Ben McKean is the founder and CEO of Hungryroot, a direct-to-consumer brand of healthy, easy-to-make foods. Hungryroot offers close to 100 food products ranging from plant-based pastas and clean-ingredient sauces to delicious proteins and wholesome desserts. 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. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and lives in New York City with his wife, Kay.
How did the concept for Hungryroot come about?
After founding Savored and working at Groupon, both of which helped customers save money at local merchants, I was eager to solve a problem that would touch consumers on a more emotional level. I believe that the best business opportunities are those that can build authentic, positively-impactful relationships with customers on a daily basis. Food is an industry that is uniquely positioned to do so. Consumers literally digest food products into their bodies, which means food brands chemically-impact how people feel each and every day. On top of this, food impacts how people feel emotionally—whether they feel proud of their diet, or regretful of their choices. This means food brands have an incredible opportunity to help people feel great and to inspire people to live their best. Legacy food product brands have largely failed in doing so, however. Especially in the packaged food segment, products are full of processed sugars, trans fats, and chemical preservatives. This is what inspired me to start Hungryroot with the mission of building a new type of food product company, one that offers fresh, wholesome, convenient food, and sells directly to the customer online.
How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was challenging and required making pivotal decisions that would shape the future of our company. When we first launched, we offered six products, all fresh, vegetable-based 7-minute meals. We quickly realized that to build a packaged food brand online, we would need more than just six products. So we aggressively developed new items, launching 15 new products over the following 12 months, which included new clean-ingredient sauces, as well as our chickpea-based cookie dough, which is still a customer favorite. This product expansion really fueled customer growth and repeat order rates, and setup the business to raise our $7.7 million Series A in our second year.
What was your marketing strategy?
For the first four years of our business, we grew solely through word of mouth and Facebook advertising.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We grew to $30 million of sales in just three years.
How do you define success?
We define success as positively impacting people’s lives on a daily basis through our brand and products.
What is the key to success?
We believe the key to success is a relentless focus on the customer. This includes a deep understanding of who your customer is, what job you are performing or problem you are solving for them, and how you fit into their broader life.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned is how important it is to really understand how your actions impact and are felt by others. This didn’t come naturally to me and was only through years of leading teams of various sizes that I realized I needed to focus on it. By working with executive coaches and participating in leadership workshops, I’ve gained a perspective of how I can best lead and support others, and I’ve learned that self-awareness and self-discovery are lifelong skills to develop and refine.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Make sure you have time in your life just to think.” — Henry David Thoreau
“You cannot discover new oceans until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Andre Gide
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In early 2017, we made the difficult decision to shut down the business for six months and pivot our operation. I wrote about the experience here and Forbes covered it here. We were doing $1 million a month in sales, but we were not setup for long-term success. Our supply chain was overly complex and while we were growing nicely, we were also letting customers down. We shut down our food manufacturing facilities, and partnered with other food companies to make products on our behalf. This was an extremely difficult decision, but it ultimately paid off.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
As long as our work is positively impacting people and we are making progress, I’m motivated to push through adversity.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Find your personal passion and stay focused in pursuing it.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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