It was a chance dinner conversation at a New York conference that recalibrate Carolyn Hartz’s path and sent her straight into the realm of entrepreneurship. At 52-years-old, Carolyn had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic and was nursing sugar craving.
Learning of this, another dinner guest told her about a New York company that sold xylitol, an all-natural sugar free sweetener made from the birch tree or woody fibre of the corn cob that tasted like sugar. That was all Carolyn needed to hear.
Two years later, when most women her age were getting ready to settle into retirement, she launched SweetLife, a sugar-free product business. Within three months, the first shipment of xylitol had sold out in Australia. In the last 12 years, the business has defied the predictions of naysayers to become a market leader in the country.
The Perth business woman now has a team of 25 people working on brand growth, yet is nowhere near shifting into lower gear herself. Carolyn currently has her plate full with a new product development and the release of her first book, Sugar Free Baking, in October this year.
You once listed your five most prominent personality traits as passion, confidence, optimism, compassion and drive. Is that one among these five that has been key in leading you to this point in life?
Each of these traits have been a driving force in my professional and personal life. I’m an extremely driven person and once I set my mind on something, I make sure I achieve it to the best of my ability. My drive stems from a real passion for the business and everything it represents. I’m passionate about healthy living and about sharing that love with SweetLife’s customers. I also value compassion and integrity above all else.
Most people relate addiction to negative substances like drugs and alcohol. As someone who isn’t a stranger to the symptoms of addiction, would you also categorise sugar as an addictive substance? If yes, how can one break that addiction?
Absolutely. Sugar is undoubtedly addictive. The only way to break the addiction is to make the switch to a natural alternative. That way, you can still enjoy treats in moderation but you don’t get any of the highs and lows that come with sugar consumption. There are no cravings and no crashing.
You were taken aback at the initial suggestion that you run your own business. Why was that?
I was certainly surprised that people felt that I could actually run my own business when I hadn’t even been in the workforce for so many years. I’ve always had drive and red flags have never turned me off something. In fact, red flags get me going! I’ve always treated failure as a stepping stone to something better. So, for me, although it was a daunting experience and a risk, it was an exciting challenge I had to undertake.
Was it daunting to learn everything from scratch when you first started out?
Yes! I barely knew how to switch on a computer, never mind understanding how to run an import and food manufacturing business! I had to put my head down and study to get myself up to speed, and of course, I learnt a lot through trial and error. Luckily, I was naïve and didn’t even fully understand what I had to be afraid of!
No one knew about your product when you first launched. Was there a particular winning marketing strategy that you used to change that?
Not at all. I had no money for any marketing when I started the business. It was up to me to hit the streets and rely on word-of-mouth, which thankfully, is exactly what happened. I participated in expo after expo and sent samples of my products to naturopaths and doctors. I started very small and all I ever wanted was to share a product I loved with like-minded people. I never set my sights on running a large business at all.
You taught yourself everything about running a business. What are the key entrepreneurial skills that are grossly underestimated?
Tenacity, integrity, passion and determination. These are the four key components to success.
One key skill that entrepreneurs must have is the tenacity to learn from failure. I’ve made mistakes over the years but each time I pick myself up and continue learning through trial and error. I’ve always been a great believer in no such thing as failure. If you keep working hard and get up every time you fall, another door will open. You have to work hard and keep your mind and eyes open for opportunities. Luck is when opportunity meets hard work.
Secondly, you have to love what you do. You can’t teach passion in a book – it’s something that you either have or don’t. And if you do, the rest will fall into place. Third, you need to be determined and have the guts to get up and go. Fear is the worst enemy of success.
What was the best and worst advice that you have received to this date?
I was once told that managing staff would be far more difficult than managing cash flow. This is very true and knowing that from the beginning has guided me well!
The worst advice I received was during a particularly tough time. I was told to just give up and enjoy my retirement. I heard this a lot. People would say, ‘You’re 60. Just let it go! Why don’t you just relax and enjoy retirement?’ To me this kind of negative, defeatist attitude is not helpful at all.
What legacy are you leaving behind?
That age is just a number. Starting or running a business at any time of life is exciting but doing it at my age is the very best thing you can do. You’re never too old, provided you’re passionate about what you do and what you want to achieve. Every morning I wake up energised by what I’m building and the change I can make every day to the health of Australians.
If you’re in a position where you can take the risk, don’t be scared! All you need is passion and determination and be willing to work hard. I want people to be inspired and to know that anything is possible as long as you’re fit, healthy and prepared to take a few risks along the way.