Episode 317 – Scott Orn

Scott is a COO & Volunteer

Scott Orn talks about his passion for running and moderating his non-profit “Ben’s Friends”, which was started for a friend who had a rare brain aneurysm and serves the need of expanding a network of other affected by it! Scott also talks about how he got this group started, what it provides, and how it has affected his life in the office!

Episode Highlights

• Starting “Ben’s Friends”
• What “Ben’s Friends” provides
• How his work in the non-profit translates to his work in the office
• Having support from colleagues
• Relating to entrepreneurs
• How Kruze Consulting encourages sharing outside interests
• How organizations should make space for a desired culture
• Help save your team from themselves


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    Welcome to Episode 317 of What’s Your “And”? This is John Garrett, and each Wednesday, I interview a professional who, just like me, is known for a hobby or a passion or an interest outside of work. To put it another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “And”, those things above and beyond your technical skills, the things that actually differentiates you when you’re in the office.

    I’m so excited to let everyone know that my book is published. That’s right. It came out last week, so check out whatsyourand.com for all the details. I can’t say how much it means that everyone’s listening to the show and changing the cultures where they work because of it, and getting the book to help spread that message. It’s just beyond amazing to me. Thank you so much.

    Please don’t forget to hit subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss any of the future episodes. I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week, and this week is no different with my guest, Scott Orn. He’s the COO of Kruze Consulting in the San Francisco office, and now he’s with me here today. Scott, thanks so much for taking time to be with me on What’s Your “And”?

    Scott: Hey, John, thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to this. Before you even turned the mikes on, we had a great conversation, so I’m really excited to be here.

    John: Exactly. I feel like we should have just recorded that and then we’d be done by now, but I didn’t. Because you’d think I’d learned something in the first 316 episodes but nope. So, here we go, rapid-fire questions, get to know Scott right out of the gate. All right, here we go. Favorite color.

    Scott: Favorite color, blue and gold.

    John: Blue and… Oh, look at you sucking up already. All right, yeah. How about a least favorite color?

    Scott: Definitely Red.

    John: Red, yeah. No, I agree. I agree. How about pens or pencils?

    Scott: Definitely a pen. I like a good blue pen.

    John: Okay, no mistakes. I like that. I like that.

    Scott: I guess that corresponds with my favorite color. I never thought about that before.

    John: Yeah, I was like, oh, you’re really riding it out. I like that. If you had to choose, Star Wars or Star Trek.

    Scott: Star Wars, 100X.

    John: Yeah. How about your computer, PC or a Mac?

    Scott: PC.

    John: PC. Yeah, me too. How about your mouse then, right click or left click?

    Scott: I think I’m left click, but I have one of those crazy ergonomic mouses, which may be more interesting.

    John: Right, like with the ball thing and the…

    Scott: Yeah, it’s the production.

    John: It’s like you’re playing a video game with Excel. Maybe cooler, never mind. How about puzzles, Sudoku or crossword?

    Scott: How about kid puzzles? Because my daughter’s two-and-a-half and it’s like, my wife is obsessed about puzzles, my mother’s obsessed about puzzles, and my daughter inherited all those traits. So, those are the kind of puzzles I do.

    John: That’s awesome, man. That’s so cool. All right, all right, that works. How about a favorite adult beverage? If you use your daughter for this, I’m going to ask some more questions.

    Scott: But I love kombucha now. My wife got me hooked on, what it’s called, it’s Sun Goddess. It’s incredible kombucha that’s made in California, the Bay Area. Good Eggs sells it, if you can use Good Eggs, but that’s my new choice.

    John: That’s awesome. Okay, all right. How about, balance sheet or income statement?

    Scott: Balance sheet.

    John: Balance sheet. Okay. All right. Oceans or mountains.

    Scott: Ocean.

    John: Ocean. All right. Yeah, California, that makes sense. Do you have a favorite actor or actress?

    Scott: You know what we’ve been doing lately? We just started watching all of Tom Hanks’ movies. We’re like, that guy makes good movies. Let’s just watch all his stuff.

