Divya Gugnani, Behind the Burner

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In less than a year, Divya Gugnani took a casual idea, mixed it with her passion and financial savvy, added a dash of persistence and created a fully baked, thriving online culinary business. Divya, 31, serves up the food and beverage tips, tricks and techniques of renowned culinary experts through her company, Behind the Burner, so that at-home chefs can create restaurant-quality experiences.

Born in Springfield, Illinois to parents from India, Divya’s family talked about food 24/7. While growing up on Long Island, she discovered cooking as a result of a hiding spot in her house. A shy child with “a bowl haircut and buck teeth,” Divya escaped to the kitchen whenever her parents entertained, which was frequent. Divya learned how to make everything that was served, and she was hooked.

As an undergrad at Cornell University majoring in Policy Administration, Divya couldn’t resist taking a culinary class at the School of Hotel Administration. The experience pleased her palette. This craving for cooking remained, even when Divya worked as an Investment Banker at Goldman Sachs and a venture capitalist with FirstMark managing a $2 billion portfolio. So, while still employed in finance full-time and attending Harvard Business School to earn her MBA, Divya catered events and occasionally worked in restaurant kitchens.

In the financial sector, Divya was always looking for investments in the food and media spaces. One night in June 2008 while with friends, she mentioned her idea about making all of the famous culinary experts’ expertise available in one online location. With the encouragement of a female friend at a venture fund, as well as the support of her boss and personal network, Divya moved ahead.

Divya launched Behind the Burner in November 2008 and has created a “high-energy, collaborative and delicious company culture.” Her hip, online, behind-the-scenes look at all things culinary for the 18 – 38 year old crowd is thriving.

Today, just seven months after its introduction, Divya’s business has 215 participating restaurant and culinary experts, offers a newsletter and podcasts, debuted on television on March 9, 2009 and now has a syndicated presence in 5.7 million households.

What we learned from Divya: “Due to my business experience I thought I knew about starting a business and setting up an infrastructure. Turns out, I knew nothing. Luckily, I wasn’t afraid, or too proud, to ask questions. When you leave a successful career to become an entrepreneur, your ego can’t transfer with you. When you start a business, you have to have zero ego.”

From a Simmer to a Boil

“I noticed that chefs had become celebrities, so I said to a few friends, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I reached out to culinary experts and got all their best tips, tricks and techniques?’ That was a Sunday night in June 2008. The next day I shared the idea with my boss, who told me to go for it. I formed the LLC in August, secured angel investors, hired a team, launched in November and joined full-time in January 2009.”

Timing is Everything

“For Behind the Burner, I only wanted $350,000 but during my first angel investor round in June 2008, I was offered $720,000. That seemed like a lot of money, so I talked with the CFO of a company in my portfolio. He told me, ‘Take the money! When will you ever get a chance like this again?’ So I accepted $500,000. In September 2008, the market began to tank. It was timing, had I waited six months to move forward, I never would have gotten that amount of money.”

Launching À La Carte

“Launching Behind the Burner while working full-time has been the most intense experience of my life. I literally had a team working on the business eight blocks away from my office while I was still with FirstMark. Luckily, I had a very supportive boss and my passion has always driven me.”

Beg, Borrow and Barter

“In the beginning, I was stressed out because it’s really expensive to make mistakes with money. So I bartered and begged. I leveraged my networks and was very persistent about getting what I needed. For my website, I went to a guy who does amazing e-commerce sites, but only works with clients who have at least $100,000 to spend. I said, ‘I don’t have $100,000. I don’t have $1, but you’re going to do my website.’ I offered free food, coupons and wine, anything that I could trade for his help. The result? He did my website. With the other services I needed, I gave my time, expertise and Rolodex to anyone who helped me.”

Nothing to Lose

“After telling my boss about my idea, I needed to pull the trigger, but didn’t. He told me, ‘You just have to take the training wheels off and go do it. What’s the worst case, you fail and go back to being a venture capitalist?’ I realized that I didn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain.”

This Featured Lady was profiled by Megan L. Reese, a freelance writer in West Grove, Pennsylvania.

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