It’s said that as much as 40 percent of the U.S. food supply ends up in landfills. FoodMaven, a local social enterprise, was created to do something about that.
The for-profit, founded in 2015, aims “to bring agility and flexibility to the U.S. food system,” according to the company’s website.
The task is no small undertaking: leveraging “an innovative online marketplace and rapid logistics system to capture the millions of pounds of food lost in the system each year and sell it to waiting buyers — or donate it to hungry people.”
The company, which has already diverted more than 1.5 million pounds of food from landfills and donated more than 683,000 pounds to hunger-relief programs, aims to recover $200 billion in lost annual revenue that is a result of food waste. The man to help get that done: new Chief Operating Officer Ben Deda.
The former Marine and Denver resident, who began at FoodMaven early last month, spoke with the Business Journal this week about creating a thriving culture and how service to country prepared him for the fast-paced world of startups.
Are you from Colorado?
I’ve been in Colorado going on 14 years now. I was born and raised in northern Wisconsin, went to school in Indiana and spent seven years in the Marine Corps — three years as an infantry officer in [Washington], D.C. and southern California. The last three years I was on recruiting duty in Colorado and oversaw recruiting for the Rocky Mountain region.
Then I spent some time in manufacturing, both running operations and running the commercial division, like sales, marketing and the rest.
I was then pulled into the tech startup world by an MBA classmate of mine. I joined a small startup that had just come out of the Techstars [capital market company] program. I was there as we scaled from seven employees to 50 and from almost nothing in revenue up to $3 million or so.
It was a great time but I made the jump from there to Galvanize, which is a learning community for technology. I was there first to build out their sales and marketing and then I took over as COO. We scaled from 35 employees to 370 and we launched markets in Seattle, Austin, Phoenix, New York and two campuses in Colorado as well.
What attracted you to startups?
The world of the military, specifically things like infantry and especially combat operations, you get used to being in a fast-moving environment where things change and you make decisions based on limited information. The startup world is very analogous to that. … I thrive in situations like that, I enjoy working in places where you’re trying to figure out and build something with the resources you have. There are a lot of similarities between the two.
What was it about FoodMaven?
I was really impressed by their mission, the market opportunity, the folks involved on the team, the investor side and the board. It was the type of role I really enjoy. I like to be at the center of a lot of different functions coming together. For me it was about the mission, the people and the opportunity. The food distribution industry is an old one and has a lot of opportunity to make improvements to help everybody along that chain, from the farmers and producers all the way to the end consumers.
What’s your impression of the Colorado Springs market?
I think there are definitely trends across the state. Colorado companies tend to be very focused on their business. It’s not about the glamour or the glitz, it’s about serving the customers well and I think a lot of that comes from the cowhand mentality and the background of the state. But I think there are also some differences. Down here there’s a focus on the government side … you don’t necessarily see in the rest of the state. Something we look at is the services side. There’s a culture of service centers down here which means great talent to pull from. That’s one of the advantages this market has.
How does Colorado compare to startup meccas like California?
I think, from a pure numbers standpoint, we’ll always be at a disadvantage. From a pure population standpoint, we’re not the highest, but if you look at the density of startups there compared to here, we rank right up there.
I think we’re getting better at accessing capital. While we certainly don’t have a lot of local venture capital, you’re seeing companies raise money from everywhere.
We just saw a company in Monument that raised capital from Insight Venture Partners, one of the top firms in the country. That would have been massive news 10 years ago. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, another great Colorado company that’s raised money from great investors.’ That’s really encouraging to see.
How are startups changing consumer preferences?
Our customers are primarily businesses. What you are seeing on the consumer side and the business side — we’ve gotten used to the appification of everything as consumers, and businesses are seeing the same thing: companies with great products, great [user interface, user experience] — and [businesses] have more confidence in dealing with those than they probably would have 15 years ago. So if you can combine the idea of great technology providing you with a great user experience and now we have a mission story to tell as well — that’s something that really connects with folks.
What’s your opinion of the workforce here?
Being a former military guy, I’m always very high on the ability to take military talent and translate it to the civilian world. I think it’s a great resource that Colorado Springs has the ability to tap into — all the bases we have here — and you also have some good schools. I think Colorado Springs — it doesn’t suffer from a lack of talent.
Is your goal to grow FoodMaven and sell it?
A lot of startups just want to solve a problem. I think we see the opportunity to solve a problem and be a billion-dollar business. There are lots of ways we can do that. It can be acquired, it can be [by going public], it can be by staying private. I think we just see this as a big problem and to solve it we need to build a big business and we think we have a good team to do that.
Explain your leadership style.
My leadership style is about getting alignment around what we’re trying to do.
What are our rules of the road? How do we want to do this and what don’t we want to do? After that, helping to support the team — helping them come up with a plan. … When people feel they’re part of the problem-solving process and given the decision-making ability within their box — people take a lot of pride in that and go out and execute. It’s very rare that you can see things better than those closest to it. So the more you can empower them but also be sure you’re there to … provide guidance, that’s usually when I see things work best.
Does that leadership style come out of your time in the military?
I think the seed was planted there, for sure. It was something preached to me from the days I was in the infantry officer course and through two deployments in Iraq and even on recruiting duty. It was a similar thing. We had two-man or three-man recruiting stations in Rapid City, [S.D.] or Grand Junction or Casper, Wyo. You have to make sure you’re there for those folks and empower them to do stuff because if you try to do it yourself, you’ll never get it done.
What’s your assessment of the startup culture in the Springs?
[Colorado Springs] has its own unique culture. It’s smaller but I think the access to the government and military side is really interesting. There’s a lot of opportunity there and the military is getting a lot better about how they engage. We were starting to see a lot of that in my previous life — working with folks from the [Department of Defense] and what they’re trying to do to collaborate with startups. I think there’s a really unique opportunity here outside of D.C. and a couple of other places that no one else can really touch.
The other thing that will be interesting is the athletic side. Obviously, with the Olympic Training Center here, there’s a lot happening with that piece as well.
That’s in Colorado in general but in the Springs specifically. I think there’s a really interesting opportunity to make connections and have the support of that community as well.
Is culture important?
Absolutely. Culture drives everything. … It’s about execution; execution is about people; people are driven by culture.
Are startup cultures inherently different?
I think a lot of startups sometimes confuse things with culture. Ping pong tables are not culture. Culture is what you do when no one is looking.
I think where startups can sometimes have the advantage is it’s a lot easier because folks are closer to the mission. When they get connected to that problem and they buy into it, the culture forms around that. ‘How are we going to agree how to solve this problem together?’
The bigger you get, the harder it is to get everybody on the same page, but it’s clear that you need to. It’s hard to maintain culture as you get bigger, but you absolutely have to, for sure.