“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Carly Stein of Beekeeper’s Naturals

An interview with Phil La Duke

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No matter how prepared you are, things almost never go as planned. Whenever we launched a new product in the beginning, I foolishly expected it to go smoothly. We’d be fully in stock, buzzing like a well oiled machine. Then the next thing I knew, we would sell out way faster than I expected! I know, that sounds like a dream, but low inventory is a nightmare! I still needed to continue meeting the demands to fulfill our retailers’ next orders. But because they tend to pay on 60-day terms, the money simply wasn’t on hand to make more product! It was a massive scramble to get things together on the fly. It took a lot of negotiating and people taking chances on me to get to the next round of production, but we made it work. It was definitely an important lesson — always have a fallback plan, even if you think it’s unlikely that you’ll need it. You have to be flexible with your preparations and planning.

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 Carly Stein. Carly is the founder of the wellness brand Beekeeper’s Naturals, and is spearheading a new category of healing products straight from the beehive. Carly left her job on Wall Street to follow her passion of beekeeping in 2015. Since making the move to full time in late 2016, Carly serves as CEO driving strategy, sales, marketing and product development. Carly has strong leadership skills, a relentless work ethic and a strong ability to gauge and understand product/market fit. The company’s disruption stems from its innovative products, dedication to science-backed products, passion for sustaining our environment, and focus on customer education. The hyper-effective product line consists of plant-based adaptogens and health booster complexes that incorporate superfoods straight from the hive, targeting immune support, brain health, increased energy and sleep issues. In addition to healing its customers, Beekeeper’s Naturals is, at its heart, a beekeeper-led and honeybee-focused organization with a major goal of sustaining the environment by generating awareness and creating a better environment for our world’s most important pollinators.

Thank you so much for joining us Carly. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Absolutely. I grew up in Toronto with my parents and my younger sister. As a kid, I was kind of an oddball. I preferred playing creative make-believe games or being out in nature rather than playing sports like everyone else. While other kids were obsessing over video games and boy bands, I was absolutely enamoured with reading and watching insects. I didn’t always fit in, but I had a pretty happy childhood.

I think my entrepreneurial spirit first developed when I was young, thanks to my dad. He really encouraged me and my sister to become strong, independent women by instilling us both with a sense of self-sufficiency from an early age. I got my first job as a nanny when I turned 12. In high school, I both waitressed and worked at a board sports shop to save up for college. I was always hustling, working hard, and saving money. It was during this time that I began developing my sense of grit and perseverance — qualities that have been essential for running a business.

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?

When I had my first experience with propolis, it felt like a miracle. All my life I have been unable to tolerate most antibiotics, so getting sick has always been a more serious affair. Discovering propolis, a natural healer and germ fighter from the hive, was life-changing. I knew there had to be other people struggling like I had, so I started Beekeeper’s Naturals in order to share the powers of bee products with as many people as possible.

My ‘ah ha’ moment — the moment when I realized that this unique company was actually worthwhile — came early on in the development of Beekeeper’s Naturals. Back when I was still a one-woman show, I had a few customers come up to me and sharing their powerful healing stories — how long they’ve struggled and how nothing had ever worked for them before trying BKN. It was truly emotional and inspiring. That’s when I realized that I was actually making a lasting difference in people’s lives.

So many people have health struggles, and for many, bee products might be the key. Since no one else was delivering anything close to these types of wellness solutions, I knew it was up to me to keep pushing onward and take BKN to the next level. It has always been my mission to give everyone the option to heal effectively and naturally, regardless of dietary restrictions, financial constraints, or location. To this day, hearing how BKN has helped change people’s lives never gets old.

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

It’s just about taking the steps one by one. I think a lot of people get overwhelmed by the big picture and the slow build of momentum. My trick is simply taking action — in any shape. Big ideas are so daunting, they can be paralyzing. The very act of starting can seem impossible. But that’s why I break everything down into tiny actionable steps. With each tiny step, you get a little closer to your goal. It may be imperceivable at first, but trust that you’re making steady progress and consciously celebrate your momentum. As long as you keep moving every day, you will get to where you want to be.

Remember, when it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter how intelligent or naturally gifted you are. All that matters is your willingness to keep trying (and failing) until you break through. So few people actually give their dreams a full 100% effort. Most of us only give 10% or 20%. We are so afraid of giving it all, only to fail and look foolish. But here’s the catch 22 — if you’re not giving it your all, you’ll probably fail anyways! So toughen your skin, accept the inevitability of failure, persevere, and give your dreams the full try they deserve — one baby step at a time.

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?

