Kate Flynn Of Sun & Swell Foods: “I would say you need to have a network of entrepreneurs that are in a similar stage as you, and ideally in the same industry”

I would say you need to have a network of entrepreneurs that are in a similar stage as you, and ideally in the same industry. Having this support system of peers who can relate to what you’re going through is so important. It’s a great source of advice and comfort, and a reminder that you’re […]

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I would say you need to have a network of entrepreneurs that are in a similar stage as you, and ideally in the same industry. Having this support system of peers who can relate to what you’re going through is so important. It’s a great source of advice and comfort, and a reminder that you’re not in it alone. An example of this for me is the Tory Burch Fellows network. This is an amazing group of female founders that I’m lucky to be a part of; some of the women I’ve met in this network have become my closest ‘founder friends’ that I turn to when I need to celebrate or lament things related to the business.

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 Kate Flynn.

Kate Flynn, the Co-founder and CEO of Sun & Swell, has a Harvard MBA and a BA in Economics from UC Santa Barbara. She is also a Tory Burch Fellow, and a 2020 Winner of PepsiCo’s WomenMade Challenge. She started her career as a CPA at Deloitte, and most recently worked as a Management Consultant in the Retail/CPG 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?

Of course. Before starting the business, I was working long hours as a consultant. I was frustrated by the lack of healthy grab-and-go snack options available, and wanted to set out to fill this gap in the market.

From the beginning, however, we always knew we wanted the company to be about more than just food.

We believe that we have a responsibility to create a business that takes action to be better for both people and the planet. That’s why we pay close attention to the details when it comes to ingredient sourcing, employment practices, environmental sustainability, and philanthropy. With Sun & Swell, we set out to be an example of what business can look like when we put our people and planet above all else. Although our business today looks a lot different than the business we first started several years ago, that has always been and always will be our North Star.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

For much of my teen years growing up I had a negative relationship with food: I was obsessed with counting calories and carbs. When I made a switch to focusing on the actual food that I was putting into my body rather than just focusing on the numbers, that was really life changing for me, improving both my mental and physical health.

I learned I wanted to eat foods that were grown in the Earth — not developed in a lab — and started paying more attention to package labels and ingredients lists. This was when I realized how few healthy, whole-food options there were that were convenient for busy, on-the-go people like myself. I knew this was a gap in the market that I wanted to address, giving people the ability to eat real, healthy food, even when they were running around or working long hours.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Before I started Sun & Swell, I don’t think I would have considered myself a natural entrepreneur. I had this idea in my head of who an entrepreneur is — a bold person, perhaps a rule breaker who marches to the beat of their own drum. That isn’t how I see myself. However, since I’ve been in business, I’ve realized a lot of my skills and characteristics are things that make me a strong entrepreneur, such as my ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously, my ability to lead with empathy, and my drive and tenacity.

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?

My husband and co-founder, Bryan, has been incredibly supportive and encouraging of the journey we’ve been on with Sun & Swell from day 1. When I had the idea, he encouraged me to take the leap and leave my full time job to pursue this dream. At the same time, while we were launching Sun & Swell, he not only was helping me get things off the ground but was also still at his job — helping to support us financially.

I’d also add that the birth of our daughter definitely inspired us to further commit to sustainability. Having her made me think of the future more than I ever had before, and we wanted to ensure we were doing our part to leave a planet for her generation to enjoy.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our values and commitment to helping our customers, employees, community and the planet is what truly sets us apart in my opinion.

When we launched Sun & Swell Foods initially, we wanted to make whole food snacking more accessible to consumers living a busy lifestyle. However, a year into the business, I realized we were solving one problem, but contributing to another — creating single-use plastics. In July of 2018, through some seriously aggressive google searching, I discovered there was a solution: compostable packaging.

The second I discovered compostable was an option, I made up my mind we were going to transition to it. The super eager, optimistic entrepreneur in me dove in head first without really understanding all of the complexities. I was honestly just so excited about the option, and so eager to get away from single-use plastic, I went in with the mindset of ‘we’ll just figure it out.’

In the first six months of this journey, we learned that we would need to open up our product line and change our business model. We started offering pantry staples for our customers and putting a larger effort into selling directly over our website so that we could avoid the traditional food distribution systems (which require products to pass through many hands and have extremely long shelf lives).

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?

I think leading with empathy is so important to be a successful business owner or leader, as it will help you to connect, relate and build lasting relationships with your customers and employees. I also think it’s so important for entrepreneurs to also have great attention to detail while also seeing the bigger picture at the same time.

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?

When we first started Sun & Swell, we heard from so many people in the food industry about things we should do to be successful. We didn’t want to be a typical food company, however. We started the business because we recognized the tremendous problems that existed in the food industry — like the lack of natural, whole ingredients and single-use plastic packaging. While not following the traditional food industry playbook certainly made some things more difficult for us in some ways, it’s also what sets our business apart and made it so we could create a company that represents our values.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

For us, following the typical food industry norms was never an option. Our mission was to be a different kind of food company — one that prioritized healthy, whole food ingredient sourcing, fair employment practices, environmental sustainability, and philanthropy.

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?

One pitfall I think a lot of founders experience is falling so in love with their initial idea that they aren’t willing to adapt. From when you have the light bulb moment for a business or product to when you launch and as you grow, you need to be flexible and willing to change based on the market, your customers feedback or global conditions — such as the COVID-19 crisis. If you become too rigid or stubborn and aren’t willing to pivot at all, you’ll inevitably struggle. Of course, you’ll always have your overall mission and guiding principles, but along the way you have to be able to shift as needed to succeed.

