Published by

About episode

On paper, there’s a lot that’s admirable about Scott Kaufman: he has a Ph.D. from Columbia University; he worked for years to reduce corporate carbon footprints; he built a successful big data startup, which he founded soon after receiving a life-changing diagnosis. But listen to him talk and you’ll realize it’s his thoughtful philosophy in the face of life’s range of challenges that makes him an admirable (and successful) entrepreneur and global citizen.



Jessica Jackley

Cofounder of, the world’s first crowdfunded microlending website and the author of Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration From Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most With the Least.

View transcript

JESSICA JACKLEY: Welcome to Points of Courage, where talk to entrepreneurs who have put a lot of sweat, some tears, and who knows how many hours into starting their own businesses. I'm your host, Jessica Jackley.

I took my own business risks about a decade when I started Kiva, a peer to peer microlending website that funds entrepreneurs around the world. Today, I teach and speak widely on entrepreneurship, and I also get to talk to incredible thinkers and innovators here, on Points of Courage.

I love having real conversations with entrepreneurs who have built their companies from the ground up, with nothing but their own drive, passion, and courage. And I'm constantly learning new things as I hear each one's unique journey. You should get ready to learn a lot, too.

This podcast is brought to you by Hiscox Insurance, America's Number 1, online, small-business insurer. You can learn more about Hiscox at, that's Hiscox, encourage, courage.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Today, I'm talking to Scott Kaufman. Scott founded his data collection and management company, four years ago. Not along after receiving a devastating diagnosis. But instead of turning away from his dreams, his fast forwarded and dove right into them. I'm still thrilled to have him in the studio today to talk about it.

Hey Scott.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Hi, Jessica, how are you doing?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I'm good. Thank you for being here.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Thank you for having me.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I would love to dive right in. can you tell us a little bit about what Peer Aspect does in Laymen's terms?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: So the original I deal I had for the business was not very good.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Okay. Can you tell us why?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. Because it didn't work and nobody bought it.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Okay. Done (laughs).

SCOTT KAUFMAN: A friend of mine who ran a consulting group that was pretty similar to what I was doing, when I told him what the idea for the company was, he laughed at me. He laughed in my face. He said, that's not going to work.So, I sort of appreciated that—


SCOTT KAUFMAN: —Surprisingly enough.

JESSICA JACKLEY: BUt what was it? How different was it from what you're doing today?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: It's sort of a long story full of accidents. I guess these things typically tend to be. But I was finishing up my PhD at columbia, where I was studying environmental engineering. And the work I was doing at columbia and consulting afterwards, was very much this supply chain environmental measurement carbon footprinting kind of stuff. So companies would give us their measurement of a carbon footprint for let's say, a bottle of soda.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: Then they would have a number. And there's a model behind that, sort of a mathematical—

JESSICA JACKLEY: Right. But it sounds like each company would come up with their own to do that, and then hand you the results and say, "Are we right?"



SCOTT KAUFMAN: So what I came to realize a team of six people in a world full of different industries and and and different companies and different specialities, they were never going to have the skill to efficiently provide that stamp of approval for all the companies that I thought were gonna need that work.

So the idea originally was an online platform for sort of a distributed team of, of independent experts, who would then get assigned this work from different companies and they would verify and it would be all done online on this platform.

JESSICA JACKLEY: That sounds like a fantastic idea.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Well that's what everyone thought. So, you would've told me the same thing, and I thank you for it. But nobody bought it.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I think it's so fascinating to hear about the times when entrepreneurs have to pivot and say, "Okay, I've put everything I have into this, and it's not working, so I either have to shut the thing down or SCOTT KAUFMAN: strategies, so can you tell a little bit more about that moment?"

SCOTT KAUFMAN: We were running out of money and for some reason another colleague of mine in the industry thought that the platform would be good and was meant for collecting supply-chain environmental data. And he said, "Does your platform do this?"


SCOTT KAUFMAN: And I said: yes!


SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah, yeah it might've been stretching the truth a little bit, but.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Well you knew, good, you knew you could make that happen.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. So we made it happen very quickly. We just sort of threw together a platform that sort of did it, and then, this is interesting.

JESSICA JACKLEY: (laughing) It's all interesting.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: About nine months later, the guy who laughed into my face in the beginning, I ran into him at a conference, and he came sort of running up to me, laughing, and sort of said, while laughing, "how's your business going?" like, expecting to hear that it wasn't going well, because he didn't think it would.

