Sean Kelly is the CEO of SnackNation, an Inc. 500 ranked company that delivers healthy snacks to offices across America. Sean is also the Founder of AwesomeOffice.org, an association dedicated to helping companies maximize employee engagement, productivity and wellbeing. He’s also the Host of the Awesome Office Show podcast on iTunes and has been named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and Most Promising CEOs Under 35 lists.
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Worst Entrepreneur Moment
- Sean was $250k in credit card debt, chatting with his friend who had just pulled in a 6 fig bonus on Wall Street. Doubt appeared… but not for long. Here’s why!
Entrepreneur AH-HA Moment
- Sean was at the gym, and he glanced over to see a girl who was chugging a Diet Coke while on a treadmill. Lightbulb!
Small Business Resource
- Sleep Cycle: The official site for Sleep Cycle alarm clock for iOS and Android, with the latest news and updates.
Best Business Book
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown
- SnackNation GIFT: Delicious healthy snack delivery that makes your team happier, healthier, and more productive.
- AwesomeOffice.org: An exclusive group of HR leaders and executives dedicated to improving employee engagement, productivity & wellness.
- Awesome Office Show
- Sean’s email: [email protected]
- The Definitive Guide to Employee E
Sean: Absolutely. I’m ready to rock.
John: Yes! Sean is the CEO of SnackNation, an Inc. 500 ranked company that delivers healthy snacks to offices across America. Sean is also the founder of awesomeoffice.org, an association dedicated to helping companies maximize employee engagement, productivity, and well-being. He’s the host of the Awesome Office Show podcast and has been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Most Promising CEOs Under 35 lists, both of which I don’t qualify for being 36 years old. Sean, take a minute, fill in any gaps in the intro and give us a glimpse into your personal life.
Sean: Absolutely. I’ll dive into personal because it actually includes my aha moment, which I think you love [inaudible].
John: Save it, save it.
Sean: All right. All right, I’ll save it then. So that’s a little bit of my professional past, but I actually grew up scrawny, short, and super hyperactive in northern Michigan. And actually you can still find my face on the packaging of some ADHD medication, if that’s telling at all. My dad was a dentist and my mom a stay-at-home mom, both big into healthy eating. I was the kid with the nutty brown bread and organic jam in the cafeteria when all of the other kids had that Wonder bread, bologna, cheddar, and mayo that I was always jealous of.
Definitely didn’t realize the blessing my parents were giving me as a young kid with all that health because I was obsessed with junk food. I was that kid who ate all of his Halloween candy on the very first night, right? And actually my first business was selling candy and soda, or as we call it up north pop, along parade routes as a kid which is pretty funny considering one of my main goals today is making healthy food more accessible.
But with a health professional as a dad, I started to realize that helping make people healthier was pretty cool and I thought the only way I could do this was by being a doctor of some sort. So I decided kind of out of the blue that I wanted to become a surgeon and applied to, and was somehow accepted to, the Johns Hopkins University. They must have had their paperwork screwed up. And decided to study biomedical engineering because it met my premed requirements and I thought it would help me sound cool and get girls at parties. But P.S., I was wrong. It turns out girls in college don’t want to date total geeks.
So after the first semester at Johns Hopkins I found out I wanted more out of the college and wanted to move into a big city and get a taste of the real world. Patience certainly has never been my strong suit. So I transferred to Columbia University in New York City. I started personal training, great way to make more beer money than your friends. While I was training people to become more fit, I realized I really, really loved preventative health, that is fixing health problems before they occur rather than after. And I’d tell you the story from there, but that’s leading into my aha.
John: Well, I wish that I could take credit for inspiring SnackNation with my use of Fire Nation, but did my research and I found out that I didn’t. But I’m sure there’s a great story behind that which we should definitely get into. And Sean, you’ve just had quite the journey. The ups, the downs, and we’re gonna really get some specific stories out of you in a little bit here, but first, let’s talk about today. How do you, Sean Kelly, generate revenue?
