Matt Schwartz of Afresh: “Recruiting incredible talent”

To maintain motivation and inspiration I often think back to this visceral waste of resources and life, and look forward to our mission of eliminating food waste and making fresh food accessible to all. Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams […]

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To maintain motivation and inspiration I often think back to this visceral waste of resources and life, and look forward to our mission of eliminating food waste and making fresh food accessible to all.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Schwartz, CEO and Co-founder of Afresh, an AI technology company that builds solutions specifically for the complexity of fresh food to radically reduce food waste, multiply grocers’ profitability, and makes fresh, nutrient-dense food accessible to all. He started Afresh because his deep experience working in food led him to believe that improving the food system is our single best path to improving human and environmental health. Matt holds an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Growing up I struggled with food. I was finicky and unhealthy. As a teenager, I found that eating better was a catalyst for overall self-improvement that was formative to who I am to this very day. I’ve always wanted to enable as many people as possible to live their version of that same story and to live better lives. As a result, this first chapter of my backstory kicked off a lifelong obsession with our food system and the way it affects both human and environmental health.

I came to learn that food is the single largest non-genetic determinant of our longevity. At the same time, the massive amount of energy, water, and land that goes into growing, producing, and distributing our food puts the food industry at the top of the list of drivers of climate change. I came away believing that improving our food system was likely the single best lever arm to improve both human and environmental health. By focusing on food, I believe we can positively affect the lives of billions of people, countless species of animals, and the sustainability of our planet.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

One of my co-founders and I had kicked off an independent research study during our 2nd year of our MBA at Stanford that was focused on identifying problems within the fresh food supply chain. The broad thesis we had, at that time, was that fresh food was the future, yet massively underpenetrated by modern technology — but we didn’t know where our first insertion point for the technology would be.

One day we went into a local grocery store and saw that they were out of stock on a ton of produce items. We went and found the guy in charge of the produce department and asked what was going on — he in turn took out the paper order guide in which he manually wrote down his inventory and order each day for hundreds of items. We were shocked to see paper and pen in use to order millions of dollars of product at a multi-billion dollar grocery chain. We then went to every grocery store in town… and it was the same at every single store. We then knew we were on to something.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

My mom. When I reflect on what I want to do with my life — my life’s mission statement is to move the world closer to being a place where every person would rather be themselves rather than anyone else — I realize my aspirations are grandiose and audacious.

My mom is the one who instilled in me an overwhelming sense of capability to affect that sort of change. I don’t have one single story, rather, I have a blessed childhood full of support from my Mom. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We sit at an INCREDIBLE intersection of positive social impact, rocketship financial growth, and cutting-edge technology. To date, we’ve prevented about five million pounds of food waste, five million pounds of GHG emissions, and nearly one hundred million gallons of water loss. We expect to more than 20x those numbers on a run rate basis in the next several months.

In addition, I think we have remarkable impact directly on the lives of essential workers. The pandemic highlighted the already-critical role that grocery workers play in our country. One produce manager after using our tool for a while shared with us, “I’ve been working in the grocery industry for my whole career, over 35 years, and working with Afresh has been the single most meaningful thing I’ve done in my career.”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My aspiration is for there to be a direct link between my “success” and the amount of goodness we bring to the world. Specifically at Afresh, every pound of food waste we prevent for our customers is over a dollar of profit generated for their business, which, in turn, means more dollars of revenue for us.

My hope is that we’ll inspire other entrepreneurs and businesses to think about ways that they can generate incredible financial returns BY creating incredible social impact. Hopefully by doing that myself and inspiring others and directly positively affecting peoples’ lives I will bring goodness to the world.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Proactivity. My aspirational understanding of this trait is as described by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and drawn from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. As humans, we have the unique ability to take proactive control not just of our physical situation, but also the way we interpret the world around us.

Kindness. I’d hope people around me see me as a kind person, and that this draws folks closer.

Empathy. Taking the time to first understand the other person before needing to be understood drives deeper and more effective relationships.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

Working on self-care and learning to be the best version of myself in the face of the founder roller coaster ride has been the single most important growth area for me. Critical in that journey for me has been establishing foundational habits around exercise, journaling, and meditation (that, candidly, I still really struggle to do consistently).

I struggled a ton with sleep. My anxiety and perception of every work risk being existential would keep me up at night or wake me up in the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately that neuroticism devolved into full blown sleep anxiety — where even if nothing stressful was going on at work (which was rare) I would get anxious about my inability to sleep itself.