    John: Right.

    Scott: I will say he’s probably my favorite right now.

    John: Yeah, yeah. Plus, there’s so many. You’re like, I forgot about that one and that one and, what? Yeah, it’s amazing. How about suit and tie or jeans and a T shirt?

    Scott: Jeans and a T shirt. I usually wear like a little of a button-up, but I wear jeans pretty much every day.

    John: Yeah, there you go. There you go. How about a favorite sports team?

    Scott: I would have to say the Warriors, Golden State Warriors.

    John: Okay. Yeah, they were so good for a while and, yeah, really fun.

    Scott: Yeah. It’s been like watching Picasso paint every game. They’re so good. They’re just amazing.

    John: That’s for sure. How about a favorite number?

    Scott: 16, Joe Montana’s jersey.

    John: There you go. Two for two on the Notre Dame references. I like this.

    Scott: For those who don’t know, Joe Montana went to college at Notre Dame and then he went and won four Super Bowls with 49ers.

    John: Right, exactly. How about, my book just came out, so Kindle or real books?

    Scott: Definitely Kindle, I love Kindle.

    John: There you go. Two more. Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?

    Scott: Early Bird. I wake up — today I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and worked out and then goofed around the computer and then played around with my daughter, made her breakfast.

    John: Oh, wow, 5:00 a.m. Yeah. I thought you were going to say worked out and then went back to sleep because that’s what I would have done. I was like, holy crap, that’s early. Last one, the favorite thing you have or the favorite thing you own.

    Scott: I would say — well, we’re going to talk about some stuff I like to do, but my favorite — I’m not a millennial, but I do like experiences more than actual items. I would say my favorite thing is being on a plane flying to Hawaii because I know I’m going to have a great vacation and a great time when I get there.

    John: All right, that works. The experiences, I like that, yeah. All right, that’s awesome. Let’s talk Ben’s Friends, sounds like such a cool organization. How did that start?

    Scott: Yeah. So Ben’s Friends is a patient’s support community for people with rare diseases. It all came about, I was in business school at Kellogg at Northwestern, and one of my good buddies, Ben Munoz, had a rare brain aneurysm. It just came out of nowhere. You don’t think about these things in life. It was very fortunate his girlfriend got him to the hospital. He has what’s called an AVM. It’s a different kind of brain hemorrhage, and 50% of people die who have that. So, Ben was lucky, emergency surgery, survived.

    He was trying to come back but — this is even before Facebook really took off and the internet really took off, or social networking really took off. He was trying to find support groups for his condition. He was living in Houston. Then he moved to Chicago, back to go to school. Neither of those cities could find a single person that had his condition. So, he was really lonely and depressed and, yeah, it was crazy.

    He just came up to me one day and was like, hey, I’m going to start a social network for people with my condition because I figure, if I can’t find them, maybe they can find me. I thought that was a really beautiful thing inside and so I was one of the first members or second member of the group. His AVM survivors community worked. We started multiple other communities, and then we incorporated into a nonprofit. We’re one of the largest patients support communities in the world now. We have, I think we have 40 or 42 patients support communities for all these different kinds of rare diseases.

    So, people can connect. Honestly, the most important thing is they don’t feel alone, but they can also share what’s working for them, what’s not working for them. Oftentimes, their spouses or their children or maybe their doctors don’t understand what’s going on with them, so they can share with each other. It’s been amazing. We’ve been operating for 13 years now.

    John: Wow.

    Scott: We just changed a lot of lives and so that’s one of my favorite things to do in my spare time.

    John: Yeah, that’s so cool. That’s insane. Chicago and Houston are the, what, third and fourth largest cities in the US, and there’s not a single person that has the same…

    Scott: Well, it turned out there were, he just couldn’t — there was no organizational principle. There’s no way of finding each other. So, when we built the communities, all of a sudden, we started popping up in Google. I used to moderate the communities, and so did Ben, every day, for many years. There was nothing better than someone would join the site, and we’d have a little kind of welcome thing. It was like we changed their life right in that moment. They were in a really dark place, and they found relief, and they found understanding. We have hundreds of thousands of members, across all the communities. When you think about all those people who just are benefiting from those social connections and sharing, it’s really powerful. It’s really cool.

