Ben Chesler, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Imperfect Foods
Ugly Food, Beautiful Mission
How Ben Chesler and Imperfect Produce are combatting food waste, one delivery at a time.
If a giant, ugly sweet potato has ever changed the course of your life, you and Ben Chesler have something in common.
Heading into his senior year at Brown University, Chesler was beginning to think of life after college. Unsure of what path to take, he applied for a wide range of jobs, from consultant to truck driver, but was unable to land any of them. He was stuck.
It wasn’t until a friend, Ben Simon, visited and plopped a big, misshapen sweet potato in front of him that he started to gain some clarity.
The two friends had been big food waste activists during college, and during a recent visit to the West Coast, Simon witnessed the enormous amount of food that was going to waste, mainly based on its appearance, in the farming system. According to Chesler, in California alone, over 20% of the state’s produce was going to waste, which equated to almost 3 billion pounds of food each year.
Simon wanted to create a market that could bring ugly produce to the consumer, sell it at affordable prices, and help to reduce food waste along the way. And he wanted Chesler to help him do it.
“It wasn’t hard to convince me,” he says.
Together, the two co-founded Imperfect Produce, a company that buys ugly produce from farms and delivers it directly to consumers at low prices. At just four years old, Imperfect Produce has quickly grown their subscriber base to six figures, employs over 1,000 full-time workers, has six fulfillment centers, and serves over 20 cities around the country. And most importantly, it’s helping to cut back on food waste.
And to think, it all started with one ugly root vegetable.
A Passion for Food
Chesler has had a passion for combating food waste for a long time now. Back in 2011, he and Simon co-founded the Food Recovery Network while in college. The nonprofit recovered food from college campus dining halls and buffets that would normally go to waste, and brought it to meal sites to serve communities in need.
So the two of them had already had some notable success in the food waste arena. When Simon approached Chesler in the fall of 2014 to recruit him for this new adventure, he didn’t need to do much arm-twisting. He was in.
But where would they start?
Despite having experience building a large project together in the past, this would be their first for-profit business. There would clearly be a learning curve, but there was one component that proved to be especially challenging.
“Raising the first money is the hardest by far because you’re just selling people on an idea,” Chesler says. “And not only that, it was two 20-somethings who had run a nonprofit trying to sell people on an idea.”
But they did land some new investors, and Imperfect was ready to take shape. Within just a few months after coming up with the concept for the company, the team was ready to venture west.
“We basically spent the first half of 2015 learning about the issue, putting a team together, raising money, getting a forklift, getting a warehouse, and we moved out here in July,” Chesler says. “And a month later on August 8, 2015, we sold our first box of produce.”
They were on their way to changing the world, but not without a little unexpected help from a certain online community.
‘You Should Try It’
Growing up on the East Coast, Chesler always viewed The New York Times with a certain sort of reverence. So when the newspaper wrote an article about Imperfect Produce, Chesler had expected the reception to be huge and for subscriptions to soar.
According to Chesler, the article probably led to about 10 sign-ups, hardly the turnout he had been expecting. However, a week later, something unexpected happened that gave them their first surge of customers, close to 200 new subscribers.
If The New York Times couldn’t give them the surge, who could?
“Someone had posted on Reddit, ‘Hey, this is a great new service, you should try it,’” Chesler says. “So I’ve I always laughed at that, that Reddit had more power on people’s buying decisions than The New York Times, I guess.”
With the help of word of mouth, Imperfect took off and there was no looking back.
Keeping Up With Growth
The early days of Imperfect Produce involved a small team. In addition to Chesler and Simon, they brought on a third co-founder, Ron Clark, to help manage the supply side of things and to connect them to more farms. Although business was growing, it was still small enough for the founders and a handful of employees to juggle all of its operations.
In those days, everyone had touched almost every part of the business. If you were an early subscriber of Imperfect, chances are you may have had a potato packed into your box by Chesler himself.
“For the first probably six months, the whole office team, every Friday would go to the warehouse and pack the produce,” Chesler says. “There was no warehouse team, it was just all of us Friday morning. It was packing the produce. And then it became all of Friday, and then it became Thursday.”
It wouldn’t take long to realize that in order to grow the company, its founders would need to be in the office at the end of each week. Imperfect was growing too quickly for its leaders to handle the goods and manage the business, so they were forced to expand their team, which is still growing today.