And I said, "Well, pretty well, actually, we're releasing this software platform today that does this data collection for supply-chains." And he said, "Really? I ... I happen to have a very big client who needs exactly that right now." And so I went to his hotel room at like 11 o'clock that night and I showed him the platform, and the next week we were pitching it to this big client of his.

And that, that sort of, the rest is history. Yeah.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow. Wow. I love that. I love this character in this story who has come full circle. (laughs) And so, how did you get into this?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I, I always wanted to start my own business. ANd I was sort of prodded by life circumstances to do that a little more quickly than I think I might've been ready for otherwise.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Right, so tell us, if you would, what that was like, that moment, when you decided to say, "I'm not going to wait anymore, I'm going to do this."

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah, so, as you alluded to in the beginning, I was diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson's disease, I guess it's about five years ago now. ANd that was a very difficult thing to deal with. And it sort of floored me at first. I was shocked. I was really depressed. I was sort of dealing with it, very much on my own as well, I didn't want to tell too many people.

So, I guess maybe I should talk a little bit about what Parkinson's does to you.

JESSICA JACKLEY: That would be great. I'm sure some people are wondering.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah, it's a progressive disease. Just constantly getting worse. It's a movement disorder, so anything having to do with movement, like moving your hands or arms and fine motor skills like typing, or speaking is a kind of movement, or walking. It's slowly makes it harder to do that stuff. And the other piece of it is, it's incurable, so any of the treatments that exist as of this moment are treating symptoms so you can live your life normally.

So after picking myself up off the mat, after the first few months of dealing with it, I very quickly came to realize that I still had a life to live, and one thing like I said that I always wanted to do was start my own company, and I was hit with the idea for it, when I was, I was in london for a conference and I was shaving, I'll never forget the moment—

JESSICA JACKLEY: Okay, I love it.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: the idea for the business hit me. And ... came back to the states, started thinking about it, talking to my friends and family, and eventually I just sold all of my stuff, I was single in New York city at the time. I packed a rental car full of whatever I had left that would fit, and I drove to Boston and just started sleeping on floors for the first few months—


SCOTT KAUFMAN: To just really go for it.



JESSICA JACKLEY: What was the internal dialogue like when you decided to take this news and say, "I'm going to move forward anyway." Because I think everybody listening hs had a moment, or will have a moment where they feel like, they have every reason in the world to stop.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: yeah. That's a really good question. And I'm thinking of my cousin right now, I have cousins that I'm really close to, I was talking to them, kind of whining to them in the beginning about how, ow hard it was, and how I didn't want to deal with it, and they are very much present-oriented people. They're extremely good at living in the moment. Maybe a little bit too good, but that's another story. So I took that very much to heart.

And, I still worried a lot, but you know, I started training myself to, to just lift while I could and be in the moment and do the things that I still could do, as long as I could do them.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: But when I think about it now, you know, it's been five years, and it's been in most respects, the best five years of my life.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: So when I think back to all of the time I waste worrying what would happen, I lost some of those five years because of that. And that, that's a mistake that I don't want to continue to make.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow. Tell us a little bit about the beginning and how you kept that focus, and kept that commitment, despite the ups and downs that come with any beginning.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. So it, it was ... almost always in the form some kind of gift that I got from someone. Not like a present wrapped in a box, but something that people had to offer me, because of what I was doing, and I want to point out that nobody really knew about my illness. I kept that very much to myself and to a very close circle of people until now actually (laughs).


SCOTT KAUFMAN: So when you start something, you're putting yourself out there, meeting people who are inspired by what you're doing, and they just want to help you. It's, it's unbelievable. It happened so many times. I think that one of the first instances of that is a friend of mine had an office space in Boston that was being unused by his company, it was a little too small for it. So he offered me office space, and he made us paint in order to give us the space. Um, but after we painted, we had that spot for over a year. But there are two many things like that to count. You just meet people all the time that want to help you accomplish what you're trying to accomplish.


So I think any entrepreneur, inherently, has a courage spirit that gets them through the unexpected things, the challenges. Where does your source of courage come from?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Is it, is it really possible to know that, do you think?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Well I don't know, I think some people say, hey, I ... I've heard this piece of advice and it's a touchstone for me... and I connect with it all the time. I don't know, maybe, what are the things that help remind you to keep pressing on?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. So my friends are without a doubt that. I don't if they're the entire thing, but if they're not, they're pretty close. I have a couple friends who I have talked to so much about my business, I've whined to them, and complained to them, and told them I was quitting and I couldn't do it and that I was horrible. And also told them how great I thought I was doing when, when that was happening, and when they are triumphs, and that I would celebrate those with them.

