Caleb Smith of Peacebunny Island: “Not everyone will understand your “why” or your “how,” ”

Not everyone will understand your “why” or your “how,” — but do good anyway. Come on! — It’s a bunny business. What isn’t there to love, right? Few people will take the time to find out what you’re doing or your motivation, and it’s easier for people to jump to conclusions. YOU are uniquely positioned to do this and […]

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Not everyone will understand your “why” or your “how,” — but do good anyway. Come on! — It’s a bunny business. What isn’t there to love, right? Few people will take the time to find out what you’re doing or your motivation, and it’s easier for people to jump to conclusions. YOU are uniquely positioned to do this and to change the world. Embrace the negativity and listen carefully to what naysayers are saying. Take this opportunity to learn from questions or negative comments. Take criticism as an opportunity to sharpen yourself. Don’t expect everyone to be your cheerleader. They may even challenge your motives or character, which will sting even worse. None of that matters: Do good anyway.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caleb Smith.

Caleb Smith is the 16-year-old visionary behind Peacebunny Island, an animal sanctuary where he trains rescued and rare heritage-breed rabbits to become comfort animals. His business endeavors include an educational and fostering program that has involved nearly 500 families; a Peacebunny Unit, which brings therapy rabbits to visit seniors at assisted-living homes and hospices; and a responder program that helps people who are dealing with loneliness, trauma, and grief, including those in crisis situations and juvenile justice facilities. Caleb launched the Peacebunny Foundation, which hosts rabbit-themed STEM educational programs to excite youth about science, technology, engineering, and math and to mobilize them for community service. He is the recipient of the Gold Congressional Award and the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his mom and dad, and he cares for a colony of rabbits at Peacebunny Cottage. Please visit Caleb’s website for more information:

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

At eight years old, I pitched my parents (shark-tank style) to see if they would allow me to rescue rabbits and start educational programs to help stop the Easter bunny abandonment cycle as people made better-informed, less-impulsive decions for their pet rabbits. I figured that I could bootstrap the money from hosting bunny birthday parties and school programs, so I could buy more feed and ultimately scale up to save more rabbits.

Since saying yes eight years ago, my parents have followed through on their promises to support me and my business plan, and we have all been astonished to watch how my ideas morphed into a thriving business. Because I have been too young to drive or even sign paperwork for myself, I’ve always needed to rely on adults. Since the beginning of my business endeavors, I have strategically recruited experts who could provide the insight, supervision, and support to help run a private 22-acre island named “Peacebunny Island” and the outreach pilot programs in multiple states under our service-learning business umbrella.

Mom jokingly warns other parents: “Be careful what you promise your kids, or you might end up on an amazing family adventure together.” I’m so thankful that they have always encouraged me to try new things: they gave me the freedom to fail and were ready with plenty of hugs and encouraging words during both the challenges and celebrations. Because they allowed me to network and spread my wings, this business venture turned out exponentially better than I could have ever dreamed. However, even if the results were mediocre, I’d still choose to do it all again because of how these experiences shaped me and how it’s made a difference.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

My business journey was built on three distinct moments spread over several years. Each added another idea that would need to be tested, crafted, and refined to unveil the next puzzle piece idea.

At eight years old, my heart broke when I discovered over 360 rabbits being sold on craigslist right after Easter. Because I couldn’t save them all, I chose to focus on prevention through education. It became apparent that our educational bunny playdates were filling a felt need as our classes began selling out and volunteers came pouring in.

The second idea came months later while I watched trained comfort dogs in action as they served the community after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. I began to envision how bunnies could also help comfort people during times of loneliness, trauma, or grief. We discovered we were rescuing the rabbits, and they rescued people back.

The third moment happened when I was 11 years old and in a moment of fatigue and frustration as I neared the end of the busy Easter season. I was tired of hauling the carriers, pens, and other equipment, and I blurted out: “We need an island!” I figured land predators would not swim onto the island, and the rabbits wouldn’t swim off.

Finally, after years of preparation, the dream all came together when I found a private 22 acre Mississippi River island to lease for the summer.

After a highly successful pilot program, guess which teenager now pays a monthly island mortgage?

Perhaps my most significant aha moment came when I bought the island. I didn’t wait around for a bright and shiny sign or some grand epiphany to start my journey, which just goes to show that things in motion stay in motion.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle to take a good idea and translate it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

As a young entrepreneur, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the process. That meant I spent a lot of time wondering about and figuring out things that most people could learn in an intro to business class. My parents allowed me to start attending entrepreneurial networking events and business pitch fests, which ultimately led to my entering a few contests. Those connections started the ball rolling as I’d pick up tips from people here and there. Minnesota has an incredible ecosystem for helping people who are considering starting a business. I would absorb what I could, and that propelled me forward.

