Ken Carlton: “Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself”

Remember your “Leidar” — that North Star. Whatever your idea, embrace it and hone it and sharpen it like a favorite chef’s knife (my sister had one hand-forged for me as a birthday gift). When you know exactly, precisely what you want your company to do, it stays planted in your head and motivates you and everyone […]

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Remember your “Leidar” — that North Star. Whatever your idea, embrace it and hone it and sharpen it like a favorite chef’s knife (my sister had one hand-forged for me as a birthday gift). When you know exactly, precisely what you want your company to do, it stays planted in your head and motivates you and everyone around you to get there.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Carlton.

Ken Carlton is the founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish. He is an author and screenwriter, and writes the “Man in the Kitchen” column for Inspirelle Paris. He was a speechwriter for Time Inc. for 20 years and has written major events for corporate and global leaders all over the world.

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?

Pizza at Albanese’s in Yonkers, NY. Age 5. I reportedly sent “my compliments to the chef.” I’ve been writing about food ever since. There have also been stops along the way as a novelist, screenwriter, editor and speechwriter. It’s not been a dull journey.

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

A bunch of us came out of a huge conference in Durban, South Africa. We were hungry. Everyone pulled out their phones and turned to Yelp. We ended up in a 2-hour line with every other Yelp follower waiting for a so-so dinner. I decided there had to be a better way.

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?

A very dear high school friend who works in finance was up in New York for a visit with a colleague. They had no idea where to go in the city. I got them out of Times Square and we ended up at a Chelsea whisky bar. Naturally the talk turned to food. These guys were high stakes players and I was a writer/editor with a good idea. By the end of our third round they had me convinced there was a market for Beyondish and I should go raise some angel capital. I did. And here we are. You can pinpoint it right to that bar on 26th Street. I hope they survived the pandemic.

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

I’ve been super blessed and lucky to find an incredible team at all levels, from the editorial assistants to our top-drawer lawyers. I think it’s because we are playing with food. It’s the one business that is never going to grow stale. At an early meeting, one of our executives agreed to help recruit reviewers. I told her that her devotion was impressive. She said, “we’re a start-up. Everyone rolls up their sleeves.” That’s become our mantra. We’re a roll-up-your-sleeves operation.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A complete stranger who reviews for us in San Diego just messaged me to say thanks for helping bring business to this Thai place he loved that survived the year. I felt awfully good about that note. Kinda made my week.

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?

1. As a writer, you learn tenacity. So a writer who ends up running a business knows all about hard work, rejection, and staring at a blank page. Maybe every CEO should try a novel, first. If you can get through that you’re pretty much ready for anything.

2. My years working in conferences taught me teamwork. We did an event in Shanghai and had a thousand guests checking in at Registration when someone noticed that every welcome package had been alphabetized by first name. It was a language barrier miscue, but problem! Our entire staff sat up re-alphabetizing until dawn. I watched the sun rise over the Pudong River with the director of the entire event, taking care of the last 100 or so Joes and Alices. Lesson learned? No task is beneath anyone and there is great joy in linking arms to get it done.

3. Humility would be the third trait that comes in handy. Everyone at Beyondish counts on my editorial chops, but we also are a business and that involves a lot of decision-making where an MBA would come in handy. Since I opted for film school instead, I have learned to surround myself with really smart financial minds and have no shame about asking hard questions. I doubt I am going to be invited on CNBC anytime soon, but when we are not reviewing truffle pappardelle in San Diego, a wise and experienced team is helping do all the sound planning to make Beyondish a long-term success.

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?

I was encouraged to always have a real job while I pursued writing on the side. It took me a few years to switch that up and I’ve been a professional writer ever since. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had waited tables in the East Village when I was 21 and wrote full-time.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Well, having every restaurant in America shut down a month after you start a food review business was pretty daunting. But we all pulled in our belts, steered the ship in a slightly different direction (we’ve put the kibosh on the word “pivot” for the next year), and found a way to use our fabulous and functional website to help food peeps get back on their feet.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

I’ve done a lot of things in my professional life, including crawling through the bowels of a dry-docked supertanker in 105-degree heat in a Singapore shipyard to “find the story” for a corporate client. Thought I was going to suffocate! So getting the chance to run my passion play with food makes the drive part easy. We’re a food platform. We’re gonna do food. Whether it’s served from a truck, a picnic bench, or someone’s garage in a snowstorm. When you get to follow your north star, the strategies tend to evolve from the heart and the techniques from the minds of every last member of our staff. (The Norse word for North Star, by the way, is Leidar. I learned a ton working for a company in Oslo a while back.)