After just celebrating its fourth birthday in early August of this year, Imperfect now has over 1,000 full-time employees, all of whom earn livable wages, according to Chesler. The ability to give their employees a decent wage is something Chesler speaks proudly of.
In addition to employee growth, Imperfect now has six fulfillment centers around the country, and serves ugly produce in over 20 U.S. cities that span from coast-to-coast.
After starting out just serving two cities in its immediate vicinity, Imperfect quickly became a national brand.
“It was basically like keeping our heads above water trying to grow,” Chesler says. “The concept was just so catchy, right? Save money, rescue this ugly produce.”
More Than Produce
Chesler and the team understood that food waste goes beyond produce. If they were going to continue to fight this battle, they would have to become a more integral part of their customers’ lives. They would have to provide more items for their shopping cart.
A year ago, Imperfect began to look at other ways they could help cut back on food waste and how they could become a person’s primary grocery store. By providing more items such as dry goods, canned goods, dairy, and other popular items that may go to waste, they could have a bigger impact on waste. Not to mention, by providing a customer with fewer deliveries and limiting trips to the grocery store, it would reduce their environmental footprint as well.
After adding the new products and months of testing in the San Francisco area, Chesler is ready to scale and see how the market reacts to this new development. As the company’s chief innovation officer, he’s responsible for the direction of the company’s immediate future, and this new path is something he’s particularly excited to see come to fruition.
“The chance to rescue more food, across the whole food system,” Chesler says, “and also provide customers a way to do their whole meal planning and shopping for the week in one place with a company they value…that’s what excites me.”
Ben Chesler’s 4 Tips for New Entrepreneurs
After co-founding The Food Recovery Network in college with Ben Simon and others, and familiarizing himself with the aspects of starting and scaling a project, it made perfect sense to start a company that revolved around their passion for stopping food waste.
In just four years, Chesler helped to grow Imperfect Produce’s subscriber list to six figures, employ over 1,000 full-time employees, and deliver ugly produce to customers in over 20 cities.
Here are Chesler’s tips for creating a high-growth business that revolves around your passion.
Do Your Research
Starting a business may not necessarily mean that you have to build everything from the ground up. The important part before starting any venture is to do your research and see if there is a need for your idea, and if so, whether you should do it yourself. Maybe there is an opportunity to join another established brand and to build your dream within it.
“Do your research,” Chesler says. “See what’s out there. There are so many great companies doing great work. … There’s so many ways to innovate, whether it’s a new company within an existing company. So really understand the problem you’re solving and what’s out there before just jumping in.”
Hire for Experience Early
Chesler admits that early on, he may not have hired the right team for the long run. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Imperfect hired the wrong employees, but perhaps he wasn’t forward thinking enough about hiring individuals who could help propel the company into the future.
Much like how Imperfect did in the past, many companies will only focus on hiring employees for the moment, and not employees they may need a year from now. In some cases, companies may need to hire employees early on that they may need five years down the line.
“For a high-growth business, you should hire people early that you have no business hiring at that size,“ Chesler says. “That is I think something we didn’t do as well as we could have. I think we hired a great team, but I don’t think we were ready to kind of let go, cause it’s scary, and hire those senior experienced people when we saw this was taking off.”
Chesler admits that when they started Imperfect Produce, they weren’t thinking about the customer first. They were thinking about how to fight food waste first. Although people loved the idea and wanted to get onboard with solving this problem, their early model of providing every customer with a random box of produce got stale. People complained early on that, while they loved the service, they wanted to select their own produce.
Chesler and the team listened.
They knew that if they wanted to scale beyond the limited produce box, they would have to give the customer the option to choose what they got every week. And within the first six months after starting Imperfect, they began to allow customers to shop a la carte.
It would have been easy to ignore the complaints and keep operational costs low by not letting the customer have choices. But by listening to the feedback, and to the data behind the cancellations, Imperfect made a drastic change to their business early on. This proved that they would do whatever was necessary to make their customers happy and provide a great service.
“Engage with your customers, and we really started doing that in the last few years and it’s informed how we kind of shaped the direction of the business.”
Fight for What You Believe in
Starting any new business, and even changing focus in an existing business, can be terrifying. However, if you’re passionate about an idea or concept, you have to push through, as the end result will be extremely gratifying once you attain it. It’s important to remain focused and committed along the journey and to not give in to negative feedback, or even give up if one door closes on you. Keep fighting.