I don’t regret turning my hobby into my business for a second. I’ve always wanted to help people feel better and help save the bees, and creating Beekeeper’s Naturals has allowed me to extend my reach in ways I could never have imagined. But it’s important to acknowledge that not every hobby needs to be a business. Sometimes hobbies can be the most fulfilling when they stay hobbies. It depends on you, your unique hobby, and what you personally want out of that hobby. If it’s just something you do simply to feel happy, it probably doesn’t need to be anything more than it already is. There’s no need to turn up the pressure on something that already brings you joy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice your hobby at a high level and see where it takes you. But adding the pressure of making a living from what you love runs the risk of sucking all the fun out of your passion. My advice is to keep doing what you do. When you hear your gut telling you that it’s time to take things bigger, listen to that. But don’t rush it — let yourself take the time you need to transition. You’ll know the right move if you get quiet and listen to your intuition.

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?

A deep sense of purpose is what fuels me to keep going on the hard days. I take the time to remember why I am doing this. What is it that I first loved about it? Why did I work so hard to get here? I keep pushing myself to find that authentic motivation that drives me and I focus on that when times get tough. As long as I keep sight of my ‘why’, I don’t lose the joy.

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 that I have the freedom to create my own vision and pursue my purpose. I’ve designed my perfect job and I get to do it every day — it’s pretty incredible.

But with that freedom comes a lack of a traditional work structure. I never really have an end to my work day. Because my work is so embedded in my life and in who I am, it can be a constant struggle to find a sustainable sense of work-life balance. I’m definitely not perfect, but I do my best to force myself to take days off, sleep in occasionally, see friends, and get out into nature as often as I can. Because I am so busy, self care has become one of my main priorities in the past year. It has really helped me bring my best to the table and avoid burnout.

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

I’ve always considered myself a hard worker, but I was shocked to realize how much more effort I put in to this work simply because it’s mine. I have a real sense of ownership over it, which makes me instinctively want to go the extra mile, five miles, hundred miles, to do things right. It’s been eye-opening. I’ve done things I would have never thought I was capable of — because I truly care.

I also underestimated how hard it is to learn to delegate. I started Beekeeper’s Naturals completely on my own. I barely slept, hustled at any market I could find, and put every penny I had back into this business. When it came time to expand and hire, I had a hard time relinquishing some of the responsibilities and burdens I was carrying. (And I was really stressed out and overwhelmed because of it.) We are too often taught that asking for help or support is a sign of weakness. But trusting others with responsibilities is essential if you want to run a business. You simply cannot do everything alone. That’s why hiring inspiring people who you can trust implicitly is so valuable.

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?

I have hard moments constantly — being a CEO is all about growth and overcoming new challenges. But I know what I signed up for and I love it. I’ve never wanted to trade it in for a second.

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?

It takes a lot of grit and a little ‘fake it til you make it’ to get a startup off the ground. In the beginning, our operation was on a shoestring budget and it was all happening out of my tiny apartment. Obviously, that doesn’t look great to potential buyers or big shots. So when I was in talks, I would try to make it seem like it wasn’t just a one-woman show in a dingy apartment. The problem is, I’m a terrible embellisher. There would be these embarrassing moments when I would sometimes get caught spinning in my little web and I would be mortified. After coming clean with an apology, I’d try to move past it and salvage the meeting. It definitely didn’t feel funny to me at the time, but looking back, I can’t help but smile. Keeping the talks going after an incident like that definitely helped build my grit.

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

Without a doubt, my team is what keeps me going. I am motivated constantly by their enthusiasm, talent, hard work, and willingness to work towards this collective goal. They’re my biggest supporters and I am so grateful to have such an incredible team by my side.

In fact, it was a wonderful surprise to discover how gratifying it is to build a team and watch this amazing group of people working together towards my personal vision. It’s especially incredible to watch each individual person grow into their role — expanding into new challenges (both personally and professionally), discovering that they are capable of more than they thought possible, and rising up to impress themselves in new ways. It has been one of the richest experiences of building our startup.

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

My reason for leaving my job on Wall Street and starting Beekeeper’s Naturals was because I wanted to have a career where I could make a real impact on the world. I want to make the world a better place, and the success of BKN has allowed me to do that in two huge ways: (1) helping people feel healthier so they can live their most empowered lives and (2) helping to save the bees.

At BKN, we’re not just modernizing the medicine cabinet with obsessively tested, hive-powered wellness solutions. We are working to be a real force for good in the world. We’re a certified B-Corp and hold ourselves to high social and environmental standards. We’re building the demand for sustainable beekeeping and are changing the conversation around pesticides in bee products. We’re raising awareness about the importance of pollinators through charity partnerships with some of the world’s leading bee research institutions. Through Beekeeper’s Naturals, I am able to make ripples that truly impact the issues I care about.

