CircleUp’s Inner Circle is a community for entrepreneurs at high-growth, private consumer brands to learn, grow, and connect. Brands can join Inner Circle for free, gaining access to resources, insights, and online experiences. This post is part of a series we have created to help amplify the voices of our diverse community of entrepreneurs.
CircleUp spoke with Serenity & Joe Carr, co-founders of Serenity Kids, to learn more about their journey as entrepreneurs and how the Serenity Kids brand came to be. From using their own nutrition journeys to influence the Serenity Kids brand, to capitalizing on their strengths while building a business and partnership, Serenity & Joe share their passion for community, nutrition, and each other below.
About Serenity & Joe Carr
Serenity & Joe Carr started Serenity Kids because they wanted their baby girl, Della, to grow up healthy and strong. When they began looking for baby foods, they were outraged by how much sugar and how little nutrition was available, so they made their own! Created to mimic the nutrients of breast milk, all of Serenity Kids’ premium baby food pouches are made from pasture-raised meats sourced from small American family farms that utilize regenerative agricultural techniques and high-quality organic vegetables and healthy fats from grass-fed bone broth and olive oil. Serenity Kids’ purees, puffs, and new toddler formula are balanced blended savory meals and snacks that contain the most nutrition per bite for your little one. Serenity Kids’ goal is to provide premium, health-packed, delicious, low sugar, high fat, ethically sourced, and convenient food that babies and toddlers enjoy and parents feel good about feeding them.
CircleUp: What passions led you to become founders and launch Serenity Kids?
Serenity: We were both sick kids. When we were little, we grew up eating a lot of processed foods and we were sick all the time. We ended up healing ourselves by changing our diets in adulthood, both separately before we met each other. We were already both on the nutrition train, and the food-as-medicine movement when we started planning to have a family someday. We started looking around for foods we might feed a child and it was really shocking what we found on the baby food aisle.
Joe: I'll just add that I'm autistic, and I wasn't diagnosed as a child. I was very sensitive to foods, as Serenity said, and had a lot of social challenges. It left me feeling really passionate about changing the world for the better for kids. Children and babies don't get to choose their food, so making that easier for parents was important. We combined Serenity’s passion for food and my passion for children to create this healthy baby food-movement.
CircleUp: Tell us more about healing through food. What does that mean to you?
Serenity: When I was a kid, I was the one that was on multiple rounds of antibiotics every year: ear infections, strep throat, all kinds of little infections. It was because my immune system was compromised. When you take a bunch of antibiotics as a kid, it leads to poor gut health and gut dysbiosis, which is a problem later in life. I had another ear infection about 11 years ago, and I took this really strong antibiotic that did something bad to my stomach. My doctor put me on a pill to take every day for the rest of my life, and I was shocked. I didn't want to be on a pill every day for the rest of my life, and I didn't know what else to do. So, I called my dad and he suggested that I read the book he had given me for Christmas last year that had just been sitting on my bookshelf. This was about 11 years ago. I thought “Eating like a caveman? Are you kidding? Really Dad? How long are you going to do this?” But I read the book because I was desperate, and because of it I changed my diet right away.
I cut out all the processed foods, went gluten and grain-free right away, and eventually cut out legumes and dairy for the most part.
As a result, I no longer had to take medicine for my stomach. It took me a couple of years to really heal my gut and my digestion. But, at the age of 44, I have probably the healthiest digestive system I have ever had and I feel really good about it.
CircleUp: It sounds like you really came to the food as medicine movement as an adult. Could you speak to what it is like for babies and children in terms of getting the right nutrition?
Serenity: When we first started looking for the baby foods that matched our personal eating styles (lots of veggies, clean meats, some fruit, some nuts, a little bit of healthy fats), nothing was on the aisle. I thought, well, maybe that's because babies don't need to eat this way. Maybe they need to eat apple juice and rice cereal. So I launched into what I call my “summer of nerdom” and I spent the entire summer reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and reading books. I even read the USDA Guide to Infant Feeding. Conveniently, most of my paleo primal health mentors had children and they all blogged about what their kids were eating versus what they wanted them to eat. It was really telling for me when every single one of them (my heroes) said that they were making compromises of convenience for their kids' health. I knew at that point that eating what I had been eating was also the right thing for babies.
CircleUp: Joe, you had mentioned a mission to support kids. What does that mean for you?
Joe: I was a very intense kid. I was very loud, creative, and outspoken, which is very challenging for traditional school systems. I needed to move a lot and was energetically taking over the classroom. The school system hated that. Other kids would be playing a game, and I’d come in, take it over, and then get punished for breaking arbitrary rules. I had a very difficult time making friends, was bullied a lot, and was not really supported.
It really left me passionate to create spaces for kids like me who are a little larger than life. I think all kids have more energy than they're allowed to express. We have this focus on academics and on memorizing in schools but provide very little emotional or social support. Kids need more emotional and social support than they are getting.
So for me it's really been about trying to create a world where kids are included, where kids are valued, where kids have the freedom to set their own way. I started working in youth programs and then started my own youth program that allowed kids this full freedom.
In addition to the freedom to be themselves, food is a big piece of that care. I was very sensitive to sugars, dairy, dyes, and preservatives — immune compromising stuff that kids' food is packed full of. These ingredients were aggravating me even more. As a result, I was more anxious. I was more wild, I was less focused, and had more mood swings.
