Joseph Rueter is the founder and CEO of Vivront, a cutlery sharpening service by mail that simultaneously supports school nutrition challenges. He’s a dedicated entrepreneur having founded multiple companies leveraging software innovation, product development, and his “do it yourself” attitude.
Joseph joins Josh Becerra in episode 18 of How I Work to explain how chasing curiosity has contributed to his success in entrepreneurialism - and the importance of data, including what it looks like when utilized effectively. Plus:
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Josh: Hi everybody. This is Josh Becerra from Augurian. I'm here with Joseph Rueter, man. I don't even know what title to give you CEO of Vivront, at this point, founder and CEO of Vivront, but you have been going from thing to thing, and I'm just super excited to have you here.
Joseph: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure. Good to come in and chat.
Josh: I was kind of kidding about the whole title thing, but really you have the most unique, I think entrepreneurial story. Our audience is about, you know, SaaS founders, entrepreneurs, and marketers. And so why don't you tell us a little bit about that story? Like how you got started.
Joseph: Well, thanks for being interested. I just live my life and chase curiosity and I find that interesting. I grew up in Minnesota, in St. Cloud and it was always. It was like a do it yourself family.
Joseph: I was young. Like I was in grade school and we built a house and I didn't really know any other way. And when the car would break we'd, we'd fix the brakes and we'd change the alternator and we'd fix it up. And I remember getting married and having the car torn apart one afternoon. And my wife came in and she's like, what are you doing? And I go, I'm fixing the car. And she goes, why? Because it needs to be fixed. And so that kind of approach, if somebody put it together, then somebody can figure out how it was put together and put it back together. Um, it was built into how I thought about the world before I knew that programming was happening, that programming was happening and I went to school for theology. And that would be like how thoughts are put together specifically about God. And it was in my master's program in philosophy where those are thoughts about thoughts, like how do you construct ideas just period. Somebody gave me a book called “Rich dad, poor dad.” And if you're familiar with this, it's like cashflow quadrants, um, totally changed my perspective about how money moves and how you could make money. For a philosophy major, wondering about what to do with their life. Yeah. You gotta go like, wait a second. There are systems out there, right? I don't need to be a business major, but understanding business would be helpful or I don't need to be an art major, but understanding art would be helpful.
Joseph: And design and across time I've just chased curiosity. So it was 3D printers at one point. And now my son is like, “dad, can we get a 3d printer?” I'm like, “yeah, let's for sure. Let's go do that.” So it's, you know, I, I hope similar kinds of levels of success for him, but I'm just chasing curiosity. And that. That started into agency worlds after school, as a strategist, the philosophers can, can say things about, “Hey, we think motivations are a certain way. Here is the research we put together.” Yeah. And then, uh, out of curiosity, it was building all kinds of little projects, um, with friends and developers.
And some of them turned into little businesses. And one of 'em kinda sorta did okay. And one of them did a lot better than that when you've got a couple going at a time and one goes, you just have to kind of shut down the other ones and focus. So, that one was Kipsu.
Josh: Right. So tell us about Kipsu. I mean, you were there from the ground floor, I think for this audience it would be really interesting to kind of hear how it is that you really felt like or got to that like product market fit, right? Yeah. At a certain point, man, we're getting traction, man. There's like inertia here. Yeah, we got shut down or kind of put to bed some of these other things we're working on and really focus on this. So how did you get there? What was, what was it that told you like this is it?
Joseph: Yeah, well it plays out over time, at least in all the exterior exchanges or experiences that I've had working on businesses, consulting businesses, um, that kind of like, wait a second - this has the potential, this has got legs - plays out over time. And for us, you know, what we did was, was just find an initial curiosity. “Wait a second. Like, why can't you text a business?” is where it started. Right? Fast forward, 10 years, 15 years. Why are all the businesses texting me? Right. It's the inverse now.
Josh: So it's your fault that we all get spam tasks? Is that what you're saying?
