As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Waltenbaugh, Founder and CEO of Carrot Health.
Kurt is a serial entrepreneur who has built successful analytic solutions, products and companies in the healthcare, retail, manufacturing, education/credentialing and fundraising industries. His previous companies were sold to Oracle and Pearson Education. Prior to founding Carrot Health, Kurt was responsible for Product Strategy at Optum, Inc. (UnitedHealth), building data analytic businesses for the Provider, Payer and Employer markets.
Thank you so much for your time Kurt! I know that you are a very busy person. 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’ve always been about using data to predict and influence human behavior in some way, but I had a real eureka moment in the early 1990s during a conversation with a data scientist. We were looking at shopping data and credit card spending and he told me that, by crunching that information, he could predict a divorce six months in advance. My jaw hit the floor and we began talking it through so I could understand what he meant. What he explained was that life events like divorce or bankruptcy show up in changes to behavior patterns before they show up legal documents. We get an advance signal and learn more about behaviors by paying attention to what people are buying, how they shop, how they lives their lives. It’s a much better predictor of what they will do in the future than any survey or interview, because people know what’s going on in their own lives and make adjustments long before anything shows up downstream. So if we look at how people are acting in the real world, it’s a really good predictor of what they’ll do in the future. And if we look at how people behave around their own health, that’s a much better indicator than looking at retrospective insurance claims data.
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?
Carrot Health started with conversations. Hundreds of coffee meetings with friends andfriends-of-friends, talking about healthcare, challenges and the consumer. Before we had an office space or staff, before a bank account or legal standing — we talked. Those conversations grew into presentations where we imagined what we might deliver and, in several cases, they turned into proposals.
One of those proposals turned into a check…
…which arrived in the mail before we had incorporated the business, or even a opened bank account. Turns out, you need some paperwork before you can cash a check! That caused a bit of a fire drill to find a law firm, and get ready to work!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
When we started Carrot Health, we had some team members who were new to entrepreneurism, so I bought the whole team a copy of Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup by Bill Aulet. It’s a really great roadmap for how to build a startup. We didn’t follow it religiously, but it served as a framework to get everyone on the same page and helped outline the process of building the business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
There are many intersecting threads that went into creating Carrot Health’s vision, but it boils down to this: our healthcare system is fundamentally flawed. Rather than working proactively to keep people healthy, we wait for them to get sick and then patch them up. We’re doing it backwards. That’s why we decided to start with the consumer first, figuring out what they want. What we discovered was people don’t want to consume healthcare. They just want to be healthy.
Now, research shows that if everyone practices a certain set of behaviors — abstaining from smoking, drinking only in moderation, socializing, exercising, maintaining a healthy percentage of body fat — they will lead long and healthy lives. We would cut 90% of chronic illnesses out of American society, and save more than $2 trillion in healthcare costs. Problem solved.
However, 90% of Americans participate in a lifestyle that guarantees they will suffer from at least one chronic illness in their lifetime. Why? In some instances, it’s because of a set of non-clinical barriers commonly referred to as social determinants of health. People who are homeless or have unstable housing don’t have time to exercise regularly; others may not have the transportation or the money to go grocery shopping in order to prepare fresh, nutritious meals. Our purpose at Carrot Health is to use the bright light of data to identify and remove those disparities so we can all be healthier up front.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I would say it’s optimism and the belief that there is always a path forward. Whether we’re talking about a business or, in a broader context, our nation as a whole, there is a way forward as long as you have the perseverance to get there.
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?
As stressful as the pandemic has been on all of us, and as much disparity as it has exposed in our healthcare system, things came to a head for me personally two months ago with the murder of George Floyd and the public safety crisis that resulted. It all happened 3 miles from our home, which is just 3 blocks from Lake Street, which saw the majority of the protests and riots in Minneapolis.
It was shocking to see our peaceful, stable community turn so swiftly into an area where we could hear gunfire and smell tear gas and see helicopters and high-speed convoys on a nightly basis. That certainly ratcheted up the stress level for myself and my family, especially since I have children who participated in some of the protests and one who documented it with a camera. As a father, that’s very stressful to know that your children are in the middle of something like that.
But it also opened our eyes to the disparities in our community. We always knew it was there, given the data, but the events two months ago brought everything to a flashpoint. For us, the initial response really came after the protests. We tried to get involved with everything we could in the short term — bringing groceries and cleaning supplies, helping to sweep the streets — and in the longer term really trying to look after our neighbors and friends in the community.
This is creating some soul-searching as we try to deal with the issues, both public health and public safety-wise, created by the disparities revealed by both the pandemic and the murder. For example, at one point we had close to 1,000 individuals who were left homeless by the riots and pandemic, living in Minneapolis parks. So now we are working with our neighbors and elected officials to figure out how we, as a community, respond to these needs. How do we help alleviate the sorts of systemic conditions that were clearly exacerbated by the by the public health and public safety crises? How do we patch them up in the short term and make sure they never happen again?
