About this episode

Hello Alice is an online step-by-step resource for you in your entrepreneurial journey. Regardless of the stage of your business, Hello Alice can be a resource for you. This week I am joined by Carolyn Rodz, founder of Hello Alice.

What I love about Carolyn's story is the narrative is so incredibly similar to why I started The Startup Story platform. To provide you, the entrepreneur and founder, with direct access to founders of companies so that you can learn from their journey.

The entrepreneurial journey is such a unique storyline, and not a single one is the same. Yet, when we strip it all back and start at the beginning, we can begin to see some commonalities. One of them is that entrepreneurship was foundational in our upbringing, and for some, it was nowhere on the horizon. For Carolyn, it was very much the part of her world. This is Carolyn Rodz's startup story.

In this episode, you'll hear.

  • The term entrepreneur was never part of Carolyn's early vocabulary, but entrepreneurs surrounded her during her childhood. She shares her first exposure to entrepreneurship, her grandparents' Bolivian bread, cookie, and pasta factory.
  • She shares some of her early aspirations, including her desire to climb the corporate ladder. She started as an investment banker, and all she wanted to be a corner office at a high rise in Manhattan.
  • Her breaking point, when she realized the corporate lifestyle was no longer for her and how she broke away from that work-life.
  • After leaving her job at JP Morgan, she decided she wanted to create something new, starting with a stationery business. And she won Best New Product at the first stationery show she attended.
  • Carolyn shares what happens following her success at the trade show, including the story arc and her ultimate exit from the company.
  • Even with the closing of her first venture, she knew she was capable of being an entrepreneur. Carolyn explains how she pushed forward to understand what steps she missed and how she could improve.
  • About her next venture, a branding, and design company with two team members.
  • How Carolyn transitioned into what it is known today as Hello Alice - a company that matches entrepreneurs with opportunities, locally and online, to help them start and grow a business.
  • “Entrepreneurship is not a solo sport.” Carolyn Rodz

Resources from this episode

Hello Alice: https://helloalice.com/
Carolyn Rodz on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carolynrodz
Hello Alice COVID-19 Business for All Emergency Grant: https://helloalice.com/resources/funding/hello-alice-covid-19-business-for-all-emergency-grant
The Startup Story Inner Circle: https://www.thestartupstory.co/vip
The Startup Story on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/thestartupstory
The Startup Story is now on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/jamesmckinney
The Startup Story on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thestartupstory

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Episode transcript

The Startup Story - Carolyn Rodz

Carolyn Rodz: Hi, my name is Carolyn Rodz. I'm the CEO and cofounder of Hello Alice, and this is MY startup story.

Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.

James McKinney: Welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Before we jump into this week's episode, I want to say thank you to the team at Fuse Workspace for allowing me to use their podcast studio to record this episode. Visit workatfuse.com to discover how you can do more.

You know it's been a while since I've mentioned it, but there are so many new listeners to The Startup Story podcast that I want to let you know there's a way you can advertise your business on this podcast to our 60,000 listeners for absolutely free. Just leave a five star rating and a written review in Apple Podcast. And if you do so, I'll read your review in an upcoming episode so make sure to plug your brand, URL, or social media account in that review. These episodes live on forever and so will your ad. I'm basically giving you a free advertisement for writing a review on Apple Podcast as a way of just simply saying thank you for taking the time to write a review.

All right, I want to let you know about an incredibly exciting opportunity for you, so make sure you listen closely and get ready to act. How would you like to join a private recording session with Ben Chestnut, the founder of Mailchimp? Not only would you get to be part of the recording session, but afterwards Ben will be available for you to ask any questions you may have. I'm dead serious, this offering is for you. You just need to join The Startup Story Inner Circle ASAP because our recording session with Ben will be taking place on July 21st. Just visit thestartupstory.co/VIP. Again, startupstory.co/VIP. Sign up today so you can be part of this super private event. Let's be honest, when have you been afforded the chance to sit with a self-made billionaire and receive direct mentorship from them? Ben built Mailchimp from absolutely nothing, and now they have over 1,200 employees and 15 million clients using their email and marketing solutions, and you get to have your questions asked directly to him. This opportunity is only for The Startup Story Inner Circle, so again visit thestartupstory.co/VIP today. All right, now let's jump into this week's episode.

Our guest this week is Carolyn Rodz, founder of Hello Alice. Hello Alice is an online, step by step resource for you in your entrepreneurial journey. Regardless of what stage your business is at, Hello Alice can be a resource for you. In fact, part of the reason Carolyn started Hello Alice is because of her own entrepreneurial journey and wishing she had a resource at her disposal during her first venture that ended in a shutdown. What I love about Carolyn's story is that the narrative is so incredibly similar to why I started The Startup Story platform: to provide you, the entrepreneur and founder, with direct access to founders of companies so that you can learn from their journey.

In fact, before we jump into Carolyn's episode I want you to make sure to check the show notes because there's a link to their grant program where they're giving away grants up to $50,000 to small businesses in response to the COVID crisis. Again, you can get access to that link directly in our show notes. The entrepreneurial journey is such a unique storyline, and not a single one is the same as another episode. Yet when we strip it all back and start at the very beginning, we can start to see some commonalities. One of them is that entrepreneurship was foundational in our upbringing, and for some it was nowhere on the horizon. Yet for Carolyn it was very much part of her world.

Carolyn Rodz: I was surrounded by entrepreneurs. I vividly remember I guess my first entrepreneurial exposure was my grandparents. I'm Bolivian and my grandparents who live in Bolivia and owned a cookie, bread, and pasta factory.

James McKinney: That's awesome.