Joseph: I don't know if that's the case. I think the trailing edge, completely unsexy technology of text messaging of 10 and 12 years ago. A lot of people have seen the potential for that. Whether it's like your dermatologist, who's just part of their EMR says “we're going to text these people” a reminder. And I asked her, I asked her what I was in there. It was appointment reminders. I asked when I was in there, whether or not they got my, cause I was there for the first time, like an initial intake, whatever I said, did you get my permission to text me? And she was like, she blushed and like, uh, I don't know. And so now the systems just do it. And that was the exact opposite when we first started, um, why can't you text a business, where can we find other groups that were curious about that. And initially it was, again, I, as I was saying, just like my own curiosity and then a group of us decided to put some structure around it.
Well, our initial customer base would need an interface on the web that could manage texts coming inbound. Could we hack together five different things to make it work. And then let's get it working, and what became an initial curiosity became initial like prototype customers. And out of that, we started to go, “I think we've got - we know we have something, but we're in the wrong industry.”
And then we found our initial kind of fit to that industry so that, that customer base, or that market that you're going to go look for has their own dynamics. And for us, we found that the hospitality industry has a connection to revenue. So it wasn't just to make people happy. Cause that's not motivating enough to adjust your P&L for, well, it is for some businesses when your core values are aligned with that. And if you’re leadership team decides to divert resources to it. Then you'll be able to sell into those groups and partner with those groups. But there's not a lot of those groups to build a market around. So, um, after we knew we had something after we knew we had it in one market, we started looking for a market that had a connection to really the cash flow of the business and, and man, you got to work that you just keep working at and over time the market penetration will grow.
Joseph: Based largely on like, can you keep working it?
Josh: Yeah. And then, I'm sure that those customers, those first partners and prototype partners, were the ones who are kind of helping you even like figure out - what does this product really need to, to deliver even more value?
Joseph: Yeah. What does it do? There's a crown Plaza, we had friends, friends of friends that ran a crown Plaza down in Texas and they let us kind of do whatever. And we tried a bunch of stuff that didn't work the way that we thought it would work, or we didn't get the volume that we know that we produce now. But through the process I was able to, I was able to understand the inside of that industry or that market, right? And then play the design to those, to those benefits. And now, I mean, 75 countries, 2,800 partner companies, 40 million messages a year. I mean it's not a giant public company in terms of, is it out in front of the public, but so many people check into properties and go like, “Hey, did you start a thing? They texted me when I checked in here.” All the time people are like, and odds are with the market penetration that we have, we sent the message.
Josh: Well, I mean, I think Kipsu is one of Minnesota's amazing kind of startup success stories. So good on ya.
Joseph: Yeah, well and the team is growing. And we're looking into markets beyond hospitality, not just looking - I mean, actively trying to figure it out. Looking at what the life cycle is of checking into a hotel and where else you check into places like that. Is it, um, a living context, like a long-term rental? Is it, you know, an outpatient surgery, right? And so that team - we're not slowing down.
Josh: Yeah. Well, very cool. So, one of the other opportunities that we actually had a chance to work on together, so you were doing some consulting with a larger national swim school or at least regional swim school. And one of the things that in our work together, I was so impressed with was how you were kind of going through this like digital transformation with them. And you had monitors where, you know, every location, you could see exactly what enrollment was looking like, and everybody had kind of their number and you just like, were collecting all this real time data that you are able to then have your hands on for that visit.
And I thought it was amazing. I don't think there's that many businesses that are able to piece all of that together. And so I know because of that, that you're a big data data guy. You believe in data. So talk to us a little bit about that belief in data and what pushed you to really want to get that real time dashboarding and get those KPIs or numbers, the ones that you really need to pay attention to. Because I think SaaS marketers in particular, need to continually harp to leadership that these are our numbers and this is what we really need to be paying attention to because otherwise, you know, data can just be so overwhelming. Nobody knows what to pay attention to, or they change their focus every three months. So talk to me a little bit about that push for data.
Joseph: Yeah, well, the goal with that team was to deploy the resources of the business well, so that we could make great solid, you know, well-informed decisions, great being, are we accomplishing our goals? And in that, in that line data wasn't just purely measured by a computer, right? The goal was better decision-making and that can come from better information from customers. It can come from information from your team. It can come from information that you get in the marketplace, wherever it's public or wherever you can get your hands on private stuff. And so the goal was how can you pull together these pieces of information to help an executive team make decisions that are more congruent with reality?
