20 Questions

This Successful Entrepreneur Shares Why a Major Crisis Can Be Your Greatest Investment

Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman explains the inherent value of mistakes.
This Successful Entrepreneur Shares Why a Major Crisis Can Be Your Greatest Investment
Image credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Neman
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
9 min read

Editor's Note: Entrepreneur's "20 Questions" series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.

At Georgetown University, friends Jonathan Neman, Nathaniel Ru and Nicolas Jammet weren’t happy with the selection of food offered near their campus in Washington, D.C. They wanted something that could be seasonal and healthy, but also affordable on a student budget.

So, while getting their degrees at Georgetown’s undergraduate business school, they raised $350,000 in startup funds to get what would become Sweetgreen’s first location up and running in 2007.

Trying not to be just another fast-casual restaurant chain, they looked to establish their brand at a grassroots level, with an emphasis on sustainability and transparency about their supply chain.

In the early days of the business, they would source their farm-to-table options by going to local farmers’ markets and throw block parties to help build their brand. And it worked.

Eleven years later, the Los Angeles–based Sweetgreen has raised over $150 million million in funding. It has grown from a staff of three to 3,500 employees. And there are now 86 locations, all serving salads and grain bowls made from scratch with ingredients delivered from more than 500 local farmers daily.

We caught up with Neman to ask him 20 Questions and find out what makes him tick.

1. How do you start your day?
I live close to the beach in Venice, so either surfing or yoga. I need something that is active but also grounds me and gets me getting ready for the craziness ahead. I also have a morning meditation practice that gets for the day.

2. How do you end your day?
I’m usually here until 8:00 or 8:30 pm. Once I’m done with work, I do my best to leave it and not get back on my computer. It’s important to do something fun and not just go home and sleep. I love food, so I’ll cook something special with my wife, invite friends over or go to a new restaurant. It’s important to take that time away and be present.

3. What’s a book that changed your mind, and why?
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. It helps you understand which brain to use when. You’re not always using the right side of the brain [for the situation].

And you should slow down, think about things and sometimes going with your gut is right. As CEO, I make a lot of decisions, and having the framework of when to use which type of thinking has been very helpful to me.

4. What’s a book you always recommend, and why?
Good to Great by Jim Collins. The companies that he uses may not not make sense today, but I believe the principles are still relevant. Having a data-driven approach to principles that define success makes sense to me. Each time I read it, it energizes my thoughts around how to create a great company.

5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I’m pretty maniacal at setting my calendar and writing lists. On Sundays, I plan out my week and look out over the next month and think, What is the most important thing I have to do each day?, so I don’t get stuck in the rat race. I write a list of what I need to do the following day, the day before, so I know exactly what to do.

Related: This Entrepreneur Shares Why an Ability to Change Course Is What Will Set You Up for Success

6. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a record label executive. I realized I didn't have enough musical talent to be a musician, so I wanted to be on the business side. Today, I lead a company that is a very creative business. I love the art and science of it, so I feel like I ended up in a similar place.

7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I started this business when I was in college, so didn’t have a lot of bosses. But for short stints that I did have, one thing I learned very early on [is the importance] of explaining why in depth and having transparency around what it leads into and how each person plays into the larger vision.

8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
My co-founders. We’ve been working together for almost 12 years. We’re best friends, partners, neighbors. We still share an office. We are all different, so we are constantly influencing, challenging and teaching each other.

9. What’s a trip that changed you?
I have a group of friends, and we have been doing a yearly sailing trip for seven years. We go to a different place every year, but the place matters less than the group of us being together. It’s more than a trip; it’s almost a yearly check in on our personal growth. We sit around a table talking about life, business, relationships.

Related: Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran Explains Why You Must Make Time in Your Schedule For Fun

10. What inspires you?
I
 get inspired by business or ideas that are good for the world and good for business. You could call it a conscious capitalism approach. You can be a socially conscious business and solve world problems [and be successful with your business].

11. What was your first business idea, and what did you do with it?
In high school we created the young entrepreneurs club. We designed and manufactured school planners. Our approach was to to sell them at cost and to sell ads in them. We were bringing in about $30,000 a year, practically all profit. We ran it for three years, and what we did at the end, we created a scholarship program for future entrepreneurs at the school.

12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
One summer in high school [I worked for a lending company.] My job was cold-calling hundreds of people asking them to pay the money they owed. I learned resilience. I think it's one of the most important qualities I look for in people who join the team.

13. What’s the best advice you ever took, and why was it the best?
Never waste a crisis. There are so many missteps and failures in business and life. With each one, there's a way to look at it as a failure or look at it as a learning opportunity. There's a silver lining in everything, and some of our best ideas at Sweetgreen have come from failures. If you're not learning from your mistakes, then they're really expensive. But if you're learning from them, they're huge investments.

14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
A professor at school told me that it was better to go learn on someone else’s dime than to go figure it out yourself.

Related: The Founders of Celeb-Favorite Shoe Brand Allbirds Explain Why Being Told to Raise Money Was the Worst Advice They Ever Received

15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I carry my Moleskine notebook with me everywhere. Writing something down versus saying it has a huge implication; it changes the power of your intention. Another thing I love to do at work is take one-on-one [meetings] as walking meetings. There is a different energy and presence when you’re walking.

16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
Evernote. When I don’t have my Moleskine, I use it a lot for notes and for different lists. I keep track of them, add to them, tag things and add photos using Evernote -- both on desktop and on mobile.

17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I don't believe in work-life balance. I call it work-life integration. Trying to differentiate your life from work is challenging. For me, it's always been trying to find the intersection of where my work and my life live. It's where your passion and purpose come together. It's thinking about how to infuse joy and fun into things. How do I work with friends? How do I do something I really care about?

18. How do you prevent burnout?
I usually work at least part of the weekend, but for one day I completely shut off and sleep.

I'm also a big fan of the small weekend getaway -- something local to refresh and get some inspiration.

19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Step away from work and get some space. Going to a yoga class or paddling out and surfing. Sitting on my surfboard for a couple hours gives my mind space to think freely. Sometimes, I get my best ideas sitting out there.

20. What are you learning now? Why is that important?
As we grow, my job always changes. I’m spending a lot of time learning more about tech and product management, as we move from a brick-and-mortar restaurant business to a digital food company.  

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