Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur“ we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Carr.
Joe Carr, co-founder and President of Serenity Kids Baby Food, is a certified life coach and educator devoted to social justice activism. An autism activist and proponent of the Paleo diet, Joe serves on the Advisory Board for Autism Hope Alliance and works with other autistic adults and youth to help them harness their gifts and genuinely believes that food is medicine. As President of Serenity Kids, Joe oversees day-to-day operations and leads sales that will transform the baby food industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Joe Carr: I grew up undiagnosed autistic and had a difficult childhood. I had HUGE energy. I was loud, intense, rambunctious, and took over any classroom or social group, which made me very unpopular with the other students and teachers alike. I was excluded and bullied, and constantly in trouble. Doctors labeled me as ADHD, but that didn’t help. In the end, my only “diagnosis” was “obnoxious”. I also had a multitude of physical problems. I was a picky eater. I was overweight. I had constant stomach pain, fierce anxiety, and insomnia. I lived mostly off of canned ravioli and nachos, not knowing then that I am highly sensitive to gluten and dairy.
What changed? One of the popular girls in my middle school decided that instead of being mean to me, she was going to teach me how to be cool. And I said, “Okay, I’ll do whatever you say!” And that was when I learned the most important lesson of my life: I can take feedback and change myself for the better. Thus began a personal growth journey that continues to this day.
As an adult, I started incorporating diet into that and found that removing processed foods and sticking to clean meats and veggies played a big role in improving my life. I met Serenity and she loved my passion, my intensity, my sensitivity, and encouraged me to embrace my autistic traits rather than dumb them down. When we started family planning, we went looking for healthy baby food options. We were astounded by how much sugar and how little nutrition was available on the market. We decided to combine her passion for food and nutrition, and my passion to help children, and start Serenity Kids Baby Food.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Joe Carr: Serenity and I were at the international Paleo conference Paleo f(x) in 2016. We were planning to start a family at that time and decided to look around for clean meat and low sugar baby foods. We couldn’t find anything like that and everybody we talked to was like, “Yeah, that’s so weird. Why hasn’t somebody done that? Somebody should do that.” So, we were like, we should do that!
Serenity did a ton of research on what the best diet is for babies, and it was the polar opposite from what baby foods were currently on the shelf. Baby food was mostly sugar, all fruit purees with a little bit of vegetables. Babies need a lot of fat. They need really good meat and they need some vegetables. They need protein, fat, and carbs. They don’t need sugar. So, we created a very unique baby food concept and tested the flavors with babies and they loved it!
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Joe Carr: I was definitely a natural born entrepreneur! I started my first business at age five. While everyone else was selling lemonade, I sold homemade flags! I had a flag book and we made flags, attached them to sticks and sold those at the side of the road. I remember people pulling over expecting lemonade and were disappointed that we sold flags. It was my first lesson in marketing. You have to have a market for your business.
I’ve always been a starter. I have started all kinds of things throughout my life. Prior to Serenity Kids, I started an after-school summer program for kids. It didn’t succeed due to business challenges, but I used it as a learning opportunity to discover the ins and outs of running a business. I love being my own boss. I have never been a great employee, I don’t follow arbitrary rules well. I was actually fired from most of my jobs for trying to make them better. My bosses did not like hearing about how the company could run better from their subordinate
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Joe Carr: When we first started Serenity Kids, we decided that we needed someone who has “done business” before. Serenity and I had a lot of passion, but not a lot of business experience. We needed somebody who could keep us from making fatal mistakes now that could hurt us later. We manifested Ronnie Raben, a 75 year old former attorney and businessman who is very skilled at executive development, fundraising, and business management. He taught us everything from how to be an executive, how to raise money, how to work with investors, how to think like investors, and how to have a money mentality. He basically said “I’m going to teach you how to be rich. Because by the time we’re done with all this, you’re going to be rich.” He’s been a really great friend and mentor who has helped us through complex problems and relationships and has been instrumental in the growth of our company.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Joe Carr: When people ask what makes our products different, I usually say, “well the only thing that makes it the same is that it is a puree in a pouch, everything else about it is different.” I feel the same way about our company. We are a company, but really we’re more like a family, a community, dedicated to a common mission, with tons of love and affection for each other. I’ve personally never seen a company with such intense loyalty from it’s staff and customers as we have. Our team really loves what we have built and are super proud to be a part of it.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Perseverance – I am willing to do whatever it takes, no matter the obstacle or challenge. When I set my sights on a goal, there is nothing that will stand in my way. There have been a few moments where Serenity thought we might be done, like when we lost our first co-packer after 4 failed production runs and couldn’t launch our products. But I never had any doubt, and we did what it took to get another co-packer on board and get to launch.