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

Jazz, scotch, music, dance. Ask my wife. I have extraordinary boundaries that I hold dear. When work is done, it’s done. Phone off. Jazz on my old Pioneer receiver to unwind. A couple of fingers of whisky in this collection of airline glasses I keep (think: small). Recently, I’ve embraced the world of streaming Internet radio, so it’s either this town in the southwest of France on France Bleu, or KBIG 97.5 out of Wichita Falls, Texas. I love country music. That’s when the “dancing” comes in. More just…moving about. Not sitting. My wife and I live in separate cities, 776 air miles apart, by the way, so she does not have to watch me…dance. Probably a good thing.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

Well, since I come from the creative community of writers and editors and artists, we’d have a hard time bootstrapping a bowl of Ramen! So my best advice is think VC. There’s a lot of capital out there and I know everyone is looking to cash in on crypto and apps and what-not. But if you have a really cool idea, you might just be the curveball an investor is looking for. Something fun and creative and maybe a bit different than their day to day. Of course it has to have a road to profitability, but that’s our job. Marry good ideas to smart business. And convince a few generous folks you have the talent and energy to make it work.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

Is Uber profitable yet? How long did it take Amazon? How do you measure success? I know how we do at Beyondish. One: build it. Two: fill it with great reviews. Three: monetize it. In our earliest pitch, I told the investors we were not out to crush the competition. We’re perfectly happy co-existing in the food space and making multiple millions and then some, along the way. When we are returning profits to our investors, while running a really fun company, well, bingo. That feels like success to me. So five things to create a successful startup?

1. A clear and blindingly easy idea to explain. If you can’t pitch it without a deck, how are you going to get others to buy in? My first successful pitch meeting, I spoke for 3 straight hours off of maybe 5 scribbled bullet-points on a coffee-stained cover sheet from the rough draft of the proposal. Everyone seemed to stay awake and the checks cleared. That was a good meeting.

2. Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself. Check your ego at the door. And learn to listen, even if you have to gnaw your thumb off while doing so. A long time ago I earned a story pitch meeting with a pretty big deal Hollywood executive named Karl. We shook hands. I sat down. He skipped all the preliminaries and gave me the floor. I swear he didn’t speak once. I’ve never forgotten the moment. Karl taught me how to listen. I did not get the job, by the way. But he became a lifetime mentor.

3. Define success at the start of every day. In bite-sized chewable pieces. I wake up around 5:30 every morning with so many ideas in my head I have to jump out of bed and find a post-it note. I write down two or three bullet-points and those are the goals. They are real, and manageable, and achievable. You know Chris Cuomo on MSNBC? He has this line. “Let’s get after it!” Okay, a little corny, but it sounds so good when he says it on air. Once I know what the day holds (usually by 6 a.m.), I can get back to sleep for a bit. Relaxed, not stressed. And then by 7:00, shower, coffee, New York Times (print edition, always!). Onto the F train. “Let’s get after it.” Crazy, I know. But it’s your start-up, so you better believe in the mission before you face the day.

4. Conversely, prepare for speed bumps. Things are going to go wrong. Every single day of the week. So we have a saying at Beyondish. “We have no problems. Only challenges.” I know, corny again. But it gives you a calm perspective and turns Rolaid moments into a hunt for solutions. It takes a strong constitution to run a start-up. Any trick you have that can seize problems and turn them into great new ideas is a technique you want to embrace at this game.

5. Remember your “Leidar” — that North Star. Whatever your idea, embrace it and hone it and sharpen it like a favorite chef’s knife (my sister had one hand-forged for me as a birthday gift). When you know exactly, precisely what you want your company to do, it stays planted in your head and motivates you and everyone around you 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?

I think people over-explain stuff. You know, death-by-Powerpoint? Of course if you are creating a new desalinization plant for the Red Sea, that may require some detail. But most anyone these days can create loads of charts and graphs, but are you communicating the core of your idea? “Founder’s passion” is a word I embrace a lot. And I apply it to myself, daily and would to new founders as well. If you have lost sight of the vision, it might help to stop, breathe, and re-visit. Your idea is there. Sometimes it is helpful to remind yourself so you don’t head off on all sorts of detours and wrong tangents.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

The gym. Even a light workout. Good for body, soul and mind. Bicycling. All those whirring gears and the changing landscape are a great balm to the soul (thank you Prospect Park!). Cooking. Fun to make things that work, when you are wrestling with stuff that might take a little longer to.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Feed everyone! We have enough food on the planet. It is all about logistics. And politics. But there are two certainties. We have to eat. And we have a lot of food going to waste. Hunger seems like a very good problem to solve.

We are 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sadly, Anthony Bourdain is no longer with us, though I still watch him on “Parts Unknown” the way some people play their favorite song. Maybe the Obamas? Barack, because he faced challenges, man, and with such calm and intellect. And equally, Michelle, because she is too cool for school and she gets food and kids and getting all those bits right. I’d like to make them dinner. Maybe pasta and a fresh tomato sauce, with a nice bottle of red. See where the conversation leads?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please visit us at Beyondish, or on Instagram @beyondish. Thanks so much.

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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