As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Heitzeberg. Joe is the CEO and co-founder of Crowd Cow, a company offering the widest assortment of local, sustainable and premium meat and seafood direct from the producer, delivered to your door. Prior to Crowd Cow, he was the co-founder and President of Madrona Venture Labs, a startup incubator and was the co-founder and CEO of MediaPiston (acquired by UpWork in 2012, IPO in 2018) and Snapvine (acquired by WhitePages in 2008). Joe graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Computer Science and has a MBA from MIT.
Thank you for joining us Joe! 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?
I grew up in Texas and Idaho. My dad was an electrical engineer and my mom was a software entrepreneur selling software out of computer catalogs and shipping orders from our garage. I grew up composing songs and recording music, but I ended up in tech. I’ve always created my own path out of the desire to create things and to learn, which led me to entrepreneurship. I haven’t created or submitted a resume in over 15 years. My first venture was SnapVine, a voice-over-IP service for social media launched in 2005. SnapVine was then acquired by Whitepages, and then MediaPiston, which UpWork bought in 2011. Then I set my focus on Crowd Cow, a start up focused on sourcing sustainable meats, in 2015 with my co-founder Ethan Lowry (the founder of UrbanSpoon.) We’ve been friends for 20+ years and have worked together on many creative projects and companies. When we launched Crowd Cow, one of my main motivations at the time was to help my then 5 year old son learn about sustainably sourced food. It was a concept he could grasp — I would take him to visit the farms and educate him on where his food comes from. This is our mission at Crowd Cow; to help people discover and enjoy better meat, and to connect them to the people who produced it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We made a lot of mistakes with Crowd Cow in the early days. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I actually spent a day researching and calling companies to figure out where to buy a “dry ice machine.” After a few calls, I met people who were able to tell us a lot about how to ship perishables and where to purchase dry ice in bulk form. It taught me the importance of having people with domain expertise on the team.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“Pour Your Heart Into It” by Howard Shultz showed me the power of determination and that it’s okay to hear “no” a lot. Just keep going. And “Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson taught me that it’s possible to be bold and scrappy at the same time.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We started Crowd Cow because we were unsatisfied with the status quo of meat in this country. Grocery store meat is mass-produced and comes with a little orange sticker that says “special” — it’s not special at all.
We envisioned a new supply chain to replace the existing one and which would provide a higher quality meat with transparency back to the farm — conveniently delivered to your door.
Meat is the center of the meal. It is central to one’s health and it’s important that it’s raised right for the planet. We knew there would be considerable pent up demand for Crowd Cow.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Keep going. If you have an important mission and you take the time to recognize it and be grateful for the impact your work is having, you will have the fuel you need to keep going, no matter the circumstances.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I consider myself very lucky, because although my wife and I both work and school is cancelled, my son is of an age and maturity level where he can be productive and independent without getting into trouble or requiring much of our time during the day. We are also fortunate enough to have dedicated rooms to handle video calls. For many of my friends and colleagues who are working parents and live in smaller condos or apartments, it’s much more challenging. As a leader/manager, it’s important to recognize these changes and provide people flexibility and to practice empathy.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In our business, some jobs can’t be performed at home. Because we built our own supply chain, we have to pack and ship orders every day. Providing a safe work environment and working to build a collaborative and COVID-safe culture was our immediate focus when the pandemic hit. We have created new roles and hired dedicated staff to handle sanitization and to create and administer new safety processes. With so many people eating at home more often, our demand has grown and we are in the fortunate position to be hiring in many areas.
This is very different from the challenges our competitors are facing and the stories you see in the news of meat supply shortages and price gouging. Problems are occurring at plants because the meat industry is largely reliant on 4 main companies that own the entire supply chain. If their operations go down, their meat supply is greatly reduced, impacting the supply for the consumer.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We are fortunate to have seen an uptick in business, and are grateful to have an important role to play in people’s lives. But it can’t be all work. I’ve encouraged everyone to “work hard / play hard.” For me, this means exercising every day and devoting time to playing guitar. Maintaining good mental and physical health is so important, especially if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
With school closed, millions of people are now trying homeschooling and online learning. I’m excited to see what innovations and improvements spring from this. There are similar opportunities in telemedicine.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I’m excited that many jobs will shift permanently to work from home — saving countless hours of commuting and benefiting the environment. I am hopeful that this has given people time to reflect and that people will come out of this with an appreciation for simpler things.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
For us, there is a dramatic acceleration in the trends towards online grocery. And with work shifting to the home, a lot more meals will be eaten at home than before. This has made Crowd Cow even more relevant and allowed us to invest in growth. It means more people will be able to support the small farms and butchers we work with and help build a better food system.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Change is always happening, and it is happening faster now. So it’s even more important than ever to spend time adapting to change to better serve customers and to discover emerging opportunities. The business must change, but the mission shouldn’t have to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”
— Grace Hopper
How can our readers further follow your work?
On our instagram at https://instagram.com/crowdcow