“You’re going to get a lot of nos,” Chesler says. “Whether it’s investors, customers, the press, employees, but that’s natural and keep on fighting for what you believe in, because when you get those yeses, it feels so good.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Nick Allen
- How Chesler and Simon got their start tackling food waste in the nonprofit world
- The giant, ugly sweet potato that became the catalyst for Imperfect Foods
- The hilarious story of how Reddit brought in more customers for Imperfect Foods than The New York Times
- Why the original founding team’s first hires were a bunch of teenagers
- A look into Imperfect Foods’ massive growth over just four years
- Why product-market fit wasn’t on the team’s mind until six months after the company’s launch
- The brilliant marketing strategy that helped Imperfect Foods take off
- The power of customer interactions
- Why Chesler and the founding team make sure every single employee works in the warehouse at least once—and has access to stock options
- The biggest challenges Imperfect Foods faces
- Chesler’s reasoning for hiring people you have no business hiring, early on
Full Transcript of Podcast with Ben Chesler
Nathan: The first question we ask everyone that comes on, is how did you get your job?
Ben: Yeah, so that’s a funny story and the short answer is, my co-founder showed up at my apartment in Providence with a giant, ugly sweet potato and said, “This is what you’re doing next year.” And I said, “Sure.” But I can give a little bit more context there. So in college I started a nonprofit with Ben Simon called the Food Recovery Network, which was taking recovered food from college campuses that would normally go to waste, so from the dining halls and buffets, and bringing it to meal sites in the community. And we scaled that to about 200, 250 colleges across the country and were running that as a nonprofit while we were still students.And then during the senior year I was doing the exploring through your options, I was failing miserably at trying to become a consultant because I refused to put on a suit for the interviews. I was applying to be a truck driver for a fair trade coffee company. And then Ben Simon came to visit because he was speaking nearby, and put the sweet potato down and said, “This is the future.” He said, “I’ve been out to California, I’ve visited the farms, there’s 20 million pounds, or 20%, sorry, of the produce that’s grown in California is going to waste, 3 billion pounds in California alone. And we’re going to create a market for consumers to have access to ugly produce at an affordable price, and stop this from going to waste.” And it wasn’t hard to convince me.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. And when was that?
Ben: That would have been in, so my senior year of college would have been in fall of 2014, and then we basically spent the first half of 2015 learning about the issue, putting a team together, raising money, getting a forklift, getting a warehouse. And we moved out here in July, and a month later on August 8th, 2015, we sold our first box of produce.
Nathan: Yeah, well there you go. So talk me through, I know you guys ran the non for profit, but this is your first for profit startup?
Nathan: Okay. Well, incredible success thus far for your first venture. So I’m curious, talk to me about how much did you raise and what was the process like, early days, getting your first customer? Because it’s not that easy.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, so we don’t really disclose how much we raised, but I can say that raising the first money is the hardest by far because you’re just selling people on an idea. And not only that, it was two 20-somethings, who had run a nonprofit, trying to sell people an idea. So we were really lucky to have some great early funders, but it was definitely not easy. As for our first customer, I don’t remember exactly the first customer. We put up a website and said, “All right, well, what’s got to happen now?” And people did start signing up.
But I think our first big round of customers, I remember, I think it was maybe the day we launched, there was a New York Times article about us. And growing up East Coast, the New York Times is close to godliness. And so I thought that was going to be huge, everyone’s going to sign up, and I think we got 10 signups from it. And then about a week later we got 150, 200 customers signing up and I was like, “Whoa, where did this come from?” And it was someone had posted on Reddit, “Hey, this is a great new service, you should try it.” And so I always laughed at that, that Reddit had more power on people’s buying decisions than the New York Times. So that was really how we got our first group of customers and it just spread through word of mouth from there.
Nathan: I see. And what did your team look like, first, who did you hire for your original, first, founding team, I’m curious?