Carolyn Rodz: It was the largest one in Bolivia. I remember sitting at the breakfast table with my grandmother and she would be setting prices for the panetones they were selling over the holidays. Or I remember the bread delivery guy coming by the house and bringing bread, and going to the factory. We all got cookies named after us, all the grandkids did. So that piece I think for me was so much fun, just going to the factory, picking cookies off the conveyor belt, these big, I mean they were Bolivian factories, like old school machinery. But just getting to go to the stores and seeing that whole cycle of how a product went from being priced. I remember having to follow her when she would deal with the accountants. Seeing that whole process I think it fascinated me. It was my favorite thing to do was to go to the factory, so that was super exciting. And it was so tangible and I could touch it, and feel it, and see it.

The other kind of big defining moment for me was that my father, I remember him coming home from work one day and telling my mom he quit his job and he was going to start his own business. And I remember the stress and fear in her eyes at that moment, but I also saw him build that company into a very successful small business over the course of thirty five years, and so that piece I think was I saw a lot of ups and downs. I saw the stress, I saw the pressure, the highs and lows very intimately there.

And I don't think I, again I didn't really think about it at the time but I do remember as a child I sat at my little Strawberry Shortcake desk and my parents would come in like, "Why aren't you asleep?" and I'm like, "I'm working late at the office." The idea of work and idea of sort of contributing and creating, and making something to sell always fascinated me. I sold painted rocks, I raked neighbor's yards. I read The Babysitter's Club book series and started by own babysitting business. It was just kind of a part of me always.

The irony is if you asked me I was going to become an entrepreneur when I was in college I would have said hell no. my big aspiration was to climb the corporate ladder. I started off as an investment banker and all I wanted was a corner office in a high-rise in Manhattan.

James McKinney: Let me ask about that real quick. First off, you talk about your grandmother and the Bolivian bakery. Were you born in Bolivia, and did you immigrate here? Where's your upbringing from?

Carolyn Rodz: So I was born in the states but I'm a Bolivian citizen. I went there, we spent every summer growing up and for years. I went to high school down there, so I would say very much a dual upbringing in terms of I have great friends down there and lots of family, great friends up here and lots of family here. So it was kind of back and forth for me.

James McKinney: So let me ask that question just from a cultural perspective, because many of my favorite episodes are those where they are a first generation American entrepreneur. There's something about the perspective by not being completely raised and groomed in this American dream if you will, where we become desensitized to the fact that oh yeah, everyone starts a business, and oh yeah everyone goes to college, and oh yeah. The immigrant story to me is fascinating. So you lived in both worlds, and so do you remember growing up seeing a stark difference in how you saw things versus those you were surrounded by?

Carolyn Rodz: Totally. Most years, I went to school in the states and spent summers in Bolivia. That was sort of my general for a quarter of a year I was in Bolivia for most of my life. It was very different on multiple levels. Interestingly, my mother is Bolivian, my father's American. My dad who was American grew up broke, not with a lot of money. My mother who is Bolivian had actually much more I would say, was of means. But I was also exposed… I was exposed to sort of the extremes in Bolivia, like what felt like a ton of wealth relatively, probably not far from where we are today, but relatively to what it costs, the cost of living in Bolivia. I felt like we had everything. We lived this kind of lavish lifestyle in the summers, but I also saw poverty there. Bolivia is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, so I saw that side of it.

But I also saw, and my father's side, everybody really worked for what they had so I think the work ethic was 100% instilled on my dad's side. The appreciation for what I had I think was 100% from my mom's side, in going to Bolivia and seeing what I actually did have access to. I just gained a real appreciation for everything that was given to me, and almost a mandate I guess and kind of a self-mandate, because my parents never put that pressure on me, but I felt like I had to give back and I had to do something because I was lucky, and I knew I was lucky. I was reminded of how lucky I was every time I walked down the street down there.

James McKinney: Yeah, I think that perspective is everything. It can definitely strengthen many people, especially when they can see the opportunity here. I just love the immigrant story so much and the various. We have 76 episodes at this point and I would say 10% of them are first generation immigrants, and it's just an unbelievable story to hear about how they saw the pursuit of entrepreneurship. So now you had said that your dream at the time was climb the corporate ladder. I then have to ask the question of was there something in particular that drove you away from the idea of entrepreneurship? I ask this question because I believe a lot of times for those that are raised by entrepreneurs you're either drawn to it because of how attractive it is, and maybe their parents didn't struggle, or maybe you're repelled by it because you just saw how hard the grind was. So for you not wanting to be an entrepreneur, was there something you remember from your upbringing like yeah, I don't want that.

Carolyn Rodz: I saw the stress with my parents. My dad worked incredibly hard, he worked incredibly late nights. I would say he hid it. In hindsight, I can see how much he hid from us because I actually know what he went through now on a different level. But we still saw it. It was stressful and there were a lot of times I remember having conversations that we shouldn't have high expectations for Christmas or talking about summer plans, and we were going to go camping instead of on vacation because that's what we could afford at the time. It didn't mean anything to me as a kid.

The reality is I loved those camping trips and I didn't know the difference, or I didn't think anything about it. And now I can look back like God, that was really stressful. And I think as I got older I realized the level of stress that they were under in trying to build a company, and the uncertainty of there were times that were good and there were times that were tight. Over time, like I said my dad's company grew to be very successful. He sold it, he did really well with it, but there was a decade of uncertainty in between. I think that piece for me was just unappealing because I was glamorizing this life in Manhattan. So many people glamorize entrepreneurship. I had a good, strong look at that and I really glamorized the corporate worked because that's what I remember. My did work in the corporate world for a long time and I remember then he had steady income, and he was flying to London and flying to Australia. That part seemed glamorous to me.

James McKinney: Yeah, I mean I'm 42 so when I think of the nineties and I just think of all the media that was out there. Early nineties, it was a big deal to be in corporate America and climb the ranks. That was all the TV shows were about that. Oh my goodness, what is that Wall Street, something Gecko, what is his name?

Carolyn Rodz: Gordon Gekko.

James McKinney: Gordon Gekko, just all the things were pointing to get on that suit and tie, live in that Manhattan lifestyle, and just climb the ranks, and make tremendous money and forget all the people behind you. I just remember so much of the media being that narrative.

