Listening is a skill. Practice it.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing…Ben McKean is the Founder and CEO of Hungryroot, a personalized online grocery service that makes it easy to eat healthy — and feel great — every day. Prior to Hungryroot, Ben was a vice president and general manager at Groupon, overseeing their food and beverage business. Ben came to Groupon through the acquisition of Savored, which he founded in 2009. Savored was the nation’s leading provider of yield management technology to the restaurant industry. Prior to Savored, Ben worked in Merrill Lynch’s technology investment banking group. Ben is a graduate of Georgetown University and currently lives in New York City.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Massachusetts and was obsessed with playing baseball. My grandfather, who was an entrepreneur, came to many of my games. He always shared stories of the ice cream parlor chain called Bailey’s of Boston that he managed and that my mom worked at during her teenage years. These stories always excited me and ultimately helped fuel my entrepreneurial drive.
At the age of 17, I started my first business called Cheap Summer Help. We employed about 50 college students workers across a range of basic tasks (painting, landscaping, moving, cleaning, etc.) in the greater Boston area. I sold that business my senior year of college, and I have been hooked on entrepreneurial adventures ever since.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
I’ve always found joy in building businesses with passionate people who are quick to come up with solutions to real customer needs. After college, I founded Savored, a restaurant reservation platform that gave consumers discounts on off-peak nights as well as access to last-minute tables on busy nights. After selling that business to Groupon in 2012, I spent a lot of time considering what was next.
During that time, I came to realize that what I love most about being an entrepreneur is that it allows you to positively impact a significant number of people’s lives in a meaningful way. This “ah-ha” moment combined with my previous experience of working in the food industry, led me in the direction of launching Hungryroot, a personalized online grocery service that makes it easier for consumers to eat healthy. Why did I go this route? Food is an inherently personal and emotional experience for a consumer. Yet, big packaged food companies don’t sell directly to the consumer, and therefore, are unable to meet their needs and wants. I decided to fill that gap by creating a business that could positively impact consumers, and in doing so, help them to eat well — and feel great — every day.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized it gets harder and harder to start a business. For one, I recently had a daughter and so there are naturally a lot more considerations to be weighed now, as opposed to when I was younger. But I think because I started my first business so young and entrepreneurship has been such a big part of my life and career, I believe that’s made it easier for me to take an idea and translate it into an actual business. My advice to others considering starting a business is to take that leap of faith; you can only plan so much beforehand, but you will learn the most by going through the motions, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
If you find yourself thinking about your hobby all day while working, you probably owe it to yourself to make it your full-time job!
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I’ve never experienced this. I’ve always found fun in the businesses I’ve started, which I think is the result of working with really talented, inspiring and good-spirited people. Not to mention, the food industry is always evolving, so it keeps me on my toes to always make sure we’re creating the best and most innovative business model we can for our consumers.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
What I enjoy most about running a business is the ability to have a direct, positive impact on people’s lives. By building an authentic, mission-driven approach into the company’s ethos (in the case of Hungryroot, to make it easier for people to eat healthy), it makes your everyday extremely rewarding for both myself and our team.
As with any company, the downside is when things don’t work out as planned, whether that’s due to an employee no longer being a fit for the company or customer growth being less than expected. As a Founder and CEO, it’s ultimately your responsibility to course correct and fix it to get your company back on track.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We first launched Hungryroot in 2015 and started out with six products. As we grew, customers continuously asked us to launch new products, and it was important to us not to disappoint.
By the end of 2016, our products required over 150 unique ingredients, 20 different specialized pieces of equipment, production processes ranging from baking to blending to hand cutting, and 70+ staff members working multiple shifts each week. The supply chain constraints ultimately held back our ambitions and by early 2017, we had grown to a position where we could no longer take on new orders because of these limitations.
At this point, we had to make a decision: should we continue trying to solve the constraints holding us back or take a new approach entirely? Ultimately, we ended up shutting down the business entirely while we restructured our supply chain, allowing us to grow our product offerings from thirty products to sixty products the following year, which fueled customer growth and ultimately led to our $22M Series B the following year.
While this makes for an interesting story, it’s one of the best decisions we’ve made for our business and has led us to where we are today.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Our Board member Jeremy Liew from Lightspeed Venture Partners has inspired me since day one to be the best leader I can be. We’ve worked together for over four years now, and he’s consistently served as both a sounding board and a partner on difficult decisions, helping me to consider all angles, and come up with impactful solutions. He does so in an equally thoughtful and direct way, which builds mutual respect and efficient decision making. He’s taught me a lot about growing my business, as well as the type of leader I continue to strive to be.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe our customer testimonials speak for themselves. Whether it’s hearing that Hungryroot has helped a customer lose weight, catered to a specific diet need, helped with pre-diabetic diagnosis, or just conveniently delivered healthy groceries to doorsteps weekly, I feel privileged to come to work every day doing something I love, and helping consumers feel better about their health along the way.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Spend 95% of your time defining the problem, and 5% solving it.
- Listening is a skill. Practice it.
- Speak from your heart more than from your brain.
- Prioritize customer retention over acquisition.
- Interview for values, not just skills.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’d love to encourage consumers to see health as a deeply personal feeling — not a diet, fad or trend. Prior to Hungryroot, I didn’t realize just how great I could feel on a regular basis as a result of being more health-conscious. When I cut down on simple carbohydrates (sugar, bread, alcohol), and increased the number of vegetables and whole grains I ate I immediately felt better and had more energy. As a result, I want to inspire consumers to feel the same. With our personalized online grocery service, I believe Hungryroot will do just that by providing healthy groceries, tailored to diet and food preferences, to consumers on a regular basis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living.” — Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Barack and Michelle Obama. Beyond being inspired by their leadership, I’m very intrigued by their charisma, character, and love for one another and their kids.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.