Positivity – It’s a rough ride, and we have to keep a positive attitude to keep having fun, learn from mistakes and build a supportive team culture. I love when my team brings me “problems” and I turn them into exciting opportunities, and the creativity that comes from problem solving always brings new innovation.
Surrender – I’m going to talk about this one a lot, because trying to control any outcome is a recipe for suffering. The more creative or innovative we try to be, the easier it is to get attached to outcomes and get upset when there are setbacks. It took us two years and over a million dollars in funding just to get our products to launch, and every time there was a failed production run I would get so upset and angry. Then our products launched on the same day our baby was born and has skyrocketed ever since. All the business building we did in those two years were essential to our success, so it really helped me learn that every “setback” had a purpose and I need to trust that it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Joe Carr: Some of our early investment deals came with a request for “advisory shares”, which are basically free shares given to people who are going to serve as official advisors. But in this case, the shares were tacked on as part of an investment round. I was advised that this is a normal thing and that we should give these shares because it’s a good deal and it’s not that much equity, and they’re going to help us. I don’t regret bringing on any of the advisors I’ve brought on as they’ve all been helpful, but I definitely regret how much equity I gave them. I feel like we gave away a lot of additional equity early on to people for free, for services that we could have gotten for a lot less equity. That equity is very valuable today. So it’s painful to see how much we gave them back then. So I kind of regret being pressured into giving additional equity to people as part of investment rounds when I didn’t have to, I could have given a lesser amount, or maybe none at all and the round would have still been fine.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Joe Carr: This is a question that entrepreneurs and business owners do not ask enough. Serenity and I witnessed entrepreneurs make themselves sick trying to sell health food – they developed unhealthy habits, they didn’t see their kids for months at a time, etc. It was bad and we did not want to be like that. We believed there had to be a way to run a successful startup and not burn out, for us and our employees. Plus ultimately, people stressed out in fight or flight mode cannot perform optimally. So it’s not just nice-to-have happy employees, it’s actually crucial to the success of an organization for employees to enjoy the work culture, avoid mistakes, and reduce turnover.
The most important thing here is to model it. If I work on the weekend and people see me sending emails or texting questions, they’re going to think they have to work on the weekend. Today’s work culture often rewards working long hours, and people think they must respond immediately if the boss emails on the weekend. So modeling good work boundaries is essential. My employees need to see me take vacations and not messaging them in evenings or weekends. If I do need something during off hours, I have to be clear that it’s an exception and is urgent, and thank them for their willingness to help during their off time. We also require our employees to take vacation and days off and publicly reward good work/life boundaries. But most importantly, we model it.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Joe Carr: This question is all about integrity. Integrity is doing what you say you’re doing to do consistently. We have created a top-to-bottom integrity approach in our company that when a mom picks up that pouch, she can feel how honest we are, how we don’t cut any corners. So the health of the baby, the health of the planet, the health of our employees, the convenience for the parents, is all fully integrated. This mentality is essentially, “Don’t do anything you don’t want on the cover of the New York Times”. So if you have a hard call on an ethical choice, just ask yourself, “If the New York Times puts this on the cover, would I be okay with that?” Because if you wouldn’t be okay with it, don’t do it. Not necessarily because anyone will actually find out, but because people can feel it. It’s energetic. The credibility and authority comes from keeping your word and it also inspires others in your organization to do the same.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Joe Carr: Because hardly anyone else does it, that’s why! Today’s work culture makes people think they have to lie, cheat, or steal to get ahead. And they may get “ahead” doing that, but not for very long. It’s not sustainable. It doesn’t feel good, and it’s not the way to build a long-term sustainable business or make any kind of true impact in the world. But even just for my own personal experience, I want to know that I acted with integrity, even if the business fails. If I know I can come out of it saying, “Hey, I did my best. I did everything the right way” that will feel a lot better than if it “succeeds” but I had to cheat to get there.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Joe Carr: One big one is overworking or burnout culture. People think they have to work harder, struggle, and suffer their way to success. For CEOs & founders, our main contributions lie in our ideas, our thoughts, and our attention. Not in production, so the sooner you can get yourself out of an implementation role and into a leadership, thinking, and strategic role, the better the whole company is going to be. Hire or outsource as soon as you can and focus on what you’re good at.