Sean: Our parent company is HUMAN, H-U-M-A-N, since we’re Helping Unite Mankind And Nutrition. We have a few different business channels. We started out placing healthy vending machines across the country in schools, hospitals, and health clubs. We then moved on to micro markets, that’s reinventing corporate breakrooms and installing miniature self-checkout convenience stores in businesses. And then as of the last couple of years we’ve really, really focused on SnackNation, and that’s a B2B, healthy snack delivery service that looks to not only make employees more productive, happier, increase the retention, but also lead to the creation of an absolutely awesome office.
John: I will say that I went to the site and it is delectable. The array of foods you have there, I’m really hungry right now as we speak, but I’m gonna put that out of my mind, Sean. I’m gonna focus on this interview because your stories are powerful. And I want you to dig deep into your past, or even recent, whatever it is, but the story has to be focused on what you consider your worst entrepreneurial moment to date. So brother, take us there. Tell us that story.
Sean: Man, the worst entrepreneurial moment – I mean, John, it’s tough because there’s been a lot of them. I mean, I’ve never had a full time job and I’ve been nothing but an entrepreneur since the age of 20. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience starting five companies or so. And looking back on it I’d tell you today I wouldn’t change much. But if you told me that it was going to be this hard at the very beginning 12 years ago, I’m not sure if I would have gone forward with it if that makes any sense at all.
John: Ignorance is bliss, my friend.
Sean: It absolutely is and I know you can relate. And so I certainly have one or two specific examples of bad moments, but the things that actually first jumped to mind are just the internal struggles I’ve had as an entrepreneur because I think these internal struggles are almost always greater than any external battles you face. Because if you don’t learn how to combat the internal struggles, they’re omnipresent and will torture you forever.
So some of the little bit more philosophical things that I come to is way back in the beginning I had a lot of ego. I thought my business was mainly about me and the worst thing about this was that it’s miserable feeling that way. It wasn’t until I realized that giving is really the secret of success, the secret of fulfillment, that I not only started to make money, but also started to really enjoy the journey. So now whenever I feel out of place I mentally ask myself, “Sean, are you focusing on yourself or are you focusing on others?” And it’s amazing how being a servant, I have found as an entrepreneur is the best path to living a rich life.
And beyond that and just ego, I think a lot of things that entrepreneurs don’t talk about is the self-doubt, the self-doubt about not being good enough no matter how hard you try and thinking that, as the leader of your business, you need to know everything. And wow, is that painstaking. Then you realize that everyone has self-doubt except sociopaths, and that the key to being an awesome leader is knowing what you’re not good at and being okay with it, being authentically you, and showing others your vulnerabilities. And of course bringing people on your team that are better than you are. I can’t tell you how much more joy I’ve experienced since recognizing my unique abilities and unique, but more plentiful, inabilities. It’s incredibly freeing.
So those are just kind of some of the main internal struggles that I think I’ve faced in my 12 years as an entrepreneur and would you also like me to jump into some more specifics?
John: Yeah, because we’ve all heard the philosophies, but we want your story, Sean. We want that moment that was the lowest of the low for you.
Sean: A lot of difficulties in this path of entrepreneurship, but one that jumps to mind is when I was in Las Vegas, I had recently moved our warehouse from southern California to Las Vegas, and I was driving on the way home to a house that we really couldn’t afford, and one of my buddies that I graduated Columbia with gave me a call. And he was so ecstatic. He was so ecstatic because he had just earned a six-figure bonus from his…
Sean: Yeah, six figure bonus from his Wall Street firm. Most of the guys that I graduated with, most of the guys and gals in engineering school went to Wall Street and I’m sitting here being like, “Man, I’m so pumped for you. I’m so happy for you.” And I get back to our house in Las Vegas that I share with my cousin and my business partner. I remember laying on my bed without any sheets because we worked just around the clock that we literally barely did any laundry.