Ben: Yeah, so there were three of us who started originally, myself, Ben Simon, and a third person named Ron Clark who had a lot of connections to the farms and managed the supply side of things. But the first four people we hired were, basically, teenagers, to go door-to-door and try and sell subscriptions to people on the ground, and hand out flyers. And for the first, probably, six months, the whole office team, every Friday, would go to the warehouse and pack the produce. There was no warehouse team, it was just all of us, Friday morning, it was packing the produce. And then it became all of Friday, and then it became Thursday, and then we were like, “We should probably hire some people to do this, because we don’t get any actual work done on Thursdays and Fridays.” And then we started building out the team a lot more. But yeah, for a while it was the three of us and a bunch of kids going door-to-door selling, not kids, but a bunch of young adults going door-to-door selling produce and handing out flyers.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s crazy. So you really were doing things that didn’t scale?
Ben: Yeah, I would say that, do I drive a forklift anymore? No. But those early days I would get a call from a driver at four in the morning and climb over my very unhappy girlfriend, bike to work, and go meet the truck because someone needed to receive the produce. So we were really doing it all, and it was fun.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s cool. So talk to me around, fast forward to now, where is Imperfect Produce at, and can you give us an idea around traction, any numbers that you feel comfortable sharing around subscription, or anything?
Ben: Yeah, for sure. So fast forward, we just had our fourth birthday a few days ago.
Ben: Thank you. We now have six fulfilment centres across the country. We serve between 20 and 25 different cities and regions all the way from California to Texas, to the Midwest, to the East Coast as well. And we’ve grown the team, we have over 1,000 employees on the team, all of which are full time, good paying, living wage jobs, which is something we’re really proud of. We don’t talk too much about subscriber numbers, but I would say it’s somewhere in the six digits, is what I can share, and have had really great response from customers. It’s been amazing to be able to grow that much.
And I would say the other thing that’s different is, in the last year or so, we’ve actually expanded beyond produce. So we’ve started fighting food waste across the whole grocery store. So looking at dry goods, canned goods, dairy, starting to look at proteins as well, and really expanding the amount of food that we can recover, and also giving our customers more of a chance to do their shopping at one place and help fight more food waste.
Nathan: Yeah, I love it. It’s such a really smart idea because you hear of the standards that the supermarkets have for produce, and you hear, if this one’s a little bit not the right shape, whatever, they’ll just get rid of it. So you guys have just slotted in and, really, helping with sustainability, but at the same time, the food is totally fine, right? It’s just how it looks, yeah?
Ben: Exactly, yeah. We always say, “Ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside, looks different, tastes the same.” And there’s really, as you mentioned, opportunities like this across the whole food system, so whether it’s surplus or ugly produce, these crazy standards that the grocery stores have set for growers. But also if you look at packaged goods, if you look at a thing of canned beans, right, that’s going to last through the apocalypse, they’re probably still down in nuclear fallout shelters from the 1950s, 1990s? But they all have this best buy date, and you’re not supposed to sell it after that date, as if it’s going to go bad? But there’s no food safety concerns there, and actually we found that according to some research by ReFED, that they’ve done, the number one reason food is wasted in the country is confusion around date labelling.
And so we’re starting to do a lot of work there, beyond produce, to rescue the food. But it’s crazy as a country, and as a world, we grow enough food, we produce enough food to feed the whole world three times over, it’s just about getting it to people at the right time.
Nathan: Yeah, look, it happens across, not even just food, you’re right, other industries too. Because when I was in college, I was working a college job at, you guys have it in America, Target? You have Target. And I was working in the warehouse and they had a big skip in the warehouse, and people would take things to me and say, “Hey, you’ve got to throw this out.” And it would be a chair, or a table, but it’s got a little bit of a mark on it, and I have to break it down and throw it into the skip. And I used to be like, “No, I’ll take that, can I take that home?” And if I got permission, I’d be able to take it home, because there was nothing wrong with it.
Ben: And that’s how you furnished, if we go over to your apartment, your flat now, you’ve got marked-up Target furniture all over the place?
Nathan: Exactly. So, this is a serious problem within the world because people are very, very fussy and they want things that are perfect.
Yeah. And I don’t, to be honest, I don’t put a blame on any one person or organisation. I understand why a retailer, if you start seeing scuffed-up stuff at Target, maybe you’re going to start questioning it. But I think there’s really an opportunity here to create a market for stuff like that because it may not be for everybody, but like you said, there’s huge demand. Especially for us, it’s all about pairing it with the savings. So not only feeling good about your purchase, but, for you the chair was free, but giving a big discount to our customers allows people to save money and increase the sustainability in the world at the same time, which we feel like, those two things go together really well.