Another one is to hire slow, fire fast. Initially we tended to frantically hire the first person that could fill the role. But then they would mess up repeatedly and we would keep dealing with it because the longer we waited to fire them the deeper they were embedded into the organization, until when we finally did let them go it was way harder. So take the time to be really strategic about who you hire and make sure it’s a really good fit. Then if it’s not a good fit, get rid of them quickly. As soon as you have the intuition that it’s not going to work out, it’s already over. It’s better to have a position go unfilled than it is to have the wrong person in it.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Joe Carr: Entrepreneurship, like parenting (which we’re doing both right now) is best approached as a personal growth or even a spiritual growth opportunity. Neither of them have a particular goal – even though there appears to be a goal. With the child, you want a healthy kid that goes to college and makes money and succeeds, etc. Entrepreneurs want their business to make money and make a difference in the world. But you can’t control either of those goals. You can’t control when they’re going to happen, you can’t control any outcome. It’s a big practice in surrender to say “Hey, I’m going to take the next right step with my kid and do this thing that feels right. Or I’m going to take this next step with my business but I don’t know how it’s going to go. If it doesn’t go the way that I want it, I have to adjust, adapt, and accept the outcome and try my best to not get upset that it didn’t go the way that I wanted.” Personally, I still get upset. You can’t not get upset when there’s a setback. So I get to practice feeling the feelings, but also not perpetuate them by blaming people or beating myself up, or going into a spiral of fear or shame. I think it’s different for entrepreneurs because we feel like we’re expected to create the outcomes. As an employee, you do your job and everybody does their jobs, and the responsibility for the whole company isn’t on you. But as an entrepreneur, if anybody makes a mistake or if anything fails, it’s on you. It can be stressful. It can be exciting because the wins are also on you. You get to take credit. But you’re also going to have responsibility which is a lot of weight on your shoulders. There’s a lot of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis that require a lot of gravity. So that’s where accepting that we’re not in control is especially helpful.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Joe Carr: We just had a staff meeting where our HR manager went through all the updates to our benefits that we’re providing to our team. Our employees were really excited about it. We got to celebrate the close of our Series A financing. I gave our VP of Finance a bling-bling award which was a giant golden dollar sign necklace and we sent fancy chocolates to the rest of the team. We also talked about the successful runs of our new products that are in their final stages. So it definitely was one of those days where everything was right, everything was great. People were really happy and expressed how grateful they were to work for our company.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Joe Carr: Fundraising had been relatively easy for us. We’ve been pretty lucky that it has been easy. But we needed this next big round that I thought would be like the previous ones. We had it all set up and ready to go. It was a $3M round, our biggest round ever. We had a single investor who was going to lead it and bring the rest. It was all set up and then March 2020, COVID-19 hit and the economy crashed and he pulled out. It was painful. We were right on the edge of needing the money. We had told other investors no because we had planned on getting it from a single investor, so now I had no idea how I was going to get it. I felt really vulnerable during this time. I questioned myself a lot: What are we going to do now? Did I make a mistake waiting for the single investor? How do I fundraise if he said no? It was all really difficult personally, in addition to the greater impact that was happening in the world with the pandemic. It was a very low moment but we were able to get some government loans and some small investments from existing investors. We piecemealed money together through the year and were finally able to close with an amazing new partner in the fall! So it all worked out as it was supposed to, but that was definitely a low moment.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Joe Carr: Well, at first I felt the feelings. I went and punched on my punching bag, I was mad at that guy from pulling out of the round. I was angry, but I didn’t take it out on him and burn the bridge. I felt the feelings and then called some people for advice. Ronnie, our Senior Business Advisor, often helps me in places like that. He helped me put things into perspective and made a plan of action. We then started planning on how we were going to react, what we were going to do, and we made some various contingencies so that we had a lot of options for money. We pushed through and implemented practical solutions. I also just emotionally surrendered again and trusted that, “Hey, if this wasn’t right, it wasn’t meant to be.” In the end, it was like a gift that he pulled out because we love CircleUp, who we just closed our Series A with.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Surrender – We don’t control outcomes, we have to trust that we will know to do the best thing for the moment, take the next right step, follow our intuition and trust that the outcome is going be how it’s meant to be and that we are capable of responding to whatever that is.
2. Embrace obstacles – The book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday was hugely important for me. If it was easy, somebody would have already done it. The obstacle is the reason there’s an opportunity. Doing something hard that nobody has ever done before and then getting mad when there’s an obstacle is a recipe for suffering. Embrace the upsets and say “Okay, here’s another challenge, I just have to overcome it. This is why I’m going to win, because I’m going to overcome these obstacles nobody else has”, instead of getting mad and feeling like the obstacles are an unfair barrier.
