How I Got Here: Episode #13
Finding What Motivates You
with Jared Scharen, Kellogg ’17
Vice President of Growth @ Foodsmart
Jared Scharen, VP of Growth, Foodsmart. Jared’s path has been a winding one, from cold-calling his way into a job at McKinsey after college, to leaving consulting to do non-profit work in a small village in Peru where no one spoke english, to founding e-retirements, a resource created to help future retirees identify their ideal retirement location customized for their individual needs, as a business school student. In this conversation we discuss self-awareness, imposter syndrome, why being a founder isn’t for everyone, and the importance of finding what motivates you. I hope you enjoy, this conversation with Jared Scharen. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern.
“We were trying to take advice from too many people and fulfill that advice and test all those things at once. And in reality, we just needed to create product market fit first and foremost. I think now, it took me years to understand what that finally meant. And I think in seeing a lot of the other founders I was working with, it was kind of one of those things. People were like, “Yeah, yeah. I got product market fit. Check that box.” The reality is most people don’t. That’s the hardest thing to do.”
“…this was by far the best learning experience I’ve ever had from a career standpoint. And I take a lot of those learnings into my role today. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful as I am today without that.”
“I think people have to figure out inherently, what is it that motivates you? If you decide it’s money, that’s fine, but be honest with yourself, right? And ask yourself, is that enough to motivate you? When you’re working on something in the late hours of the night, are you going to actually be excited about that?”
“The Garage and Kellogg have given so much to my experience and were such an integral part of that learning for me as I was figuring out how to make eRetirements successful, but also just how to be a successful entrepreneur who learned how to create some boundaries and balance to make it sustainable over the long-term.”
Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals working at exciting companies, and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there.
My name is Mike Raab, and I love dissecting nonlinear and non-traditional career paths, and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them. In this episode, I’m joined by Jared Scharen, the vice president of growth at Foodsmart, a Series C startup based in San Francisco.
Jared’s path has been a winding one, from cold calling his way into a job at McKinsey after college, to leaving consulting to do non-profit work in a small village in Peru where no one spoke English, to founding eRetirements, a resource created to help future retirees identify their ideal retirement, when he was in business school.
In this conversation we discuss self-awareness, imposter syndrome, why being a founder isn’t for everyone, and the importance of finding what motivates you. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jared Scharen. So Jared, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.
Of course. So I actually wanted to start out, I saw on your LinkedIn that it says that you cold called your way into a job at McKinsey. Can you tell me a little bit about that story?
Yeah, what happened was, I had gone to Villanova for undergrad, which some people from the East Coast know, people in the rest of the country know as being a good basketball program. McKinsey hadn’t recruited at Villanova, and I had always wanted to go work for a big consulting firm, probably some inferiority complex I had in my younger days.
But when I started talking with some people, they were like, “Listen, if you really want to go work there, you’re not going to be able to get a job there. Just to be honest, looking at your background, you’re going to need to go to grad school, go to a good MBA program, and then go get a job there.”
I think most people would kind of have been like, “All right, well, I’ll do that then.” And for me it was kind of like, “Well, maybe for most people, but that’s not, that’s not how I operate.”
So I really just started looking at a list of people who were in the Philadelphia office. Some people were second connections on LinkedIn. And some were just random people who contact information I found using JP Morgan’s contact database, just looking up people’s phone numbers. And I just started cold emailing, LinkedIn messaging, and calling these people.
I got, I think it was the 51st or 52nd person who eventually agreed to put my name through and pass along my resume. Because I had realized putting in my resume was just this black box. It was the equivalent of throwing it into a trash can where you’re just trying to submit that your resume’s online.
So I knew I had to get a referral. This guy was just kind of like, “Please leave me alone and I’ll do this.” And, yeah, it all worked out.
So I’m curious how that experience compared to your expectations. And I know after that, you also ended up spending some time volunteering in Peru, which seems very different than consulting at McKinsey. So how you arrived at the decision to do that as well.
Yeah. McKinsey was an incredible experience, especially being a couple of years out of undergrad. I had questioned whether I had belonged there, felt like I was a fraud compared to most of the people.
All of my peers that I was working with, they all went to Ivy League schools because, especially on the East Coast, that’s where McKinsey had recruited from. And I found myself asking myself, “Do I actually belong here?”
But I quickly realized it was largely unfounded, and these people weren’t any smarter than me. They weren’t special. They just had dreamed about working at McKinsey since they were in middle school. And I didn’t know what it was until I was wrapping up college.