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?
On many levels, we’ve been lucky to avoid some of the challenges that other business have been facing, especially in the retail and hospitality industry. We’re a small, nimble technology company, so we had no trouble switching to a work-from-home environment. From a personnel standpoint, we’ve not only been able to keep everyone on board but we’ve added members to our team and have able to onboard them remotely very efficiently. We’ve also done some socially-distanced team-building activities at a park, which allowed us to keep the community alive within our organization.
One challenge we are facing, however, is being able to connect with customers or prospects without the benefit of trade shows, offsite meetings or other events, especially those with whom we haven’t already built a relationship. One way we’ve tried to build that connection is by keeping cameras on during Zoom meetings — even if the people we’re meeting choose to keep theirs off. We’ve found that by the second or third meeting, people who may have been hesitant at first are now switching their cameras on, too. We’re all desperate for a little human contact, even if it’s just onscreen.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus 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?
I’m a data guy who’s building a data company, so the guide I use is history. I have been reading a fair amount about past events that mirror what we’re going through now — the flu pandemic of 1918, the Civil Rights movements, the labor struggles of the early 20th century — and my takeaway is that we will survive this. We will survive as a species and we will survive as a nation. Yes, we are experiencing a great deal of hardship and pain, most of which could’ve been avoided, which makes us even angrier and more anxious. But a hardship like this is a crucible that forces us to innovate and improve. I believe we’ve arrived at an inflection point that is going to lead to a lot of change very quickly — all of which will have a positive effect on our future. That’s sort of the silver lining I see in living in an environment like this.
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?
It’s very, very difficult to get a vast majority of adults in this country to pay attention to the same topic. Well, we’re all paying attention now. And we’re all thinking about public health. We’re all thinking about public safety. Consequently, we have the opportunity, collectively, as a society, to change the debate. Maybe we’ll start thinking about different ways people can pay for health insurance, or how the response to the pandemic proved that systemic racism not only causes disparity in food and housing, but also in healthcare. A vast majority of the country now agrees that there is systemic racism and has seen its impact. Because of that, I believe we can do something about it.
The same thing goes for public health investments. Historically, we have made a lot investments in public health, whether we were providing clean water or quality healthcare, and I think we’ve fallen away from that. This crisis is going to encourage us to put more dollars toward solving those problems.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This goes back to investing in public health. Right now, by one calculation, we’re spending less than 2.5% of our health dollars on public health. Instead of being proactive and putting money toward issues such as fighting the opioid crisis, understanding and preventing diabetes or dealing with gun violence, we’re waiting until someone becomes sick or injured so we can patch them up. As a result, nearly all of our healthcare dollars go toward providing care for people who are already sick and the overhead burden that comes with it. I believe once we have a COVID-19 vaccine, there is no way the citizens of this country will allow us to get complacent and not be prepared for the next pandemic or public health crisis.
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?
One key shift I’ve seen, both personally and with our company as a whole, is we’ve found our voice and we’re sharing it with the community, which will ultimately do a great deal of good. We’re sharing our stories and what we’ve learned about data, which will help us change the debate for everyone in the country. Doing so has allowed us to come out from behind the shadows where we work supporting healthcare organizations and into a broader role supporting the community.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I will always encourage people to agitate and speak up if they see something that’s inequitable. That’s how you bring about change. For example: why are people in the southeastern part of the United States getting diabetes at a much higher rate than those in the Midwest and the North? Where does the inequity lay? Is it income? Access to nutritious food? Is it a cultural issue?
We need to understand the problems and the challenges that are causing the disease so we can proactively eliminate those barriers and prevent people from getting sick. We need to find out why a certain group of individuals is being denied the same access to quality healthcare — and a quality way of life — as other people. Before we can make things equitable, we need to understand why people are being excluded in the first place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorites is from the playwright George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman. He said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” That sums up being an entrepreneur because by definition, an entrepreneur means being stubborn. You’re basically saying, “I don’t like how the world is, so being stubborn, I’m going to change it.”
Another quote, which I’ve had attached to my computer since college, is from Machiavelli’s The Prince. “There is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” When you’re the unreasonable person trying to adapt the world to your vision, it’s really hard. Kudos to everyone out there who is an entrepreneur and a visionary and who not only wishes the world were different, but actually attempts to make make the world a different and better place.
I hope everyone has the opportunity to channel their inner entrepreneur — that is how we innovate and create a better world for all of us.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can reach me at my LinkedIn page (linkedin.com/in/waltenbaugh) or on Twitter (@kurtwaltenbaugh). Our website (carrothealth.com) features blog posts, white papers and information about our monthly webinars, podcasts and panel discussions.