I did a commercial last year that included the statistic, “67% of Millennials want to one day own their own business.” And why not? Today’s aspiring entrepreneur has several key factors working in their favor. Thanks to a recovering economy, social media and digital platforms, combined with our sharing economy, tech-savvy startups are disrupting entire industries. (Looking at you, Uber.) Still, for every “overnight success,” there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of entrepreneurs for whom “failure to launch” is no longer a cute rom-com with Sara Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey. That’s why I’m so excited to introduce you to Amber Lewis founder of modPALEO, a Carolinas-based, packaged meal service that offers a modern approach to healthy eating based on the Paleo lifestyle. Amber has some great advice on how to cash in on your passion, while surviving your mistakes and being the toughest boss you’ll ever have.
What exactly is modPALEO and what inspired you to start this company? modPALEO is a prepared food company, based on the Paleo template. We source our ingredients from small family farms and companies that are doing the right thing. Raising whole foods, in natural environments, free of chemicals and additives. I started mP to help busy people stay healthy. I grew up in a house with two full-time working parents. My Mom was always on Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. She was never overweight, but it was her way to be “healthy”. And then she got sick, really sick. My Mom battled heart disease for many years, from a young age and passed away at a young age. Doctors treated her symptoms for a long time. No one ever tried to figure out WHY she had such aggressive heart disease at a young age. During my mom’s illness, I learned a lot about healthcare, doctors and medicine. Not that traditional healthcare doesn’t have its time and place. It does, and it saves lots of lives. But similar to our food system, our healthcare system is also broken. I realized through that research that I needed to be stronger and healthier or I was going to end up in the same boat. I started boot camp with BTB Fitness in Atlanta in 2007. They were big believers in the Paleo lifestyle. My husband, Carter, and I jumped on board and couldn’t believe the difference it made for us. I had been struggling with a lot of digestive issues and after about 14 days I didn’t have heartburn for the first time in my life. He went off high blood pressure medication in about 6 months. We were in our early 30’s at the time! After that, there was no way we were going to go back to the old way of eating. It literally changed our lives.
Do you still do CrossFit? I saw you almost hurl once after doing Murph. HA! Yes, I am an occasional CrossFit attendee. I wish I went more often. Running a business sometimes screws that up. But, when I can’t get into the gym, I try to do stuff at home or go for a run. I have dumbells and a kettlebell in my bedroom.
Tell us about your background and your career path. What experience (academic or otherwise) prepared you to run your own company? Wow, I don’t know that anything prepared me… lol. I have a degree in Marine Biology and Public Relations. I wanted to play with the whales and dolphins. When Marine Biology proved to be a better hobby than money-maker, I went into marketing and event planning, then later into sales. Sales helped me build some thicker skin. It taught me that to be a good salesperson, you have to be a good resource. I learned that early on and it helped me a lot in my career path. If I didn’t have an answer, I would find it. I am definitely a problem-solver by nature and that has been a key trait in starting and running a business. Sales also keeps you agile, things change from minute to minute in the sales process. Same can be said for small business. I equate it to several small fires starting in the morning and you have to come up with a plan of extinguishing the small fires throughout the day to prevent them from taking over. Did I mention having thick skin?
Did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur or did you surprise yourself? I really, really, really wanted to work for myself. I didn’t have the what or how. But it was always in my plan. My sweet, naïve, little plan. I would work for myself so I could have a flexible schedule, set my own hours. I would be my own boss. Well, that’s not really how it works. Your hours become 24/7, you’re the hardest boss you’ll ever have and you’re schedule is flexible – to be changed at a moment’s notice to put out the next fire. But, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have surprised myself in how resilient I can be and able to dust myself off and keep on going.