Carolyn Rodz: Totally, yeah. I graduated from college and I was like am I going to be an investment banker or am I going to be a consultant, and I didn't even look at anything else. I didn't even think being an entrepreneur was an option. I never, ever considered it.

James McKinney: And so come the end of college, what was that decision?

Carolyn Rodz: I chose to be an investment banker. I ended up working for JP Morgan for four years. I would say it was kind of a mutual decision. I think JP Morgan realized I wasn't a good fit for them, and I realized I wasn't a good fit for JP Morgan. They continue to be our bank today, we've got a great relationship. Some of my closest friends are from that time, but it wasn't… I just wasn't excited about it. I remember even if we closed a big deal or something great would happen at work, I never felt any sort of buzz from that. But I did feel, because I worked in investment bank so the hours were crazy. It was when that was glamorized, working until 2 in the morning or pulling an all-nighter at the office. I had three weeks sometimes where I hadn't seen daylight.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness.

Carolyn Rodz: At some point, I was like what am I doing? My parents, I remember coming home at one point and they were like, "You're just boring. What happened to you because all you talk about is work, all you think about is work, all your friends are at work." I'd sort of become this really just, I don't know, almost a void of a human I think. It wasn't good for me. I think a lot of people juggle it well, I didn't. But I'm also very driven and ambitious so I worked my ass off doing that, but I wasn't getting fulfilled from it. I don't think I was particularly good at it to be honest. I was okay. I didn't get fired, but I wasn't top of the list for promotions either so I didn't really see a path there for me.

James McKinney: You didn't see daylight, so enjoying the Manhattan lifestyle obviously didn't play out because you didn't see daylight. You went from maybe your small Manhattan apartment to the office, and that's where you lived most of your life so you didn't get to experience that. But what was the moment where you realized I'm dying inside, I need to get out? And then secondly what was the next step from that getting out of JP Morgan?

Carolyn Rodz: It was the third Thanksgiving Day in a row that I had been called into the office and so I'd have to leave my Thanksgiving meal and go get work done. I'm not the kind of person that can say no, I don't draw good boundaries around work and life, and so I went. I remember that was when my parents had a conversation with me and they're like, "What has happened to you? Who are you and why are you doing this?" And I hit this moment. At the same time I was due for a promotion and it wasn't…. I ended up quitting before it even became an issue but I would say I wasn't as smooth of a transition as I would have liked.

I had gotten another job offer. I had just gotten a big bonus and so I sort of stayed through flattery I guess. I thought I was very valued and I think this experience made me realize I was one of many investment bankers, there were 1,000 other versions of me to replace me if I left. I think I was like I don't need to be here and I don't really want to be here. That conversation with my parents kind of put it all in perspective and I just decided that was it, I'm done with this. I was more broken down I think than I even realized. So I started looking at other jobs within the bank. I was like well maybe I can get something a little more balanced.

We always referred to JP Morgan as the bank with the capital B, it was this big entity, there was no life outside of it, and that was it and all we could do. I started looking at marketing jobs and everything was such a huge pay cut. I was like if I'm going to take a pay cut, I'm going to take a job that's $30-, $40-, $50,000 I'm pretty sure I can go do that on my own. I feel like I could make that much money by myself. I just decided I'm going to take two years, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring, and I'm going to turn everything upside down and just go it on my own.

And my dad had always pushed into me if you want control over your own destiny you have to own your own business. Anybody can turn around and fire you tomorrow. At least if your business fails you see the writing on the wall months in advance and you have time to prepare, and time to think about what you're going to do next. It's the only career path that you have control over your own destiny with. And I always got that message I think hammered into me. I never thought much about it, but in hindsight again I look back and I'm like there was a lot that stuck with me in subtle ways.

So I just decided I'm going to start my own thing and I wanted something creative. I decided I was going to start this… I used to always go to these home and gift shows just for fun to shop for myself and go with friends. I'd always get inspired by all these business owners. Like all these people created these products that they're selling to these stores, and so I just decided. I was out having drinks with a friend and I was like you know what, I have this idea of it would be cool to kind of create something new and starting with a stationary business. I was like it just feels like everything is kind of so boring and the same, what if I just sort of did something different? And he was like go, let's do it right now. I spent $800 on a booth at the National Stationary Show in New York City. I got the worst booth because I registered late. It was like the back corner, crappy location. I didn't even have a product, didn't know what I was doing, and I had like three months to get it together. And I did it.

Once I spent the $800 it felt like a ton of money and I was like I made this investment, I have to show up and I have to do it. I packed my booth in a suitcase, I created these products that I patched together really fast. My mom came and helped me there. We set up these… I remember all these people kept coming, these buyers kept showing up like Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and all these buyers were coming to my back table.

James McKinney: A stationary show?

Carolyn Rodz: Yeah, and they would show up to my back corner booth and they're like we saw you, we heard about your products. I'm like how'd you hear about my products? They're like, "Yeah, you're displayed up front." I'm like, "I am? I didn't even know." I had entered, I won best new product at the National Stationary Show, and so I got all this attention even with my terrible back booth, and some press.

James McKinney: Hold on, hold on one second there. There are so many questions that are coming. So you have this idea to attend this tradeshow. First off, let me just make sure for my timeline perspective, you're probably what 26 at this time?

Carolyn Rodz: I was 25, yeah. Yeah, I was 25.

James McKinney: So you had-

Carolyn Rodz: Clueless! Clueless, let's caveat that.

James McKinney: So again, your words not mine, you're 25, the idea of wanting to start something might have trickled in a little towards the end of JP Morgan, but the "what" you were going to start, no idea exiting JP Morgan. So you now have left JP Morgan, no idea what you want to do. You think there's something interesting in this creative space at these home shows you would go to, and you come up with this stationary idea. So within three months you create this product that apparently won best new product. So out of curiosity, what was it that you created in three months that became best new product at this stationary show?