My business was built through an inquiry-based process that I found to be incredibly stimulating and fun. It made me think longer and work harder to sustain it myself by reinvesting money back into my projects. I still haven’t taken any formal business classes in school. But, for now, I’ve found some business leaders who post useful lessons and thoughts on LinkedIn. I’ve devoured books by leaders I respect. I’ve checked out podcasts, webinars, and Zoom conferences. There are plenty of resources that I am using to sharpen my business skills until I head off to college.

Many entrepreneurs I’ve met at networking events have shared their fear of failure was their biggest struggle before getting started. If you’re afraid to fail, it’ll be hard to take the plunge. But my family has always encouraged me to dive into whatever I’m passionate about and learn from the ups and downs. My 101- year-old Great Grandma says to measure ideas and opportunities this way: If it’s honoring to God and can create opportunities to serve other people while making your heart sing, you should go for it and see where the journey takes you.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. It may be better for something to remain a hobby rather than to build it into an occupation. I would suggest thinking about the amount of time you’re willing to invest into something, not about the income you can get out of it.

If you had the opportunity to spend 40 hours a week doing anything, what would you do? If you did it all day, every day, would you still love it? Would you look back and wonder what would have happened if you would have tried? Answering these questions is a key part of knowing whether you should take the plunge of turning a hobby into a career.

I’m still trying to find the balance between work and “hobby,” but I’m so grateful that this business process has followed a multi-step approach rather than an all-or-nothing plunge at the beginning. As I transformed my “kid-run bunny project” into a registered business, this created a new ongoing revenue stream to fund something I’m passionate about that I believe will help improve the world around me.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

From the beginning, I didn’t want Peacebunny Island to be just work, so I make sure to reserve time to relax, be creative for creativity’s sake, and explore. For me, that means physically color-coding the large war board calendar and marking times when I’m off the clock. This allows me to have some margins and communicate my intentions, so I can manage expectations — just because you see me doesn’t mean I’m on the clock. Our family intentionally limits work-related conversations to work-time, and we like to take our minds off work when together.

For me, another avenue is making sure I hold time for fun. That means getting outside and spending time at the farm or the island without an agenda or to-do list. I give myself permission to unplug completely. That could mean hanging out with friends/family, going for a jog with the goats (who are hilarious), exploring the river islands, or sitting in a hammock with a bunny on my lap near the river.

Another way to keep it fresh is by delegating. Running a farm requires recruiting and training people I know I can trust to take care of all the animals. Once I was able to stop micromanaging all the details, I was free to relax when off the clock. It also empowers the staff to do their best work.

Finally, volunteering is another way to keep your work fresh. My family has always set aside 2 hours a week to do something that blesses others for my entire life. This often looks like supporting other nonprofit organizations. Volunteering helps keep me from feeling stuck because I’m choosing to give my time and resources. I’ve found when volunteering that I’m reminded of what’s most important and can recharge internally.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I love seeing the impact of my efforts. I enjoy the incredible people I’ve been able to meet along the way and all the lessons. No education can serve you better than being in the day-to-day and learning the business yourself, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

That said, one of the most significant downsides of being in charge includes giving up time that I could be doing other things, the stress of deadlines, and making decisions in emergency mode. These ideas aren’t rocket science, but here are things we started doing to help cut down miscommunications

COMMUNICATING THE PLAN: When our inner circle sees the schedule, they can also see where additional help is most needed and where they can offer to jump in.

CREATING BACKUP PLANS: There’s no guarantee that everything will move smoothly, but we took the time to craft and write down our heuristic frameworks. They detail how we will decide and who is in leadership roles. These flow sheets have significantly taken away a lot of the guesswork when faced with a problem.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Aside from running a lemonade stand, running my own business was my first job, so I didn’t have many expectations going in. I knew there would be many new experiences and lessons along the way. I figured that these lessons and experiences would prepare me for whatever comes next, just like everything else about growing up.

From the start of Peacebunny Island, I have always been walking between two worlds: I wanted people to help me because I was young and inexperienced, but I also wanted people to treat my business like any other legitimate business. I wanted it both ways, and that was an unfair expectation. Along the way, I’ve met many very generous and helpful people who made timely introductions, shared some great advice, or even opened doors. I’m grateful they took a chance on a young kid and took time to schedule a meeting with me or answer my questions.

