Evan Lutz, who began Hungry Harvest his senior year at university to fight food waste and hunger simultaneously, explains in this episode of Investing in the Future of Food how the painful lesson of letting some people go paved the way for creating a healthy, happy work culture that is more effectively able to achieve the company’s broader mission.
Lutz explains that when he founded Hungry Harvest he didn’t have experience in produce, logistics, management or marketing, and he didn’t know how to vet team members. As a result, he said, the team he started out with “was okay to get us off the ground, but wasn’t going to take us to the next level.”
As Hungry Harvest grew, Lutz found himself facing the difficult task of letting go of staff who no longer had the skill sets or common values needed to support the growing organization.
“That experience, a year or two into the Hungry Harvest, led us to where we are today – where we built a really strong culture-base,” he said. “I don’t think, without kind of failing my first year with our team, that I would have realized how important culture in the team is. It has brought us a long way where we now have brought on people who really value us for our values that we hold of honesty, transparency and vulnerability.”
2 key ingredients for a positive work culture
To successfully cultivate a positive work culture, Lutz says companies need two key elements: intention and leading by example from the top.
“You have to set a purpose for what you want your culture to be – you can’t just kind of let people decide or let culture be whatever flows. It has to be really intentional from get-go,” he explained.
That intention – or tone for the culture – also must start from the top, which can be a challenge for entrepreneurs at startups who are keeping track of so many aspects of the business.
“There are many businesses that have scaled very, very quickly and realized, ‘Oh, crap! We have to build our culture along the way!’ And I was one of those. We scaled pretty quickly when we started and I realized that I didn’t bring our team or our culture where it needed to be and had to stop,” address turnover issues and make some changes, Lutz said.
“I decided I am going to spend 30% of my time on culture every single week, making sure people feel happy, they feel comfortable, they feel like they are being paid enough, they feel like they know what their job is, they know their goals, they have the tools and resources to achieve their goals – all those things, they don’t teach you in business school,” he added.
3 core values
Hungry Harvest’s culture is based on three core values: honesty, transparency and vulnerability.
Lutz explains that honesty involves being able to give and receive honest feedback from co-workers in a productive manner – something he considers “one of the most challenging parts of life.”
In terms of transparency, Lutz says he wants everyone to know how their work impacts the company’s bottom line and mission. He also wants them to know their activity matters.
Finally, he said, valuing vulnerability means making space for staff to make and learn from mistakes without feeling like the need to hide.
“The best companies are not built on how much press you get or how much money you raise or how many accolades and rewards you get – it is built on how you handle failure,” and the ability to openly recognize a mistake and then identify a path forward rather than deflecting blame, he said.
Lutz’ decision to focus on work culture and these values has helped Hungry Harvest cultivate an effective workplace that has allowed the company to rescue more than 8 million pounds of food from going to waste because it was ‘ugly,’ had a sell-by date that was too soon for most retailers or was surplus. This food has been sold at a discount to subscribers in multiple US cities and the company has supported donations of food to local hunger-solving groups.
It also helped the company’s team grow from four to more than 40 employees in five years, expand to six new territories and increase its customer-base 900% since its founding in 2014.