Josh: So it's not just gut feelings?
Joseph: It's not just gut feeling. Yeah. The approach to data wasn't to give me all the digital stuff or give me all the funnel stuff or give me all of the click rates or the ad target groups that are, that are running differently. Right? Like our prospects are acting differently than our prospects when we do this thing. I mean, that's in the minutia in the way that that wasn't the purpose. But over time, when we'd consolidate and compress those data functions right. Of wherever it was coming from, we could start to see the world in a different way. Different from our assumptions based on these data sets where you stop and go, like, hold on, that's not what we thought was happening. Let's check it. And if it is checked, what can we build on? Um, and, and the core on, on like specific enrollment at certain schools was about deploying resources, right? The benefit, whatever the goals were given this, given the schools, when you're running, you know, we were in six states by that time. And you're running a lot of efforts, right? And everybody's got different targets.
Josh: Sounds familiar.
Joseph: When you can get certain pieces to certain targets, that's really helpful. But when you can, when you can get what is data that is near term past or distant past, the real magic for that team was when we started to be able to make projections. And we could anticipate what would occur over the next two to four weeks. And then adjust ahead of time and keep track of it on a day-to-day basis, because we could, we could throttle up supply and throttle down demand depending upon what was going on in a particular market or at a particular location.
And that starts to get really exciting. And you've got the toolkit to be able to run the operation then. And again, like the goal wasn't to be impressive, the goal was to, to set up a system where we could just, you know, caretake the resources of the business.
Josh: Yeah. So how did you, cause I think the crux of it is that everybody wants to do that.
Everybody would love to do that. And I feel like sometimes the hangup is like, how do you convince leaders in your organization that, because making the investment in time and resources to actually pull all those data sets together, I think that's a real struggle for SaaS marketers in particular, we did this, um, survey, right?
We did a survey of SaaS marketers to ask them how they thought they were doing. We just published our 2022 report and one of the things that came out was, you know, SaaS marketers are having difficulty convincing leaders or at least having a shared mindset or getting aligned on like, “we need to make investments in our data. We need to take these like disparate data sources and actually bring them together.” I think nobody's really giving it the kind of effort or go. So how did you convince leadership to actually make that type of investment?
Joseph: Yeah. Well we had a supportive board and a very forward thinking CEO that started that path. Right. Well, there's all kinds of dynamics in any business. Right? So getting early wins and being able to communicate about them and to own them and say like, Hey, check this out right. Is really helpful. But as a consultant, um, Approaching with empathy and saying what's actually on my mind about what I think is on, on the client's mind is really important. We stop and go like, yeah, this is 75 grand we could probably flush down the toilet and we don't know what we're going to get back from it. Right. But under which conditions would you be willing to take that, that leap? Right. What, what do we need to get back that you want to know about your particular business? And you know, sometimes people don't know how to answer that question and then it doesn't matter what data is coming at you. If you don't know what data you're looking for, which hunches you're trying to validate or invalidate. It doesn't matter what data comes in the door. You wouldn't really know what to do with it, right. I mean, sometimes you get lucky and stuff shows up and you're like, duh, do that. Other times it's having hunches, knowing where to go looking, and getting a good sense of like, “Hey, the parameters around this exchange will be, um, successful if this, this and that. How can we craft something that has a higher likelihood of delivering.” And how can we build a case based on no spend that we have a good reason to believe that if we spend we're gonna, we're going to learn something that we can't otherwise. And so in certain places, in bigger firms, right? You’ve got analysts that help with that effort. In other spots, you've gotta really be careful about the team member's talent and have people that are nimble and they're usually young and they're usually scary in that they're going to do stuff you don't know how to do yourself. But when you sit with them right, and give them a good sense of direction, like, Hey, we're going here, which is what a leader is supposed to do - set core set direction, share the why and deliver the resources for the team, to be able to go there, cultural resources, financial resources, team resources, time resources. Uh, out of that, right? Trusting the team and allocating those resources to the team and talent, is really important. Those persons who are running the data teams, um, that are nimble, flexible, forward-thinking are really valuable to the businesses they're working for.
