This meal kit startup was fumbling — until a VC legend and an NFL star threw it Hail Mary pass.

Gobble founder and CEO Ooshma Garg, 31, told Moneyish that she had stretched her initial $1.2 million in seed money for three years on research and development (and feeding early customers), but she still hadn’t found a winning recipe for her meal delivery service by 2013.

She was searching for a way to get professionals to cook and eat dinner again. After all, when she launched her first startup (a recruiting firm) while studying at Stanford, she said, “my food habits went down the drain, and I relied almost purely on frozen food and takeout.” Yet sending out pre-cooked meals to early customers wasn’t delivering the food quality she had envisioned.

Ooshma Garg, the founder and CEO of Gobble (Gobble)

So instead of giving up and becoming one of the 70% of upstart tech companies that fail — usually around 20 months in, according to CB Insights — she changed her game plan. Rather than sending completed dishes a la takeout like Seamless, or Blue Apron-style ingredient boxes that forced people pressed for time to make a meal from scratch, Gobble’s niche would be offering 15-minute gourmet dinners that you could cook in one pan, which came with the ingredients already or sliced, diced, marinated or par-cooked by local professional chefs.

“The reason it works is because it has the freshness of cooking from scratch with the speed of takeout,” she said. “People have said taking a Gobble dinner kit out of the fridge is faster than ordering a pizza. You could wait 45 minutes for your food to arrive, and it wilts along the way.” Sample dishes include Malabar chicken curry with julienned rainbow carrots and rice pulao, or brown sugar-crusted king salmon with mashed avocado and tomato vinaigrette.

Chicken piccata with broccolini and lemon pepper tagliatelle (Gobble)

Still, getting more funding looked like a long shot. When CB Insights tracked 1,098 U.S. tech companies that raised seed rounds between 2008 and 2010, after all, less than half, or 46%, managed to raise a second round of funding. But Garg never doubted that her company could succeed — even as Blue Apron, which had a 40% piece of the $2.5 billion industry growing at a rate of 20% per year, saw its stock tumble in 2017, and as players like Hello Fresh, Sun Basket, Plated and Dinnerly were crowding the kitchen.  

Garg raised $10.75 million in Series A funding, including reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital firm in 2015. Then last year, she raised another $15 million in her Series B round, with San Francisco 49s cornerback Richard Sherman investing an undisclosed amount.

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Garg said that the biggest mistake she notices many female entrepreneurs making is saying “even if” in their pitches. “What they are saying is, ‘even if my company doesn’t work out, we will still sell for x-price and return your capital,’” said Garg. “Venture capitalists don’t make money by just getting their initial investment back. What they want to hear from you is that … your business has the opportunity to be No. 1 in its class, and a multibillion dollar enterprise.”

And she didn’t give up because she was confident that she was solving a problem for people who didn’t have enough time to go grocery shopping, prep ingredients, cook and clean up afterward. “The startups that are built to solve problems are the companies that last,” she said. “Once we invented our 15-minute, one-pan dinners, we knew it was a hit. The enthusiasm of parents [early members who tried the kits] was unlike anything else we’ve offered them in the past.”

Gobble’s par-cooked meals can be prepped in 15 minutes using one pot. (Gobble)

Gobble was only delivering in California in 2014, but expanded to eight states by the year’s end. It’s now sending its $12 to $14 entrees (or $6 salads and $2 to $5 sides) to “thousands and thousands” of customers in 44 states, she said, without giving specifics for “strict competitive reasons.” She did share that Gobble was growing $1 million per month as of January 2018. Forbes estimates that the company pulled in between $25 to $50 million in revenue last year.

Starting at $71.94 a week for three meals for two people (plus $6.99 for shipping), Gobble is pricier than the average meal kit subscription, which hovers around $60 a week for three two-person meals. But the price covers the messy work. “Our daily mission is to help people ‘cook up happiness’ and spend more time with their loved ones in this 24/7 business world — and less time chopping onions and doing the dishes,” said Garg.  

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Counting on her data boosted her confidence in her business — and brought investors on board. An October 2017 Second Measure study showed Gobble’s market share was just 1.3% — but it was beating bigger players in customer retention and customer spending. “I have heard from many female founders that women’s financing especially must be rooted in the data. Women I know who have been able to raise financing successfully know their numbers in and out, and are able to prepare an indisputable case,” said Garg. In fact, Sherman told Forbes he invested because, “the $1 million of new consumer revenue per week definitely grabbed my attention.”

Garg also worked her Stanford network — including Sherman. And she makes connections with other startups. “Entrepreneurship is a team sport, and you have to find other founders that you resonate with,” she said. “My closest friends are entrepreneurs that I have known for 17 years, and we share a number of investors. If you’re not naturally plugged into a network of investors, the first thing to do would be to meet, help and build relationships with other entrepreneurs.”

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She hinted that Gobble has had so much success with dinner that it may dish out other meals next. “We are receiving mountains of interest for other food occasions, such as breakfast or lunch, or dinner parties or date nights, or Sunday suppers,” she said.

And she sees customization as the future of the food industry. You watch something on Netflix, and it recommends other shows you might like; she envisions Gobble recommending recipes — dairy-free, gluten-free, low-calorie, vegan, spicy and non-spicy options — based on what dishes you’ve enjoyed. “The winning food company will be the one that has mastery in personalization for individualizing the taste of dishes for individuals,” she added. “And we’ve already improved our taste algorithm to 40% in relevance for each of our members.”