Nathan: Yeah, I see, I love it. So incredible mission, solving a really, a painkiller problem in the world. So talk to me around, I’m still curious around the early days because from the growth that you guys have achieved in the six figures of subscribers, are you up to Series C, you’ve raised Series C, or you don’t even talk about rounds?
Ben: No, we’ve raised a Series B, and we’re looking at our next Series. You can assign whatever letters you want to this, but that’s probably the terms that people would recognise, going out for a Series C in the next few months, I would say. But we’ve had a great group of investors.
Nathan: Yeah, okay, awesome. So I’m still curious around the early days because you get your first round of customers, product market fit, bang, what was next? How the hell did you scale this thing? Because you’re competing, was there a Blue Ocean, was it just such an easy sell? Talk to me about that.
Ben: Yeah, I think if I’m going to be, open up here and be honest, I think that there was a Blue Ocean-
Nathan: There was? Okay.
Ben: And I think as a result of it, we weren’t forced to look hard enough at product market fit, which …come a little bit later. Basically, we were selling this box of produce, people were buying it, the concept was catching on, the press was all over it, the word of mouth is great. And so we just started growing, we expanded from, I think we started out serving maybe two cities, then we opened up 10 more in the East Bay, and then we expanded to San Francisco, and then eventually went down to LA. And we just, it was basically keeping our heads above water, trying to grow.
I think, you said, the concept was just so catchy, save money, rescue this ugly produce. I think one of the brilliant early things our marketing team did, once we had a marketing team, was, I think for a giveaway for our first birthday, they put googly eyes in all the boxes, and said to customers, “Take a picture of the produce with googly eyes, and tag us on Instagram, or Facebook”, or whatever. And that just took off and became a huge hallmark of our brand, and now we put googly eyes on everything. But I think that we were really just focused on …
It’s a very operationally intensive business, we wanted to provide good jobs, so we were doing everything ourselves, the delivery, the warehouse, et cetera. And so we were just struggling to keep up with demand. And I think that we would have actually been better served facing some challenges early on because I think it really forces you to think about, “Is this the right product for my customers?” To be totally honest, we never started this company for our customers, it’s probably a bad thing to say, we started this to fight food waste. And so we didn’t really examine of, do customers want this every week, every other week? Do they want to do all their shopping in one place, et cetera, until much later on. It was just, get all the produce we could get our hands on, and get it out the door.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. So this is an interesting problem to have because this is quite rare, that you find this amount of traction out of the gate, for an everyday startup that launches. So I’m curious, you said that you guys found product market fit later in the journey, which is different. So talk to me around the process of that and what actually changed, did you make a slight pivot?
Ben: Yeah, for sure. I think there’s probably two main times when we really examined that. One was probably about six months in when, so when we started out it was similar to where basically, you just got a random box of produce every week. And that was really great operationally because we didn’t have to deal with unique orders, et cetera. But we started realising that if we wanted to scale beyond just the pretty limited produce box market, we’d have to let people choose what they get every week. We got so many complaints, “I love what you guys do, but I have eight weeks of sweet potatoes in my kitchen, I don’t know what to do with it.” Or “I’m allergic to green peppers.”
And so the first thing we did is, we started allowing customers to basically do a la carte shopping. So you still had a subscription, and we still suggested items for you every week, if you wanted to set it and forget it. But you could pick exactly what went in the box, and you would just pay the total price of that. I think that was the first time we really stepped back and said, “Okay, we’re going to have to …” We looked at the data, it was a big reason customers were cancelling, because they couldn’t choose what… And said, “It’s going to increase our costs, it’s going to make it more operationally challenging, but we need to do this if we’re going to find product market fit, and have customers love it.” So that was probably the first big change we made after about six months.
And the second change we made was probably about a year ago where we started realising that if we wanted to fight more food waste and be an integral part of our customer’s lives, we had to be the primary place that they shopped. And that meant fulfilling some of their other needs beyond just produce. And so we spent a lot of time testing that out in San Francisco before scaling it. But basically providing, like I said, dry goods, canned goods, dairy and refrigerated items as well, to our customers, because it allowed them to do more of their shopping in one place, reduce their environmental footprint by getting one delivery every week instead of going to the store, or getting many deliveries.