    John: That’s amazing. I need to reassess things. No, I mean, just because you’re making a difference in so many people’s lives.

    Scott: Your podcast, this is actually really fun, and people are gonna hear about Ben’s Friends who wouldn’t have — I think the whole principle of your podcast is really amazing. I was even telling you before I turned the mike on, I had forgotten to even bring this up with you. I was thinking about it last night. That’s why we’re talking about it. What you’re doing to explore the other side of people, not just focus on people’s work, but focus on what makes them human, what makes them fun, what makes them passionate, is super cool.

    John: Well, no, I appreciate it, man. I appreciate it. With Ben’s Friends, is it like a community where they can just talk, or are there functions that happen as well?

    Scott: I always describe it, for the technical or nontechnical people, it’s like a mini-Facebook. You have a social network. You go there. There are posts. There are forums. There’s messaging each other. People post pictures. People post pictures of their kids or their loved ones all the time, all that stuff. So, it’s like a social network in a box, but the social network is made up of all people who have your exact issue.

    One of my favorite things, this is in early days when people were really scared about internet and influencing medical decisions, people would post like, here are my symptoms. A very common thing for people who have rare diseases, they’re often misdiagnosed a lot by doctors because doctors are going down that mental checklist of what you have, and they’re trying to remember. When it’s rare, they don’t see it very often, right?

    They would find the community, it would resonate with them, they’re pretty sure they had it, and they would print out those list of symptoms that other members had written about. They’d take the paper to their doctor and say, “Read this, this is what I have. Come on, let’s get on board here.” It was one of these things where I know doctors sometimes find that super annoying, and people do diagnose themselves in a crazy way. I would be typing stuff into Google and thinking I have cancer or something weird.

    John: You either have a cold, or you’re going to die in five minutes.

    Scott: Yeah, exactly.

    John: Like, what?

    Scott: These rare conditions, when you’ve been misdiagnosed for years, it’s incredibly empowering to tell the doctor, make that connection and actually get treated correctly.

    John: That’s really awesome, man. That’s really cool. You got involved because you were friends with him in grad school. You were right there.

    Scott: Yeah. I co-founded it with him. The other interesting thing about Ben’s Friends is it’s all patient moderator or community moderate. We took a lot from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an amazing resource the world has but really, there’s a few thousand people who really moderate Wikipedia. So, what we started doing was training the most active or most passionate members of the community and trained them into moderators so that they can, if there’s like a pharmaceutical salesperson joining the community, they chase them off. Or someone’s really in a bad state, they might direct them to the crisis text line or crisis phone call line where they can get help to avoid suicide or something like that. Ben’s Friends is powered by about 50 or 60 moderators who are just volunteers, who help out and want to help people who have the same condition as them. That’s one of the other things. It’s really people helping people at a very base level.

    John: Yeah, yeah. That’s awesome, man. Do you feel any of this translates to your corporate world?

    Scott: I think it did in the sense that we probably learned a few things. I always like to think it’s like, good things come unannounced sometimes. Because we were nonprofits, we didn’t really have any money, and we were doing this late at night. I would work a full day. I used to work in venture capital. I’d come home, and my favorite thing to do was moderate the communities. This was before I met my wife. Once I met my future wife, my girlfriend that became my wife, I stopped moderating quite as much because I actually had something else to do at night.

    John: Right, but you still ducked in. It wasn’t like —

    Scott: Oh, yeah.

    John: — you just bailed altogether. Yeah.