But without a doubt, my, my friends have just been the solid piece throughout. My family as well. My mom especially. And now my wife is a huge, huge part of it.

JESSICA JACKLEY: That's huge. THat's huge. I think it really speaks to the importance of nourishing those relationships of people close to you that are going to go through all of the stuff together by your side.

So how has ... the Parkinson's diagnosis affected your work, day to day?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: So I can tell you an example.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: I was flown to India to give a talk at a conference. And speaking at events, and at conferences ... I used to teach classes, it's just something I was always good at. But I was really nervous. This was just pretty shortly after I was diagnosed, and I wasn't being treated yet.

So, I went up there and I did a really bad job. I mean I was extremely nervous and I was shaking and my voice was, was going, and I was very shaky. What I was thinking was, I have to stop doing this. I just cannot give talks at conferences anymore.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: I cannot do public speaking. And that would not have been wise if I had just gone down that road. So ... I think I learned a lesson there, and if you fast forward a couple of years later, we were in the running for this Maryland State Venture fund. And I made the pitch and I met the deck and Sujeesh, my partner, he worked on it with me obviously, but we were doing it as if I was going to deliver it. You know, my wife told me, when I would tell her, like, "I don't know if I should do this." She would go, "yes, you are going to do this, and if you're nervous about the Parkinson's thing, just tell them, in the beginning."

JESSICA JACKLEY: Which was something you had never done before, certainly not publicly or on a stage or something.



SCOTT KAUFMAN: So I was talking to Sujeesh over lunch about this, and I asked him if it was okay if I did that, and he was like, "yeah, sure. I don't care. You can do it, it doesn't bother me. It's not, it doesn't make a difference to me. Which has always been his message around it, which I'm pretty grateful for."

The day came, and I was expecting there to be six or seven people in the room, maybe, and it turned out there were like, 40.

JESSICA JACKLEY: What did you think when you walked in and saw there were so many more faces there than you expected?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I think that I thought I might not be able to say this, because I was feeling pretty good, but I told them, I said "I'd have something to tell you." I told him what it was, I made a little joke. Everyone laughed. And I said, "Okay, can we move on now?" And everyone went together, yes! Like, they all sort of shouted out yes.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Sounds like one of the most amazing responses they could've had.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. And we nailed the pitch, and we got the, we got the money.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Nice. Nice. That's incredible. That just speaks so much to who you are and who you've chosen to be in the wake of all of this. Like, putting it out there, continuing on, anyway. An figuring how to not make it the center of things for you, but know that it's a reality and manage it.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I don't know if I would've started the business if I didn't get Parkinson's.


SCOTT KAUFMAN: And it's, I mean, it's a horrible thing, I'm not going to lie. It's a pain to deal with. I'm grateful for it in some really weird ways, and like I said, the last five years since I've gotten it, have been some of the best of my life.

JESSICA JACKLEY: It's incredibly inspiring.


JESSICA JACKLEY: Is there something that you wish you'd known before you started?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. I wish there was a way for me to learn not to care what people think before I started. That I would've learned that. And I still, I still need to be taught how to do that. I don't know, maybe you can teach me?

JESSICA JACKLEY: (laughs) I think you're doing a great job, first of all.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: But that's another thing people don't tell you. It's not just the negative feedback you get about yourself, or the negative things that you think that people think about you. It's the positive things that people say too.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh, go more into that.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah, you can't ask people if it's going to work for example.Like, when you start.

JESSICA JACKLEY: That is huge, oh my gosh, say it again, I'm just like, so excited about this. So you can't—

SCOTT KAUFMAN: It's almost like, when I started, I had a check list of all of the people that I had to ask, and it didn't work this way, but it seems like how it is in retrospect. Like I needed all these people to say, "Yes I approve, yes I approve, yes I approve." And the idea didn't work! Like they all said, "This is great, they said it was going to be a success, can I invest?" And it didn't work, they were all wrong.

JESSICA JACKLEY: And how about the Pivot? Did you check with that list again?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: No, I was, by then I was like, oh my god, this is so obvious.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Right, you're going to figure it out yourself.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. But I still need, I still need people's' approval desperately, often. And I guess probably most of us do, but it doesn't help really very much beyond the instant rush of adrenaline you get, I guess.

