concept, it had a big impact on me. It influenced my attitude towards problems and challenges. Running a company like I do, I need to be confident about every aspect of my business. While I don’t have the time to be involved in every part of the company, I need to be confident that whenever needed, I’m capable of digging deeper in order to understand and solve the problem should there be one.

Tell our readers about Cozymeal. How did it get started? What you have accomplished so far?

Growing up, I always enjoyed watching cooking shows and cooking competitions on national TV. My passion for good food even grew bigger when I moved to California in 2007 and experienced the great local produce and diverse cuisines, especially in melting pot cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Though I enjoyed discovering new cultural experiences, I was often frustrated by those in restaurants where I found it was often loud, the quality of the food was mediocre, and there was never an opportunity to interact with the chef. Being an online marketplace veteran, I asked myself how it would be if there was an online marketplace where you can find and book chefs for different culinary experiences. This was the genesis of the Cozymeal story.

Today, we are the leading marketplace in the country for culinary experiences with local professional chefs in 22 cities. People mostly book us for recreational cooking classes and team building events with local chefs. We recently also launched our food tours marketplace in San Francisco and last week, we launched our Private Chef service in Los Angeles where you can have a chef come to your home with all ingredients, cook for you, serve you and clean up and leave. We plan to roll out Food Tours and Private Chef services into the other 21 cities in the next few months. Also, we will be expanding into 50+ new national and international markets in 2019.

Customers love Cozymeal since they can easily find and book fun and engaging culinary experiences with a few button clicks on our website. Every chef, food tour operator and other provider has to pass Cozymeal’s strict vetting process before they can join us so customers can be confident about the quality of their experiences with our service.

In addition to the benefits we offer to customers, we have become an important source of income to hundreds of chefs nationwide — many of whom use Cozymeal as their primary source of income. Chefs in restaurants work long hours in the kitchen under difficult circumstances, have often little influence on the menu and the average salary of a sous chef in a city like San Francisco is $38,000/year. As a Cozymeal chef, you have a much better lifestyle, you get to be your own boss and make per hour 2–3 times more than you would in a restaurant. In 2017, we had chefs who made over $120,000 on our platform.

Why is food such a hot area right now for startups?

Food has always been important in our lives. It brings people together and is supposed to provide nutrition. I’m saying “supposed” since, unfortunately, many of the foods we eat today are not nutritious. The introduction of ethnic food into our cultures (especially in the last 10 to 20 years) plus the rise of social media and people showcasing their culinary experiences has led to us further view the consumption of food as an experience. In addition, because of the healthy diet movement and increasing concerns about animal welfare, people have been increasingly concerned about the source of our food and how it is being prepared.

All of this has led to the explosive rise of many new companies in the food-tech sector from ones that entirely focus on specific ingredients, e.g. vegan “meat” to others that offer culinary experiences that focus on enjoying food and learning more about its preparation like Cozymeal.

You held several leadership roles at growing companies, including Upwork (as Head of the IT Category) and JustAnswer (as Head of the International Business). Could you highlight your works?

I went to Stanford for grad school and during my time there I grew very excited about startups. By the time I graduated from Stanford, I was eager to join a startup and I had a great opportunity to join JustAnswer as one of their earlier employees to head their international team. At the time, the company only had 10–15 people working for it and I was in charge of launching our international markets out of nothing and initially, I was alone in this task. The CEO of the company held a tremendous amount of trust in me and gave me a lot of freedom in decision-making, which helped me take on many responsibilities and allowed me to learn a lot. By the end of my time at JustAnswer, I had grown the company’s international business from nearly nothing to over $30M/year and my team consisted of 30 people (including several software engineers).

After JustAnswer, I joined Upwork at the head of the company’s IT category, which is the company’s largest vertical. My experience at Upwork was very interesting as it was a later stage company and my responsibility was to optimize and grow an already existing business.

In retrospect, I feel as though my experience at JustAnswer helped me start Cozymeal, and my experience at Upwork helped me continue to grow Cozymeal.

What was the most important part of your entire business journey?

So far, the most important part of my business journey has been the decision to quit my job at Upwork in order to start Cozymeal. I had a well-paying job at a successful pre-IPO company with good stock options at Upwork. When I decided to quit my job to work on Cozymeal, I was working on Cozymeal alone. I was paying myself no salary and like the beginning of every startup, it was an uphill battle. However, it was one of the most exciting feelings I have had and I’m happy and proud of how far we have come. Of course, we are just getting started since we plan to execute our biggest expansion thus far in 2019!

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

I don’t know if there was one single “biggest” challenge I have faced in my career. However, starting a business and growing it to the size we are today has brought with it challenges along the way. We have overcome every single of those challenges and become stronger as a result of them. I embrace challenges and believe that if we don’t face any for a long time period, it means we are not pushing ourselves hard enough.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

I love empowering people and this is definitely one of the most satisfying aspects of my work at Cozymeal.

Cozymeal empowers chefs and other culinary providers (e.g. food tour guides) by providing a great source of income along with all the tools and services they need to be successful (from marketing, to payment processing, to professional photography). It is very fulfilling to see every day the impact we create on their lives.

I also try to empower my own team as much possible by giving them a lot of responsibilities and the opportunity to have a big impact.

Also, it’s very fulfilling to hear about the joy customers have when using our services. Every single positive message I receive about our service makes me extremely happy.

What were your greatest failures and what did they teach you?

After seeing the success of our cooking classes service, we tried early on to quickly launch a second service. This took away focus and attention from our existing service. It was a mistake since, with our small team back then, we couldn’t focus enough on the new service and became distracted from continuing the growth of our existing service. Fortunately, we realized it quickly and shut down the new service so we could redirect our entire attention to our already successful service.

The lesson from it was a very simple yet very important concept: focus. Focus on one thing and do it really well rather than working on too many things at once. Make sure you are successful in one thing before you move on to tackle other challenges.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

I grew up in a city in Germany where the only interaction I had with Iranian culture was at home with my family. Back then, the Iranian identity to me was limited to strong family values, the Persian language, and the emphasis on education.

Since I moved to the US in 2007 and got to know many Iranian-Americans, my view of the Iranian-American identity has become much broader. Today, I also count camaraderie with other Iranian-Americans as well as the strong ambitions for success within our community as cornerstones of the Iranian-American heritage.