    Scott: We learned a lot about how Google works and how social networking works. We also really learned and lived the power of distributed teams and distributed volunteers. Our company now, the company that my wife founded, Kruze Consulting, that I work for, it’s an accounting firm, we are distributed across not only the whole United States, but across the whole world. One of the reasons we’re able to do that was some of the skills and tools I learned doing Ben’s Friends, helping teach the moderators, communicate with the moderators, just knowing how to operate online, living online, in a way. That actually was this incredible — I mean, I was a super active moderator probably for eight or nine years. Living that every day just taught me how the world works and how the internet works, and we’ve been able to leverage that in our business, too.

    John: That’s amazing, yeah, because at no point — I mean, even at Kellogg, does anyone tell you, go moderate a nonprofit charity that makes lives better to become a better business person? Like, what are you doing wasting your time on that computer internet thingy?

    Scott: Yeah. You need to learn how to do consulting case studies or something like that. Yeah. Actually the Kellogg community was incredibly supportive. Actually, still to this day, a huge component of our donations come from our classmates every year.

    John: That’s awesome.

    Scott: It actually was really powerful. It was like the right place at the right time to start something like that.

    John: Right.

    Scott: Because it’s not what you normally think of when you’re going to go to business school.

    John: Is this something that you talked about when you were working in the venture capital world or even now?

    Scott: Yeah, I would — so, in the same way that I learned so much that I could apply to Kruze, I was doing it the whole time I was working at the venture capital fund, Miles Capital. All the partners and the coworkers of mine were super supportive of it. They loved it. They thought it was awesome.

    A lot of the internet entrepreneurs, I could actually relate to, and this happens at Kruze too, because I know how hard it is to start something from the beginning. I can relate to your podcast and your comedy career in a way that probably most accountants couldn’t because I’ve been at, like, Day One and had no one coming to our website and then hundreds of thousands of people. The same thing, when Vanessa was starting Kruze Consulting, I could relate to her getting her first client and her 10th client and her 20th client.

    It’s really hard to start something, but it’s incredibly rewarding too. I can look those entrepreneurs that we’re investing in, in the eye, and be like, I know what you’re going through. I know how freaking stressful it is. I know how hard it is for people not to know that most people don’t care about what you’re doing, but some people care about what you’re doing. I’m one of those people. Let’s work together.

    John: That’s awesome. Yeah, because that just makes your career better because those relationships are so much stronger.

    Scott: Yeah, you just understand people in a way that other people — in a non-surface way.

    John: Yeah. It’s, I’ve done it, as opposed to, I read 17 case studies on it.

    Scott: Yeah. I’m sure there are analogies in your comedy career where you and other comedians are just — they just know how hard it is.

    John: Oh, yeah, totally. Yeah, and even actors and actresses, any artist of any sort, but comedians, especially. Because, yeah, when you’re creating art, if you have a painting, you don’t know immediately whether people like it or not. You’re probably not even there when they see it.

    Scott: First to make that painting or make that comedy act, knowing that you’re not going to have direct feedback.

    John: Yeah, but then in comedy, you get that direct feedback.

    Scott: That’s true.

    John: It’s not always great, not always great, especially when the joke’s new and you’re working on polishing it, and how many syllables and whatever, what words to use. No, that’s just so great. That’s amazing, just to know that, just from that experience of helping start and run Ben’s Friends, how many good things have come from that, not only just helping others, but even just in your own career, just accidentally.

    Scott: I have a question for you, just while we’re talking, it just popped in my head. Do you ever feel like, because you’re saying you get the direct feedback, you learn that it’s okay to bomb or it’s okay not to be perfect?

    John: Oh, yeah. It’s part of the process.

    Scott: Yeah. Learning that lesson was maybe the most freeing lesson I’ve ever learned in my life. I remember in business school, I was trying a lot of different stuff, interviewing for a lot of different industries that I wasn’t qualified for, and I was bombing half my interviews. I was like, wait a second, it’s actually not that bad. I walked out. I’m fine. I’m not even really studying. The world’s going to go on, not that big of a deal.

