Karen Happel of Genuine Content: “The first year is hard. Don’t give up”

“The first year is hard. Don’t give up.” Okay, so I heard this plenty, but it’s hard to truly understand until you experience it and can look back. I had a part-time job at Sephora and was still living on savings in my first year. Sometimes it’s really hard to see past the slim margins, […]

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“The first year is hard. Don’t give up.” Okay, so I heard this plenty, but it’s hard to truly understand until you experience it and can look back. I had a part-time job at Sephora and was still living on savings in my first year. Sometimes it’s really hard to see past the slim margins, but you have to believe that it will continue to come together… because it’s that belief that keeps you going.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Happel.

Karen Happel is the founder of Genuine Content, a boutique web design and branding agency. She launched the business after nearly a decade as a reality tv casting producer when she worked on a variety of shows including The Biggest Loser, Hell’s Kitchen, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Since then, she has built brands and websites for companies of all sizes in the aerospace industry, behavioral healthcare, travel, public relations, and more. She also works with aspiring non-fiction writers as a personal branding and social media coach and is the author of “From Expert to Author: Using Social Media to Attract Publishers”. Karen lives in Orange County, CA with her Pomeranian Mr. Hairy Winston.

To learn more about Karen’s digital products for experts & authors, visit www.karenhappel.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up on Long Island in NY as a bit of a quiet, shy, overachiever with a floofy mop of hair (years before flat irons were mainstream). I despised my level of unpopularity; but looking back, I’m grateful for it. I don’t know if I would’ve thrown myself into the arts and education the same way if my social calendar had looked different. So instead of house parties, I was into theater and playing the flute.

My friends knew me to be bubbly and positive, but I was hiding a home life that wasn’t so great. My parents did the best they could, but alcoholism made home a difficult place to be. So instead, I stayed busy. By the time I was a senior, I was acting and performing, and had a couple part-time jobs. I taught flute lessons and tutored a younger student in math. Nearly every minute of most days was scheduled to keep me busy. And it was so worth it. I can honestly say I look back fondly on every single one of those experiences.

I also had a close-knit group of friends whom I adored. We’d drive down to the beach late at night and lay out under the stars having deep philosophical conversations. I definitely had more emotional baggage than a teenager should have to worry about; but when I look back, I can see that I was surrounded by some really great people and experiences. It was absolutely the foundation for the person I’ve turned into today.

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

“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort” — Brene Brown

It’s tough to choose just one quote, but I love what Brene Brown teaches. This one sums up my story pretty well, especially as it pertains to this interview…

I spent a decade convincing myself I was happy with my life in Los Angeles, when there was a lot of stuff under the surface I wasn’t dealing with emotionally. I had also lost myself in my job — my identity had become so wrapped up in my job title that I didn’t know where that ended and where I began.

Sometimes continuing to move forward is what’s comfortable, because it’s all you know, so you stay on the familiar path. True change takes courage.

My 20s were fun, but I spent most of my time trying to be what I thought the world wanted me to be, and it held me back. Now that I’m staring down 40, I feel closer to that young girl (who loved the arts and great conversation) than I have in a really long time. I’ve only been able to get back here because of moments when I’ve had to make tough choices or take the scarier path.

That quote is also about how I effect other lives as well. As an introvert, signing up to be a weekly volunteer at a children’s hospital was terrifying, but it’s the moments when I lean into my own fear that my soul comes a little more alive.