Carolyn Rodz: So random, it's so funny for me to even think about how just young I was. I loved the idea of this old school, the experience of writing a letter. Remember when people would spray perfume on their stationary and these letters, on these love letters. I was like how cool would it be to have stationary is just like paper, what if we created this scented stationary that was so fun and you could embrace your personality, and take on this whole thing? What a fluff product. It was really funny.

James McKinney: All that's coming to mind is Legally Blonde where you sprays perfume on her legal applications.

Carolyn Rodz: And it was so silly, it really was so silly. But I loved packaging. I've always been a sucker for just I love packaging and I love branding, and I love design. So I'm telling my mom this idea and she's like, "Oh, one of my friends, her husband I don't even know what he does but there's something, they do the scents for the Yankee Candle Company and Clorox, for Proctor and Gamble for their products. They do all the scents for it. You should talk to them." I was like I'll totally talk to them. So I call them up and he's like, "We can totally. What do you need? We can completely do this. Let me hook you up with our master," they call this person "the nose" but this perfumer. I'm like, "Sure, that'd be great."

So I show up to this place. I have no idea. I'm like, "Look, here's my concept." They thought it was so funny. It was such a teeny, tiny product for them because I was like I need 100 products or something. But they thought it was so fun and so different, because they normally had all these parameters and rules they had to follow, and working with Proctor and Gamble everything was scoped out what it has to smell like and do. I was like, "Here's my description of what I'm thinking. Go for it," and they had so much fun working on it that I had a team of like five people just spending their own free time on my project.

James McKinney: That's incredible.

Carolyn Rodz: And they helped me kind of rush through this process to figure it out. I found someone to bottle these fragrances and I found this printer that did the stuff, and someone to package it. Me, I would literally put the stickers on the products. I did everything myself in my spare bedroom in my townhouse. It was very, I mean I packaged up the boxes and took them to UPS. I did everything. I did every piece of that business. I loved it. It was everything I kind of… I felt like I had so much control over it that I think that piece was just so exciting to me.

James McKinney: Yeah. So you have tremendous success very early. The trade show, you become best new product. What happens from that trade show? Because obviously we're not talking to you today because of this amazing stationary product that you have. What is the story arc for that venture, and then what was the exit out of it?

Carolyn Rodz: The glamor of that I think wore off pretty quickly. I was so excited, the idea that I was in Bloomingdales or I was in Neiman or Harrods's was so exciting and I got this great press. I really kind of marketed the company well. What I totally, I had no idea how retail worked and so I got it into stores. I felt like I checked the boxes. I had no idea I had any responsibility for moving products off the shelves once they hit the stores, and nothing was moving off the shelves. So people would place one order, they weren't coming back for a second order. The logistics around it when I would get big orders it would take me a long time to fulfill them because I wasn't setup for that. I still had spending, you know my lifestyle cost. I didn't know it would take as long to grow the company as it did, so I just ran out of money.

At the same time I never knew I could get a bank loan or go think about investors, or go do anything. So I sort of realized I can't grow this company with the money I have. I also think over time the reality that it wasn't really growing. I was sort of spinning my wheels and felt like I was a little bit staying in the same place, and I was working like crazy. But I never saw myself even getting back to the salary I had when I left banking. I was like what am I… I don't see this changing anytime soon, and I don't want to live like this for the next five years trying to get it to where it needs to be.

So I just sold all of my inventory and shut that down, but I was broke at that point. I had really gone through my personal savings. I remember my mortgage was through Chase, at the same bank that I left, and I remember them calling and being like, "Your mortgage is late," and I was like, "I don't actually have money to pay it. I don't know what to do." I hadn't told anybody. I hadn't told my parents I was struggling financially at this point. I hadn't told my friends. To them, the company seemed cool that they'd walk into Neiman's and there was my product, like oh my God, you're doing amazing, that's great. I hadn't told anybody what it looked like on the back end.

So it was a really emotional I think just partly it was pride and ego. I was really just embarrassed about what I had done with my life at this point. Here I am 27 now. I saw my friends that had stuck in banking and they were getting those promotions and moving up the ladder, and I was eating peanut butter and jelly because it was the cheapest thing I could eat. So that was really just hard for me. I remember my mom called one day and she's like, "How's everything going?" and I just broke down. It was sort of the first time that I was like I don't know how I'm going to pay my mortgage and it's due tomorrow. I have $57 in my bank account. My credit cards are maxed out. I'm a mess right now and how on earth did I let myself get to this point? Because I know I'm capable of so much more. It was horrible. It was a really terrible time.

So my parents kindly wired me money for that mortgage payment. I put my house on the market and sold it. Got a little bit of cash out of that. Went and got a job making 1/3 of what I was making when I left banking, and just got my feet back on the ground. I was like I'm just going to figure out what's next, but I need a little time to sort that out.

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James McKinney: Let me ask about that season because there's a couple things that standout from your upbringing. My first thought was were you not talking to your parents. Your upbringing is super tight. You and your parents were always involved and always encouragement, yet while the business was struggling it sounds like you weren't having the conversations about what it was really like, yet you saw how hard your dad went through so you knew if anyone could relate it would be him. Why was it hard to not have those… why did you not have those conversations with him during those struggling seasons, especially because if you reflect back to your childhood you saw him go through those seasons?

Carolyn Rodz: Part of it was I saw the stress that it brought to my mom. I know my parents, at the end of the day, as a parent now I know I just want my kids to be happy and taken care of and secure, more than anything else. I wasn't happy and I wasn't secure, and I knew telling them that wasn't going to make them… it was going to make them nervous. So I was like why am I going to put that on them? I'm stressed out enough about it as it is. I'm going to tell them and then they're going to be stressed out, and we're all going to sit here and be stressed out about it. To what end? So I think that was part of it.

