Carolyn Hartz has an incredible story. At the age of 55, she founded SweetLife despite a not-so-sweet start in life, being raised in an alcoholic home, with no business experience, computer skills or any idea she was going to be so successful.
Her company is now in its 12th year and the most recognised distributor and manufacturer of xylitol-based products in Australia. Seeing a hole in the sugar-free market in Australia, Carolyn confesses she really did need to start from scratch.
I’ve been very fortunate to interview Carolyn for our SHESAID audience. Her answers reveal her personality, passions, secret of her success and her wit! So please grab a cuppa and enjoy reading about Carolyn’s journey, take in her advice and marvel at her wisdom. Thank you Carolyn, you certainly are a living, breathing inspiration.
What are your 5 most prominent personality traits?
My five most prominent personality traits are passion, confidence, optimism, compassion and drive. I have always been driven, which I think comes from growing up in an alcoholic household where there was barely enough money for food and clothes or to pay the bills.
I knew from an early age that I had to work hard to escape this environment and make something of myself. This was also the source of my compassionate nature, seeing first hand the vice-like grip a disease like addiction can have on people, and how they are sometimes powerless to help themselves.
What sort of employment background do you have?
Worked for an accountant for three years straight out of school, an airline stewardess for three years, and modelling – I was Australian Model of the Year 1974. Then when I was 30, I decided to be a stay-at-home mum to raise my children, but I studied part-time for three years and got my finance brokers licence.
I also completed a real estate course. I did not practice either, but a lot of the subjects I took were useful when I started my company at the age of 55, when the youngest of my children went off to university.
When did you consider becoming a business owner?
The seeds were first sown when I accompanied my husband to a conference in New York in 2000. I got talking to a woman who told me she had just bought into a company that sells xylitol, the natural sugar free alternative. I had given up sugar because I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, but I was missing my sweet treats. She gave me some to try and I was blown away, because here was something that looks like sugar and tastes like sugar but has none of the harmful effects.
She then asked me right there on the spot if I would like to bring the product into Australia. The idea of owning and running a business had never been on my radar before. I replied that I didn’t think I would be able to do it, because frankly, I had no previous business experience. She was having none of it and said something that I will never forget: “Of course you can, you can do anything.” And that was the start of my journey.
What sort of support did you have?
Well, first of all there was my family who just told me to go for it, so that was fantastic. From the New York-based company I received both moral and logistical support. I knew nothing about imports, exports, distributors, labelling, packaging, or indeed anything about running the business.
Fortunately, they were so encouraging and patient. In the beginning, they even helped me to bring xylitol into the country from China, which is where it was being produced at the time.
Did you have a mentor? If yes, who were they and how did they help?
No. I taught myself with my husband’s assistance. Took a computer and business course while I was working full-time. Learnt on the job and from my own mistakes. I now have a business mentor who has helped me tremendously, especially in learning to focus and keeping me out of rabbit holes – my biggest downfall.
Can you tell us what steps you took to start and grow your business?
Because of my own health issues, I researched and learnt how to manage them without drugs. Everything was built on these principles and my business developed accordingly. Much of my learning is from my own experiences and talking to hundreds of my customers. Started small and grew with the business learning on the way. I did a lot of research into my products and the health industry.
Bear in mind that the only people who had heard of xylitol were dentists, so I was really taking a leap into the unknown. The public knew nothing about the product and neither did naturopaths, doctors and dieticians. So I had to beat the drum for it.
I went to dozens of expos to introduce xylitol and spoke to thousands of people. I also took out an ad in a small magazine that featured health articles. The response was phenomenal and we sold out pretty much straight way. This convinced me that I had a viable business option which could succeed.
I learnt importing, packaging, marketing, bookkeeping, etc and all the tools I needed to run my business ‘on the job’, but I also did a business course about three years after I started as the business grew very fast and became much larger than I ever anticipated. I had only thought I would work 3 days a week not 7 days a week!
You’ve mentioned you had no computer experience and you did a computer course. What sort did you do and what did it teach you?
I took a week-long course for absolute beginners, because the only thing I knew was how to turn the computer on, and only then if the button was in a prominent position! The course taught me so much, including how to use a word processor, how to navigate a desktop, how to create and save documents, how to work with files and how to start and shut down a computer. And I have my very patient husband to thank for showing me how to send and respond to an email. I truly learnt the hard way by my mistakes.
You also did an online business course. What sort?
