In 2014, Ben left his job in banking—private wealth management, to be precise—to start his own food company, Good Stock, with a focus on the New York City working man’s lunch staple that is often consumed but rarely perfected: soup.
It wasn’t just the 11:30am lunches Ben and his teammates roamed the streets of lower Manhattan in search of that inspired him to start Good Stock. Nor was it his Louisiana upbringing, where food certainly played a central role.
While at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, Ben carved out a niche cultivating wealth management clients who were entrepreneurs themselves. It was exposure to this cast of supportive characters that gave Ben the nudge he needed not just to leave his comfortable day job in banking but also to become a founder.
Hacking Finance spoke to Ben while he wandered around looking for a quiet spot to chat somewhere between a corporate delivery and his retail location in the West Village.
Hacking Finance: Let’s start with the basics. Talk a little bit about Good Stock.
Ben LeBlanc: Good Stock is a company that I started with a very simple mission: to make great soup. I love to eat, love to drink, love to cook, and, being from South Louisiana, it’s just a part of our way of life. I’ve always loved food and the culture around food. And to be honest, lunch used to be my favorite part of the work day. I’m the kind of person who legitimately gets sad if they have a bad meal.
Hacking Finance: LOL…your favorite part of the work day?
Ben LeBlanc: Ha, yes, for a couple reasons. At Citigroup in New York, we started work between 6:00 and 6:30am, which meant we were ready to have lunch at 11:30 after a busy morning. It was fun to go out and get lunch with your buddies at work, your first real break of the day. I always enjoyed the ritual of it.
Then, when I moved to London, I would get lunch with people from all over Europe, and the world, and explore the London food scene.
Looking back, maybe that was the first sign I really wasn’t meant for that kind of role, when lunch is the best part of your day!
Hacking Finance: What was your role?
Ben LeBlanc: Sales and trading at Citigroup in New York and London. Then I got my MBA at NYU and worked at Goldman Sachs as a private wealth advisor in the private loan management group.
Hacking Finance: Did you always know you wanted to work in finance?
Ben LeBlanc: No. I was pretty naïve. When I was an undergrad, I was planning to go to law school. Where I grew up, you were either a doctor, a lawyer, or you worked in the oil industry. So I was planning to go to law school, but I also always had a desire to do something different and travel, explore, or move somewhere, but I never really got my act together.
Through one of my brother’s school friends, I ended up getting an internship in finance up here the summer before senior year of college. But at the time, I just thought, okay, cool, this is fun. Great to live in New York for a summer, but I’m still going to go to law school.
It wasn’t until I was at the LSU bursar’s office about to put down my $200 seat deposit for the law program when I asked the woman behind the desk if I could get my money back. She said it was non-refundable, and I said, “Ok, well, guess I’m not doing this.”
Hacking Finance: Just like that in the moment! Wow.
Ben LeBlanc: Yes. But when I walked out of there, I was like oh shit…what am I going to do now? So I got back in touch with the company in New York I worked for as an intern. It turned out they needed to hire somebody full time. I interviewed and got the position.
So part of what drew me to finance is just serendipity—the luck of the draw, the timing of it all, and the last-minute decision not to go to law school.
I guess it was also a chance to do something different and leave Louisiana. That sounds kind of sad—I don’t want to dis Louisiana—but I wanted to do something different.
Hacking Finance: At what point did you start to get the itch? You were pretty deep into your career when you left to start Good Stock.
Ben LeBlanc: Yes. I always liked my jobs. They were stimulating, and I really liked my co-workers. I was content. But there was always something missing. I just wasn’t quite fulfilled all the way. This unnamed feeling had lived inside of me for a long time.
Then I started working at Goldman Sachs’ private wealth group, where my job was to find potential customers, form relationships, win their trust, and get them to allow me to manage their money.
It turned out that all of my favorite clients and prospects were entrepreneurs. I was really inspired by people who were building things, creating things…people who had an idea and took a risk and made it work or took their family business to the next level.
So that was really what gave the itch a name. I though, all right. If I come up with an idea, I’ll do something. If I don’t have an idea, I’ll help somebody do something.
The desire to be entrepreneurial had existed in me for a while, but it was this time at Goldman that really exposed me to entrepreneurship and all the different ways people were making a difference in the world. My clients were super inspiring, in addition to my brother and a few friends who were also forging their own path.
Hacking Finance: Was this a common experience among your peers? Were there other people you worked with who were also feeling the itch to become entrepreneurs?
Ben LeBlanc: Maybe. When you are in money management, your eventual goal is to live off of the commission of the assets you manage, and you are responsible for going to get that business. So you have to have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and self determination to go out and do it.
Hacking Finance: But did you feel that there were opportunities for you to take a truly entrepreneurial path inside Goldman?
Ben LeBlanc: I’m sure if I would have had an entrepreneurial spirit to form a business to help Goldman, go search for X type of client, set up X sort of trading desk…yes, that was definitely encouraged. But I don’t think they would have helped me set up a soup business.
Hacking Finance: Fair enough! What about fintech?