I think the other part was as a Latina, it's engrained in us a little bit that appearances are really important. You look at how I'm showing up right now, but I wouldn't normally go out in public like this. But it's this idea that on the surface everything is great, and we walk out the door like everything is fine, everything is wonderful. Our personal problems really stay within the family to a large degree, I think just culturally. And so that was part of it. I wasn't taught that it's okay to be vulnerable and to talk about your fears and problems. And I was always an overachiever. I was sort of always, id' always been the one that did what I was supposed to do. I got good grades in school. I got a good job. I always did well at the things I was supposed to do and I felt like I had failed at this, and again it was just embarrassment I think in large part.

James McKinney: The reason I ask that question is one of the things that I constantly point to throughout The Startup Story in the year and a half we've been pushing out these episodes is the idea that entrepreneurship is hard in and of itself, but when you do it alone it is a magnitude more complicated than it needs to be. Just the idea of just having someone that you can connect with, that understands the journey and the struggle a bit, to just flesh out ideas and have community with. Obviously, that's a lot of what Alice provides for entrepreneurs and we'll get to that. So now we find the stationary business shut down, you've gotten a job, you're licking your wounds if you will, trying to figure out what next. For you, was what's next another venture or were you like I'm done with this, I gave it a shot, I'm moving on to something else?

Carolyn Rodz: I wasn't about to let that be the end of my story. I think part of it was I really had to prove to myself I could do this. I got frustrated because I would be out, whatever if I was going to a restaurant or going to the dry cleaner, whatever the day to day things that I was doing, it was all small business owners. And I kept seeing these people running these companies and I was like why can't I do that? I know I'm capable. All these people are doing it, it's possible, I'm not an idiot. I know I can figure this thing out. So I think I just had to prove to myself that I could do it more than anything, and it was less than even the type of company that I ran at that point. It really was just I have to succeed at doing this for myself.

James McKinney: That internal dialogue you had with yourself about I'm capable, I know it's not me, that is almost word for word the conversation I've had with myself after each failed venture. And after that third one, it was like okay, there's something I'm missing here. And that's really what became the catalyst for The Startup Story, just constantly reaching out to founders, wanting to understand how did they do what they did, because I knew I was capable of it, what were my missteps. And so as you really own this idea that you are capable of it, you saw all these small business owners, what was that next venture for you?

Carolyn Rodz: So I took some time. I really studied what other business owners were doing at the time, because again similar to you, I think I was like how, what are they doing that I'm not, and how do I… I know I can do it if I just know what it is. I had two rules for myself. One was I did not want to inventory. I wanted to be able to work from a cell phone and a laptop, because I wanted flexibility in my life at this point. I also wanted to be able to make good money without a huge capital outflow. So I started in a service business around it was really kind of branding and design is what we started as. I started just by myself with two clients and grew that company really organically over the course of seven years, just chugged along.

It was at the dawn of corporations starting to look at social media and I think at the point we started like 6% of CEOs were actually had a Twitter account or were on Facebook. A lot of what we did was just help internally help companies start to navigate how could they use this whole digital world to market their businesses, and to market their products and services in a really thoughtful and kind of new way. Eventually that evolved into actually building technology products for them, so it just continuously evolved and grew. I ended up bringing in a business partner. The company grew. It was always pretty lean and not a huge business, but it was a great learning process for me in terms of A, knowing I could succeed in business and having the confidence again to take some bigger risks, and then B, realizing all the lessons that I'd learned from the first venture. How to be really thoughtful with cash, what to really focus my energy on to grow the business.

We got really heavy with employees at one point and I realized I'm not making any more money but I'm working twice as hard, so we kind of scaled the company back. So those are all things I think that stick with me today. I want to keep a lean company, I want to spend my cash thoughtfully, I want flexibility in terms of how I operate in work because I know there's times I work really efficiently and times I don't. So just being able to kind of build I guess the entrepreneurial career that I wanted. All of that came from that second company.

James McKinney: That's awesome. And what was the exit out of that company?

Carolyn Rodz: We ended up selling that business to a client of ours through one of the technology services that we provided. They were looking to bring internal and it was a great… it wasn't a super lucrative exit but it was enough that I didn't go with my business partner and I were at a point where we were kind of ready. I really wanted to grow something much bigger, she was really happy where we were, and so we both were in kind of just a point where we're like this is a great opportunity, and let's call this a great success, and move forward with our next kind of versions of what we want to do. And she was a great partner in a lot of ways for that period.

James McKinney: You said you wanted to grow something bigger, yet you were talking about obviously running a lean company has nothing to do with the idea of wanting to be bigger, but part of that conversation about wanting to be lean was just having so many more employees, you were working so much harder. When you say "I wanted a bigger company" what did that mean to you?

Carolyn Rodz: At that point, as we were getting more success with the business, I started getting more exposed to this whole kind of growing world in Silicon Valley, and what was happening in New York in the tech space. All of that was kind of foreign and new to me, and fascinated me because I had never thought about running a business like that in my first or my second venture. And so my mind was starting to go there's a lot of ways that we can take what we do and make it scalable, but it really requires shifting the dynamics of the company. It means being a technology company versus being a service business.

I think that was sort of where the split happened is that my mind was going in that direction and I changed what I wanted to build. I started seeing the opportunity. I think the writing was on the wall for me, a little bit of what ultimately Hello Alice is today, but the very, I mean it was such a different idea in my head at the time, but I think the early seeds of that. I was excited about it and it felt like such a good personal fit, and the mission piece, the social impact component excited me. I don't even think I knew what it was at the time, but I think the seeds were starting to grow there a little bit.

James McKinney: So when you sell Cake which was your first venture, when you sell that to your client, what was your immediate next step? Did you take time off to process what you wanted to do? Or did you just jump right in because you knew okay I want to run in this direction?