Ultimately, the solution to those travails was to double down on my self-care — to create boundaries around work (which I think are distinct from balance), to invest in meditation and exercise and journaling, and to spend time with my executive coach and therapist every month. I wholeheartedly believe that these investments are critical for anyone who goes on this entrepreneurial journey.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1. Establishing Product-Market Fit

I believe that establishing extremely strong Product-Market Fit is the most critical factor in creating a successful startup. While ‘Product-Market Fit’ is at times an ill-defined term, Andy Rachleff, who coined the term and taught a class on the subject at Stanford, simplifies it to a question: “are the dogs eating the dog food?” You need to feel that your customers and users are physically grabbing you by the lapel and asking for your product. I think most startups fail because they are building things that nobody really wants.

To achieve Product-Market Fit, I’m a huge believer in the Lean Startup methodology by Steve Blank. In this methodology, the goal of the entrepreneur is not immediately to build a product, but rather to validate critical business hypotheses around value and customers through lean experimentation. We took Steve’s class at Stanford and I’m convinced that it was the most critical ingredient in our success to date.

2. Authentic mission-driven motivation

To make something significant from nothing, I believe one must be inspired by a compelling vision and mission. Building something new is incredibly hard work and a long, long climb. We’re only a little over four years into our journey at Afresh, but we know we’re just getting started. In the early days of our work, we were shadowing a grocery ordering process and thought that a store manager had over-ordered 3 pound ground turkey by at least 100 units. And, indeed, the store soon threw away 300 pounds of ground turkey.

To maintain motivation and inspiration I often think back to this visceral waste of resources and life, and look forward to our mission of eliminating food waste and making fresh food accessible to all.

3. Building incredible early team relationships

Whether you are a solo founder or a co-founder, your early team relationships are of critical importance. My co-founder Nathan and I worked, just the two of us, for six months on the research project that preceded the incorporation of Afresh. After that, our CTO Volo joined part-time for six months until coming on full time. Only six months after that did we hire our first non-founding employee! This means that we had only three people working on the company, day in and day out, for the first 18 months.

That’s a lot of time and a lot of contribution from just the three of us. It is for this reason that building incredible early team relationships is critical to startup success. One specific practice that Nathan and I did in the early days was “Feedback Fridays.” On Fridays we’d go to The Mill (a bougie bakery/coffee shop that sells overpriced, but delicious, toast) and talk only about our feelings and relationship — nothing about the actual business. In this way we were able to work through interpersonal struggles and grow ever deeper. When my mom first met Nathan she said, “wow, he sounds exactly the same as you do.” While that’s scary, I believe that level of founder relationship has been absolutely critical for our success.

4. Recruiting incredible talent

To be truly successful at scale, a startup needs to be much bigger than its founders. To this day, I’m blown away by the fact that talented people had the faith in us in the early days to risk stable jobs and their careers and join Afresh.

Within my commercial purview, I think about Michelle, our Marketing leader and Dain, our Sales leader and the outsized impact they both have. When you have truly stellar talent on board, they will consistently surprise you with upside outcomes and innovations that you could have never built yourself.

5. Investing in self-care

As I talked about earlier, self-care is absolutely critical to my sustainability and stewardship of the company. As my executive coach puts it, “self-care is an investment and not an indulgence.” I think far too many leadership teams advocate for a ruthless grind and celebrate a never-ending hustle. While it’s undeniable that startup success entails more hard work, dedication, and focus than success in other fields, I believe that the most successful founders and companies invest in self-care to consistently bring their best and have the most fun along the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Start social impact companies! Start social impact companies! Start social impact companies!

I believe that most people categorize companies as plundering for-profit enterprises or angelic not-for-profit organizations. Afresh is an example of a third way: a for-profit social impact company. We are awakening to the incredible, intimidating scope of problems that threaten humanity’s future and our ability to thrive: climate change, viral disease, social inequity, technological addiction, and countless more. We need a generation of inspired entrepreneurs to build huge businesses that combat and overcome these challenges.

Start social impact companies!

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Given her work around food and human health, I’d die to meet Michelle Obama (swing for the fences, right?).

I’d also love to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most folks would be shocked to know he’s been advocating for eating less meat. I admire him for mastering his craft of bodybuilding and for more recently being a champion of curbing climate change.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check us out at or follow me on twitter (although I’m new to it) at @matt__schwartz.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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