    John: Exactly, and I think for a lot of people that have been on the podcast, or listen, it’s the same with sharing an outside of work interest. We build this up in our head that people are going to judge me, people don’t care, whatever it is. Then you start to share it, and people think it’s cool, like you said, the venture capital, even now, the clients and coworkers. It’s a cool thing.

    Scott: Yeah. We were talking before we turned the mikes on, about we do a bunch of sharing about our outside of work life at Kruze. We talk about our favorite foods. We have a top chefs channel in Slack. I highly recommend that to people. It’s a little cheesy, but people love sharing pictures of their food. I love looking at those pictures, and so does our company, so, definitely top chefs pounds, top chefs in Slack, if you have Slack at your work. We also have a dad jokes channel that people like.

    We also have a diversity channel, which I’m super proud of, that was actually adjusted by one of our team members who’s — one of our most junior team members, Janika, took it upon herself to start a diversity channel. Now we share about all the different cultures and what people are going through. It’s been super awesome during Black Lives Matter because it’s given the whole team a lot of context on that. Instead of people being afraid to talk about it or not knowing what to say or not empathizing, there’s a ton of empathy. There’s a ton of understanding all because of the sharing. This is not professional talk whatsoever. This is all just sharing who we really are, what our interests are. It’s all consistent with the theme of your podcast.

    John: That’s great because it’s just cool to hear examples that people listening can be like, well, we could do that, type of thing. It’s just open that door just a little bit to people’s lives. You don’t have to blow it wide open at first, but just a little peek. Especially now in the past couple of months, we’ve been in each other’s homes with Zoom calls or whatever kind of calls and video conferencing, so don’t act like you haven’t been in each other’s homes, never seen what art or their dog or their kids or what they look like in the morning with their hair all a mess.

    Scott: Totally. I really dig that with the kids and pets too. I know the beginning of COVID, everyone was trying — they didn’t know how to act if your kid ran in, on camera, and started talking to the whole group. For us, we’ve really encouraged our team to just embrace it. This kid is probably the person you love the most in the world. Be nice to the kid. Half the people you’re talking to on video, have kids too, and the other half were kids or have nephews and nieces. It’s okay. It’s totally cool.

    John: Yeah. It’s almost like, just get them their own channel, so they can join the meeting too. Get your own box, Suzy, or whatever.

    Scott: They need a calendar and they need an automatic meeting invite. I love it.

    John: Exactly. They get their own Slack account. Let’s do this. That’s a question that I like to think about too, is, and it sounds like you guys are doing a really great job at it, is, how much is it on the organization to create that culture where it’s okay to be human, and how much is it on the individual to either be a part of that, or if that doesn’t exist, then start their own little circle?

    Scott: You used the phrase that I really like, which is make space for it. I think the organizations, what it should do is make space for it and make it okay and normalize it. That’s through communication. That’s through constant — every Monday morning meeting, we talk about –we do dad jokes, we do what people did that weekend, we do most fun dishes. Whenever someone starts at our company, we ask them to talk about their bio, but then we say, what’s your favorite thing for lunch? It just opens the door. Then having things the Slack channels with top chef or diversity channel or dad — it just continues to reinforce that it’s okay.

    I think what I’ve found is once that doors open, they enter, no problem. It’s not an issue, and they’re actually excited about it. It’s more fun. Even today, it makes it just a more fun place to work, and you understand your coworkers. That’s more fun. It also gets rid of the illusion that we’re all supposed to be perfect or have a perfect day, every day. We all have our ups and downs. So, people can also empathize with each other when they’re having a bad day and celebrate good days.

    John: That’s awesome, man. That’s so well put because, yeah, we’re not all firing on all cylinders all the time. I think if you expect that of yourself or even of others, you’re going to fail twice as hard because you’re just unforgiving to even yourself. We’re not perfect. Mistakes are going to happen. It’s just, don’t do them as much as possible, but you’re trying. There are other people around you that will help too.