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

  1. No matter how prepared you are, things almost never go as planned. Whenever we launched a new product in the beginning, I foolishly expected it to go smoothly. We’d be fully in stock, buzzing like a well oiled machine. Then the next thing I knew, we would sell out way faster than I expected! I know, that sounds like a dream, but low inventory is a nightmare! I still needed to continue meeting the demands to fulfill our retailers’ next orders. But because they tend to pay on 60-day terms, the money simply wasn’t on hand to make more product! It was a massive scramble to get things together on the fly. It took a lot of negotiating and people taking chances on me to get to the next round of production, but we made it work. It was definitely an important lesson — always have a fallback plan, even if you think it’s unlikely that you’ll need it. You have to be flexible with your preparations and planning.
  2. Failure is acceptable. Yes, it really is! In fact, failure is good. Like many people, I’ve always had such a fear of failure, but when I started my own company, I discovered that failure is part of the journey. Without failure, you don’t grow. When Beekeeper’s Naturals launched, I didn’t tolerate failure well. Every small hiccup threw me for a loop. But over time I learned that there will always be daily challenges and failures. The key to success over the long term is accepting those failures as lessons and continuing to press forward.
    A great example is the inventory issues we faced early on. Technically, that was a failure, but that issue actually forced me to build better projections, better understand our consumers, and be more prepared for future launches. Our failures are often our most important lessons. We shouldn’t be so afraid of them.
  3. You have to get comfortable with being bad at things. As a CEO, once I’ve mastered something, I delegate that task to someone else so that I can use my time and energy to dive into something entirely unfamiliar. It’s my job to push Beekeeper’s Naturals into new spheres, which means that I am spending a lot of my time outside my comfort zone. Because of that, I’ve been forced to embrace a sense of discomfort in my job. No one likes being a newbie, but if you really try, you won’t be bad at something forever. You just have to be willing to put yourself out there and get comfortable with the beginner’s mindset.
  4. Things get infinitely better when you have a team behind you. There is nothing more rewarding than building a team. Watching people overcome challenges, grow, and learn about themselves is so inspiring. The Beekeeper’s Naturals team is particularly exceptional. Each and every one of them exudes positivity, enthusiasm, and true dedication to the BKN mission. Honestly, it makes me a little teary every time I think about it.
    Of course, equally as rewarding is being able to connect with customers who have struggled with their health and are finally finding relief with our products. To hear their stories and their deep gratitude for what we’re doing makes all the years of hustling worth it.
  5. It’s important to take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come. Rather than just focusing on what’s lacking and being stressed, I find it crucial to take the time to appreciate each goal I’ve achieved and each milestone I’ve reached. Otherwise, there’s always another hurdle. One of the toughest parts about being an entrepreneur is dealing with the self doubt. It’s easy to spiral when you have so many balls up in the air. Because there was so much uncertainty when we first started, I would regularly minimize the big wins and focus on our shortcomings. I had such big ambitions, I never really allowed myself the opportunity to stop and revel in our successes.
    I can see now that this type of outlook is not a very sustainable one. Luckily, I learned how to make space for gratitude. Now I make a conscious effort to enjoy and be grateful for every part of the journey with my team. It’s nice to step back every once in a while and admire how far things have come. (I have a daily gratitude journaling practice so that I am forced to exercise this muscle on a regular basis.)

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.

My mission with Beekeeper’s Naturals is to start a movement! As much as BKN is about empowering people to live their best lives with our wellness solutions, we are also about saving the bees.

If I could inspire everyone to simply take the time to plant some organic flowers in their yard, on their windowsill, or on their porch, that would be huge. One of the major issues bees are facing right now is a lack of clean foraging grounds and safe habitat. Chemicals like neonics are devastating to bees, and they are everywhere. If everyone stopped using pesticides on their lawns, bought untreated seeds/plants, and planted (even just a pot) of chemical-free flowers, bees would gain the precious clean foraging grounds they need to survive.

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

“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” — J.K. Rowling

For me, nearly every time I take on something new and different I fail in some way. I’m very type A and at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, I would get really bogged down. I focused on my imperfections and struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. But what I’ve learned throughout this journey is the truth that failure is learning. It’s about failing, and failing again, and becoming comfortable in that failure. That is the path to improvement and eventual mastery — it’s surprisingly zen. Everyone has the capacity to grow and evolve. It’s just about how many times you’re willing to fall down that determines the likelihood of succeeding.

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 would love to meet Yvon Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia). In business and in life, he is a bad-ass. I admire how Yvon stayed true to his values and his desire to be a force for good, in spite of the pressures that come with success. Time and time again, he prioritized quality, social good, and environmental good over growing profit margins. Because of this, they’ve been able to create a powerful community (both inside and outside the company) and make a powerful difference in the world. It’s inspiring. I’d love to sit down for a chat with Yvon and just listen to what he has to say.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Author

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog

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