But I think, because of the people you’re exposed to there, because of the lifestyle you’re exposed to, jet-setting around the world, and flying first class, and getting very expensive bottles of wine paid for and things like that. When you’re that young, it creates a bit of an unhealthy dynamic.
I had realized that, one, I hadn’t been spending the time I wanted to from a service aspect. I had spent a lot of time in my younger years, whether it was at Villanova working with Special Olympics, and even just my family, they were starting to spend a lot more time doing volunteer work in Africa, that I was never able to join them to attend. And I realized that I had missed out on that.
On the other side of things, I had always wanted to go spend some time in South America to really work on my Spanish and start traveling the world more. And then I had just had this moment, especially after a couple of friends had made comments, that I just was starting to not be the more humble, low-key individual that they had known, and had started to… Basically some of these bad lifestyle factors from McKinsey, of expectations of living this first-class life, had started to change who I was as a person. And I wasn’t proud of that anymore.
So I just was like, “All right, we’re just going to rip the whole Band-Aid off here,” and got connected with a nonprofit who was serving in poor communities across Africa, Asia, South America. They were looking for someone to help with local business owners.
Not local business owners like startups, but these folks who own the corner bodega, right? The guy who does the carpentry for the town. The guy who runs the funeral homes for the town… Not homes, but running funerals for the town. The guy who sells ice cream for the town, right? Most of these folks hadn’t even graduated high school and they’re just trying to figure out how to live.
So I was like, “All right, this seems like something that these people actually need help for. And seems like it’ll be an interesting experience. So let’s go for it.”
Super admirable, and it sounds like you’re very self-aware of yourself, and how you were changing. I’m sure it was night and day going from the McKinsey lifestyle to helping real small, family-run businesses in South America.
Yeah. Yeah. I’ve definitely become more self-aware through the years, but a lot of good friends along the way who I trust and who have not led me astray. But yes, it was…
I remember getting off the plane in Peru, in this small town there. It was a very small plane, and I was picked up by some random person who didn’t speak any English. So I get off the plane, I just remember having this massive shock, and I just felt like I couldn’t breathe, just thinking like, “What did I do here?”
It was a massive change going from the lifestyle I was to just sleeping on a mattress. Eventually I got a bed. No kitchen, no heat, air conditioning, cold showers. Definitely no potable drinking water. And obviously I wasn’t making any money anymore. So it was a massive difference in lifestyle.
But it achieved the mission I’d wanted to, which was, I became fluent in Spanish very quickly, because no one in that town spoke English. I was the first white person anyone had ever seen in that town. And I had re-grounded myself and remembered, kind of gotten back to my roots more.
Yeah, I imagine. And so was it while you were down there that you decided to go back to business school? Or had you already decided to do that after this volunteer engagement?
I had thought I had wanted to. Even after having gone back to McKinsey, I had still felt like I needed to have that rubber stamp on my background and my resume.
And I think it’s Villanova, and it’s come a long way, but I felt like people… And I still believe this to this day, right? You have less of a barrier that you have to overcome when you have a great school or a great company on your resume.
You’re not starting from this point of having to prove to people that you’re hardworking or intelligent. It becomes a given. And then people, they start listening to you from the get-go, versus evaluating you.
I hope that the world continues to… I know not everyone will agree with me, but I hope that that becomes less the case as time goes on here. But I realized I had wanted to do that for that reason, to go back to get my MBA.
This is where I had started to, while I was in Peru. As I mentioned, I had a lot of free time, because I wasn’t spending a lot of time with friends and things like that. And going from working at McKinsey to doing volunteer work, you realize how much free time you have.
That’s when I started working on eRetirements, my startup at the time. And I had realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t think anyone really knows what they’re doing when they’re starting a company. I think anybody who does is lying, or they’ve done it before. But I think for anyone doing it for the first time…
I had realized, I just didn’t know this. And having some type of guidance and guardrails in place would have been a much more effective way to be successful and doing, so giving myself the best chance to succeed.
Sure. Yeah. I want to dive into E retirements. What was the kind of grand vision behind it? And how did that idea come about to you?
While I was in Peru, I was doing a Skype call with my best buddy, Justin, who I’d gone to undergrad with. He was always thinking about new ideas. Some good, some probably not so good. And we started talking about this whole issue that our parents were going through.
My parents had started relocating to North Carolina for retirement, and they were really struggling with it. They had no friends, they were ironically isolated. Not isolated, the sense that I was isolated, but they were many miles away from a major airport. And so people weren’t exactly licking their chops to come visit them immediately, given how much of a pain it was.