I was sleeping in my clothes thinking, “Myself and my cousin are the only people in the world that know that I am $250,000.00 in personal credit card debt and maybe I made the wrong decision. Maybe I should have gone to Wall Street, maybe I should have gotten a full time job and done this differently.” But after that I remember meeting with my cousin the next day and said, “Man, our backs are against the wall. We gotta make this work. We gotta do it.” And we pulled ourselves out of debt within four months and I’ll never, ever forget that feeling.
John: Sean, you know, it’s easy to portray people that work on Wall Street as soulless, as just money grubbing. Yeah, they might make a lot of money, but they’re not really happy. It’s easy to portray people that way because from the outside looking in, I mean, who really knows. But you are kind of in a unique situation. I mean, you graduated from Columbia, you have a lot of friends that went into Wall Street. What would you say to that? What would you say to someone that says people that work on Wall Street are just all about the money? Yes, they might make a lot, but they’re unhappy across the board. Is that the case? Is that not the case? Is there a little mixture of both? What have you seen?
Sean: You know, I don’t necessarily think that certain individuals being completely focused on money is a bad thing if that is authentically you, right? I think that happiness and fulfillment primarily come from you being aligned with your purpose.
John: Okay, but moving away from your philosophies. You have friends that are on Wall Street. What do view them? Do you view them as overall actually really happy? Or actually not that happy? I mean, do you have any sense from that?
Sean: Yeah, I have some that I think are really happy and they really enjoy the game, they enjoy the competition, they enjoy what they’re striving for. I think that I certainly have plenty of others that, if it wasn’t for the money, would not be doing it. And I don’t think that those people will last. Many of them talk about getting out every single year, many of them have gotten out. But I think, again, I don’t think it necessarily means you’re not gonna be happy on Wall Street, I think it means it just depends on what your values are and what you’re passionate about.
John: So Sean, your lowest moment was one that was shared privately with you and your cousin at first. I mean, 250K in debt and you were kind of getting your nose rubbed in it a little bit with your friend talking about a six figure bonus, but the reality was is that you were on your path. And I really want Fire Nation to take away from that. Sean knew the direction that he was moving in and success wasn’t immediate and there was going to be internal struggles and ups and downs, but he was on his path. And here we are talking today. Now, Sean, along that path you’ve had a ton of aha moments, of epiphanies, left and right. What’s one moment in time that you can take us to of an epiphany that you had, that you think Fire Nation would really resonate with? Take us to that moment in time, Sean, and tell us that story.
Sean: Yeah, absolutely. So the one that’s paramount in my mind is when I was a personal trainer attending Columbia, thinking that I was going to go to med school. And after a personal training session at the gym on 80th and Broadway in Manhattan, which is where I worked, I saw a middle-aged, an attractive lady purchase a Coca-Cola from a vending machine, the only food and drink option at the gym. She then took a swig out of the Coke, put it in the cup holder of her treadmill and started running.
And that’s when an absolute light bulb went off in my head. I said, “Why aren’t there healthy vending machines? What’s going on here?” I said, “If affluent gym goers in New York City don’t have access to healthy foods and drinks at health clubs, what’s the deal with the rest of the world? What’s it like in northern Michigan where I grew up?” And I learned that there actually was not a good reason for why healthy vending machines didn’t exist so I teamed up with my roommate, cousin and launched our first business when I was a sophomore in college. So that’s a first aha moment and believe it or not, SnackNation, our B2B healthy snack delivery service, was also launched out of an aha moment.
John: Wow, I just love aha moments, I love hearing the stories of them. I mean, I can see you just looking over in kind of shock, dismay, and disgust, like someone’s chugging a diet Coke while they’re just running on the treadmill doing X, Y, and Z. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. And Fire Nation, that’s because his eyes were open, he was looking around at his surroundings, I mean, just keep your eyes open. Move around, look around. There are opportunities for your aha moment, your epiphany, every single place that you’re gonna be at today, tomorrow. And then when you find the right one that actually resonates with you, then you can move forward.