Being authentically yourself takes courage, but that’s where integrity is born.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Scrappiness –Some would call this resilience, but the word “scrappy” always comes to mind. When I’m knocked down, my instinct is to jump up and think “what’s next what’s next what’s next?” As I was reinventing myself, after tv and before Genuine Content, I had two very different marketing jobs, and two layoffs at exactly one year and two months in each position. Both times, I was caught in a round of layoffs, so it was never about my performance, but losing a job is soul crushing. The first one was in the behavioral healthcare industry. I loved that job, but the universe knew I was ready for the next thing, so it was yanked out of my grasp. I scrambled to find the next thing and somehow ended up in aerospace. Losing that one was another deep blow, but I knew almost immediately that it was time to go into business for myself. A month later, I started Genuine Content.
  2. They say losing a job is a similar feeling of the grief you feel when someone dies. I found that to be true. There were lots of tears. But wiping myself off and pivoting to the next thing each time has led me to where I am now. I believe I was meant to be an entrepreneur, but I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten knocked down a couple times so I could collect a wide array of skills. And well, here I am. So now when I get knocked down, I try to remember that it’s the universe doing for me what I can’t do for myself. I get back up and look for my next thing. I’m a scrappy lil’ bugger.
  3. Compassion — Compassion can be seen as a liability in business, but I prefer to see it as being a “heart-centric entrepreneur”. This is something I see women in particular struggle with, because there can be dissonance between the idea of making money while also helping others. Especially when first starting out, you want to give your work away, or you feel guilting charging what might be too much. It took me a little while to figure this part out, but eventually I realized that if I’m not charging, I won’t be able to support myself in business. And the better I support myself, the more people I can help advance their own careers and businesses. A heart-centric entrepreneur needs to let their heart drive the process and allow the money to follow, because focusing first on the money piece will leave them feeling inauthentic and miserable. I’ve found a way to merge my compassion with my entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s made me 10x stronger as a result. My ability to put myself in others’ shoes is also why I am a natural at understanding my clients’ audiences. By truly understanding people and their motivations, I have a killer instinct of knowing how to connect and also how to pull my clients’ message from their head out onto a screen.
  4. Curiosity — I love learning how to create new things. When I was in that behavioral healthcare job, I saw how much we were spending on outsourcing our graphic design work. So I approached the owner and said “if you pay for a class to learn the Adobe Creative Suite, I’ll take this over and we can save a ton of money.” And in my aerospace job, we needed to redo our Squarespace website. I offered to give it a whirl, and they gave me the space to pick up the skill. Now I am writing CSS code to create custom Squarespace websites and using the Adobe apps regularly. I’m always excited to learn something new. One of my bosses used to call me her Swiss Army Knife.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

Before my marketing career, I was a realityTV casting producer for nearly 10 years. I got a 4 year degree in Television/Business and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue that dream. It was an incredible experience. I traveled the country and talked to people about their lives, and I loved it. During on-camera interviews, people let me into their life journey on a very intimate level. I met some of the most fascinating people. I worked on shows of all sizes — some that are still on today, and others that never made it to air at all. Some of my more notable credits were on The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, Treehouse Masters, Fashion Star, and the pilot for Project Runway: Junior.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

I left television in 2014 and started over at the bottom in Marketing. It was a big step down in title and salary, having to take an entry-level position to get my foot in the door, but here I am as a business owner years later, and it’s all worth it.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

The short answer: I went to rehab

The longer answer: I had been unhappy for a while but didn’t want to admit that to myself. My identity was so tied up in my career that I didn’t know who I would be without being “Karen Happel the Casting Producer” and also no longer being the fun nightlifer. When I arrived at treatment, I told them “fix me and send me back, I have a career.” But after a few weeks, they helped me see that a life of travel, long hours, and lack of accountability would put my sobriety in danger. So I decided to try something new. I’m grateful that I gave myself time to heal and the humility to do what it took to restart. What felt like the end of the world was actually the best thing for me. And I’m so grateful. I don’t think I would’ve been able to make that decision unless I felt like I had no other reasonable choice. It all worked out exactly how it needed to.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

When I was in casting, I was actually getting on-the-ground training in Personal Branding without knowing it. This was long before personal branding had the buzz that it does now, but I was cutting my teeth as a storyteller. During those in-depth interviews, I crafted each potential cast member’s story and got them to say the soundbytes I needed to tell their story. Then we would show the network executives why our favorite interviewees should be on the show using the videos we shot and edited. I was helping others tell their story in a way that would demonstrate how they’d connect with America.

Now I work one on one with experts who are trying to figure out what their message is, and how best to get it out to the world. Even when I’m working with a company and not just one person, I’m finding the personality of that business and bringing out how to best connect to an audience. This is a natural evolution of what I was doing, along with the other technical skills I picked up along the way with web and graphic design… but I couldn’t have told you that 10 years ago. It just goes to show that sometimes our best path forward is one we didn’t know existed.

