Get started immediately. The biggest bit of advice I can give is: get started! The more time you spend delaying, the more doubt you’ll conjure inside yourself. Get started. Keep focused. Stay positive.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Kraft.
Justin Kraft is the founder and CEO of Renew Social. Renew Social’s mission is to simplify the way people over the age of 55 establish new friendships. Renew aims to safely increase support systems and improve quality of life. Their mission is more important than ever in 2021, as social isolation has doubled among people over the age of 55 since the start of the COVID pandemic.
Justin is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and has spent over 15 years mastering his product, program management, sales, and marketing skills for various Fortune 100 clients. He’s worked for clients across a number of industries including healthcare, insurance, CPG, retail, and food service. He is passionate about bringing people together, creating meaningful conversations, and helping people become more connected with their community.
Justin is a Wisconsin Badgers fan, avid coffee aficionado, and loves to spend time cooking, walking his dog, playing basketball, and on the golf course.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! The idea for Renew came during a nine month trip around the world. My wife and I were fortunate enough to get married, leave our jobs, pack our lives into two backpacks, and head out on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!
During our trip, we witnessed several countries, specifically in Asia, where the sense of community amongst the elderly really stood out to us. We frequently saw groups of older people engaging in workouts at community parks, having tea together on the street, etc. We noticed this was something we rarely saw in the United States. At the same time, both of our mothers had retired, and we quickly noticed a change in their moods, their overall feeling of lack of purpose, and a loss of engagement during conversations with them. We started brainstorming, and eventually came to the realize that several life changes that typically occur later in life lead the aging population to inevitable social isolation. Our solution, inspired by the incredible sense of community amongst the aging population in countries outside the United States, was to leverage a mobile platform the create meaningful connections.
The options for someone our parents’ age to find new friends are very limited and, quite honestly, they are predatory. We believe that people deserve a place that doesn’t mine and sell their data to advertisers, flood their lives with fake news for profit, or clutter their conversations with ads, company accounts, and influencers. We’re building a better option. Renew is about friendship, encouragement, and opportunity. We’re focusing on safety, simplicity, and growth for our members and partners. You can learn more about Renew at www.renewfriends.com.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There have been quite a few interesting moments since I started Renew. The one that comes to mind is being accepted into the Ageless Innovators program in our hometown of Chicago. I was inspired to apply for the program through a discussion during user research and have already found the program to be extremely helpful in supporting our mission. What better way to ensure our product is truly helping people who are over 55 years old than by partnering with a large group of successful business people who happen to be part of that group?
We’ve already had a few productive conversations, been introduced to potential partners, and are also working to help drive other member’s organizations forward. It is a win-win for the entire community and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistake I made is probably thinking we’d be able to bootstrap an online community app in three months. I actually laughed while typing this…
Our initial concept was so simple that we got too excited about delivering quickly and lost focus on all of the small details that make digital experiences great. I can say that our Head of Design, Rich Davy, definitely helped us correct that mistake on more than one occasion. We had hundreds of conversations about every detail of our product. The member feedback we’re receiving indicates those conversations were well worth the time.
The lesson I learned is this: draft your initial plans, look at them, have a good laugh, and get started. As soon as you start your product strategy, you’re going to rewrite your plans multiple times and each time they will only become better because of the input from your team.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our mission is to simplify the way people over the age of 55 establish new friendships. By doing this, we aim to safely increase support systems and improve quality of life for our members. That being said, we are building a tool that can connect a generation of people who mainstream technology companies have abandoned. We are working hard to provide these people with a tool, specifically catered to them, that enables them to live their best lives as they age. It’s a fact that people become more social isolated as they age. As a matter of fact: 33% of Americans aged 50–80 are socially isolated. This can have devastating impacts on health and well-being. People who are socially isolated report a 29% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 26% increased risk of premature death. To put that into perspective: the latest CIGNA study on loneliness put its associated health risks on par with those of obesity and smoking.
In order to serve our mission the best we can, we’re also partnering with organizations who are already doing great work for the aging population. These organizations typically provide a focused service and do not have the resources to staff a technology team. We’re working with them to improve the overall experience for their members through the use of our platform. As a matter of fact, we’re currently working on a partnership with a group who is brining together traditionally Black organization and a traditionally White organization in hopes to reduce isolation, create community, and breakdown racial dividers. To say I’m excited about this one is an understatement and it’s a great example of the type of work we’re looking to do with our partners.
On top of all of that, I firmly believe there is a way to succeed while doing what’s right. Our team is proactively working to make sure Renew stays ahead of the curve when it comes to user privacy, safety, and mental health. We all know now how big of a mess “social media” has caused. We are working proactively to avoid those traditional traps.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
The story that comes to mind is actually one of my first customer service calls. I received a call from a member who was having a difficult time uploading her favorite photo as her profile picture. Simple enough, right? Wrong…
It turns out that she wasn’t having an issue with Renew, she was having an issue with Google Photos on her iPhone. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to walk her through how to turn on her speaker phone, how to download a photo to her phone from Google Photos, and quickly trying to explain how cloud storage works.
