As a kid growing up in the Minneapolis suburbs during the ’90s, Nick Green’s kitchen cupboard was not like his friends’ kitchen cupboards. There were no salty snacks, no sugary cereal, no soda. Even Honey Nut Cheerios were verboten.
His mother, part of a large Mexican American family, had seen how the modern diet led to so many health problems for her relatives, and resolved to raise her own children with minimal processed foods.
Mr. Green said being deprived of traditional sweets and snacks was frustrating — and that he raided his friends’ kitchens when he had the chance — but that he was ultimately grateful for the strict diet early in life, believing it gave him good habits and good health.
It also gave Mr. Green the foundation of a billion-dollar idea.
After graduating from Harvard College, briefly working for McKinsey & Company and selling a test preparation company he founded, Mr. Green teamed up with a few other like-minded entrepreneurs to start Thrive Market, an online marketplace for healthy and eco-friendly food and household goods, in 2013.
Today, Thrive, which is still privately held, has more than a million members who pay $60 a year for the privilege of ordering chickpea pasta, plant-based cleaning products and organic wine.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your childhood like and your family’s diet like?
I grew up very middle class in Minnesota. It was the era of not just the food pyramid with bread on the bottom, but fortified junk food, two-liter bottles of soda at the dinner table, that kind of thing. And I had a very different household. My mom came from a large Mexican American family. And she saw family members struggling with diabetes, with obesity, heart disease and cancer.
She was really obsessed with changing that trajectory for our family, and I saw how hard she had to work to do it. There wasn’t a healthy retailer nearby. So we were that weird house on the block that had no sugared cereal, no good snacks, no soda.
As a kid and a teenager, didn’t that drive you crazy?
Yeah. I was the total glutton if I went to a friend’s house.
Were you focused on food professionally from the get-go?
There was a period when I got out of the house where I definitely wasn’t focused on it. I wouldn’t call my college years particularly healthy. But as I got into my 20s and I started working hard, I very much realized how much diet and exercise made a difference in my ability to maintain that pace. I was doing Paleo back in 2007 before it was a thing. I was fasting.
What’s the biggest professional mistake you ever made, and what did you learn from it?
The biggest professional mistake I ever made was actually the summer I decided to get a real job. After my junior year at Harvard, everybody was doing consulting or investment banking, and I decided I needed to also. So I spent the summer at McKinsey and the people were amazing. The work was interesting, but it just didn’t inspire me the way that entrepreneurship did. So it was actually the mistake that clarified my path most, because if I could go to a place that had the pedigree, it had amazing people and was intellectually stimulating and it still wasn’t filling me up, I knew I had to start something myself.
What happened when the pandemic hit? A lot of businesses fell off the cliff.
The acute phase of the pandemic was a really unique moment. You went from some people thinking about their health to literally everybody thinking about health. You went from some people shopping online to everybody shopping online. So we had to respond by scaling.
One of the big challenges initially was, how do we keep our fulfillment centers operating and our workers safe? Two-thirds of our employees are in those fulfillment centers, and they were truly the heroes of that acute phase.
Beyond all the craziness of that acute phase, the pandemic has accelerated secular trends we were already betting on as a business. People are more socially in tune and more focused on the environment, more conscious of health today than they were two years ago. And then e-commerce. We’ve had two years of people habituating more and more in the direction of shopping online.And I think a lot of that behavior has stuck.
What do you think the biggest obstacle to getting people to eat healthy is these days in America?
There are multiple barriers. One is just cost. Organic and natural products tend to be priced at a premium. Another is geography. Half of Americans don’t live within driving distance of a healthy retailer. But I think the biggest one is more emotional barriers. Where do I start? Can I trust these products? It’s overwhelming. It’s intimidating. If you go onto Amazon and search for almond butter, you’re going to find 9,000 results. Where do I go with that?
We want to break down each of the barriers to conscious living. We want to make it affordable. We also want to make it really easy and really seamless.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention the fast-food industry and the relentless marketing of unhealthy food.
Look, that’s going to be there. These are big businesses with a lot of money and they can dominate the airwaves. What’s encouraging to me is that in spite of that, you have this shift in attitudes. You have more people wanting to get healthy and you have more people becoming more conscious of social and environmental issues. And that awakening is not something that is just on the coasts or just with affluent consumers.
Are you aware of any sort of partisan or political dynamics among your member base?
That’s honestly not important to us. I think that getting healthy transcends political lines. Everyone wants their families, their communities to do better. And the causes that we allow our members to shop by also tend to transcend politics. Some, like local, and family owned, and kosher, are even traditionally associated with more conservative values. We think about ourselves as really a platform. It’s not about imposing our political values or catering to one type of group. It’s about letting people vote with their dollars for what they care about most.
You’ve hired quite a bit over the last 20 months or so, and this is a mission-driven company. How do you make sure that you’re getting the right people when you can’t actually meet them?
It’s really important to get the right people in our fulfillment centers. We’re not looking to be a revolving door. We want to provide long-term work and that means providing good pay, but also good benefits, an opportunity to earn equity, a culture where they feel respected and valued. I think that is really unique to typical fulfillment center jobs, and it’s given us a big advantage in attracting really talented people who are really connected and work hard for us and stick around.
As for how do you hire somebody when you’re not going to meet them in person? It’s extraordinarily hard. You just don’t build relationships over email and Slack. And there is something, we believe, that is really important in actually being physically present.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about what makes for good leadership today?
People probably overemphasize the importance of decisiveness and action. Both are very important as a leader. But I think very often, just as important is listening and seeking perspectives. I’ve had a number of humbling mistakes that I’ve made, most of which were because I moved too fast and thought I had the answer. And I’ve been consistently amazed when I go into the organization to get feedback, how insightful and how much knowledge and understanding and perspective there is when you listen to your people.
How do you explain the anti-vaccine, anti-authoritarian conspiracy-theories streak among some wellness influencers? Where does that come from?
I think it has less to do with health and more to do with politics. Unfortunately, some of these topics that should be questions of personal health or public health have gotten wrapped up in politics and become issues of freedom and just the political dynamics. The whole, you know, mask vs. no mask, vaccine versus no vaccine, it’s really sad that these are issues where we’re not looking at efficacy and at facts, and instead we’re looking at political affiliations and tribalism.
Is that “Collapse” by Jared Diamond on your bookshelf?
Yeah. I read that like a decade ago, and I think it’s relevant again.
In what particular regard? Environmental collapse? Or are you thinking about the state of our democracy, for example?
All of the above. Not to say that we’re on the brink in any of those dimensions, but I do think it’s a reminder that things that look like they can go on forever don’t necessarily. I think we’re seeing some of that with where things have gone politically in our country. I think we’re seeing it certainly with threats to the environment.