By the time I was let go from the aerospace job, my experience was vast, but not deep. I had a wide range of skills, but wasn’t an expert at any one, and in a mix of industries. In the corporate world, that makes your resume a mess, meaning it was hard to get an interview and even harder to get a livable salary. But as an entrepreneur? It makes me more valuable to a wider range of clients. Moving forward with my own marketing business seemed like the best bet (even if I didn’t know much about being a business owner). It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s been just the right mix of autonomy, creativity, and adrenaline to keep me thriving.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

There have been a lot of highs and lows, but I’ve come a long way. What started as me and my laptop expanded to bring in other experts for projects. This allowed me to offer more services and take on a larger volume of clients. At the end of 2019, I landed a contract with a Boeing company. To be able to say that I had built a website for and consulted with a Fortune 100 company was significant. We were discussing a monthly retainer for on-going marketing support, but then the pandemic hit. With airlines taking a hit, their manufacturing suppliers (my direct clients) tightened their budgets, meaning my retainer was put on hold. My plan at that point had been to grow my client list in aerospace, but the pandemic changed everything.

Turns out “pivot” isn’t just a silly line from Friends. I took a look at my one-on-one coaching services, which is where my true passion lived, and went full speed ahead in that direction. I took a look at the coaching clients I had worked with, and there was a theme. Many of them came to me because they were hoping to publish a book, but no publisher would talk to a new author without a social media following. I recognized that there was a need for someone like me in that world, and I claimed it as my niche. So I wrote an ebook called “From Expert to Author: Using Social Media to Attract Publishers”, and it was well received. I’ve spent 2021 getting digital products out to the world so I can help a larger volume of people get their personal brand out on social media! I’m launching my first course in May, and I’m excited to share it with the world.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had a college professor who has always been a source of support and guidance. Things were increasingly tumultuous back home when he was my teacher and advisor, and he saw right through my bubbly exterior. He became the adult influence I needed, offering support and guidance while also challenging me academically. Thanks to his guidance, I found the first glimmers of my ability as a leader, becoming the General Manger of the school’s television station and a TA for the major’s most challenging classes. To this day, he’s someone who’s advice I seek out when I need to make a big decision.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

You know, my old career was full of wild stories of celebrities and travel and zany coincidences. Those are the tales that are fun to pull out at parties. But when I try to think of something specific about chapter two, the thing that comes to mind is that I don’t set an alarm clock anymore. I’m allowed to wake up naturally, which is incredible. I work when the work needs to get done, which is much better for my creative brain than forcing it between 9–5. As my own boss, I recognize that that kind of freedom is a luxury, and I cherish it. To a workaholic and alcoholic in recovery? A story that ends in self-care and balance is something truly special.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Yes. YES! Sit any successful person down, and they have a story about imposter syndrome. That annoying little voice is always in the back of my head, the only difference is how much I want to pay attention to it. My best example was just last week. I made a big financial investment recently that came with some big hopes. This past weekend, I decided to end my contract with that company. My hopes for this business relationship didn’t pan out how I had expected.

That voice in my head got LOUD, telling me that I had made a bad investment and it had turned into a huge failure. That I was the failure. That voice always likes to jump straight to the extreme.

Instead, I gave myself a couple days to grieve the loss of the expectation of what I thought that investment would bring, and then I bounced right back into strategy. I combed through every new asset I had gained from the experience and developed a plan that would build upon it to create something better — something that will feel more ‘me’. And most importantly, I wrote out a list of everything I had learned. Every difficult experience helps us grow, but you need to take inventory of what happened.

Once I took a good look at everything, I realized that it wasn’t a failure at all. There is enough there to rework and create something far better than if I had let my contract with that other company continue.

When the entrepreneurial road gets bumpy I say to myself, “whelp, no one said this was going to be easy!” It reminds me that I knew going into this that it would be hard, and that this isn’t a surprise. It just feels icky (to use a very technical term). Setbacks are a given. It’s how you react to them that matters.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I am very fortunate in that I have collected a large network of friends over the course of my life, and I think I naturally gravitated back around to the ones who were in similar places when I was first starting my business. I started spending more time with people who had positive outlooks, and less around people who had limiting beliefs. I also didn’t judge people, because I had been someone with those same limiting beliefs. I thought you went to school, graduated, got a job, and saved money until retirement. I needed to be pushed a little before I could see beyond that. So I didn’t get upset at people who didn’t understand my decision to go into business for myself, but I did focus my energy where it was more likely to flourish.