Carolyn Rodz: Yeah, I had had, I just had my first child. I was pregnant with my second, kind of over the course of a couple of years, but ironically my thought was I think we can build this tech company. I can work less, I can make a lot more, have this flexibility and imagine how this can grow. This could be a great company I could do while the kids are in school and I can have it all and do everything. I remember my husband laughing at me because he was like, "You realize nothing you do is going to be part time venture. It's not in your genetics. You're not going to do it." I'm like, "No, what are you talking about? It's going to be great. I'm going to work in the mornings and I'm going to go to the park in the afternoons." He just always laughed and told me I was crazy. And in hindsight he was 100% right because it has turned into probably the busiest job I've ever had. But I love it. I really do so much love the business but it was, the intention was that I was going to grow it slowly and organically, but build something highly scalable and impactful.

James McKinney: And what year are we in right now, in this part of the story?

Carolyn Rodz: Gosh, this is where all that years start to blend together. So this was, I would say between kind of 2012 to 2015 was this I would say I slowed down, sold the company, kind of just took time with the kids, had two babies in that period of time. But was working just putting ideas out there, talking to people, thinking through things. We launched sort of a first version of the accelerator, which is kind of what evolved into Hello Alice. But it was sort of this period of figuring it all out I think. There wasn't a lot happening there, but a lot of thought behind it I guess. And it's hard to think that was actually three years. That feels like a long time, because I don't feel like I didn't work for three years. I definitely was working. It's a blur to me honestly. Blame it on pregnancy brain. It's a little bit of a blur.

James McKinney: Yeah. One of the things I find interesting about your story is your stationary business happened to be because, well, it just kind of happened to be. You were at a home decor show and somehow the idea of a stationary product came to be and you pursued that business. But you figured it out, obviously other than the business management side of things, but you figured out the product side of things. And then with Cake, the technology side, so far in your story we haven't heard anything that would give an inkling to the idea that you could build a technology company, but yet you did. So I fill in the gaps by saying okay, somewhere she studied how to build a technology company or understand project management, whatever the case may be.

Carolyn Rodz: I really do learn as I go. I think the first business for me taught me I can find people to do every piece of this, as long as I can get the best people to do it. I did have to teach myself how to build a website because I had so many bad experiences with my first company trying to launch a website. I taught myself basic like HTML and CSS just by way of Google. I knew enough to sort of understand, and I kind of followed and evolved along with that, so I really taught myself the basics of coding, and I mean very basics. But I knew enough to know what I needed and that was kind of where I stopped.

So as we started building up products, we had teams that we would bring in, some internal employees but mostly contractors that we worked with so I knew to go build the technology, I at that point had relationships with people that I knew could do it. I knew what the process would look like, I knew what the cost structure should look, I knew what the timeline should look like, and everything there. Then I constantly, I had I think I'm a nerd by nature and that I just study everything that I ever look at. I dig into every detail of it, learn everything I possibly can, and talk to a million people about it. I started to uncover what I don't know and I can kind of consolidate that education into a short period of time.

James McKinney: And I think that thread as I see it playing into those three years that are a blur where your first iteration of Alice is this accelerator, I'm thinking ok I haven't heard anything in her story yet where she's talking about this technology community she's part of, venture capital, all the things that accelerators, or what makes accelerators appealing. So my mind goes back to what I'm learning about you is during those three years she was figuring all of this out from an infrastructure what do technology startups need. So I think if I'm not mistaken that brings us to Alice at that point.

Carolyn Rodz: Yes. The big turning point for me, I went to Summit Series event, I don't know if you've heard of those, the conferences. But there's a tech conference out in the first one I went to was Summit at Sea so it was a cruise, but it was all these tech entrepreneurs, and mostly social impact tech entrepreneurs. That opened up my world. I'd gotten invited by my now business partner, Elizabeth. She was like, "Hey, you should come check out this event. We had met through common social connection and I ended up going, and it opened up my world in terms of Oh my gosh, look at all these people, the change they're making. Look at the technology they're building. I don't even know, I learned what a venture capitalist was. This world opened up to me.

At the same time, I had just sold my business. I was starting to get invited to go speak at conferences. I felt like sort of my status as an entrepreneur had elevated because now I was an entrepreneur that had sold a business, and that just changed the way people perceived me. It was this whole thing opened up to me. I was like God, how frustrating that it's opening up to me now when I really could have used all this knowledge on day one with that first business when I made every wrong decision.

James McKinney: Yes, yes.

Carolyn Rodz: Why did it take me so long to get here? It wasn't for lack of trying, it was just lack of it wasn't where my network was, and it wasn't… there was no way for me to get exposed to it because I was so disconnected from that world. So that piece for me was sort of the lightbulb moment of what if we could take all of these connections I have today and give them to an entrepreneur at day one? Imagine the impact that we could have on the world. It's better for the entrepreneurs, it's better for government for making more tax dollars. It's better for corporations because they're the ones selling products and services to these business owners. It's sort of a win, win, win. There has to be something in there for me, and imagine what we could build if we could create a company that could actually do this.

James McKinney: Yeah. As we jump into what Alice is, let's start off with a very clear understanding of what is Alice?

Carolyn Rodz: So Hello Alice is a free technology platform for small business owners that helps connect them to opportunities, experts, networks, all relevant to what they need at a moment in time. So it takes into account their personal profile and their business profile, and then through smart technology makes recommendations of what you should be seeing to accomplish whatever you're trying to solve for.

James McKinney: So can you walk us through a use case?

Carolyn Rodz: Yeah. So I'm a small business owner. I have a bakery and I need to hire my first employee. There's a lot that goes into that. I need to set up a payroll service. I need to write an offer letter for that employee. I need to think about a benefits package. All these pieces. I need to set up a schedule. There's a ton of components that go into that. What Hello Alice does is walks you through and says okay, I know you have a bakery, I know you live in Texas, and I know you're ready to hire in the next month. Here's step one of that process. So the first thing you need to do is write a job description, here's a template for a job description. The second thing you need to do is post that job, here's where you can go post that job. So it really walks you through step by step knowing that the experience of hiring an employee is different in Texas than in California, but because you're in Texas it's going to give you the guide to walk through that process in Texas.