3. Self Care – You have to take care of yourself. So back to the burnout question, you can’t put everything you have into it because then there’s nothing left for you. You have to have a social life, a spiritual practice, good food, a work out practice, and family time. You have to keep doing things you enjoy.
4. Integrity – Constantly doing the right thing even when it’s hard, even when it costs more money, even when it’s so tempting to cut that corner, keeping with what you feel is right for yourself, and doing the right thing is going to be the thing that has you win in the end. Even if you lose this round, you know that you did the right thing and win in the long run.
5. Fun – Riding a rocketship can be stressful, but it can also be a blast! It can be really scary or it can be really fun, so you have to constantly remember that it’s fun and make it fun for you and your team. Celebrate the wins and have a blast.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Joe Carr: I think resilience is a combination of surrender, embracing obstacles, faith, and self-care. Self-care makes you resilient, for example, the more rested you are, the better you eat, the more grounded you are emotionally, the more resilient you are to things being thrown at you. It’s like Tai Chi, if you’re hard like ice, you crack and shatter, versus if you’re surrendered, it’s like a river you’re riding. Flowing with the things that are being thrown at you. So I think resilience is about surfing the waves and learning how to respond, rather than react. Characteristics and traits of resilient people are people who get back up when they get pushed down, learn from mistakes, learn from challenges, and become closer to people they were in conflict with.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Joe Carr: I’m autistic and was not diagnosed as a kid, so I was under attack from a very early age with kids bullying me, excluding me, and adults punishing me all the time. I was always in trouble and I had to learn how to just get through all that and figure out how to get love and affection. I had to rebuild my self-worth from scratch, and it’s a long journey, I’m still on that train. And there have always been people along the way, like those girls in middle school that took me under their wing, that remind me I can take feedback and become better. That constant evolution is a fundamental resiliency tool.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Joe Carr: I have a very, very positive attitude. It’s one of my strongest attributes, which I built after facing so many challenges as a kid. I know nothing could be worse than that and I came out better! I also have a much better attitude towards crisis or problems that I now recognize I create, versus thinking that they are put on me. I have a better attitude about challenges in our business or our family than I had when I was an employee, because I had no control or power then. I think as an entrepreneur, it’s my responsibility, and so I think I keep a positive attitude because I know that there’s always something I can do. And what helps me keep a positive attitude is all the self-care I do, so that I am in a good spot mentally. When I do get down, I practice gratitude, by writing lists of things I’m grateful for and just constantly remembering it’s fun. There’s no point to any of this if we’re not having fun!
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Joe Carr: Attitudes are infectious, both positive and negative. So if you want to spread a positive attitude, you have to have one and it just spreads. Same thing with negativity. If you have a lot of negativity, you’re going to spread that. That’s essentially the nature of being a leader, we set the energetic tone for the group, for better or worse. Employees that have a positive attitude perform better, and clients are more likely to buy. Plus, it is more fun. And what’s the point if it’s no fun!? Example is for my 40th birthday, the team made a list of things they love about me, and over and over again it says how much I inspire them to have fun, how I make them laugh, how I’m positive. So I think it says a lot that when asked what they love about me, that was one of the most common answers.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Joe Carr: “In our greatest wound, lies our greatest gift” – Carl Jung. Similarly, Vanessa Stone said “Things don’t happen to me, they happen for me”. Both of those speak to how we can embrace difficult situations or obstacles and turn them into opportunities, just like I have done with autism, my difficult childhood, and the lack of healthy convenient baby foods. Also, “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Master Yoda. I agree with him, there is no such thing as trying. You’re either doing it or you’re not doing it. And you may do it, and it may not turn out the way you thought it would. So doing without attachment to the outcome Is the goal. Everyday I’m asked to do things that I don’t necessarily know how to do. And it’s not about trying to do it, which is attached to a certain outcome. It’s like, I’m just going to do it. For instance, our Series A fundraise was a huge thing. I didn’t say “well, I’m going to try to raise $7 million.” I was like, “I’m raising $7 million, however long it takes, whoever it comes from, how it comes in, whatever the terms are, etc. I’m going to raise money one way or another. And I’ve always approached fundraising from that perspective, and investors can just feel that if they don’t give me the money, someone else will because I’m not going to stop until I get it, and that really motivates them to say yes.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can find me on the Serenity Kids blog at http://www.myserenitykids.com. I also have my own blog called www.aspiepower.com, focused on how to celebrate the gifts of autism. Stay tuned because there is a lot more coming from me!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!