I reached out to people who had created businesses, and I set up coffee dates. I asked tons of questions. It gave the courage to keep moving forward.

Then I searched for women’s networking groups. SCORE has an incredible program for women, and the local Orange County chapter does a women’s breakfast 4 times a year where they have a speaker and networking. That’s where I cut my teeth calling myself a business owner (it feels very weird for awhile, and I had to force myself to say it outloud in front of other people until it started to feel believable).

I also have a group of about 6 women who have a standing zoom call once a week. We are all at similar places with our businesses, and it has been an incredible support system. When one of us is down, the others have been there. It’s living proof that setbacks are temporary — such an important reminder.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

In the beginning, when someone asked me what I did for a living, it would come out something like this, “well, um, I build websites? I do some social media too, um, it kind of depends.” I learned real fast that if I don’t sound confident in myself, why would anyone have confidence in me? That’s no way to get paying clients.

So I made deal with myself. I used networking events to practice pitching myself confidently, even if I didn’t fully believe the words that were coming out of my own mouth. I had done projects for friends and friends of friends at that point, but I always felt the need to explain that to strangers. Instead, I committed to referring to those friends as clients. “I built a website for a friend” sounds different than “the website I built for my client.” No one had paid me a whole lot yet, but money had exchanged hands, so they WERE clients. The only thing holding me back was how I talked about it. The words we use are powerful.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “The first year is hard. Don’t give up.” Okay, so I heard this plenty, but it’s hard to truly understand until you experience it and can look back. I had a part-time job at Sephora and was still living on savings in my first year. Sometimes it’s really hard to see past the slim margins, but you have to believe that it will continue to come together… because it’s that belief that keeps you going.
  2. “Read 10 pages of an inspiring non-fiction book every day.” I love reading, but I don’t always prioritize it. But 10 pages a day? I can do that. The first book I did that with was Jen Sincero’s “You are a Badass at Making Money”, and it gave me the confidence to charge what I was worth. Now I’m reading Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly” and it’s just what I need for this moment. Reading also helps me start the day with my own mindset.
  3. “The magical lifestyles that work for everyone else won’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay too” Someone once told me that Tony Robbins says you should get up super early every day and start with a cold shower if you want to be productive. Know what happens when I try that? I don’t get anything done. Instead, I’ve learned to listen to my own body, and my own brain. Some of my best work happens at 11pm, and so I’ll work until the early hours, sleep in, and take my dog to the dog park the next day. Find what works for YOU and don’t shame yourself for not fitting into the mold of what works for someone else. Strive to continuously improve, keep what works, rinse, and repeat.
  4. “When you don’t land a project, it likely has nothing to do with you.” When you put your heart and soul into a proposal, and then don’t get the contract, it’s easy to fall into a shame spiral of everything you did wrong. But you have no idea what the potential client was thinking or why you weren’t the best fit. And if someone else is a better fit, then it’s a good thing they got it instead. No matter how amazing you and your business are, you’re not the best fit for everyone, and that’s okay. If you’re feeling brave, you can ask for feedback after a rejection. If you’re not landing ANY projects, however, then you likely need to reevaluate. But not landing 100% of them is actually a good thing.
  5. “You can’t be good at all of it, so invest in help for the places you need it most.” As a business owner, you start off wearing all the hats, and that works for awhile. Bookkeeping quickly became a nightmare for me. I would put off my Quickbooks too long, and then have to relearn it every time I tried to catch up. I was wasting time that I could have been using to generate more income! So the first person I outsourced was a bookkeeper. Without Quickbooks as the boogeyman at the back of my mind, I quickly attracted the business I needed to bring in to cover the added cost. I only wish I had made that move sooner.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d like to get my message out about what it means to be a heart-centric entrepreneur. So many people feel like they can’t do business because they’re not good at the sales or money part. There is a mind shift that needs to happen to be successful as a heart-centric entrepreneur that changes everything. There is nothing wrong with being sales-centric, it’s just a different methodology, and when a heart-centric entrepreneur tries to fit into that other world, it feels like an uphill battle.

We are very blessed that some very prominent 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. 🙂

Probably Jen Sincero. Her book changed my life, and I’d love the opportunity to thank her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

On Instagram @Karen_Happel

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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