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”?

When you’re an entrepreneur, there’s very little separation between your work and your life. You don’t clock out at 5 o’clock each day; everything becomes intertwined. Especially early on, you sacrifice so much in the hopes that it’ll all pay off in the future (without knowing for sure if it will). There are times when you question if it’s worth it, but ultimately the reason you went into business in the first place is what keeps you going.

I also think a lot of entrepreneurs are people who are always reaching — always setting their sights on their next goal. This means that by the time you accomplish what you set out to initially, you may already be looking ahead to the next milestone. I’ve found it’s important to force yourself to acknowledge and celebrate in the moment, while continuing to strive for more in order to make it through the rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship.

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.

We recently did an equity crowdfunding campaign. The campaign was about a month long, and it was one of the most exciting months of running the business. Everyday we’d receive multiple investments — from friends, family, customers, colleagues, complete strangers. And every time an investment came in, my heart jumped with joy. Seeing so many people believe in our company and our mission, and in my ability to execute our vision, was so incredible. This was ultimate validation that the world wants what we are offering. I can’t even explain the gratitude I felt every day during that process.

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.

An obvious example is COVID-19, which shaked so many businesses to the core. When COVID-19 hit last year, we lost 75% of our revenue in the first month because so many of our wholesale customers were corporate offices, coffee shops, or fitness studios that were closing. We also had a baby on the way (born in June of 2020). We were terrified, but we were able to stay level-headed and adjust our business and thankfully, we came out stronger.

I’d love to provide another example of something that was so small, but at the time felt so big. This is one example of hundreds (thousands) of little moments that have happened over the years, and I’m sure any entrepreneur can relate. In our early days, we were working on getting in with a large distributor. In one of their emails to us, the distributor called us a ‘me too’ brand. This was heart-wrenching to me. I could list a million reasons why we aren’t a ‘me too’ brand, but for some reason I let this one person really get to me and started questioning everything we were doing. Luckily, I was able to snap out of it! And in hindsight, that email really just lit a fire in my belly to prove them wrong! But it’s hard not to take feedback so personally when you’re a founder…it’s a muscle I’ve been working on strengthening since I launched the company.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Whenever I find myself in a bad headspace, I know I need to step away and reset. Sometimes this means doing a quick 3 to 5 minute meditation or going on a walk to clear my head. If I’m in a really bad headspace, I might need to go on an hour-long walk or ride my Peloton, or just go for a long lunch and relax. I find by stepping away from the computer or phone for a bit, I’m able to come back with greater perspective to tackle whatever the problem is.

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.

A few things come to mind when I think about what’s helped me ride the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

First, I would say you need to have a network of entrepreneurs that are in a similar stage as you, and ideally in the same industry. Having this support system of peers who can relate to what you’re going through is so important. It’s a great source of advice and comfort, and a reminder that you’re not in it alone. An example of this for me is the Tory Burch Fellows network. This is an amazing group of female founders that I’m lucky to be a part of; some of the women I’ve met in this network have become my closest ‘founder friends’ that I turn to when I need to celebrate or lament things related to the business.

I also think staying grounded is essential. I do this through mindfulness practices like meditation, but this could look differently for different people — whether it’s exercise, a hobby outside of work or something else. My go to is Headspace’s 10 minute daily meditations.

I’d add taking care of yourself in general to this list as well. A lot of times as a business owner there’s a temptation to work, work, work, but you’ll inevitably burn yourself out. You can’t burn the candle at both ends forever. In my opinion, it’s vital to make sure your cup is full — meaning you’re taking care of yourself physically and mentally by doing things like ensuring you’re getting a good night’s sleep. I always remind myself that my business is a marathon, not a sprint and having the long-term mentality helps me a lot.

Another thing that helps tremendously as an entrepreneur is having the tools that make your life easier. There’s always a million things running through your head — from payroll to project deadlines, supplier payments, sales figures and more — having technology to help you manage all of it is extremely helpful. For example, I use QuickBooks for my finances, which automates a lot of things on the backend, saving me a ton of time and energy. Another example would be Asana, which we use to manage projects across our teams and stay organized.

Finally, sometimes you have to just trust the universe. There are circumstances — like when COVID first hit last year, where you can only control so much. When things like that happen, I try to remind myself that things will work out the way they’re meant to — I just have to do my part to adjust and adapt as best as I can.

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?

When I was younger, I thought being resilient was all about being tough — about working harder and longer all the time. Now, however, I view resilience as the ability to keep going despite setbacks and figure out a way to overcome various situations — all while staying sane and taking care of yourself. In my experience, to do this you have to stay level headed so you can bounce back emotionally from any challenge and approach your work with a long-term view.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Growing up, I always excelled in school. I went to Harvard to get my MBA, however, and suddenly I was struggling to do well academically for the first time in my life — despite studying and working my hardest. Mentally, this was super tough for me, and I developed major imposter syndrome. My internal dialogue was “I don’t deserve to be here.” Over time, I adjusted and realized that a huge part of why I was struggling was because of my own self-doubt. In hindsight, this was such an important lesson for me to learn and made me much stronger and resilient.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Definitely. Like I said earlier, one of my main mantras is trusting the universe. I really believe the universe will have your back — you just have to do your part in the meantime.

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.

I’m a big believer that the energy you give off impacts those around you — whether it’s a customer, employee or supplier. Having a positive attitude makes you a more positive person to interact with — and that’s of course, someone you’re more likely to do business with, want to work with, etc.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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