And kind of funny side note, Sean, I actually had a dream last night that didn’t even come back to me until you were just talking about this story. I don’t know why I was doing it, but I was chugging a vitamin water and all these people were pointing at me and saying, “That’s not healthy.” And I was like, “I know. I’m sorry. I’m just so thirsty.” Like, I don’t even know where that dream came from because I don’t drink vitamin water, but it was pretty fitting for your aha moment and epiphany moment here.
John: What do you want Fire Nation to really get from that aha moment that you had?
Sean: Always keep your eyes open. You know, at the end of the day, if you are hungry and if you have a passion inside of you to create something, it doesn’t mean that it’s gonna come right away. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be obvious, but stay hungry. Constantly learn. Keep your eyes open. And I think at the end of the day the right opportunity can come your way, but it’s not gonna come your way without being really proactive and being really forceful about your progress.
John: Sean, you have a lot of strengths. We’re gonna talk about one in a minute here, but if you had to breakdown what you consider your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sean: I think when I look at weakness I think about fulfillment. And to me I think there’s two things that really bring fulfillment. I think it’s the capacity and the realization of achievement, and also human connection, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that. And at times, as an entrepreneur and a business leader, I have a tough time balancing these two things and I’m lopsided. And this is something I’m continuously trying to get better at.
Besides that, I’ll admit that I’m not as good of a manager as I’d like to be. I’ve learned to become an all right leader who I hope inspires people to become better versions of themselves, but management and looking backwards is not my strength because I’m quick start of a nine on the Colby scale, if that means anything to you. And I literally live six months in the future. So it’s very important for me to surround myself with fantastic managers.
John: What’s your biggest strength?
Sean: I think my largest strength is my insatiable desire to get better and my belief that becoming is better than being. I mean, that’s a quote that I literally wear on my wrist and I truly value growth over just about anything other than human connection and human relationships. And I think all of my actions, or I hope that most of my actions, as an entrepreneur reflect that.
John: You have a lot of things going on right now. But of all the things that are just crushing it for you, what’s the one thing that has you most fired up today?
Sean: I’m most fired up about getting healthy snacks and healthy food into every office in America. I mean, that’s still the thing that gets me absolutely jacked up. That’s directly aligned with helping companies create awesome offices or places where people become the best in the most fulfilled version of themselves. And actually, John, I’m also really excited about the Michigan, Michigan State football game this weekend in Ann Arbor. I mean, my team the Wolverines, has been bad for so long…
John: Really bad for really long.
Sean: Really bad for really long that I’m hoping they can actually show up because it’s the first game at the big house that I’m bringing my in-laws and my parents to. So we’ll see how it goes.
John: Now is either team ranked right now?
Sean: Yeah I think – let’s see. In the AP poll I think Michigan’s 12 and Michigan State’s 7.
John: Ooh. That’d be a great win for Michigan. Wow.
Sean: It would be. Fingers crossed.
John: Come on, let’s see what we can stack on top of this. The Awesome Office Show podcast brother.
Sean: Oh, well, absolutely. I think Awesome Office, it’s – Howard Schultz is the guy that said, “We sell coffee but that’s not the business we’re in.” And it wasn’t that long ago that, when I was listening to a podcast that actually stated that quote, I said, “Man, we sell healthy snacks, we sell healthy foods, but that’s not the business we’re in. We’re in the business of employee engagement, employee retention, employee productivity, and employee happiness.”
So that’s where Awesome Office came from was creating a really actionable association based on real how-to’s, based on human connection, based on masterminds, to help companies transition out of the office culture that’s much like the movie Office Space, and into just fantastic, awesome offices. Offices where people can thrive. We have a podcast, we have a blog, we’ve got live events, and more than anything it’s just a lot of fun.