So they were struggling with that. And then Justin’s parents were starting to go through a similar process of, where were they going to retire? And this massive life change was happening. And they didn’t realize what was going on.
We had known there was a massive amount of money too, given both of our backgrounds, that the baby boomers had, that clearly it was going to keep growing and they had to spend it on important life things. But those things weren’t always, where should they take cruises? It was, where are they going to live too.
We realized there really wasn’t this solution out there that was pretty comprehensive to help them think through this, from a technology standpoint. After seeing the pains our parents were going through, we thought, “Well, let’s kind of like start to think what something like that might look like.”
So I started using my time in Peru there to start thinking about what that MVP might look like. Then when I was applying to business schools, that became a lot of the foundation of it. Which was, what my vision was for the company, how it was going to solve a problem, and recognizing the programs that the business schools had in place to really help accelerate things.
Right. So you, you get into Kellogg and end up attending. So you come into business school with this at least idea of a business that you want to start, and you have all these resources now.
What was your process to get started and start building something? What was kind of your process?
The process started with just talking to as many people as possible, right? People like my parents, like Justin’s parents. A lot of our friends’ parents were struggling with this.
So we started talking with them about what they were doing today. And we were just like, “This is insane.” But you think about, in your earlier years, where you move, it’s things like job choices, colleges, family, things like that.
And then all the sudden there’s not this major forcing mechanism to decide where you’re going to live for retirement. For some people it’s a proximity to family, but that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of them.
The rest of them, the things they were doing were just kind of crazy. They were making their own grids and criteria on scratch piece of paper. And then they were fighting with their spouses over it. Some of the interviews always got interesting when they would start arguing in front of me. I was like, “All right, well, I’ll let you all hash this out and we’ll regroup after you’ve figured this out.”
So it was a lot of customer interviews up front. And then just a lot of working. Neither of us were from a tech background, but really in a very cheap form outsourcing a web MVP of the product so that we could, based on what we were hearing, to have something together. Kind of like a straw man that people could react to to say, “Hey, is this actually something that’s heading the right direction?”
I still remember, like my second day at Kellogg, I had walked into David Schonthal’s office. And I know that he had ran the Zell program as one of the prominent professors on the entrepreneurship side. I remember showing it to him. He was just like, “This is fun, but what is this? What is the purpose of this?”
I explained it to him, and he’s like, “All right, well, I guess we have a lot of work to do here.” But it had at least started having something that people could react to and get things moving in the right direction while I was trying to figure out what that more extensive product was going to be.
Yeah. And I know the business school can fly by pretty quickly. So what type of progress were you able to make as far as actually building the thing, and making the progress that David said you needed to make?
We made a lot. We made a lot really quickly. I tell people, when I look back in hindsight, that business school was kind of a hobby for me and this was my school. This was what I had really done from a prioritization standpoint.
It went eRetirements, time with friends and classmates, and then way down was classes. Which is funny now in my current role, doing things like rebranding the company. I was thinking, I was like, “Huh, pretty sure I had a class on that. I’m also pretty sure I didn’t attend a lot of those classes. And I wish I had done that now.”
But anyhow, in the first year there, we had gotten to a point where we had a really exciting product. It was a web-based product that was a pretty personalized assessment to help people figure out, based on all the factors we had heard from our customer interviews.
And you’d be surprised, people have very odd criterias that they look for when they’re going to retire. I remember at one point we had to add in the assessment, birdwatching, and proximity to horseback riding trails, because for some people that was a make-or-break decision. So we had to really build this thing out pretty extensively to make it very personalized.
We had developed a lot of really great content on the backend to help people figure out where they should go for retirement. Then it just became, how quickly can we test the different business models out? And that was where the rubber was starting to meet the road after the first year.
In the summer, where people were doing internships, this is what I was working all summer, and really figuring out, how do we test these revenue models as quick as possible to figure out which one is going to actually work? And we never fully figured it out. We made a lot of mistakes there. Would have done some things differently, but it’s all a learning experience.
What would you have done differently?
I think the first thing is, I would’ve had… Again, talk about from a self-awareness standpoint, I knew there was such a gap in my knowledge in how to test revenue models in a quick fashion. So I had sought to talk to as many people as I could who were successful in the closest analogs to what we were building.
The problem is, I just sought too many people out. And I had thought to myself, “Well, if these people did this and they were successful, they probably know what they were doing.” Which is kind of fair, but they’ve also never built what we were building. And that’s not fair to them to say, “Well, they must know the answer.”
