You may have seen the ad on TV. There she is in a New York City cab: 34-year-old entrepreneur Divya Gugnani, telling viewers how two years ago, she quit venture capital to “follow her passion” and become the founder of a platform company that produces digital and video culinary content that is broadcast on the Web and TV.
The ad isn’t for Gugnani’s company, Behind the Burner. It’s for a new American Express card. Yet the ad is also shining a spotlight on Gugnani, who’s no stranger to some degree of fame. Amex notwithstanding, she’s been featured on numerous national and local television shows as both a financial whiz, an entrepreneur and a culinary pro –- though she could as easily be featured for multitasking expertise.
Certainly, she has the background. After graduating from Cornell, Gugnani scored a degree from the French Culinary Institute in New York – while somehow also working “100 hours a week” as a Goldman Sachs analyst. “[Getting the degree] required a lot of nights and weekends and probably took too long,” she says.
A stint at the private equity firm Investcorp came next, then Harvard Business School, where she became president of its Venture Capital and Private Equity Club and decided she liked working with earlier-stage companies. Indeed, she was working as a principal at the New York venture firm FirstMark Capital when she decided to do something early stage with her culinary education.
Behind the Burner quickly raised $500,000 in angel funding, including from former colleagues of Gugnani. Its aim? To become a younger, hipper media brand than Martha Stewart for “a younger generation who watches ‘Top Chef’ and dines out and who wants basic tips, tricks and techniques around food, wine mixology and nutrition,” Gugnani says.
Whether the now 2-year-old company becomes a media empire remains a very big question mark, though by creating advertorial content alongside editorial, and by selling goods at the company’s site, Gugnani says that the six-person startup is fast approaching profitability.
Either way, Gugnani — who also has a book coming out in December — isn’t putting all of her eggs in one basket. Recently, with the help of designer Christian Siriano of “Project Runway” fame, she launched Send the Trend, a still-in-beta e-commerce site that features accessories like the season’s sunglasses, scarves and fashion jewelry, all for $29.95, including shipping.
Gugnani characterizes the site as the “eHarmony of accessories” because visitors are first asked to answer six questions about their taste to narrow down the choices they are presented. She also says the site has raised $300,000 from the same investors who backed Behind the Burner, and that since pitching the company at a recent event in New York, “we’ve had a lot of VCs call us.”
She says it’s likely to raise a Series A round of “around $2 million” after the fourth quarter.
Given that the round will represent her first institutional financing, I asked Gugnani whether her experience as an investor had colored her experience as an entrepreneur.
“As a first-time CEO, you’re hesitant to raise institutional capital,” she said. “VCs dilute your ownership right off the bat, and do you really want the pressure of monthly reporting? I think the best approach is not to raise too much money, then show people the data. Look, the dogs are eating the dog food. Then, when you have a track record, you can say: now I have a real business.”
It helps when pitching East Coast VCs especially, Gugnani is learning right now.
“It’s really interesting to see how different [VCs on opposite coasts] are,” she said. “In New York, it’s, ‘Give me the data, give me the data, give me the data.’ Silicon Valley says, ‘How big an idea is this? You’re a smart girl. You’ll figure this out.’”