Matt Rutledge has always been something of an experimenter when it comes to selling stuff.
As an entrepreneur who got his start hawking computer parts out of the back of a Ryder van, Rutledge’s first company Woot pioneered the ‘deal of the day’ model years before anyone had heard of Groupon. Over time, Woot became known for its kooky sense of humor as its as much its business model, which Rutledge once described as “just selling stuff cheap.”
Then there’s the Mediocre Corporation, where he not only launched a Woot clone in Meh.com, but also created Mediocre Labs (now called Mercatalyst), a group where Rutledge creates e-commerce experiments like the wine-buying site Casemates, which allows total strangers to buy cases of wine together.
Rutledge’s latest experiment is PastaDrop, a “pasta as a service” online pop up store where you can buy random amounts of pasta (the randomness is determined by PastaDrop) and have it sent to friends.
In typical Rutledge fashion, a humorous video was created to describe (kinda) how PastaDrop works.
As much as I appreciated the explainer video, I thought I’d check in with Rutledge to ask about his latest experiment as well as where he was getting all that pasta.
Below is our email interview.
This is our first Pasta experience! What a product! There is a subset of variety with personal opinion. There are amazing recipes to share. It’s a comfort food. It has a long shelf life and can be transported without much risk of damage. It is quite dense and therefore efficient to ship; hundreds of servings can fit in a box. Best of all it can be funny in mass quantities! Oh, and there are pasta puns — we love puns!
You indicated you wanted to create a social experiment -- is this an ongoing experiment where you look to change it, or this a temporary business idea?
We have an audience through meh.com that enjoys our flair for fun and games. This is a pop-up store with a limited planned life, a month or two we expect. The social experiment is mostly the proposition of connecting people with an unknown care-package that needs to be followed up on by the sender to even know what they sent. Will people do it? How fun will that be?
Are you partnering with a food distributor or pasta brand to power this? Curious about the fulfillment side.
Yes, we have cleared out the entire inventory of Italian imported pasta from a leading restaurant supplier. All they could sell us —literal truckloads of pasta! At the start of lockdown we recognized disruption in the food distribution industry and asked if we could be of assistance with our own warehouse and packaging lines. It was a brand new area but we ramped up and actually moved over 30 tons of shelf-stable food through our other event-driven retail sites in the first few weeks. It was inspiring work too; we were able to do so at break-even pricing, and it has kept our warehouse fully employed and busy.
You are partnering with Equal Heart -- is this largely an effort to help people in food insecure situations, or more of a fun/gag social app (or both)?
Both. After some initial layoffs at our parent company, we started to gain confidence that we would get through this and looked for ways to meaningfully contribute around us. We learned the best way to help our local food bank charities was with dollar donations. PastaDrop is not built to be a profitable project but we can further our contribution by helping our community to share local food bank information and by prompting awareness of food insecurity. Of course, some of the recipients of larger PastaDrops will be able to directly benefit others by re-gifting or donating portions of their pasta care packages.
One theme that’s been apparent from your startups are fairly narrowly focused businesses. Meh is like that. Woot, pre-Amazon, was as well. It seems like the singular/narrow focus of PastaDrop fits within this same mold? Am I right in this characterization?
Yes, every startup needs a narrow path of an idea that is a difference maker to bet on. The idea itself doesn’t need to be genius, but investing in the direction should produce learnings and efficiencies that become valuable over time. You should get momentum because of your narrow focus and discoveries. If you aren’t, it’s time to try another direction down a different focus.
Is the pasta random in terms of what people get?
Now that Drop 1 has sold out, we can share that the AMOUNT of pasta is random, and in some rare cases may cause some delivery surprises. We warn folks in advance of their order.
Any indications of how successful the first drop was? Were you surprised by that you sold out or was that intended?
We figured the Spaghettini was a good place to start, but we were surprised by the participation. We had to hold back on our plan to tell all our customers due to some ordering delays. Hopefully we’ll get those ironed out for the next Drop.