We were trying to take advice from too many people and fulfill that advice and test all those things at once. And in reality, we just needed to create product market fit first and foremost.
I think now, it took me years to understand what that finally meant. And I think in seeing a lot of the other founders I was working with, it was kind of one of those things. People were like, “Yeah, yeah. I got product market fit. Check that box.” The reality is most people don’t. That’s the hardest thing to do.
And because we never solved that, and because we never tested the major revenue models fast enough that were associated with that, we were not going to succeed. There was just… So that was one thing.
The second thing is, we were really intent on bootstrapping the business. So we had been approached several times. We never actively sought funding. We had been approached several times by some local Chicago VCs on if we’d be interested in accepting funding, especially as we had started winning and placing in competitions and things.
We’d kind of just been like, “Oh, we’re good. We’re good. We’re fine. We’ve got this taken care of.” And as such, we didn’t have the resources on our end to test a lot of these things out faster and build a lot of these things out at the speed we needed to, to create that product market fit and to really identify that revenue model. All these things are a learning experience, but I think I probably would’ve done that differently too.
For sure. Was it difficult to accept when you kind of come to the realization that you’re going to shut the eRetirements down? And I believe you were also sponsored on your MBA, so you were going back to McKinsey, right?
Yeah. Look, I never want to have this woe is me situation. I was in an incredible situation where I had to decide, am I going to decide to keep working on this business? Or am I going to go back to McKinsey where they’re going to pay for my MBA?
We ended up selling it to a serial travel entrepreneur, which is fine. It was good to get something for it. But it was obviously not the massive success that we had all hoped and dreamed about. But I have no regrets about it whatsoever.
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like it was still a super valuable experience to have that, and then learn all those things through eRetirements that you now know and can bring into your role now.
Yeah. Yeah. Compared to what I learned in business school, or what I learned that McKinsey, or any of my other past professional experiences, this was by far the best learning experience I’ve ever had from a career standpoint. And I take a lot of those learnings into my role today. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful as I am today without that.
Yeah. I’d love to learn a little bit more about what you’re doing today.
Yeah. I think the other major learning I had while I was working on this, and before I decided to go back to McKinsey was, I’d poured so much of my time into eRetirements. And part of this was a realization, as I was trying to figure out if I wanted to keep doing this, and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.
I was doing it because I wanted it to be successful, but I wasn’t doing it because I actually believed that this was a problem that I felt so passionately about. But I had to start to think, what is that thing that I want to pour my sweat, energy, and tears into.
At the time, my younger brother, he was struggling a lot from a mental health perspective. And there’s a large, very high correlation between mental health disorders and chronic conditions, obesity, diabetes, things of that nature.
I also knew from a lot of research that if we could help him, if I could help him with his weight, that would directly impact his self image, his view of himself, and really improve his health, not just physically, but also mentally.
I just became obsessed with nutrition and fitness. Became a personal trainer for fun, right? Started taking nutrition courses, things like that, just to learn everything I could about it.
And less than a year later, he had lost 100 pounds. He had gotten down to a healthy BMI, where he still is today. And he still talks about the impact it’s had on his life, especially during COVID, where a lot of people who are struggling with obesity and chronic conditions have been more prone to hospitalizations and things.
So I had started to realize like, “Wow, this is just one person whose life I had a tremendous impact on, and I already feel a lot more fulfilled than all of my time at eRetirements, from an impact basis.”
I started to realize, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to dedicate, what I still believe, the rest of my life to. But I had also realized, I didn’t know a lot about this space. I learned a lot about it clinically. I still wasn’t a doctor or anything, but I also didn’t know about the end buyers of this. Meaning, really the health insurers and the hospital systems.
So I kindly took McKinsey’s generous offer, telling them that I would go back for two years. And I used that time to learn as much as I could about the health insurer space and hospital system.
I spent two years there. While I was there, I started really digging into digital health, and seeing the impact that it was able to have on people, and reach people at scale. But I also saw it for all its flaws, all the issues it had from an engagement perspective and an impact perspective.
While I was getting closer to wrapping up, I had seen an opportunity from a guy who used to work at McKinsey, who I’d reached out to and was wondering what he was looking for. I had thought a product manager role was a good fit.
And he was like, “I don’t know about that, but what do you think about product marketing?” I said, “I don’t really know much about this, but it sounds like you need someone who can use data to tell stories. And I think I can do that pretty damned well.”