JESSICA JACKLEY: It strikes me that I think most people have some phase before they begin where they're sort of asking the world for permission, enough that they feel confident enough or ready to ... make this jump into the unknown. But the reality is, as you're saying, it's just going to be an uncertain path, and you have to figure it out as you go, and even if everybody is saying it'll work, it might not.

And even if everybody's saying it won't work, it still might!

SCOTT KAUFMAN: That might be the biggest lesson I've learned from starting a business. I just totally get that now. It doesn't mean I still don't need, but when I recognize when I'm needing it, I say to myself, "Oh yeah, lie, they have no idea what they're talking about."

JESSICA JACKLEY: Mmm. I think everyone sees risk differently and measures it maybe a little differently, and so can you tell me maybe a little bit about how that's played a role in your business and the decisions that you've made?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: When you're running a business, people think of entrepreneurs and startups as these big risk-taking machines, and I haven't found that to be the case, really. I mean obviously you take a risk in starting something, but I've found that so much more of the time is doing like little mundane things, like answering the phone when somebody calls with the problem, and ... these are not ... inherently risky behaviors or things that you have to do, or tasks. So I've hardly spent any time thinking about risk, until there's this moment ...

Where you have a key decision to make, like a pivot or a focus that you're gonna take as a company or something like that. Every now and then there's this transitional moment it seems like, and that's taking a risk. Like, you're saying, "We're going to become this, and we're staking our business on the fact that it's going to work."

So that pivotal moment with that first client, my laughing colleague is a good example of that. We had to make that decision, we had to take the risk to say that we could do this, that it was something that was in our power to accomplish.

Absolutely. That risk of identity. That risk of declaring to the world, even if it's just a handful of people that hear you at first, it's terrifying sometimes, to put it out there. Especially if it's a big transition from what you've been doing in the past. Do you think of yourself as a leader?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I very much want to. It's something I've always been drawn to thinking of myself as, so, I guess so! (laughs)

JESSICA JACKLEY: What does that look like for you as you, try to manifest that? How do you put that into practice?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: So, my way is to communicate. I think if I think of leadership that I contribute to my company or to the world or whatever it is I'm doing, it's that we don't leave things unsaid that are going to come back to haunt us later. So I guess an example is my partner, Sujeesh and I, have an amazing relationship. We've had ups and downs and a couple of really bad downs, and also some really big ups.

But, after a bad down that we had, we came up with this idea to check in with each other, we started doing it every week, and we would ask each other very pointed questions, like "How do you feel about your relationship with me?" That was a big one.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow! Very vulnerable.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: yeah. Another one was, "What's your end-of-the-rope factor. How close are you to quitting? How fulfilled are you by doing this job? We ask each other these questions. We now do it once a month because we've, we've been a little bit too busy, to ... it turned into like a two hour conversation.

JESSICA JACKLEY: yeah, I imagine.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: But we've also applied that to other people in the company and it's funny to see how different people react to that kind of ask. It's not like, you know, can you build this piece of functionality for me, it's like can you bear your soul?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Right. But it's a great litmus test for understanding if a person will really be able to gel with the culture that you've created.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. I think so ... for Sujeesh and I think, you'll have to ask him if this is true, but it's made our relationship even better than it was.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I'm in awe. That's an incredibly intense and really cool thing to do—


JESSICA JACKLEY:  —to make sure that you're getting at that stuff. I think a lot of partnerships in business end up failing because they don't have that level of intense transparent communication. So, bravo.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: No one ever tells you that when you're starting a business with someone like it is the most intense relationship. I mean you're spending, you're spending probably 8 hours a day dealing with them, and it's on weekends too, and ... you have.

JESSICA JACKLEY: It's most of your waking hours and life.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. Yeah. An if you can survive that, you've got a pretty good relationship I think.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I would agree. I would agree. He sounds like an incredible partner.


JESSICA JACKLEY: And you have a five person team now?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: We're around ten, roughly?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh okay, oh okay.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I don't really know where everyone is, I might be miscounting.

