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From hedge funds to homeopathy
Carly Stein’s bee-product brand just closed a $3.5 million fundraising round.
Welcome to The Leap, where women (and nonbinary) entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2% of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
Today, we chat with Carly Stein, the founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals. Carly began her career out of college at a hedge fund and then moved on to Goldman Sachs, but eventually left her career in finance to focus on the medicine cabinet.
In a time of overprescribing antibiotics and rising instances of autoimmune diseases, Stein is working to promote natural remedies in an effective, sustainable, and clean way. Having just closed a $3.5 million fundraising round led by Sonoma Brands, she opens up about imposter syndrome, following your happiness, and how she stays grounded as a first-time founder.
Did you go to college? If so, what did you study?
I went to the University of Victoria. I did social sciences and biology and went into research. I really loved it and during college I had my first career research experience as an intern at the Bill Clinton Foundation and was able to run the prescription drug abuse initiative. I was doing a lot of research into pharmaceuticals and overprescription.
What were you doing for work before starting your company? Tell us about your career path before becoming an entrepreneur.
I had a job offer at a hedge fund out of college. I could kind of do everything and anything, so I sort of had a crash course in finance and got to learn a lot. I rose in the ranks there and Goldman Sachs ended up asking me to interview. Ten months later, they placed me on the trading floor, which was interesting because I never took a finance course in my life. It was a great place to learn and a really positive experience.
I’ve always been really focused on wellness and health and sustainability and environmental concerns, and none of that [finance] work was feeding that part of me. I was feeling lost and became kind of depressed. I was doing this job that wasn’t fulfilling to me yet I felt tied to it because it was so great on paper. I was questioning, ‘why aren’t I happy?’.
I made a spreadsheet about happiness and the thing that I kept coming back to was beekeeping and making bee products, which I’d started doing in college basically to cure my health issues. Beyond my own experience having an autoimmune disease and not being able to use a lot of antibiotics and cold and flu products, I started to realize that there are some real issues with the pharmaceutical world.
So I started making bee products in my apartment. At the time, I was still not really thinking of it as a business, more as a hobby. I was making these bee products and working my 16-hour days on the trading floor and coming home late at night and on weekends. I started going to farmers markets and pop-up shops on the weekend to sell these products, and that’s when the company was really born.
I was getting feedback from different consumers about how [my products were] changing their health and working for them and realized there wasn’t just a market for this, there was a real need. So I made a website and started getting orders. It was very scrappy, but it was really exciting.
What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
That was really hard, for many reasons. One big one was that I was leaving this job where I was getting incredible social feedback—when you work at Goldman and live in New York people just kind of assume you’re smart. I didn’t have to prove myself. So leaving that to do something like starting a bee-product company… I was leaving something that received a lot of social validation for something that people were honestly confused about.
My friends and family legitimately thought I was insane and I got interventions. I had to get away to drown out the voices so I booked a one-way flight to Indonesia. I wanted to go to Europe since that was where I first found all of these bee products to begin with, but I couldn’t afford living there. Southeast Asia I could afford. I booked myself into a coworking space there and spent three months traveling and working. I formulated three new SKUs, came back, brought them to market, put together a fundraising plan, and executed.
Having so much opposition from people I loved was a wonderful gift because that is so much of what you face as an entrepreneur. It really prepared me and taught me to look within myself for the support I needed.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net or a back-up plan?
Even before I let myself acknowledge that I was going to eventually leave Goldman, I started putting together a savings plan. I started seriously saving and seriously downsizing. When I left, I did very clear calculations on the amount of money I would need to survive, how I could sublet my apartment and live in a cheap place—everything you can think of for saving money, I did it.
At one point, I spent over six months sleeping on my friend’s couch. I was very lucky to have the friends that I do, but it was hard; I was on a tight financial plan because I put all of my savings into the company. I went from a position of financial abundance to a situation where I had a hard time buying food. But even at the hardest times, I was so excited about what I had the opportunity to build.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting this venture?
I’ve kept the perspective that money is a fantastic tool, and an important tool that can create freedom, but it’s not the thing that allows for happiness. Also, the awareness of how much money comes and goes, and how it’s really important not to be super attached to it. Be attached to what you’re passionate about, what you’re building, and how you can affect change because, ultimately, that’s what will bring the money in anyways.
What’s been your plan to profitability—how have you been raising capital?
I started with bootstrapping and did a very small friends and family round about a year and a half ago. We just closed a Series A round of $3.5 million earlier this month and will be using these funds to further our research and development and expand our retail distribution.
What’s it been like being a woman entrepreneur?
I don’t really allow room for people to treat me differently, and I work really hard at that. Even within that, I’ve certainly had experiences. I remember being in an event where someone was continuously referring to my COO as my boss. But I don’t let those one-offs define my experience or leave much room for people who are going to bring me down.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
That is so present for me, being an anxious person who’s really hard on myself. It’s a constant practice of remembering the reality, which is that nobody is really better than anyone else, it’s really our choices—to continue to push yourself, to get up after you’re down, to throw yourself into situations that scare you—that make a great entrepreneur.
That, and also keeping track of the wins. That’s kind of the only way to combat imposter syndrome, to keep putting yourself in a situation where you can have tangible things you’re proud of.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
A big challenge has been finding the right teammates. It’s critically important, especially because I run a very intrapreneurial business and give people leeway to create what they want. So bringing on people who I trust and who share my vision is important. I look at them like partners, so that aspect is really important to me. That being said, I have an incredible team that I’m really lucky to work with.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
Probably being the number one cold and flu product on Amazon. It felt surreal but also in some ways I felt like it made so much sense—my team’s so good and the product’s incredible, too. I can be a person who’s quick to gloss over victories, which is exactly what you shouldn’t do and is also something I’m working on right now.
What does your self-care routine look like?
I work out probably 4 or 5 days a week, whether that's a 15-minute run, a yoga class, or whatever I can do. I don’t have tons of time, but I prioritize that. Also, getting into nature. I love beekeeping and that’s something I try to do as often as possible.
I try to meditate and gratitude journal every single morning and evening. I’m trying to really recognize—especially as a startup where things are constantly changing—that it’s really important to take stock of the wins and what filled you up that day.
What are some resources that have helped you on your journey?
The book Mindset by Carol S. Dweck was a really important book for me. I’m also re-reading The Alchemist right now. I encourage anyone who’s at a transitional phase of life or dealing with change to read this book. It’s about remembering that the path to personal fulfillment is not easy, it’s often scary and laid-in with challenge and feels unclear at times, and that’s really important to remember. Principles by Ray Dalio has been formative in my leadership. And as for podcasts—I love Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders and How I Built This.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
Create that cushion, especially if you’re bootstrapping, so that you’re supported. There’s a lot of fear and scarcity in taking an entrepreneurial leap, so the more stability you can create, the better.
The other piece of advice is: get ready to be fully self-reliant and confident and know when to take feedback or throw it out. You have to have a lot of belief in what you’re doing if you’re going to be an entrepreneur. Also, if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, don’t do it just to be an entrepreneur. You need to really love the problem you’re solving and what you’re building, because it’s really hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t truly passionate about what they are creating.
Feeling like a fake?