And that was a big change, it took us, I would say, many months, if not years, to make that change because we wanted to balance giving our customers what they wanted with our commitment to the environment, and to fighting food waste, and finding a way to accomplish both at once. If you don’t have a mission, it’s really easy, you just sell your customers more stuff, and figure out what they want. But for us, we always try and make sure that everything we offer stays true to our mission, while also being a good fit for the customer.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. So you guys, just really, are speaking to people, and trying to work out what makes them , but also matching up with your mission.
Ben: Exactly. And if I, this is not novel advice here, but especially in eCommerce, you don’t get to interact with your customers that much, find ways to interact with them. They’re so happy to give feedback, and they have really good ideas, both about how to improve, and what they love about what you’re doing, and what you should be doing next. And whether it’s talking to them on the phone, in person, surveys, et cetera, engage with your customers. And we really started doing that in the last few years, and it’s really informed how we shape the direction of the business.
Nathan: Yeah, it’s one of those things that gets spoken about a lot, but a lot of people still don’t really do it, it’s just easier not to, right?
Ben: Exactly. And if it’s working, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t need to talk to my customers, I know what’s working.” But you uncover so much when you actually do it. And it’s worth its weight in gold, the time you take away from running the business to actually talk to customers, and it makes everything so much better.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. So, I’m curious, is this something the Product Manager usually handles for you guys? Or, you guys get on the ground and speak to customers, meet them in person, and on the phone too?
Ben: Yeah, we encourage it across all of our organisations. So, Product Managers for sure, but also starting to distil that data from our customer care team because they’re talking with customers every day. The founders, we’re doing weekly coffees with customers because that was important to us to stay on top of the pulse of what our customers were thinking. But even down to, when we have a customer complaint, we’ll have the General Manager of that warehouse facility, call them back and understand what went wrong, and learn from it. Because we think it’s important that the operators too get to hear that feedback, because you’re holed up in a warehouse all day, you forget that has a real impact on customers and when you get to talk to them, you have some really great insights about how to inform your operation. So we really encourage it across the whole organisation.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s really smart. I’ve seen some companies that make it part of their onboarding process that there’s some level of interaction with customers. Even Zappos, in your onboarding, you have to do maybe a couple of weeks, or a month, of customer success, customer service, no matter where you are, in terms of, even if it’s a C-suite position.
Ben: That’s smart. Our version of that is everybody has to work a shift in our warehouse. So you don the refrigerated jacket and go get to see what the operations are like. So it’s not customer facing for us, but we definitely believe, even the CFO has got to know what it’s like to work on the line.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s really cool, and it’s something different, it’s fun to see the operations of the business, and actually what it is you guys are selling, what it’s like to actually package the product, yeah.
Ben: Exactly. And that’s one of the things that’s always been really important to us. So everyone in the company, including warehouse associates and drivers, have stock options, which I think is a fairly rare thing in Silicon Valley. So everybody has a different size, but stake in the success of a company and we’ve really felt strongly that we have a one company mentality, as opposed to having different sets of standards for different people in the company.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s cool. Why did you guys decide to do that?
Ben: Yeah, I think we decided to do that, one, it was just the philosophy of, we want everybody to have a stake in this. But I think, two, it’s that, who knew if this company was going to be successful or not? But if it was, you always see 90% of the economic gains going to the top 1% of people in the company, or 10% of people, whatever it is. And we wanted to make sure that even if it was a small amount, everybody would win economically if the company did well. And so I think that was important to us.
But also just from a self-interest perspective, it really gets people invested in the company. We were pushing back against the gig economy a little bit, we wanted this job you have at Imperfect, whether you were a driver, in headquarters, in the office, customer care, to be the last job you ever had. We wanted people to have careers out of this, and we do all the things we think we should do, healthcare, dental, vision, 401(k), benefits. But we also thought that they needed to be able to share in the wins if we did well.
Nathan: Yeah, I love that idea of just getting a one company, full buy-in, that’s really smart. So, switching gears, what does a day for you look like now, are you working on Series C, what is your biggest focus?
Ben: Yeah, I think the thing that I love about this job is no day looks the same as the last day. But yeah, I think, I would say that a day for me is meetings with my team, interviews for fabulous podcasts, big part of my day here.