Can you tell us a little about the process of starting your business (business plan, website design, media exposure, etc.) I married well, an art director. So, the design and branding was taken care off almost before we started. That was a huge expense we didn’t have to incur at the beginning. I didn’t really have a business plan, except make food, deliver food, keep up with demand and sleep. The key thing about my business was the market was there. I was filling a need within our Crossfit community. Low and behold, there was also a huge need to fill outside of Crossfit! It was all self funded. I just went and rented some commercial kitchen space by the hour and started taking orders. I was good at excel, so I managed all the orders using a spreadsheet.
What’s been the biggest challenge of starting modPALEO? Have you had to make course corrections along the way? Any setbacks? The day we decided to develop a new website. I didn’t realize that it would change the nature of our business so dramatically. We had a rough transition, losing our ability to accept recurring payments for several months. That was a huge setback. We’ve slowly but surely recovered this year. And what seemed like such a curse in 2015 has been a blessing beyond expectation for 2016. It slowed our growth to be able to look inside and focus on our processes. Now, we’re ready to scale this thing! We would not have done that had we continued our rapid growth through 2015.
Can you tell us what a typical day is like? I don’t really have typical days. I check email, check our sales throughout the day. Meet with our Director of Operations to see where they need my help. We’ve been doing a lot of projection and planning work to scale the company, so currently my days are filled with financials and spreadsheets. The absolute last thing I would have ever imagined my job to be.
What’s it like working with your husband? Do you guys “bring your work home with you?” It’s good and bad. Carter and I work really well together. We’re kind of polar opposites so there is a balance there that is helpful. We can also be brutality honest with each other without hurt feelings. We are both pretty grounded so we maintain boundaries of a business partnership and personal relationship. But yes, we take work home and on vacation. mP is our kid.
Does an entrepreneur get vacations or do you have to be all about the business? See answer above. I keep threatening to go on vacation where my cell phone doesn’t work. I haven’t been brave enough yet to try it. But, it’s coming!
Is there something you wish someone had told you before started your own business? Get an accountant before you get anything else.
What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur? The accomplishment. To sit back and see what mP has become is overwhelming. I am proud of it.
What’s the suckiest part of your job? Financials.
What stresses you out about owning your own company and how do you deal with it? The financial side of the business is the hardest. If you have a slow day, you start to panic. We’re a relatively young and small business, our daily revenue makes a big difference. I have limited myself to checking daily sales once per day. It’s a little game I play, because sometimes it seems like if I check it earlier in the day the final amount is lower than if I check it at night. I also like to guess what the revenue will be before I click the app on my phone. Exciting times.
How is the fitness and healthy eating industry changing and what does that mean for modPALEO? It’s pretty remarkable how much our industry has changed in the four short years we’ve been in business. People are more concerned with the source of their food and interested in clean eating in general. That’s good for us. Very good. We’re a small company doing the right thing. We do what we advertise. We’re transparent. Consumers are smart, they can tell when you’re faking it.
Where can modPALEO go from here? We have big plans. I’ll tell you about them this summer 😉
What’s the best career advice anyone’s ever given you? Be a duck. Let ‘it’ roll off your back. From Mom. The best salesperson I have ever known.
Any advice for young women interested in becoming an entrepreneur or starting their own company?
- Get a mentor or a group of mentors: Find a business group or at least a group of people that have done this before. And, talk to them. A lot. Not having a mentor when I started the business was tough. I literally had to find my way in the dark. Part of it was my ego, but part of it was the nature of our business. When we started no one was doing what we wanted to do. That kept me from really reaching out and finding people to help along the way. That’s my biggest regret. I am now a member of a small business and CEO group that meets monthly. It has improved my business acumen by leaps and bounds. It also holds you accountable get things done. It’s also really lonely at the top. No one will understand what you’re up against except for other entrepreneurs. It’s a game changer to have a group of peers.
- Check your ego at the door: Starting a business will humble you. Be ok with that. When you do get humbled learn from it. Dust yourself off and move on. Don’t hold grudges. Don’t take things personally. And most importantly, don’t beat yourself up. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. Mistakes are where growth happens.