Those team members that are wicked talented in data, in my experience, you have to play translator. You gotta be able to talk right brain and left brain. And listen, I haven't done this perfectly, right? Lots of failures, like ouch, that hurt and you know, the scabs have, have come and gone and now I've got skin again, but the scar is still there.
So many scars. However, along the way, we also got wins. And so the game, I don't want to call it a game necessarily, but one of the ways to succeed in this is to craft early. What are the small riskable things to do, and then to build trust and connection and understanding over time to be able to better understand, it's no different than a SaaS market fit. I mean, when you get down to it, it's an internal customer instead of an external customer. We're just trying to go like, Hey, we have data as a product and we have no one else to sell it to except our internal team. So how do I understand their market dynamics, their brain space, their needs, and priorities. What does the P&L allow us to do these things? Where's the plan on the resources and the budgeting? Can we see far enough in advance? Can we see six months? Can we see eight months?
Can we see twelve? Can we see two years down the line by department and then see where we can strategically cross those departments to be able to accomplish, you know, uncovering these data maps. But, you know, you can have something. The challenge ends up being that the market for what's possible moves faster than the budgeting cycle.
And this has been talked about, it's harder to get the CFO to say, at some of the companies, Hey, I've got a slush fund in Q3 that we don't know what to do with, but we know we're going to need it. Hey, we need one in Q4 too.”
Josh: That doesn't come out of the mouth of a CFO on a regular basis.
Joseph: That's trickier. But I've worked with some wonderful CFOs that, that aren't, of that same kind of like, you know, the anticipated, reaction right? And you stop and go. Here's what we think we could get from that piece and why it strategically matters to our business. Usually you don't get what you asked for, but you get something, right?
And then you have to craft down whatever prototype you run in that quarter.
Josh: But in the hopes that you have a little bit of success, you have some of those wins. You can go back and say, see? We can do more of this, right?
Joseph: Yeah, and in my experience sharing the scars, being honest, that they're there, like it helps it helps get the next one going for the company. And the goal is like, Hey, can we caretake? It's not different than - why data? Right. Can we caretake the resources of the business? Can we create a context where we can make better decisions?
Josh: Well, let's shift gears. Tell me a little bit about the new, the new thing, the new thing, Vivront.
Joseph: So it's French, I like that there's two v’s in it. It's French and the French really love cooking. They do a good job of cooking, in my humble view. And it's a future tense of Viva, which is, to live, right? So the joy of life. And I went looking for something to do around school lunch. It's the last of three promises I made myself when I was flying constantly, building Kipsu. It was the first year of my son's life. I was diamond plus plus plus, of two, three other airlines. I flew constantly. Eight, 10 segments a week was a norm. And I remember sitting in the tarmac, um, in an airport thinking, you know, cause there's no tarmac at other airports, I guess that's where you get tarmac. But thinking like, Hey, this thing's going to work. And when it does, I'm going to do something about school lunch.
Josh: Wow. And where did that motivation come from?
Joseph: It came from when I grew up. I mean, we just didn't have a lot of resources. I grew up on the reduced lunch side. And I know those feelings of needing to fill out the form of turning it in and getting the meal that's different and, and while you could cut a check, I'm actually thinking I'm more interested in seeing what kind of dynamics a brand can do to help not only render the debt a non-issue, but also to better understand school nutrition. I didn't call it that when I started, but as I've connected with people in the market, I stop and go, wait a sec, it's breakfast and it's service and support on the weekends, and so forth. I think I would brand it differently if I were going to go at it, but that's what it's called in the, in the marketplace now. So, um, when I started looking for what business to work on. I've got some time and I have some resources and I wanted to tinker and play. And I've always been really interested in grocery stores. We'd go when I was a kid and we'd go to another city. I'd always wanted to go to the grocery store and I was in college, the same kind of thing. Like we travel someplace, and I’d say could we just go to the grocery store. It's where the people are, the people who are local go to the grocery store and you get a sense of like what do we care about here, and what do we eat? It's just, it's different here. It doesn't matter what country I'm in - I'm going to the grocery store and I'm going a lot. So it's really fun. I enjoy that. And, I have a number of ideas around aging cocktails, or you know, drink mixers, bitters, that I think would be really fun to make. And I've done some work building out those brands. But I don't know how to get that to connect to school lunch.