For three years I studied EMyth, an American course which I loved as all our assignments were based around our own business. It was part-time and done by phone and online. It was a thorough grounding in just about everything to do with owning a business, such as writing a business plan, marketing, taxes, communication tools, business organisation, cash flow and running a successful online venture. It was very real and helped me see where one could improve every aspect of your own business, not just text book learning.
Would you recommend a business course to others wanting to become their own boss?
Oh, absolutely. Before starting SweetLife, I wasn’t aware of just how many different skills business owners need to run a successful operation. You need to be able to do so many things and handle such tasks as negotiations, business management and market analysis. Passion and determination will only get you so far, and that isn’t far enough. A formal training also prepares you for many of the eventualities that may crop up.
Furthermore, as your business grows and develops, the range and complexities of your skills will also need to grow, and whether through formal business training or a mentor, you need the proper tools to tackle fresh challenges and search for new opportunities. You are the only person who has a deep emotional connection to your business and you owe it to yourself to be fully prepared.
What tips could you offer others who want to begin their own business who are getting older?
First of all, do it. Don’t even entertain the thought that you are too old to start anything new, let alone something as bold as a brand new business venture. You are not too old.
I would also say, start your business to solve a problem. Be the solution that consumers are looking for. And solve a problem that you are passionate about. For example, I am passionate about providing Australians with a healthy, natural, sugar-free alternative.
Starting and running a business is hard work, requiring perseverance and commitment; and while passion on its own won’t make your business a success, it will keep you energised and focused. Be prepared to work hard, keep learning, ask people for assistance when you don’t know something, make mistakes, fall down and keep getting up.
My final tip is to ignore the naysayers, and there will be plenty of them, especially if you are someone who has to blow out lots of candles on your birthday cake. The only way you will silence the cynics and doom merchants is by becoming a success.
Look, I started when I was 55 with a product nobody had heard of and you could list my previous business experience on the back of a very small stamp. As you can imagine, there were plenty of naysayers who all said there were too many cards stacked up against me. I listened to none of them. Once I set my mind on my business venture, I went for it 100 per cent. Failure is not a word I use.
What advice can you offer others who have experienced trauma /abuse/addiction to create a meaningful, successful life?
It is very difficult to give advice to anyone, as we are all so different and our experiences are different. The best advice I received was from people who had gone through similar circumstances and really understood how it feels; people who have come out the other end and accepted what had happened to them in the past and have propelled themselves forward using their past experiences to achieve their dreams.
I try to inspire others in this way as well. Encouraging them not to go back, not to dwell on the past, only work on the future. We can’t change the past, but we can have enormous effect on the future. Of course the old memories will resurface when life gets difficult, but to remember that the worst is over and the future is now up to us as an individual.
At this stage, we control our own destiny, we are no longer held back by the past. That time was possibly out of our control, but now we are in control of our own future and we can strive forward to be happy and successful in whatever we choose to do. Know that it will be difficult at times but that is OK. Don’t be hard on yourself.
The most awakening time in my life was my time at Holyoake (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous I think) when I was 37-years-old (30 years ago), where I participated for many months as a co-dependent, as I wasn’t an alcoholic. I not only learnt how to cope with other people’s alcoholism, but I learnt a lot about myself and my own issues that had developed as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic environment.
I learnt to understand why I behaved the way I did and I learnt to forgive myself and be proud of who I was. I learnt not to be ashamed of my past but to embrace it. In doing so I not only helped myself, but I could help those around me. I could actually inspire other people to follow their dreams and never be held back by a past they had no control over. Thirty years ago it was not as accepted as it is now to speak up so it was not easy. How lucky we are today that times have changed so much.
For thirty years I have said: I am what I am today because of my experiences ‘yesterday’. I like who I am today. My past has made me strong, compassionate, driven, understanding and very aware of those who have or are experiencing personal trauma. I know it can be difficult at times to move on, but remember: the ‘glass is always half full’, it’s what we do now that counts.
The past can’t be undone, but the future is in our hands. It is clean and bright, we just have to embrace it. There is no such thing as failure – failure is just a stepping stone to success. One can have a successful meaningful life. Sometimes, I think I am even better off because of my past as it has made me aware of what I DON’T want in my life.
I only focus on what I do want in my life and I know that it can only happen if I make it happen. Very importantly I have made sure that my own family have the very best start to life that I can give them.
Click here to find out more about SweetLife Australia.