This is where the story gets good. Once that was done, I had her launch the Renew app and told her to ask if she needed help while she created her profile. Three minutes later she said, “Done! Wow, that was easy and I already have three matches! I can’t wait to be able to talk with new people. I’ve been stuck in my apartment for 6 months and I just want to talk to someone new!” She gave me chills. This is only one example of the many conversations I’ve had with our members, but these are what make putting in all of the time worth it.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First and foremost, in 2021 the biggest thing we need is a centralized COVID vaccination plan. We’ve already seen the results of letting politics drive our COVID policy and they aren’t good. In order to reduce the risk as much as possible, we need to have a single set of rules regarding who receives vaccines, when they receive them, and how they receive them. Once this is done, we can start to look towards the future.
When things have stabilized post-vaccine, I believe we need to pay more attention to the needs of the aging population with policy. I do not mean pandering to them for votes, but meaningful policy. These types of policies need to include funding for ongoing education, non-profit community groups who encourage healthy lifestyles, and organizations who focus on intergenerational relationship building.
We also need to help protect our aging population. The United States is way behind where we need to be regarding privacy and predatory behavior that targets the elderly. A change in overall business practices is needed to make this successful and, sadly, the only way we’re going to see that happen is with regulation driven by public interest.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is many things, but mostly it is figuring out what is needed to make your team the best they can be both personally and professionally. This can happen in a lot of ways and one of the biggest for me is to make sure to promote an open dialog within your organization. By creating a safe space for people to be open and honest, you’ll be able to anticipate needs, understand situations fully, and empathize with your teammates.
A simple example is this: let’s say that your company runs a website and your lead developer pushes broken code into production. An open workplace would encourage that developer to immediately get the team involved, have an honest discussion about what happened, and collaborate on the best plan of action to not only solve the current issue but to prevent it from happening again. None of that would be possible in an environment where the developer was afraid to make mistakes because they feel like their job is on the line. As the leader, you set the tone for the company and it is your job to make people feel safe, supported, and provide a sense of belonging.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Get started immediately. The biggest bit of advice I can give is: get started! The more time you spend delaying, the more doubt you’ll conjure inside yourself. Get started. Keep focused. Stay positive.
- Early on, you need to focus on hypotheses that can be proven or disproven that are mandatories for your business to succeed. Once you’ve committed, do not get hung-up on perfection or overly complex ideas. Instead, figure out the most efficient way to validate your hypothesis and get that solution in front of real people who have the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Test a “real product” before developing anything. Again, you want to validate your hypothesis before spending a lot of time and money. For Renew, I wanted to validate demand for our platform and also confirm theories around how it would be used. Before we spent even 1 dollar developing an app, we first created a simple web-based form for people to use if they were interested in finding friends, spent a few hundred dollars on promotion, and ran the test. This was enough to confirm demand, refine our positioning, and also created an open dialog with real members.
- It’s going to take a lot more time to release than you think. This goes back to my funniest failure. Whatever you’re planning, make sure to account for more time and money than you think. You’re going to have issues with the team, code, partners, or even random life events. Make sure you’re accounting for the unknowns to reduce their impact as much as possible.
- Acquiring members is expensive and time-consuming. It sounds easy: make something cool, target ads to your users, and watch your user-base grow! In reality, there are many more complexities around releasing a new brand into the world and all of them require time, effort, learning, patience, and funding. You need to set the priorities of your company early to make sure you can plan for this in the way that best fits your mission. Are you looking to grow as fast as possible so you can raise a lot of funds, drive your valuation up, and sell the company? The approach you use will vary wildly from the one used by a company who is mission-driven and not focused on valuations and investor returns.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would inspire people to become more open to new ideas, more empathetic to those they disagree with, and less dependent on social/traditional media influence on their lives. We live a totally unique existence than anyone before us. There has never been as powerful of an influence as the internet. Yes, massively positive things have come through technology, yet we’re starting to see the negative impacts more and more each day.
We’re starting to live our lives in highly-segmented silos that are driven by profits and it’s leading to separation, tribalism, and closed-mindedness at rates we’ve never seen before. I’d strongly recommend people either eliminate or reduce their exposure to both social media and the 24-hour news cycle. These entities are driven by a single goal: to keep you watching in order to make money. Until that changes, we need to unplug and focus on improving our relationships with our families, friends, and communities. In time, we will realize that we’re not all as different as we’re being told and the world isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be. You have control over your own life more than you think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.”
Kobe was an inspiration for me in the best and worst times alike. Competitive. Unrelenting. Superhuman. Family man. Mentor. All valid. To me, the true “Mamba mentality” was about how he viewed the world and his place in it. Good or bad, the current situation is real and it is the only one you have. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot shape where that situation leads you. You can, and should, continue to learn, grow, plan, and make the future what you want. Own it and commit to it. Make sure it is supporting the dreams of those around you. This mindset is what made him an inspiration to so many and why he was unstoppable in everything he did. I cannot count the number of times I’ve tapped into my “inner-Kobe” before important life events.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Moxie Marlinspike — I’d love to talk with Moxie about Signal. I’m a big fan of his stances on security and privacy. I believe the members of Renew deserve the level of privacy and security he promotes and would love to understand how he’s been able to create and deliver it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/RenewFriends
IG — @renewfriends
LinkedIn — http://linkedin.com/company/renewsocial
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!