    Scott: I think also in COVID especially, it’s even more important because we’re all left alone to our own thoughts a lot more. We have a giant mirror facing us every day because we can’t get out. We can’t distract ourselves quite as much. So, that support and that normalization is even more important. One of the things we’ve been doing is really being aggressive about asking people to take time off. Because they couldn’t really go anywhere, they weren’t taking vacations, but then what that was doing — it was actually the ultimate time when they needed to take a vacation or just take a day here or a day there just to get away from the COVID, especially people have kids who are trying to babysit and manage those kids during the day. It’s way too hard. So, that was something I’m proud of. We aggressively promoted and messaged people and said, please take a vacation. It turns out, they started doing that. We jarred everyone out of that work every day and not take care of their health.

    John: Because we’re also permission-based. Just do it. Oh, wait, no one even said anything, which is great. Then they did. People just don’t want to get in trouble. It’s like, well, really? Come on.

    Scott: I went back and did a study a few years ago. The people who were most successful at our company are the ones that took their vacations. The people who were in a workaholic environment or just didn’t have the self-discipline to step away were actually people who always ended up burning out very quickly. The cost of a burned out person and the change in your corporate culture, those people can tilt the culture to a negative place. If you’re running something, or just a team, just make sure you police that stuff because sometimes you’ve got to help save people from themselves. I know I’m an obsessive person. I’m the kind of person who, if it wasn’t reinforced to me to take a vacation, I would just keep working and keep doing stuff like that. So, help people save themselves from themselves. It’ll be a more productive work environment. It’ll be more fun too.

    John: That’s awesome, man. That’s such a great takeaway for everyone listening. Whether you’re a COO or a manager-level or even entry-level, no matter what it is, the people around you, take care of each other.

    Scott: Yeah.

    John: Yeah, that’s huge, man. That’s so huge. This has been so much fun, Scott, and really awesome. It’s only fair that I allow you to question me. We’ll make it The Scott Orn Show, which I know you have your own podcast, which everyone can get a link to at whatsyourand.com. It’s The Scott Orn Show. You fire away here.

    Scott: I hope this isn’t too crude, but there’s a game people play, F, Marry, Kill, so, who would you F, marry and kill between Stanford, USC and the University of Miami?

    John: Oh, my goodness.

    Scott: John is a huge Notre Dame football fan, and those are all rivals of those —

    John: That’s hilarious. Well, I’m definitely not marrying any of them. As far as I’m concerned, they can all go F themselves. I don’t know, kill all of them. I don’t know. If there was a three-way game of football, that would be awesome, and then it fell off into the ocean. Yeah, I wouldn’t blink an eye but they’re all not good.

    Scott: Next question, burritos or pizza.

    John: Oh, man, that’s a hard one. Yeah, I’m going to go really good pizza, I guess, just because it’s got to be really good. My New York days have, I think, tainted me. Although, now in Denver, it took me two years, but I found a good one.

    Scott: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s so important in life.

    John: Yeah, it is. It is.

    Scott: I have one more for you, Paris, France or Paris, Las Vegas.

    John: Paris, Las Vegas, whatever the other of Paris, France. Even if you said the Coliseum at USC campus, I would have probably picked that.

    Scott: Really? Why?

    John: I’ve been to Paris once, and it was not great. It just wasn’t a positive experience.

    Scott: My approach to it is marry someone who speaks French. My wife isn’t fluent, but she speaks enough, and she’s cute. Everyone wants to talk to us. When I went there by myself as a bachelor, yes, it was more challenging.

    John: Well, thanks so much, Scott, for being a part of What’s Your “And”? It was so encouraging to hear this, and really fun.

    Scott: Thanks, John. Thanks for having me on, really appreciate it.

    John: Absolutely, and everyone listening, if you want to see some pictures of Scott outside of work or connect with him on social media, be sure to go to whatsyourand.com. Also, the links to Ben’s Friends will be there as well. While you’re on the page, please click that big green button, do the anonymous research survey about corporate culture.

    Thanks again for subscribing on iTunes or whatever app you use and for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread that who you are is so much more than what you do.


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