Nothing replaces experience: you can ‘fake it till you make it” for a while in many ways, but ultimately you have to build a full understanding of the business of your customers to be successful.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Blunda, CEO of Forager
Joe Blunda has been in the food business since 2016, most recently joining local food pioneer Forager as CEO at the request of its founder, David Stone. Joe got his first experience in the food business as a child selling native blueberries at a farm stand in Maine, and has had a passion for local food ever since. Before coming to food, Joe was an aerospace and defense consultant for private equity firms. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin and completed his graduate business studies at Fletcher/Tufts University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was raised by two entrepreneurial parents and had early experiences with business as a young man, including establishing and operating a summer roadside business selling Maine blueberries to locals and to tourists traveling from out of state. These were all positive experiences, cementing my interest in both the food business and in entrepreneurship (better known now as startup life!).
It has been a winding path through other interests and industries, but always with the food business in the back of my mind When I got connected to Forager, I was presented an opportunity to truly focus on the food business and the problems that I had seen and experienced as an informed consumer for years.
Food is central to culture, and certainly so in the U.S., and so investing my ability and effort in food is like investing in helping to strengthen the culture and community I live in.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I would say it is really a story that has evolved over time around one principal: the startup world is full of hype (we all know this), but the hype usually doesn’t last. The statistics of startup success are brutal and ignore the hype. That said, I continue to be astounded by how much money some startups can raise even with fatal flaws obvious to those working in the same space.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Success came for me especially following grad school. In school, I was able to test myself against the most talented people I had ever met and gain confidence that I was also a talented person and should believe in myself. Following that experience, my first job out of grad school drove much greater focus within me — challenging me to build the consistency in performance that I felt I always lacked. With these two pieces in place– confidence and focus– I began to see success quickly.
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?
It isn’t particularly funny but it sticks in my mind: early on, I paid a fee to attend a junket where family offices send people to a luncheon and pitch session. I pitched first and did well based on commentary, but in the course of the day, saw that most attendees began ignoring pitches. In one of my follow up conversations, one investor even admitted directly to me that he came to these to see fellow attendees who had become friends, not to invest. And so the light bulb went off: first, I just paid for these wealthy people and their reps to have a social meeting, and two, I had devalued what I was pitching by paying to play. I felt like I was in a room with a bunch of desperate founders who had already been rejected by more appropriate venues and players, which wasn’t the situation my company was in. I learned my lesson!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! At Forager, we are fundamentally changing the industrial food system by bringing local food to consumers everywhere. The agricultural industry is largely still based on manual and archaic processes — phone, fax, and people. We are moving it into the digital age with computers, AI and data. One exciting project we’re working on now is building out our marketplace, making it easier for farmers to connect with grocery store buyers on our platform. With more open mutual access, we hope to connect farmer products directly to grocery stores to drive the growth of their business. By providing grocers with greater access to quality, local food we enable them to meet consumer demand and win their loyalty.
We do this at a time when our farmers are in deep need of these new digital opportunities. Many have pivoted to selling direct to consumers in response to the upheaval caused by spring shutdowns due to COVID, but this focus on a single sales channel creates longer-term business risks and takes their time and resources away from focusing on their food.
Building a digital platform is vital to returning these farmers to long-term viability especially as consumers return to the grocery store.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Nothing replaces experience: you can ‘fake it till you make it” for a while in many ways, but ultimately you have to build a full understanding of the business of your customers to be successful.
2. What gets measured is what gets done: if you want to hit a specific metric or goal, you need to show your team you continue to track progress so they know to prioritize.
3. You set the tone and buy-in: you can’t just point your team in the right direction, you have to lead in that direction as well and set an example along the way with the level of effort and precision you expect by delivering that effort and precision yourself.
4. Employees respect accountability: admitting when you are wrong and showing respect to your employees is vital to employees considering themselves accountable to you as a leader; relatedly, many of us make various sacrifices in our work for startups, and it is a mistake and a waste of those sacrifices to relax standards or effort in deference to those sacrifices — in the end, the best way to respect employees’ commitment is to strive to make it pay off in growth and success.
5. Transparency is vital to culture: particularly in the early stages, employees who feel cut out of the key realities and considerations within a company will eventually reduce their effort and withdraw from total commitment.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’ve learned to think of this in terms of cycles and timeframes, as I believe this helps me (and my team) set short and long terms goals that are more manageable
Immediate future: this comes down to the basics sleep, hydration, diet, exercise, four-square breathing etc..
Weeks: Finding your specific balance between work and achieving it over that time period is vital — it’s ok to work early, late and weekends as long as that effort is eventually balanced within the same time period with the right dose of life.
Months/years: Thriving is about finding both a role and an industry and company where you are passionate about what you do. We all hear this from many directions and sources throughout our careers, but I think it is simple and true — doing what you want to do in a culture where you feel included working on a mission that inspires you is the best recipe for thriving and avoiding burnout.
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?
I’ve had a number of defining mentors throughout my career, and I’m pleased to see public narratives about the role of mentorship expand in recent years.
I’d single out one, however. His name is Guy. Guy used to be the President of a large and growing engineering consulting services firm, and he hired me early in my career to be part strategic analyst, part executive assistant. He made a deal with me: he would teach me sales and executive leadership skills, and I would do whatever he needed to help him do his job — including helping to lead and define strategic projects within the firm.
Early in our time, he recognized what I did not about myself: that I had a difficult time building trust with colleagues and channeling my drive to deliver results without frustrating peers and causing culture problems. So he added something to our deal: he would give me the perspective and feedback to rewire my approach, something that has defined my ability to grow and succeed ever since. It was a long process and time that we worked together, but his mentorship shaped me as a young professional in ways that are difficult to count.
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!
I’d make a movement to focus all of us on eating seasonally and eating for biodiversity. The loss of cultivars from our history is one driver of the growing disconnection consumers have from food production and history. It also robs local producers of a marketing angle that we are starting to see return: the unique local varieties available and their rich history.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.