Ben: No, but yeah, I think I run, specifically, the team that’s really focused on the grocery expansion beyond produce, and I run our innovation team. So it’s really looking at where is the company going to be in six months, one year, three years, five years, and working on those projects. So some of that is fund raising, but a lot of that is really looking at the market, talking with customers, and understanding where the business needs to be in the medium term, to succeed. And so for us right now, like I said, that’s expanding beyond produce to really become a full shopping experience for our customers. And that cuts across the website, and the product, what we offer to our customers on the sourcing side, how we talk about ourselves. So it’s a lot of strategizing.
Nathan: Yeah, got you. It’s interesting because I’ve never really seen, or it’s uncommon for a co-founder to have the title of Chief Innovation Officer.
Ben: Yeah, I think they gave me that title because they couldn’t figure out what else to do with me. But I’ve held a lot of titles here, so I was COO when we started, Chief Operating Officer. And then we got big enough where I said, “You know what, we should probably hire someone who knows what they’re doing.” And so we brought on senior leaders there. And for me, what I love doing is getting projects off the ground, and starting them. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’d do well at a big company because I’m not a keep the trains running kind of guy. I’m a, think of ideas, get them started, and get them running. And so we crafted that role to be, six month to one year projects, that were crucial to the company but didn’t necessarily live in an existing department. And so I’ve been able to do that for probably the last two years now, and it’s definitely been the best time of my life.
Nathan: Yeah. That would be, actually, really fun. So you mainly work on just new projects, fun stuff and yeah, you’ve got a leadership team that is helping lead and manage. That’s the dream, right?
Ben: I know, when I get bored, we pass it off and move on to the next one.
Nathan: That’s cool. So talk to me around challenges, you said you had the Blue Ocean, but within that comes challenges in and of itself around scale and supply. So talk to me around challenges that you guys have had because building a business is not easy, especially in a category that didn’t exist a few years ago.
Ben: Yeah. And it’s not exactly a sexy category, it’s not exactly a high margin category either. So yeah, I think there’s a few big challenges we’ve faced. I think one you hit on is really the scale. I think to give you an idea, and don’t quote me on these numbers, but I think at our first birthday party we were nine people, on our second birthday party, we were 40 people, at our third, we were 400, and our fourth, we were over 1,000. So we basically hired well over a thousand people in four years, and that comes with its own set of challenges from, especially in this environment that we’re in, which is great economically. But recruiting talent, retaining talent, putting in place processes, putting in place procedures, all the stuff that I don’t love doing. You go from, I can touch every aspect of the business to, we have to put in place a structure where you’re letting go of certain things and trusting your people to manage them.
And so that was just, I mean those, some of those years, years two and three, were rapid, rapid growth. And that just came with a lot of people management challenges, like how to set up an organisation. And neither of the founders, to be honest, were experienced running large organisations. And so that was definitely, we were like, “Okay, let’s hire a hundred people easy, right?” And it’s like, no, that’s not something you just snap your fingers and do. And we’ve been blessed that it’s been easy to hire and recruit people because of our mission, but it’s still, we’re in a tough environment for hiring, it’s still a struggle. So that was definitely one of the big challenges.
And the second was just, we’re a logistically intensive business, we set up, for all intents and purposes, 25 facilities across the country in the span of four years, with very little capital in the grand scheme of things. And you learn to do all these things you never thought you’d do. So, negotiating leases, leasing vans, figuring out forklifts, et cetera. And it’s harder to scale a business as a physical product than it is just a website or an eCommerce something. So we were definitely, definitely a challenge there.
Nathan: Yeah, I’d love to delve a bit deeper on that scale, because that’s crazy. So were you guys, basically, following the Blitzscaling model that Reid Hoffman talks about. Where you just don’t have the luxury to find maybe even an A player, and you’re just looking for someone that can just do the job, because that’s insane.
Ben: Yeah. I think, well first of all, I’d be lying if I said we subscribe to any models, we were just doing everything we could to keep our head above water. But how I think about that is, I come from a theatre background, backstage, and we have a saying that says, “Good, fast, cheap, you can have any two of those, but you can’t have all three.” And so we were definitely doing fast, and I think we didn’t want to sacrifice on good, and so the thing that you sacrifice on is cheap. And that’s not to say money necessarily, it’s just time, putting all the time into hiring.