So Vivront is about something that everybody has in their kitchens: it's sitting right under your nose, like text messaging was back in the day. And, and if you're lucky you have a set of knives, in 110 million households they're dull, and all of the Airbnb's. You're only dealing with five to 10 million sets of knives sold every year that are still sharp and all the chefs are going to tell you to sharpen them once a year. And the frequency they sharpen is like once a week. And maybe five to $10 million have been spent in the last year on sharpening knives. And so I think this is a really interesting marketplace where mom wants delightful meals, like we want delightful home cooking. And we want it to be an experience, and friends and family around the table drives delight. And figuring out what to make as a stressor, getting the things to make is a stressor, and actually making the things as a stressor. One of those core elements that you look around, like chefs ask, like, what more content do you want? Knife skills rise to the top. Most of us use knives with a lot of pressure and we've learned how to get a dull knife to cut what we want. But when you get a sharp knife, you usually cut yourself. Because you’re using dull knife tactics, or dull knife skills.
So it's been just wonderful. And what we've done so far is go one-to-one with school lunch. So every set of knives we sharpen, largely through the mail. So it's an e-commerce service business.
Josh: I actually purchased one of your packets. I still have to send you my knives, but yeah.
Joseph: Well, you know, laziness…
Josh: That's a part of it, but I'm halfway there.
Joseph: Halfway there you take your knives and shove them in this package. You ship them off and they come back sharp. And on the email side, because why wouldn't you set up a great email side? Let's start teaching the process. What is a cutting board, why have two of them? What are, what are these crazy French words for cut types? How do you hold the knife? What kind of knife styles do you want? So you usually have to spend 80 to a hundred bucks to go to some class to get all those notes and the ones that I've been to, no chef looks at my skill set. They just like to spout information and say, here cut some tomatoes. And we're looking at this saying, wait a second. We can inject some delight back into home cooking. In a way that starts with sharp knives and let's do it on the internet. Let's make it a subscription. I mean, everything else is a subscription right now.
We're really delighted with the growth. We're really happy to be looking at what comes next and to be talking with our partners, in retail, you know, national e-com, you know, just, hopefully we'll be in a grocery store near you soon, or you can just pick up a package and boom knives come back. And along the way we pay out some school lunch debt.
Josh: Well, and that's, I think what's really interesting about the whole concept. Yes, sharp knives are cool. Yes, the kind of life hack where I can ship them to you, you sharpen them, you ship them back to me. And all of the things that I believe, you know, I believe you, you have a sharp knife and you don't have to squish your tomato. There's something satisfying about those things.
Joseph: Yeah you’re not serving mushy squished food to your family and you didn't leave the flavor on the cutting board.
Josh: That's great, but I think like the school lunch thing, that piece of it is amazing.
Joseph: And I didn't know what the scope of the problem was. If you're looking at just the debt, it's like $170 per pupil, whether they're paying or not. It's 262 million a year in 2019. Things are different in the last two years, the rules have changed. And I've been volunteering in kitchens, it's been fascinating to go like, well, it used to be, but now it's. I have a deep desire to keep understanding and supporting the people who support our kids in schools. But I've been stunned with the way based on what I know now. And I'm happy to learn, anybody who knows anybody to talk about this.
That, like an education dollar, is the same as a facility dollar, a food dollar is an education dollar and an education dollar is a food dollar. When it comes down to the end of the year, the schools have their inbound resources. Some of them are selling us candy bars and everything else under the sun that would do some kind of fundraiser that seems sort of normal. Go to Chipotle and buy burritos on Tuesday.
Whatever that ends up being, other support revenues. But the other ones are kind of fixed. I mean, the state, the city and the federal government have their inbound cash. And if you leave the thermostat running too long on accident over Christmas break, the money has to come from somewhere for the thermal units.