So I joined, what was at the time Zipongo, a Series B startup based in San Francisco, that was really a nutrition app to help people eat healthier. I don’t like to say we got lucky with COVID, because that can come off really poorly, but a lot of startups, like Zoom and whatnot would probably say the same thing to an even greater extent.
But it was fortunate timing in the pivot that we had already started making. And so we had quickly started remarketing our entire organization as a telenutrition solution, recognizing the massive opportunity at play as companies were shifting towards telehealth solutions.
We raised our Series C investment from Advocate Aurora Health here in the Chicagoland area several months ago, and we’ve been hiring. I brought on a handful of people into my team. I think we’ve nearly doubled in size in the last few months. It’s been an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience.
I look back, when I’m slugging it out at, 1:00, 2:00 in the morning sometimes. It’s not that I’m doing it and I’m living this moment of like, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care about this.” It’s, “Yeah, I’m tired, but this is fun stuff and it’s actually making a real impact on people’s lives.” And it’s a major shift.
Yeah. It seems so clear throughout your path, how important impact and mission is in the work you do. And it seems like that’s really motivating to you, rather than draining.
Yeah. I think people have to figure out inherently, what is it that motivates you? If you decide it’s money, that’s fine, but be honest with yourself, right? And ask yourself, is that enough to motivate you? When you’re working on something in the late hours of the night, are you going to actually be excited about that?
And I think for a lot of people, they’re like, “Well, that purpose is probably something in the non-profit space or it’s probably some volunteer thing I have to do.” And I don’t believe in that at all. I think there’s plenty of opportunities out there for people to be capitalists, to actually make decent money, and still have an impact on the world.
For sure. So having these two different experiences, comparing eRetirements to your current role, where you joined an early stage startup. What are your takeaways from comparing those two, as far as what you enjoy more from each, and what’s easier or more difficult?
Yeah, I think that the size of the company is a really important factor. I won’t promise or swear to this, but I would be very surprised if I ever started something from scratch again.
I think a lot of it is, people need to know themselves well enough and have the right self-awareness to say, “Can I actually be a founder of a company and put the guardrails in place that it doesn’t completely take over my life?” I think that when you’re starting something from scratch, that’s a massive risk that I saw with myself, and that I see with a lot of founders.
So for me, being a leader at a Series C startup now, those guardrails can slip sometimes, but they are at least a lot more firm, because I have a set of roles and responsibilities for me and my team. Whereas opposed, if you’re employee number one, two, three, four, you’re doing eight different things and there are so many things you can do.
And I do not think that’s the right fit for me. But for people who can put the right boundaries in place and who enjoy that ambiguity, all the more power to them. So I enjoy that balance a lot more.
I also enjoy the mission orientation of the people that I work with, right? At eRetirements, we all thought this was a big problem for sure, and a big opportunity. But again, there was that lack of passion around the problem and around the solution that I don’t think all of us felt. Some of us certainly more than others.
And here, the number one thing people will say at Foodsmart about why they enjoy working there, is because of the mission orientation and because of the impact we’re having on so many people’s lives. Again, no one at eRetirements was ever going to film a video of them in tears talking about how we changed their lives. But at Foodsmart, I get to film those. I get to see those. And there’s nothing more rewarding than that.
Gotcha. Well, Jared, such an interesting path that you’ve taken so far, and I can’t wait to see what you continue to do. But it sounds like you’ve found a mission and impact that’s really fulfilling for you at the moment. And so grateful to have you share your story and perspective with us.
Yeah, well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. The Garage and Kellogg have given so much to my experience and were such an integral part of that learning for me as I was figuring out how to make eRetirements successful, but also just how to be a successful entrepreneur who learned how to create some boundaries and balance to make it sustainable over the long-term.
There were just so many great people who had such a massive impact on that. And I carry a lot of those lessons and stories with me today and always incredibly grateful. So I thank you for having me on here. Happy to share.
Of course it was a blast. Thanks.
If there’s one lesson I would take away from Jared, it’s the importance of working on something that is personally meaningful and motivating to you.
Although he founded eRetirements, he wasn’t personally invested in the problem his company was solving, and found it difficult to sustain the energy required to run a business. After discovering his interest in nutrition and health, Jared joined an early startup in the space and is more motivated and energized by his work than he was when running his own company.
If you’re thinking about starting a new project, I encourage you to make sure that it is something you’re personally interested in, and can sustain your motivation for years to come.
How I Got Here is a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern, and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams and Elizabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.