Managing food allergies requires a lot of time and effort — and information isn’t always available when and where you need it.
As the mom of a daughter with life-threatening food allergies, Susie Hultquist knew this problem all too well. But it wasn’t until she struggled to identify whether her daughter could safely eat Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies that business inspiration struck.
“For me, this is a time issue,” she says.
“I could rent a villa on Airbnb in Barcelona in less time than it took to figure out these cookies. This should be easier.”
In 2015, Susie founded Spokin. Think Instagram meets Yelp meets WebMD, specifically built for people with allergies.
Users review products and restaurants all around the world based on their allergens, and their contributions appear on a newsfeed alongside Spokin’s product guides, recipes and other original content.
The app automatically filters out products containing your personal allergens, thanks to their detailed signup process, and there’s also a search option for when you’re looking for restaurants in a particular city, or for the ingredients of a particular item.
At the WGN Studios, Susie explained how she made a healthcare app that’s fun as well as helpful, and how Spokin is using data for good. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Crowdsourcing allergy advice
Scott: The app works as a B-to-C, is that correct? I can communicate with other users, and people are contributing. How are you making sure that fools aren’t posting things?
Susie: Really we wanted to give everyone their own experience. I actually tested and studied dating apps as an analogy: I wanted to see what it’s like to try to connect with another person. There are some hard facts — like we have the same allergies, we live in the same town — and then there’s the approach: how do you manage it? Do you eat out? Do you travel the world? Are you super conservative?
You could tell so much about somebody by what they’re sharing on the app. When you come on, you create this signup. It’s pretty extensive, and we have a phenomenal rate of people who finish it. It’s actually beautiful and fun. You go through it, and then you’re dropped into a newsfeed that feels like Instagram, and you see posts, and we create our own content, which stimulates user-generated content.
For any food product that you can see, someone can write a review saying this is absolutely the best, but all the reviews are aggregated. You can have 88 allergens, and once you set up your profile, what you end up seeing is that we blocked, say, dairy out for you. On the app, if we create an ice cream guide and you’re avoiding dairy, we actually pull it out: you won’t see the ice cream with dairy. And we’ve got a food product search, and it’s all ranked by user reviews.
In the newsfeed you’re seeing and exploring, and if you’re just looking for one thing, we also have a search section. You can look up a city — we’ve got reviews in 74 countries now. We’re mostly focused on US consumers, but people travel, and your backyard is a place that someone can travel to. We do really fun things to encourage people to share reviews, and we just got Austria last week, and Kenya just before that.
User ratings and reviews are the largest driver to business — it takes someone over that line. And from a legal perspective, you are unable to touch a review. If someone wants to write that a place is nut-free but because of autocorrect it says but-free, we can’t change it. We can’t touch anything legally. But the beauty of when things are aggregated is that for every product, every business, you can see how many positive reviews, how many negative reviews. You can sort all the reviews. If you only care about dairy, if you only care about shellfish, you can sort them all. And you can follow people — they become like mini influencers, in a way. We’re not vetting it, but through the aggregation, you start to figure out who’s your tribe.
The Girl Scout cookie revelation
Scott: My wife is deathly allergic to nuts. I was like, come on, are you gonna die? And she’s like, yeah, anaphylactic shock. And now I live every day with it.
Susie: My oldest daughter has food allergies, she’s allergic to peanuts. One in 13 children today are born with a food allergy: it’s become the largest chronic condition affecting families. When I was on Wall Street managing a stock portfolio, I went all over Asia, and I always looked through her eyes: what would it be like? And it’s a bit of a life sentence. It affects you every day, in ways that I’m only starting to learn. And then with my other children we can go anywhere, and I live in both worlds: one world of freedom and one world of incredible restriction.
My daughter wants to go to Chinatown, or she wants to go to Lollapalooza, she wants to go by herself, and she’ll never forget her phone but she forgets her EpiPen once in a while.
One day, my assistant asked me to buy Girl Scout cookies, so I actually looked at the clock, I stopped what I was doing, I looked at the package, then I realized I needed to look at the website. I needed to figure out the facility information, and realized two companies made Thin Mints, so I had to figure out which bakery was coming to Chicago. And then I texted a few friends, are Thin Mints safe? And then I realized, after I was done, that was 15 minutes. I’m a math person by nature and I love numbers, and I was like, 15 minutes with 32 million people with food allergies is actually 8 million hours.
It’s totally time consuming. I think it’s pretty well-documented that there can be severe allergic reactions, and there’s increasingly knowledge about the mental anguish.
For me, this is a time issue, because my daughter at the time was almost 12 and going into middle school, and I was thinking to myself that at some point she’s going to have to self-advocate. When you think about your child spending 15 minutes a day for the rest of their life with no cure — that’s actually one year of their life. And I thought, I could rent a villa on Airbnb in Barcelona in less time than it took to figure out these cookies. This should be easier. And if you shared your experience of where you get your birthday cake, or what hotel you go to, which EpiPen brand she uses, and we all shared five things, we’d have 165 million data points.
Data + content = opportunity
Scott: I think that this is a huge business.
Susie: We do too. I was looking at companies like WebMD, what kind of revenue are they making? And it’s really on just traffic. However, they really don’t know much about me. From the very beginning, I wanted to know things about people for them.
So if you are avoiding peanuts and tree nuts and dairy, I want to know that: I don’t want to put something in front of your family that’s offensive. So what we did that was totally different was data capture. What we know about our users is their age, their gender, specifically what they’re allergic to: not just tree nuts, maybe she’s only allergic to some tree nuts. We know where she lives, and then your behavior in the app: 23 percent of our users share reviews. Yelp is one percent.
We can look at a profile and say, this person’s fancy: they like the nice hotels, they travel. Or, this person never eats out, and they only eat products in dedicated facilities. You start to put this picture together. Then we talk to all these industries who are trying to market, or raise awareness, or build trust and ultimately sales with these consumers. If you make a product that is peanut-free but has egg, we are not going to put that in front of somebody who has an egg allergy. If they want to spend money on amazing platforms like Instagram and other marketing platforms, and they’re going to put product in front of people who have these allergies, it will result in zero sales.
We have data and we also have engagement, because people come to us for high frequency categories like Halloween candy, cookies, restaurants, all those things. If we combine data plus engagement, it’s very powerful to a wide range of industries: healthcare, beauty, food, restaurants, chains, hotels, airlines, colleges — anywhere food can be, purposely or accidentally. So we are starting to have very substantive conversations with these industries, in particular in starting to monetize the business.