Ben LeBlanc: Around the time I was thinking of leaving Goldman in 2014, companies like Betterment were starting to help the masses invest, manage and save their money, and pass it on to charitable causes. I thought about going down that road but was pulled in a different direction. I did love seeing the rise of the advisor for the common man though, for lack of a better term.
Hacking Finance: There’s something democratizing in what you’re doing too, no? High quality, good ingredients, not outrageously expensive…
Ben LeBlanc: Thank you for saying that. I totally agree. That’s one of the things that I love about soup. When you come into our shop, your soup is hot and ready to go, but we are making it on our own time and on our own terms. We take the time to make a soup with ten different steps and layers of flavor, with great ingredients and proper technique. Our aim is not just to make better soup, it’s to make the best soup. I want it to be as good or frankly better than what you’ll have at home, or as good as you would have in nice restaurants. So there’s definitely a democratizing effect.
Hacking Finance: When you started creating your business plan for Good Stock, did you confide in any of your clients?
Ben LeBlanc: I looped them in afterward, and they were all very, enthusiastically supportive, which is dangerous! Any time you have a business idea, and you ask another entrepreneur, they’ll tell you to go do it. But yes, my clients were excited for me and very supportive. Many put me in touch with industry contacts, and one actually invested in the business.
Hacking Finance: What about your colleagues?
Ben LeBlanc: Every single person said, “I’m so jealous, and I’m so happy for you.” And my closest colleagues—the old lunch buddies—none of them were surprised. They said, “Obviously you’re doing something in food.”
Hacking Finance: Did your MBA inform your decision to start Good Stock?
Ben LeBlanc: Entrepreneurship was on the curriculum at Stern, but I didn’t really pursue it. When I started my MBA, I had a pretty good idea that I was going to go into wealth management. Looking back, I wasn’t viewing the program through the lens of my own personal development and goals, which now I wish I would have. I have always had a fondness for the history of business and how people built things, but I didn’t look at grad school through the lens of starting my own thing, sadly.
Hacking Finance: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first setting up?
Ben LeBlanc: It’s going to take longer than you think, and it’s going to be more expensive than you think. This information was relayed to me, of course, but I just willfully ignored it, or maybe wasn’t paying attention.
I’d also tell myself that a lot of this is really just going to be on you, so find a team, and get people to believe in you and help you deal. I would focus on mentally preparing myself for the slog, the hard work, and the lonelier times.
But I would also say it’s going to be totally worth it, cause nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Oh my god, I love the gumbo!” or “That’s the best tomato soup I’ve ever had.” Getting that immediate feedback and having customers who love us and come multiple times a week makes me happier than anything I’ve done prior.
Hacking Finance: Fintech startups operate in highly regulated environments. So do food startups. Do you see regulation as a barrier to innovation in your industry?
Ben LeBlanc: There are definitely a lot of legal issues, health department issues, and insurance requirements that pose challenges to food startups, so I’m sure that can be a turnoff to some.
“Big Food” in general can be kind of weird. The way that the huge companies make their food and frozen meals is just…kind of weird. I see a lot of entrepreneurs come in to the food space saying, “Oh we’re going to be all organic, and we’re going to make it one batch at a time.” And then they face the reality of: no, you can’t do that because of XYZ regulation.
Now, I saw those things and was like, screw it, I’m not going to do it that way, I still want to do something different. Maybe I’m hard headed* in not taking my own advice, but I want to change the game.
*Cajun French: tête dure. Not to be confused with couyon.
Hacking Finance: Does that mean you’re looking at fundamentally new ways of structuring the business model of a food company?
Ben LeBlanc: That can be part of it, the structure, the way we distribute. But I want to try and take the old school approach: actually cooking food. Making it by hand, with really good ingredients.
I think that there’s a need for food made like that right now. With people more conscious than ever of “Big Food,” what’s bad for you, and all these additives and ingredients that don’t really belong and that we can’t pronounce, well, we’re not using any of that at Good Stock.
People say as we grow that’s what you have to do to be shelf stable…but no. We’re going to make it our way and tell customers that. If that means we end up being a more expensive product, which we will be, then we’ll tell the story and find the customers that identify with our values.
So the way I plan to disrupt my category is pretty simple: to focus on cooking instead of “producing food.”
Hacking Finance: Is there a role that you see technology playing in to advance your mission?
Ben LeBlanc: Sure, there have been a lot of advances in food tech, including some equipment becoming a little bit more commonplace and regulators are starting to accept that.
But it’s funny, some of the technology in food and cooking is just understanding things that have been done forever—fermentation, curing meats, etc.—these things were taboo in modern food and deemed unsafe for many years. So some of the technological “advances” are actually just re-understanding or re-explaining things that we’ve been doing with food for thousands of years.
Hacking Finance: What’s coming down the road for Good Stock in 2018?
Ben LeBlanc: We have plans to grow, but, like I’ve said, quality for us is the absolute highest priority. I want to make food that I’m incredibly proud of and that I love to eat myself.
I do think there’s a little bit more room to grow in New York, maybe a couple more locations. We’re launching a home delivery program her, too. Our customers can order larger servings of soup and have them shipped directly to their house.
I just want to keep making great food and finding people who love it. We’ve moved pretty fast this last year and a half, so we’re just taking it slow for now.