It’s not the first time Van Horn has cooked up a great business idea. Van Horn, a California native, decided in high school that he was going to attend the University of Arizona in order to participate in the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program.
“I don’t think I visited one other school,” he said. “I was really excited about the entrepreneurship program. My favorite thing about the McGuire Program was that it felt like it could be very real. I had an incredible experience there.”
His McGuire Program new venture team, Strengo, worked with a UA professor who had rediscovered an ancient Aztec crop, a seed containing high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids that was virtually unknown in the United States. The team’s business plan to commercialize the superfood came in second at the Northwest Venture Championship at Boise State University, an international competition with 24 teams, but the reality of launching was daunting. The team realized it would need to raise about $15 million to launch that company, Van Horn said, so the members decided to move on to other opportunities.
“The crop was chia, and we were going to be the first to bring it to market,” he said. “We totally missed an opportunity. Chia is huge now! We were on to something in the McGuire Program.”
Shortly after graduating in 2006, Van Horn and his best friend went backpacking in Africa for the summer and he once again showed an incredible sense for identifying future business trends.
“The economy was so bad in Zimbabwe that people would fill every seat in every car to make sure everyone was sharing gas money,” he said. “We wondered how could we fill empty seats in cars in the United States? How could we do that with software? We started a company called Zimride, which is now Lyft.”
Zimride, launched in 2007, grew into Lyft, the second largest on-demand ridesharing platform in the nation. His best friend is still the CEO of the rideshare service, and Van Horn is still involved as a close advisor.
“Back then, we had the drive, passion, and desire, but I wanted to learn more from other entrepreneurs and people I respected,” he said.
He decided he wanted to work for his favorite company, a startup news aggregator called Digg. They weren’t hiring non-engineers at the time, but Van Horn petitioned them until them gave him a job as a marketing assistant. He was the first person there in the morning and the last person there at night, and after 5 p.m., he worked on partnership opportunities with the head of business development. His dedication and ability to forge partnerships got him noticed, and he moved on to be the VP of Business for Path, a social photo sharing and messaging service.
“I spent three years learning from the founder and the CEO of Digg, and another three years learning from the founders of Path,” he said. “I went in there and learned as much as I could from others.”
Van Horn learned enough over that six-year period that he felt confident that he could start another business, and he met his future co-founder, Nikhil Bhogal, who was the lead iOS developer for Path. Bhogal was previously an engineer at Apple where he worked on the iPhone through iPhone 5 and the iPad through iPad 3, and was an inventor on many of Apple’s camera technology patents.
The two began brainstorming business ideas by looking around at things that are part of everyday life, Van Horn said. One day, as they were working on ideas, they got hungry so they started cooking very simple meals, and then they started getting more elaborate.
“We looked at the kitchen and said why hasn’t this changed in 50-plus years?” he said. “What if we put our heads together and start from scratch? With no legacy ovens, what should the oven look like in 2016? How can we use modern technology and sensors to build the best oven we possibly can? That led us to creating the June Intelligent Oven, which will be shipping this holiday season.”
The key to success has been finding great people and great partners, he said.
“Make engineers and designers your co-founders or the first hires for your company,” he said. “Respect the value of engineering and design and make it the most important thing when building your business and not an afterthought. Today I spend probably 50 percent of my time recruiting – and I will forever. The most important thing I can be doing is getting very talented people in the door working on hard challenges.”
A decade after graduating from the McGuire Program, Van Horn has launched a transportation service, worked at social news and social network startups, and co-founded a new venture that produces innovative kitchen products. While switching from service-based businesses to a product-driven startup in a new industry was challenging, Van Horn believes that is the key to true innovation.
“If you’re really trying to do something different in an industry, you have to come with a fresh perspective,” he said. “Obviously there are extremely steep learning curves – hardware is so hard – but we wanted to will this into existence. I love being challenged. I love starting things. I love thinking about the future and the way it could be.”