And so I think we always did try and get an A team, but we ran ourselves ragged into the ground to do it, if that makes sense? And so I think that’s really what took … if we had gone slower, could we have worked things out a little better? For sure, I think that’s true. But I think we are really happy with the team we were able to put together. I think the mission really helped that, because people were really excited to work for a company that gave them purpose in their daily life.
Nathan: Yeah, I see, that makes sense. One thing, one of my mentors said to me was, he said, someone asked him if he could start all over again, and when it comes to building a team and hiring people, he said, someone asked him if he could do that, what would he do? And he said he would just hire way more experienced people. He told me that he believed from his experience that it’s much easier to grow a company much faster and get traction if you have people on the bus that have seen the matrix, seen the movie, done it before and just have a lot more experience, versus somebody that you inherently need to train. What is your thoughts?
Ben: Yeah. And it’s funny, if you were going to ask me the advice, I would say the exact same thing. And a mentor told me that as well, and it stuck with me. And it’s not for all businesses, but for a high growth business you should hire people early that you have no business hiring at that size. So I look to Stitch Fix, some of the people there have been mentors to us, and they hired their COO from walmart.com, and their CTO, who is super experienced, when they had five employees. And they both stayed at least four years, and actually, their COO is still with the company.
And that is, I think, something that we didn’t do as well as we could have. I think we hired a great team, but I don’t think we were ready to let go, because it’s scary, and hire those senior experienced people, when we saw that this was taking off. Because it’s easy to say, I talk about my first employees being these teenagers going door-to-door, that’s what you need at the time, you don’t think about what you need in a year from now. And I couldn’t agree more that advice that you mentioned.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. Awesome. So talk to me, we have to work towards wrapping up, but talk to me, what’s exciting for you guys right now? You said you guys are moving into different, packaged foods and all sorts of things. What’s exciting right now?
Ben: Yeah. I would say that’s, I’m a broken record here, but that’s what’s exciting to me, is the chance to rescue more food across the whole food system. And also provide customers a way to do their whole meal planning and shopping for the week in one place, with a company they value. That’s what excites me, that’s the new thing we’re going into. Online grocery is heating up fast, all the players are getting in, and we really see an opportunity to be one of the first companies that combines value with values, and lets you feel good about your purchase from a sustainability standpoint without sacrificing the amount of money you have to spend to do it, in fact saving you money at the same time. And so that’s really exciting, we’ve seen some really good early results on that, and we’re excited to roll it out to the rest of the country, to have all of our customers experience what it’s like to do all of their shopping with Imperfect.
Nathan: Amazing. Any international plans?
Ben: I have dreams of it, but we have a lot of the US still to tackle.
Nathan: Yeah. Still need, so much work to be done, right?
Ben: Yeah. And I think that goes back to the product market fit too, and feeling more confident that we have it exactly right, before scaling too. And this is also, food waste is a problem everywhere, but in some sense of the word, it’s a little bit of a uniquely US problem. And it’s really about understanding the nuances of where food is going to waste in each context. And it might look a little bit different in Canada, or England, or India, or China, or South America, than it does in the US, and so wanting to make sure we have our hands around that before we dive in.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. Two last questions. One, any parting words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our audience? Mainly people that want to start a business, or have just launched something.
Ben: Yeah. For people who want to start a business, this is going to be anticlimactic, but do your research, see what’s out there. There are so many great companies doing great work, and while I will never ever discourage somebody from starting something, and I think everyone should follow their dreams here, there’s so many ways to innovate, whether it’s a new company within an existing company. So really understand the problem you’re solving and what’s out there before just jumping in. And for people who are starting a business, you’re going to get a lot of nos, whether it’s investors, customers, the press, employees, but that’s natural, and keep on fighting for what you believe in because when you get those yeses, it feels so good
Nathan: Love it. And where’s the best place, last question, where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?
Ben: Yeah, if you go to imperfectproduce.com you can learn a lot more about what we’re doing. You can check at any of our social feeds as well. But imperfectproduce.com, or imperfect.com, are where you can find out all the information about our service, sign up, learn more about it, and help the world.
Nathan: Amazing. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Benjamin, really appreciate it. Congratulations on all your success and the work that you’re doing and thank you so much, hope you have a great day.
Ben: Really appreciate it, thank you as well.