If you want to start a business just to prove other people wrong, it might feel emotionally right. But you need to stop and consider if you actually have a business that can work. And you have to really consider that once you do prove them wrong, what will be your motivation? It has to go beyond that tempting fantasy of saying to someone in your life, “how do ya like me now!” You may yet get to do that! But you have to be just as excited by the prospect of going to work every day with no net below you.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jared Rosenthal, Founder & CEO — Health Street.
Jared Rosenthal is a CEO turned entrepreneur, reality TV show host, and tech innovator. While coming up the ranks of corporate America, he cultivated a model of mobile marketing using RVs to deploy teams of people to the streets of NYC, replicated it in Chicago, and then brought it to dozens of cities nationwide, at one point managing over 400 people. Despite his success, he always yearned to strike out on his own. Ultimately, he bought a used RV and launched Health Street, a mobile drug testing and DNA testing company, in 2010. Initially driving the company’s sole RV himself, he famously painted “Who’s Your Daddy” on the side of the truck to advertise the company’s paternity testing services. A photo was published in the NY Post, which led to a crush of interest from television producers. VH1 picked it up, airing an 8 episode series, Swab Stories, about Jared and his DNA testing clients. Recently, he has led Health Street’s pivot to technology, notably pioneering innovative software that allows businesses to easily set up drug tests and occupational health services at over 10,000 clinics nationwide. The software now serves over 20,000 SMBs! Health Street continues to innovate and grow under Jared’s leadership.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In college, I started a driveway sealing company. It was rough being on the blacktop out in the sun, and it was hard to make money trying to forecast the rain. But being my own boss and controlling my own destiny were addictive. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see myself tarring driveways the rest of my life. I wanted to help people. I got a graduate degree in health care administration. I took a 15 year detour to corporate America. And I did love my jobs, and I was able to help people. I rose to CEO. I was also able to be entrepreneurial inside the context of those companies. But for me, there was no match for the real thing. There was not a day that went by without me dreaming of being able to create something on my own, without having to convince, cajole, or persuade other executives or a Board of Directors.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
If you want to strike out on your own the way I did it — as a sole entrepreneur without borrowing money and without getting investors — then you have 2 major problem right at the outset: Time and Money. Being in this situation when I started Health Street, the first lesson I learned is that you need customers. And you need to spend less money on your business than they pay you. A lot less. Sounds silly. Sounds obvious. But you’d be amazed by how many entrepreneurs get lost in the fog of believing too hard in their own idea or product, and don’t listen to what the customer behavior is saying loud and clear. Here’s the bottom line for the solo dreamers: if you don’t have revenue, you don’t have a business.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
As a business owner, I draw upon so many aspects of my education and skills that I have learned from past mentors every day. But if I can point out one thing that I have done right, more than anything else, it is that I have been relentlessly motivated. The “sticks” — the fear of having to go back to a real job and put on a suit — are powerful motivators for me. The “carrots” — the dreams of making it big, whatever that means — are equally inspiring. There are so many monumental challenges that I have had to stare down, some of which threatened the very existence of the business. Having that deep reservoir of desire replenished frequently by the thought of the carrots and the sticks has been critical for me.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- People judge you by what you are doing at this moment, much more than by your historical roles or accomplishments. Before starting Health Street, I had a corner office, a CEO title, and hundreds of staff. I had built up a level of comfort with the respect that I got from those around me. I enjoyed the constant human interaction. I loved being a visionary who set teams of people on a path towards growth. Then I went out on my own and started driving a used RV. Former colleagues didn’t return phone calls. My visions were useless without the money to pay for them or the corporate credibility that used to back me up. I now had to do the scrappy work that I used to delegate to others. Respect had to be earned all over again, from scratch.
- The competitive moat is phenomenally difficult to achieve, but achieve it you must. Everything else can be copied. Without it, you will always be working by the hour. Some people call this your value proposition. Some people say it is your elevator pitch. People love to come up with catchy terms for it, but show me someone who actually has that moat around her business, and I’ll show you a successful entrepreneur.