Right? Like, however, we ended up getting those and the same kind of thing can happen on the food side. And it's just really different on the food side because the kids rumbling stomach, right. We'll give education through our taxes, but if the kid's stomach is rumbling multiple days and weeks on end, maybe the brain isn't functioning either.
So these are my words, trying to understand the dynamics of this. I don't well, we're not going to be able to keep the politics out of this. In the end, can we, can we really focus on education to drive curiosity, to drive growth as humans, seems like a really delightful way to go about the world.
Josh: Thank you for your service in that. I mean, I really do think that there's not that many successful entrepreneurs who are sitting on the tarmac and thinking to themselves, I'm going to try to solve this social problem that we have. Right? Like that's not necessarily common thinking for people.
Joseph: Yeah, certainly it was five to eight years ago that I had the instinct and only in the last six months, if we're successful, we can get this to go to 110 million households. If they sharpen with Vivront, we'll pay off the school lunch debt. Wow. And they'll have like a hundred million left.
Josh: Cool. There we go. So, last question. We always, I always ask people, is this like who you're reading or like what books or podcasts are you listening to, what's kind of influencing some of your thinking.
Joseph: Yeah. So much. So I have the curse of input as my strength on strengthfinder. So strategic ideation, learner, intellectual input, and they're all thinking oriented, right? So it's a little like, where's the rest of the quadrant.
Josh: So you just consume so constantly.
Joseph: So the input side, like the podcasts and volume and content coming in is pretty high. But since Tim Ferriss started his podcast, like back in, I think it was 2014, I’ve really enjoyed his work. So that's the listen side. Of course, I don't have one podcast. We've got like three of them and they're for different subjects. Right. And I just follow certain podcasts in the different apps. But from a book standpoint - in the last two years I've come across two really interesting books, one from the nineties.
Joseph: With Julia Cameron and the Artists’ Way. I kind of heard rumors about it as I talk to people, they'll say, “Oh I've heard about that. And somebody told me I should but I haven't yet.” She kind of deconstructs why artists are artists and the rest of us aren't acting as artists, but we're artists, that's kind of her premise.
And she says, you know, to grow and develop your art, you need to do two things. And one of them is you write three pages, long form hands written, whatever every morning, about anything, it could be the dry cleaning. It could be - I don't care that it's snowing outside or the, you know, the lack of wonder in your Colombian roast coffee.
Because that's what I had this morning and I don't like Columbia, I just, and I wrote about it this morning. And then the other thing that she's talked about doing is something frivolous, something that allows the artist to play. Right? And so it's that thing that you think you shouldn't do. Like go to axe man and just walk around right. Or go to the Mia.
Josh: Like leisure? This isn't about you making money, just do something else.
Joseph: Yeah, can you just detach and do something? So walking around the lakes, is always really wonderful. I had a buddy say he wanted the Hyatt hanging glowing orbs in his woods.
I was like, sure, I'll help you with that. And so I'm finding ways to say yes to what is curious, weird things. And so The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron has been a delight and just reconnecting yourself.
And the other one came from a coach by Shirzad Chamine. They wrote a book off of some lecture series that he had around positive intelligence. And that's the name of the book. It's now into the coaching curriculum and there's an app with ways to do what he calls PQ reps. So these repetitions like sports analogies of prepping your mind to be able to engage with the world, it's been really a powerful tool.
And it's about what does your Sage do in life versus what do your saboteurs do? And it's about this inner life. Like what are you saying to yourself? Why are you saying that and why are you so capable of wonderful and also - not. So those are two books that I've found this year that have been really helpful.
Josh: I know that you'd mentioned that Positive Thinking book and it's actually my next book. It's on my nightstand.
Joseph: So it's about your IQ. Your IQ, your EQ and your PQ. Yeah. Positive quotient.
Josh: Well thank you for, instead of going to the woods and hanging up Globes, you're able to come and join us today. This has been a lot of fun, so that'll do it for today, but thanks, Joseph.
Joseph: Thank you.