James McKinney: Now is this 100% technology driven or are there people on the backend that are looking at these profiles and feeding them info based on understanding of just the course of business? Really kind of being that advocate who's a few steps down the road and saying here's what you're going to need, or is it all technology?

Carolyn Rodz: So what we're building towards, and I would say we're not 100% there today, a lot of it is automated and so it knows based on the information tagged to your profile, it knows where you live, it knows what industry you're in, and it knows a lot about your business and about you. We also prioritize resources for what we call the new majority, so women, people of color, immigrants, veterans, LGBT, all of these opportunities. A lot of opportunities that programs and extra resources exist for these communities to help close the equity gap there.

So we're plugging those in at the right moment in time. It is largely automated in that as you go through a guide it'll direct you and it's almost sort of like a choose your own adventure sort of experience I guess is a good way to explain it, based on what it knows about you, and as you're answering questions it's directing you on a path that's relevant to you.

We know we can't answer and solve for every single pain point that a business owner would experience today, although we're working to get there. So we have a community that sits inside Hello Alice that can help answer questions and sort of drive those solutions from our network of over 150,000 small business owners.

James McKinney: incredible. So when you look at, as you talk about the challenges that business owners face, my goodness where does the list begin? My first one goes into capital, because I think a lot of people when they look for a resource, especially right now coronavirus, the pandemic, businesses are impacted all over that place. What solutions has Hello Alice put in place to really, and maybe it's not capital but my mind goes to capital when it comes to this season right now. What solutions has Hello Alice put in place to help with the immediate needs that businesses have right now?

Carolyn Rodz: So capital is a huge one. It's a number one pain point that business owners experience across demographics, across geography, across ethnicity, race, and age, everything. So it's where we focus a lot of our time is how do we actually solve for getting business owners access to capital that they need. It's why during the pandemic we were able to quickly pivot and say okay, business owners need funding immediately so we launched an emergency grants program that we kicked off weeks after shelter-in-place was put in place, where we work with corporations like Verizon and eBay and Silicon Valley Bank and MasterCard, all kinds of corporations to say all right, you all roll out a lot of programs and have a lot of resources for these small business owners, we can help connect them at scale and take a lot of that lift off of them. So we sort of have to bridge that gap.

Same thing with government resources is how do we walk you through applying for PPP. The rules and regulations were changing every day, so we set up guides that walked people through. We could update those in real time and it walked people through the process at scale. So we're always trying to figure out what are the pain points that we know business owners are experiencing and we gather those from the community that we have on our platform. We gather them through focus groups and through feedback that we're getting, and then we turn around and we go to the government, we go to banks, we go to all of our network of thousands of partners supporting entrepreneurs, come up with solutions, and then deploy those at scale.

James McKinney: Excellent. So when technology, let's talk about technology startups. Capital is a little different than a grant. There's investment that they're wanting, so is Hello Alice a place where a technology startup… let's just say a female founded technology startup wants introductions into venture capital firms. Is Hello Alice a resource for that type of company?

Carolyn Rodz: I would say we're not going to go make an introduction to a venture capitalist, and there's some great platforms that help facilitate that and help you find the right investors, things like Crunch Base are great resources for that. Where we really add value is how do you prepare yourself for that meeting? What's going to happen in your first VC meeting? What does your pitch deck need to look like? And really tactical, granular solutions.

I think a great example is we had a business owner say, "If I hear one more time that I need to show a hockey stick projection, what does that mean? Do you want me to hockey stick over the course of three months? Do you want me to hockey stick over the course of five years? Do you want me to hockey stick to $100,000? Do you want me to hockey stick to $1 billion? What really tell me what that hockey stick needs to look like, because that's the level of detail that they're looking for." I think so many times when we read online or we talk to people, it's really abstract advice.

We get very, very technical and very detailed, and pull things into real world language. We don't use acronyms. We don't talk about your CAC and all these sort of formulas and terms that you need. It's look, this is what they want to look for, here's what they want to see, here's an example of what it might look like for your business. We ask them questions, we pull those data points, it's very simple kind of question and answer to get a business owner to the solution that they need.

James McKinney: Let's talk about the underrepresented founders, since that is a huge focus point for Hello Alice. Specifically, I'd like to talk about black founders. I've had listeners reach out to me to share the challenge that they've had with getting adequate resources. As entrepreneurs, we know capital is a struggle. We know great hiring is a struggle. We know customer acquisition… there's lots of things that are common across just the category of entrepreneur. But we also are not naive to think that there are not unique challenges specifically for founders of color. So how can Hello Alice, how can they help a black founder?

Carolyn Rodz: The reality is every entrepreneurs experience is unique, and it's unique for a variety of reasons. It's unique because of our race, because of our gender, because of where we live, because of the industry we're in. we're all experiencing a really unique journey and that's really the core of our technology is recognizing that no two people's journeys are going to be the same. There are so many factors that impact our experiences. We know that there are also resources that support these many unique experiences. So when we think about a black founder specifically, there are hundreds of organizations out there that are going through these experiences all the time, that are on the ground, that are working through things like the hiring process. How is it different for a black founder? We certainly don't have all the answers nor do we profess to, but we're constantly learning and we're constantly learning who is actually working to solve through many of these issues, and making those connections at a relevant point in time.

There are also opportunities that are available to business owners depending on who they are. So when we find opportunities such as grants or pitch competitions, or different things that are specific to the black community for example, we're working to make those connections when it's relevant.

James McKinney: That's awesome. That is fantastic. So really you are just a tremendous resource for underrepresented founders. So if you are one of my listeners, a founder of color, veterans, or any underrepresented category, Hello Alice can be a great resource for you, so I encourage you to connect with them.