JESSICA JACKLEY: What is it like to manage a team for you?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: It's my favorite I think. I think it's probably because of the, the interpersonal stuff that goes on. IT comes naturally to me to worry about how people are feeling, whether they're satisfied or not, whether they're fulfilled by what they're doing. That matters to me more than anything else. And I think my partner is much better than me in most respects. He's an incredible manager of tasks and people and projects and anything that requires thinking, he's just, he's amazing. But when I wonder like what my place is sometimes, I sort of come back to this, you know, wanting to make sure that everybody's okay.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I love the language you're using right now.Making sure everybody's okay. I've spoke to people who I think are amazing managers, and they talk about their job being about nurturing, about caring for the teams that they have and taking the barriers away. Making sure that they're freed to do their jobs. So what's one of the best pieces of business advice you've ever received?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: So ... one thing about starting a business is you can be absolutely sure that everybody in the world is gonna give you advice.

JESSICA JACKLEY: It's like being pregnant (laughs).

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I, I wouldn't know.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Just trust me.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Okay, I trust you. Yeah, I've gotten so much advice, and it's always, it never agrees with each other. I don't know. I don't know. I have advice that I think of if somebody asks me, which no one ever does, for some reason.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh well, I'm asking you right now, please tell us, what is some of the best advice that you have, to give aspiring entrepreneurs listening to this right now.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Okay good. I can answer that. The best thing that you can do to start a business is to start a business. That is my advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. IT sounds so stupid I guess, but ... there are a million reasons not to do it, there are a million reasons to do it, and you can analyze them back and forth for the st of your life, and everyone will tell you either, "It's going to work," or "It's not going to work." Everyone will have an opinion on that.

And the only thing that you can to do start a business is to just do it. It doesn't matter what the idea is, I don't think. It doesn't matter how much in the way of resources you have. It doesn't matter how much in the way of experience you have. Like, you just have to put yourself out there.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Yes. There's always more to do to prepare and once you start you realize the best preparation is the thing itself.


JESSICA JACKLEY: Fantastic. Thank you for that amazing piece of advice.

What does success look for you with this venture, now, three years, five years from now?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: I think a lot about what success means uh, uh for me, and for the business, when I'm thinking about it in the healthiest way, I feel like I've already done it. I look back and you know we started this thing from nothing and it's five years later and we have however many clients we have, it's not enough, but it's ... enough to sustain a business and to keep it growing. I mean, what else is success besides that? We did it! Um ... I'm a success. I can say that. But I want, I want more.

So ...

JESSICA JACKLEY: A healthy balance. Healthy attention.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. Yeah. So what do I want, I want all of us to come out of it, with, materially, what we set to get when we started it, so ... we talk about it, we all feel like we've made a successful company, so I think spiritually we're all there, so I want the material part to be selfish.

JESSICA JACKLEY: What an incredible way to live, to, come back to that on a regular basis, to say "This is happening. It's already success. The rest is icing on the cake." It's nice to at least spend a few seconds at least dwelling in that and appreciating the moments that you've created.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Yeah. You have to do that.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Your cousins would be proud.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: They would be proud. They would be proud. Yeah.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Well gosh, this has been so fun, I'm a little bit bummed that we have to wrap it up, but I'm great for your time, and I'm inspired that you've left me with so much to think about, so thank you.

SCOTT KAUFMAN: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it, too.

JESSICA JACKLEY: It seems really clear to me that the takeaway from Scott's story is really about living in the moment. You know Scott wasn't overflowing with reasons that he could articulate about why and how he stepped up, but he just do it. That blew me away.

Because I am a talker, I like words, I like to think about explaining exactly what motivates me, and why I'm doing what I'm doing. Scott just shows it through his life. We all face challenges and appreciating that there will never be another moment like the present moment to conquer those challenges, to step forward to kind of step up to the scary stuff in life. That what matters is what you do! That's what I got from Scott! And I want to try to hold onto that, and carry that with me.

That's it for this episode of Points of Courage. Next week I'm talking to a Texan event planner who had the guts to against the "bigger is better" trend and is now at the helm of a wedding planning business in Ohio.

Points of Courage is produced by Panoply Custom Studios and is brought to you by Hiscox Insurance, America's number 1, online small business insurer. Thank you again to Scott Kaufman for his inspiring and brave story. To hear more inspirational stories of entrepreneurs taking a leap to start a business, subscribe to Points of Courage, wherever you get your podcasts.

I am Jessica Jackley, thanks for listening.

Want to learn more about what Scott does to stay ahead of the analytical curve? Go to to read the article and check out more about his work.

Related Media

View all episodes
× Close Window
, :
00:00 / 00:00