John: Fire Nation, if you want more awesome insights like this, you’re gonna wanna stick around because we’re about to hit the lightening round. But before we do, let’s take a minute to thank our sponsors. Sean, are you prepared for the lightening round?
Sean: I mean, I think I’m as prepared as I’m gonna be, John.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Sean: I don’t think there was a whole lot holding me back, in all honesty. I guess you could say college. I started my first business as a sophomore in undergrad. I think if I look why I didn’t start sooner than that, I simply believe it was because I thought that you absolutely had to go to college and that was an absolutely necessary next step. Now I feel a little bit differently about that, but that might be a totally different story.
John: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Sean: Surround yourself with people who are better than you and complement your skill sets. Be okay with what you don’t know. Know your unique abilities along with your unique inabilities.
John: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Sean: I read every single morning something that motivates me to be better. And then I’d have to combine that with belief that you should exercise to feel great and eat to lose weight, not the other way around. And also I combine that reading with some good physiology and exercise.
John: Share an internet resource like Evernote with Fire Nation.
Sean: Man, if I had to point to an actual internet resource, I think I’d actually probably step away from the internet and I’d actually probably first point to a sleep cycle timer. There’s a sleep cycle app where any other type of alarm that wakes you up during light sleep, not REM. It’s so impactful to your morning and allows you to jump out of bed, which I think is absolutely essential. How you spend the first hour or two of your day will define how you spend the rest of your life.
John: You are getting up on the right side of the bed every morning, Fire Nation. If you could recommend just one book, Sean, what would it be and why?
Sean: Really tough to recommend one. There’s five books that are always in my cupboard at my office that I send to people if not every week every other week. But the one that I’ll probably highlight is Essentialism by Greg McKeown. It’s really the art of saying no and only focusing on what’s absolutely essential in your life.
John: Well, Fire Nation, I know that you love audio. So I teamed up with Audible and if you haven’t already you can get an amazing audiobook for free at eofirebook.com. Sean, this is the last question of the lightening round, but it’s a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to Earth, but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have, your food and shelter’s taken care of but all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Sean: Well, I’d first read and go for a run because that usually sets my mind straight so I can think optimally. And then after that I’d probably just do what I love most, teaching, inspiring, and sharing with others what I’ve learned. I think I’d probably start a video blog, maybe tie it into Periscope, other fun video technologies. But I think I’d make it unique. Like I’d do all of my video blogs while snowboarding or maybe at 30,000 feet or while Ubering. I don’t know but that’s what pops into my mind.
John: Sean, let’s end today on fire with a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say bye-bye.
Sean: Absolutely. So if you care about leading people, creating culture and inspiring awesome, I know a lot of your Fire Nation does JLD, check out the Awesome Office Show on iTunes. So that’s definitely something you can do. Also, we set this up specially for the Fire Nation. You can submit your info at snacknation.com/fire and we’ll do three things. We’ll give you a definitive guide to maximizing employee engagement and productivity, essential for business leaders. It’s a 50 page eBook, that’s pretty awesome.
And then if you’re involved with a business of ten or more people we’ll also qualify you for a free sample box of 16 of the best and most innovative healthy snacks in the world. We give thousands of these boxes away every month. And we’ll also give Fire Nation 10 percent off any SnackNation subscription. As for me personally, you can – you’re welcome to reach out to me at [email protected] That’s [email protected] or find me at theseankelly on Instagram.
John: Dude, it’s okay. I spell my name wrong all the time. And Fire Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You’ve been hanging out with SK and JLD today, so keep up the heat and head over to eofire.com. Type Sean in the search bar, S-E-A-N. His show notes page will pop right up. Of course, go grab that gift, Fire Nation. It’ll be on the show notes page. Go directly to snacknation.com/fire, [email protected] for email. And Sean, I wanna thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that we salute you and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Sean: I’ve enjoyed it, brother. Thanks so much for having me.
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