As an entrepreneur AND an executive, it’s critical that you take time to find balance outside of work. Having a release, whether it be physical exercise or a glass of wine at the end of the day is so important, so you don’t burn out. This is a marathon of sprints, so it can’t be all work all the time … that isn’t sustainable for anyone. As you might’ve guessed, my go-to is exercising early in the morning before I start my day. I might still be thinking about work while I’m at the gym, but I’m able to do so without jumping right into email. This enables me to think about strategy with a clear head and no distractions.
I had the pleasure to interview Benjamin Kanner, the co-founder and CEO of Worklete, a startup that he founded in 2015. Worklete is a technology platform that reduces musculoskeletal injuries by 53% on average, saving companies millions of dollars a year in injury-related costs, while strengthening culture and improving operational efficiency. Its customers include major transportation, shipping and logistics companies such as Nestlé Waters, Penske Logistics, and Hub Group. Ben holds an MBA from Columbia University and earned his B.A. from The University of California, Berkeley where he played varsity rugby and graduated with Honors.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My father was a professional athlete, but as happens to all professional athletes, there is a shelf life on that as a career choice. One day he was talking to a few of his firefighter friends and discovered that the majority of their injuries weren’t smoke inhalation or burns, they were musculoskeletal injuries like back injuries, shoulder injuries, etc. So he took his knowledge of the body and the power of proper movement and founded a safety consultancy that he ran for 30 years. He helped firefighters, EMT’s, police, and many other hard working folks develop strong movement habits so they wouldn’t injure themselves when it came time to perform.
When I was at Columbia, I worked closely with him on his business and quickly realized that these industries weren’t unique. Blue-collar workers at U.S. companies were, and still are, suffering from musculoskeletal injuries at an alarming rate because they lacked proper training in how to lift, push and pull heavy objects, and generally interact physically with the world.
There is a simple solution: movement. We all have this amazing machine that is the human body, but most of us don’t know how to use it. That sets us up for pain and lasting injury.
The only problem was, we didn’t have a way to disseminate this knowledge more widely. Everyone loved what my father did and he delivered amazing results, but he couldn’t scale to support large enterprise companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.
That’s when I teamed up with my co-founder John Leo Post, a movement expert who has coached everyone from kids to Olympic gold medalists, CrossFit champions, and professional athletes. He immediately saw the need and the value of my vision and we founded Worklete. Through technology, we help frontline associates develop strong movement habits, so they can work hard but then go home injury free, and so they can enjoy their lives outside of work.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When I started Worklete, hiring posed a unique set of challenges — the most pressing being who to hire first. What I have learned over time is that assembling the right team happens in phases.
When you’re just starting out, you want to hire “athletes” (in the figurative, not necessarily literal sense). You need all-purpose players; smart, multifaceted team members who can take on a variety of different roles and tasks, jumping into anything and everything in order to quickly ramp execution. The downside to hiring these “athletes” is that, at some point, they may max out their skill set and you’ll have to hire more specialized roles as the business matures.
The more your company grows, the more specialized your roles and hires will become. Just don’t forget to reward the early stage people who got you there.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
For any entrepreneur, there’s going to be a lot of skepticism when you’re first starting out. If you’re trying to convince a lot of people that your idea for a business is good, you’re going to hear “no” a lot. In fact, you’re going to hear “no” 100 or 1,000 times more than you’re going to hear “yes.” Being able to push past that and maintain your persistence and resilience is key to being successful as an entrepreneur.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
There are going to be a few cliche phrases here, but they are all true.
- It’s f*cking hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
- A CEO has 3 jobs: Set the North Star, put talented people in the right seats, and make sure that they have the resources they need to do their jobs.
- People, People, People. It may work at first, but it’s unsustainable to try to do everything yourself. Hiring the right people quickly is critical — the faster you hire the right talent, the faster you can scale. Hire slow, fire fast.
- Be patient. It’s going to take a lot longer than you think.
- Don’t be afraid to pay yourself. Be smart about it, but you need to take a salary as soon as you can, so you’re not just living on ramen and can enjoy a bit of life outside of work. Connected to that, depending on the business, don’t be scared of outside investment and the resulting dilution. Adding (the right) people and resources will help you grow faster (see numbers 2 and 3).
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As an entrepreneur AND an executive, it’s critical that you take time to find balance outside of work. Having a release, whether it be physical exercise or a glass of wine at the end of the day is so important, so you don’t burn out. This is a marathon of sprints, so it can’t be all work all the time… that isn’t sustainable for anyone.
As you might’ve guessed, my go-to is exercising early in the morning before I start my day. I might still be thinking about work while I’m at the gym, but I’m able to do so without jumping right into email. This enables me to think about strategy with a clear head and no distractions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would like to thank Jonathan Lowenhar of ETW Advisors for being there every step of the way. ETW Advisors is a startup advisory firm that provides first time founders with operations guidance, which includes everything from hiring to fundraising to building culture and developing a strong go-to-market strategy. While most “advisors” give you generic advice, Jonathan has been with me during every stage and knows my business intimately, so he can give me meaningful advice for the specific situation I am up against and work through it with me. He is the best advisor I have ever met and I have met A LOT.
I originally met Jonathan because we were both in the Columbia alumni network and participated in a number of shared entrepreneurship groups. Jonathan’s track record and general awesomeness attracted me, and I eventually approached him with an offer to join Worklete as an advisor (before it was actually called Worklete), to which he responded, “Get $500,000 in revenue, then we’ll talk.”
I came back to him when I had that, and Jonathan has proven to be an invaluable sounding board, advisor, partner in our growth, and friend ever since. I can confidently say that without Jonathan’s guidance, I wouldn’t be in the position that I am today.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My professional goal is to grow Worklete into a billion dollar company, but in order to do that I have to become the best manager and executive possible in order to effectively lead my team. As mentioned before, as the business grows, evolves, and matures, so do roles, so I must continue to mature in my role as CEO or risk the Peter Principle. This also bleeds into my personal life. As any entrepreneur will tell you, the lines often blur. I am a new father and so my life is quickly evolving and I must mature with it. I must continue to learn and grow, so I can be the best leader and father I can be.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Overexertion injuries are crippling over 400,000 workers in the US every year. For many of these people, physical work is their only way of earning a living. If a worker hurts his or her back on the job, it will not only negatively impact their ability to work and provide for their family, but it will prohibit them from living a normal life.
We all have this amazing machine that is the human body and we should all know how to use it. My goal is to revitalize and empower frontline workers who use their bodies every day as their primary way to earn an income. If the next generation knows how to prevent injuries from occurring before they even start full time work, we could play a significant part in revitalizing the U.S. blue-collar workforce. That’s why we do what we do every day.
But why stop with blue-collar? Everyone should know how to move.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would start Worklete. #workletenation
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