- Taking the plunge of leaving behind the stability of a job for the crazy unknown of entrepreneurship is a step that can radically change your life, as much as — if not more than — the big moves that people more commonly associate with major life events (going to college, getting married, etc.). It can have major consequences for your earning potential, or it can wipe you out financially. But — if you want to hold as many of the levers of power over your own life as you possibly can, you’d be hard pressed to find anything with as much potential for achieving that as starting your own business.
- The first rule of being in charge …. Is you gotta be in charge. That means taking charge. That means making decisions. That means being a leader. But make no mistake about it — if you don’t demonstrate that you are in charge of what you are supposed to be running, you will leave that lane open for malevolent actors, and they will surely jump in.
- If you want to start a business just to prove other people wrong, it might feel emotionally right. But you need to stop and consider if you actually have a business that can work. And you have to really consider that once you do prove them wrong, what will be your motivation? It has to go beyond that tempting fantasy of saying to someone in your life, “how do ya like me now!” You may yet get to do that! But you have to be just as excited by the prospect of going to work every day with no net below you.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think burnout among entrepreneurs often comes from the grind of doing the parts of the business that are repetitive and unrelated to the uniqueness of the business itself. We live for the dream and the innovations. Running payroll it ain’t. Paying taxes? Not so much. Figure out how to get the repetitive, non-core-competency work off your plate to free up time to figure out the company’s future and do what you love, even if you have to take less profit to do so.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My grandparents owned an arcade on the Jersey Shore boardwalk. As a kid, I observed them every summer running their own lives while making a living. They had to make enough money to last all year, and they worked 7 days a week from May to September. But they offered free plays to a kid if he was crying. They took naps while the other one covered for them so they could stay up til closing time at 2AM. They got me dad to close his fledgling law practice in NYC to drive down and pitch in for the summers. They had their daughter, my mom, working alongside them, and their grandkids — me and my sister — around them all day, doing our “share of the work” (and eating a lot of fudge). Friends and cousins took road trips to stay with us in the back of the arcade for days at a time. My grandparents did what they loved, and they owned their own lives. And though it was a long shot, they had a chance to achieve the American Dream. That’s the example I have always hoped to follow in business and in life.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I’m not even close to achieving my personal and professional goals. Ten years after I started Health Street, I still want to metaphorically “take over the world”. I want to innovate more; grow faster; lead more people; help more people; shore up the foundation of the platform we’ve built and leverage it to launch ever higher.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope that I will have taught people to believe in themselves. I hope that I will have created future leaders that learned to believe in others, and to see the unique value that everyone brings. I hope that I will have inspired people to take the plunge into entrepreneurship such that they can overcome social inequities, grab the levers of power for themselves and their communities, and use that power for good — and to pass it on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
If you get high enough up in any organization, at some point they give you the keys to the till. Inevitably, as all executives do, you’ll feel like you are owed more than you receive, or you will feel wronged, or passed over — in short, you’ll feel like you deserve more and you will have the opportunity to take it. And at that moment, it is too late to learn character. You have to have it inside of you already. I think about that a lot, especially raising kids. At some point, they will have that choice to make. Will I have instilled in them the principles to do the right thing, even if it is decades from now? And how can I be sure?
I am often shocked that there are no professional oaths that we are required to take in most advanced professions. Doctors take an oath, lawyers are bound by professional ethics, some financial advisors are obligated to put their clients interests before their own. Why doesn’t every profession have ethical responsibilities like this? Let’s face it: business leaders make decisions every single day that in some way pit their own interests against those of their clients, or staff, or coworkers. If there were a career consequence for not acting in the best interest of those you are supposed to serve — something that went beyond losing your job and actually impacted your entire professional standing — perhaps more people would think twice before crossing that line.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My company on twitter:
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