So perhaps the biggest surprises have come as I’ve begun to understand more about how the “real world” works. It was like, somehow, you grow up, and everything is acceptable or justifiable if it’s “just business.” I’m still figuring out what others see as a grey line between fair and being savvy.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

As a teen, it’s natural to wonder if there might be some other “real” job in my future, especially when I have a whole lifetime ahead. But, for now, I haven’t found anything else that seems like a better fit. I see how my efforts have made a difference, and I have worked incredibly hard to get to this moment, so I’m living the dream right now.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

So much of my journey has been trying new things and then figuring out how to do it better the next time. There wasn’t one particular gaffe or goof that stands out, just a myriad of moments where my face would flush, and my heart would jump into my throat while I wished for an invisible cloak so I could escape or get a cosmic do-over. Remember, I travel with animals, so there is plenty of unpredictable wild card moments, like a rabbit getting frisky with a nun’s foot or a rabbit peeing on a principal. I could fill volumes with honest mistakes, missteps, and miscommunications, but thankfully the loop from embarrassment to laughing at myself is getting shorter.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I honestly feel like I’m currently feasting from a buffet of knowledge with technology at our fingertips, so no one person has directly inspired my efforts. I enjoy listening to podcasts, webinars, discussions on Clubhouse, reading posts on Linkedin, and watching instructional videos and conferences. Across platforms, I’ve found about 24 people that I feel have consistently helpful information that sharpens me or my business. The most prominent connecting traits are that they are people who serve others selflessly, share their learned lessons transparently, lead themselves and others ethically, and have found a way to communicate their passion effectively.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I consider myself a social entrepreneur, so from the beginning my main goal has been to make the world a better place through the business itself. So, the success of my business means we are able to have greater impacts as we provide a service that helps people.

This spring, I’ve found myself in a new role as a published author on a successful national book tour to introduce my business to the world. My memoir, “Peacebunny Island: The Extraordinary Journey of a Boy and His Comfort Rabbits, and How They’re Teaching Us about Hope and Kindness,” was recently published. It’s been quite humbling being invited to share my story on so many media platforms where I can share the lessons I’ve been learning.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Not everyone will understand your “why” or your “how,” — but do good anyway. Come on! — It’s a bunny business. What isn’t there to love, right? Few people will take the time to find out what you’re doing or your motivation, and it’s easier for people to jump to conclusions. YOU are uniquely positioned to do this and to change the world. Embrace the negativity and listen carefully to what naysayers are saying. Take this opportunity to learn from questions or negative comments. Take criticism as an opportunity to sharpen yourself. Don’t expect everyone to be your cheerleader. They may even challenge your motives or character, which will sting even worse. None of that matters: Do good anyway.
  2. Choose hope and positive expectations: Not everyone you meet will match your goodwill. Some will not follow through on what they promised. Some may outright lie to your face or will take advantage of your naivety and abuse your trust. Some could accidentally lure you astray with the best intentions, while others may create roadblocks to advance their own agendas. Sometimes you are seen as collateral damage. Choose to expect good things out of people and situations anyway. Focus on what you can control and figure out ways to prevent the preventable. Live with hope: Ultimately, it’s better for the business, and it’s better for your heart.
  3. The journey and the people you travel with are as important as the destination. I never envisioned that I would be running a business and employing adults before I even got my driver’s license. Still, I’m glad that I couldn’t foresee everything, including the disappointments. I also couldn’t anticipate meeting so many amazing people along the way. Those relationships and lessons, even the hard ones, make me into the man I am and who I will be in the future. So slow down and cherish the moments and the people you’re surrounded by.
  4. Take time to Reflect and Document Milestones: I do a 3–2–1 reflection at the end of the day: Three things I learned, two questions, and one thing I’d like to try/ figure out. That reflection time ends up guiding my week and redirects my energy in real-time. It’s a personal discipline to carve out time to consider what came from your day and how it matches your values and priorities. Be sure to take time to journal in whatever format you enjoy. Record a podcast. Take a few photos. Commemorate. Celebrate. Find some way to hold onto the memories.
  5. If you’re going to fail, fail early and fail quickly. The key is learning how to ask better questions earlier in the process, and if something falls apart, be thankful for the doors that close firmly and rapidly. I felt crushed when a lake island deal fell apart. I assumed that it was my one big chance. It’s funny how much better things are on the Mississippi River island, and I am so thankful I didn’t get what I thought I wanted.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Connection, Community & Kindness:

COVID has amplified the need for relationships and for meaningful touch. The past year’s newsreel has heightened the need to be heard, really heard. If it takes a bunny business to make that happen, I’m content to keep doing what I’m doing. However, perhaps the answer to so many of our challenges is simply seeing others with kind eyes. Coupled with kind words, or a listening ear, I believe that an open heart can transform the outlook of someone’s whole day and profoundly affect attitudes, perspective, and health. That’s my vision if you’d care to slow down and join me. My hope is that we could see people with kind eyes, start to see opportunities to connect and choose to say hello.

Can you please give us one of your favorite “Life Lesson Quotes”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love, to work, to play, and to look up at the stars.” — Henry vanDyke.

This quote is a reminder that everything is a blessing, and we have been given the gift of time and the opportunity to make of it what we choose.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve never had a celebrity or business hero that comes to mind, but I have always loved listening to and collecting stories of people. Bottom line: Any time good food and warm, sincere conversation are involved, I am thrilled. If I could, I would love to share 365 meals over the next year, listening to unique stories that would bless others. Maybe after reading this, someone would be interested in sharing a meal.

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