But unfortunately our time has come to an end and I want to make sure that we allocate some time for our final three questions because they're so incredibly important. Actually, I'm going to add one question for you because I am kind of curious. When you started Hello Alice, you had a vision for what it would become. As founders, we always had this idea of what our business is going to be. Now that you have a few years under your belt, where would you like to be in three to five years? So if we were to have a where are they now episode in three to five years from now, where would Hello Alice be?

Carolyn Rodz: Our vision has certainly evolved. I think the core of it in terms of helping to level the playing field and frankly elevate it for every single business owner continues to ring really loud and true for our team. Where it's changed and evolved is the scope of the impact I think. When we look at current events happening right now, it's really opened up the responsibility that we have in terms of both setting an example as a business ourselves in terms of what does the future of work actually look like.

We now have over 150,000 businesses that are active within our community. Collectively, that's really impactful and so we continue to think about what does that mean in terms of building and supporting diverse talent. What does that mean in terms of giving back to our communities and economic impact? What does that mean in terms of work life balance? There's so many of these issues that we're thinking about that I think are part of the social narrative today that we're starting to have those discussions. I think we were really clear that we had to solve the business problems like access to capital, like acquiring talent, like acquiring customers. What we didn't think through was the social impact of what the future of work looks like.

James McKinney: That's awesome. That is incredible. I can't wait to have that where are they now episode. And so I'm excited to jump into our final three questions, in particular the first one because I think you have a very unique perspective. I didn't know the exact number of businesses that you have served and that are in your network. You just mentioned 150,000. That's incredible. So I know your perspective is at a different level than the other founders whom I've asked this question to. So when we think of entrepreneurship, it has been glamorized quite a bit. It's almost as if this field of dreams type thing where if you build it they will come. All you have to do is start a business and riches and wealth are going to come to you. There's so much that is missed in that incorrect narrative. So my question is do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur?

Carolyn Rodz: I think anybody can be an entrepreneur if they surround themselves with the right team. Entrepreneurship is not a solo sport in my opinion-

James McKinney: Agreed.

Carolyn Rodz: … I think many times we talk about it like it's a solo sport, but I think with the right team, we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. If we can find teams that can help us lift up our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses, everyone has the power to build a strong team.

James McKinney: That is so powerful and I have been preaching that entrepreneurship is not a solo journey since the very beginning, so thank you for echoing that sentiment. Lastly, as we come to our final two questions, I truly believe that to your point, it's not a solo journey so therefore we don't get to where we are on our own efforts. Then when we look back, there are many people that have supported us along the way, even going back to our childhood years. There are people that have been part of the journey to where we are today. I believe that if we forget those people, if we forget those contributions we begin to isolate ourselves and think that our success is on our own, and that isolation will always lead to our failure at some point. So when you look back on your journey, who are all the people that you have just such immense gratitude for, for where you are today?

Carolyn Rodz: Oh my gosh, so many people. I could go certainly way back. We talked earlier about early life examples of my grandparents and my father. I think later in my career, my time at JP Morgan taught me so much about resilience, about learning to speak up. I think about my first managing director there gave me my very first consulting job, so that really opened the door for me in terms of just actually taking in money as a business owner for the very first time.

Dell, our partners at Dell were the first corporation that stood behind the vision of Hello Alice and stepped up, and put funding behind us. Our first investor, Jackie Zayner and Gene Case, I remember getting that money from them and it was a validation that we were onto something and we were able to get more funding. There's so many people along that journey that just have this incredible impact and I think it's so important to never forget that. We always talk about that. We have sort of this yearbook that we keep at Hello Alice of our journey, of just the people that have helped open doors for us and really stepped up, and just pushed us to the next level. I can't imagine being where we are without them.

James McKinney: That's awesome, and that is so incredibly powerful. So our final question as our time does come to an end. We've been talking to tens of thousands of listeners, just kind of unpacking your entrepreneurial journey, seeing some of the breadcrumbs of life and the common threads, talking about Hello Alice and how it can support founders from my audience as well. But I want to bring the conversation down to the one, almost like a mentoring minute if you will. Maybe that one is the entrepreneur who has an existing business and is just frustrated, lack of traction or discouraged at the challenges of capital. Maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur that's who has tried time and time again but continues to fail and is starting to second guess their ability to execute. Or maybe it's the want-repreneur, the one who has got a 9 to 5 but a book full of dreams and ideas, and there's some narrative that they just can't move on their idea, whether it be because they're just mortgage and financial responsibilities, or maybe they think because they're 60 they're just too old to do something. Whatever of those personas you would like to speak to, I want to afford them this opportunity to sit with you on a one on one basis. What do you say to that one person?

Carolyn Rodz: First, it's important to think about your idea and do you think this idea is actually needed in the world? And if you think it's needed in the world, if you think somebody else is going to execute it in the way you think it needs to be executed. If you don't see somebody else executing that idea and executing that vision in the way you think it's needed in the world, it's your personal responsibility to bring that vision to life. If you don't have that passion and you don't see the importance of the idea coming into the world, the entrepreneurial journey probably isn't for you because it's not the path of least resistance.

James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value Carolyn brought us in this episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And lastly, if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. And there are two ways to support Carolyn and Hello Alice, and they're also actually a really great opportunity for you. First, like I mentioned at the top of the show hit up the link in our show notes for their grant program where you can apply for a grant up to $50,000. And secondly, visit helloalice.com and sign up to see what resources are available to you based on the stage your business is currently in. Hello Alice and Carolyn are there to support you, so let's support them by connecting directly at helloalice.com. Remember, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. And now for my personal ask.

The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.

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If you like this podcast and are thinking of creating your own, consider talking to my producer Danny Ozment. He helps thought leaders, influencers, executives, and authors create, launch, and produce podcasts that grow their business and make a real impact in this world. You can contact him today at emeraldcitypro.com/startupstory.

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June 23 2020
Carolyn Rodz, founder of Hello Alice

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