It’s so important to start kids off early with whole foods. These are foods with satiating fats and good meats. Cutting out the sugars and processed food allows kids to be more emotionally stable, relate to other kids better, and follow instructions better. Removing barriers for kids and addressing these barriers with diet is really what has been my passion.
CircleUp: And how has supporting kids manifested for you, Serenity?
Serenity: Both of my parents are in the mental health field, and really helped me understand how our physical health is directly the root of our mental health. Supporting little kids in their mental health is also a big commitment of mine.
CircleUp: Could you share a little bit about the purpose, mission, and vision of Serenity Kids, and how you are creating community?
Joe: Our purpose statement is to make the world healthier one child at a time. And almost every word in there is very meaningful for us. We're making the world healthier and we're not compromising in any aspect of the business. We're committed to the environment, our farmers, and to the animals. We're committed to our suppliers, to our employees, and to families. Health is not just a physical state. There is health from food, but there's also emotional health, social health, spiritual health, and so forth. We want to create this environment, together with our staff and our community.
We put a lot of focus on our employees and our company culture. We really want it to be a place where we all love working. We want to create a job that is the best job we ever had.
Serenity got pregnant in the process of launching our products. The products launched the same day our baby was born. So literally, it was always synced together: our family and products.
Serenity had been home about three or four months with our daughter after her birth and our brand launch. We had some other staff with kids and one other staff member that had a new baby who was working from home. We thought, what if we get a nanny and bring them to the office and we have on-site childcare? Serenity thought that sounded crazy and it would never happen. But we made it happen.
That's just one of the many programs that we've run for our staff. We have really great benefits. We have an unlimited vacation policy, and flexibility for parents. We have some of the best family health coverage in the industry. We're a small company, but we've always had programs that are way ahead of a company our size.
Serenity: It's really convenient now that it's a candidates market because we already have a very stable, healthy, fun, satisfying, attractive place to work that we've been working on the whole time.
Joe: It is now a true business need to have good retention. We just did a major hire for a very competitive position and we had really great applicants. We had no problem hiring a high level digital manager in a time where hiring is hard and digital is key, and we had our choice of candidates. We have been able to build something that people want to be a part of.
CircleUp: Can you tell us more about your partnership and journey as co-founders? What are some of the obstacles you’ve overcome or lessons learned along the way?
Joe: We've both had a lot of failed relationships, and both had failed companies. We came into this with a lot of maturity knowing relationships take work, effort, and expertise. We've always had a variety of relationship coaches and business coaches, and we’ve made thoughtful investments to help us see our blind spots. The right partnership is key. They say starting a company together is like getting married. So we just did both!
Serenity: We started the company before we even got engaged. We had only been dating a year and I was like, are we really doing this? This is crazy! But it feels right.
Joe: The strength of our partnership is that there’s a balance. I'm really visionary. I'm really creative. I'm really fast moving, I'm really action oriented. I'm very big, loud, and communicative. Serenity is very sensible, very organized, very thoughtful, very detail oriented, and very intuitive. She handles operations and legal, and I get to do all the marketing, sales, and fundraising. That's been key to our success, having that balance. It's also been the biggest source of conflict, but our commitment to realizing the value that the other brings and accepting that when she's trying to slow me down, it's not because she's a barrier, it's because she's trying to make me better. When I'm trying to speed her up, it's not because I'm being pushy, it's because there's urgent things that need to be handled. So we say the speed of the company is too slow for me and too fast for her. That's the right pace. It's kind of a metaphor for a lot of decisions we make where we find that middle ground. If we are at an impasse, we bring in one of our VPs or we bring in one of our mentors. We find an expert on the subject area we are disagreeing on and we get feedback from them. Sometimes we go their way and sometimes there's a third way we didn't even think of that we get outside our box. We don't let impasses slow us down and we don't agree to things we're not fully on board with.
Serenity: We realize that if we put our heads together, being so different, we're going to get a better quality product or output. If it was all on me, we would have never got this company started because I'm just too slow. If it was just on Joe, we'd be bankrupt by now. It's lovely that we can really both recognize that the differences in each other, make our company much stronger. It's not like a battle of wills. You have to get over yourself and put down your ego to listen, really listen to the other person. We've had a lot of practice at it over the years and I think that's one of the things we're best at.
CircleUp: Looking ahead, what's something about which you're particularly excited?
Serenity: We have our regular goals, as well as ambitious financial goals, that we are set up for, and I can't wait to meet them. What we're really focused on for this next year is simplifying and executing. As we've upgraded, we've expanded a lot. We've hired a new team of vice presidents and what we're really looking for next year is to just calm down the noise; figure out what the cleanest processes are; and just do it over and over again. To really build that muscle of accountability and repetition.
Joe: We call it roots watering. Our branches have grown really rapidly and we need to make sure the roots are just as foundational. We have a handful of new products we're launching, all in baby and toddler, so the short term goal is to keep expanding in those categories, and continuing to revitalize the baby category with our nutrient-dense products that taste good and are convenient.
In 2021 we dipped our toe into conventional retail when we locked in Kroger and Target. In 2022 we're going to roll out in more stores and new chains to really reach that conventional consumer and show that we're not just a natural “crunchy” brand. We're a mainstream baby brand. We will show that all parents want meats, fats, vegetables, and savory foods for their kids. We're also going to grow [our] DTC some and really focus on the digital marketplaces, especially Amazon.
CircleUp: We would be remiss not to ask, what have you found valuable about working with CircleUp?
Joe: We started fundraising really early on because this product is really hard to make. We started “friends and family” fundraising before even launching. Everybody always warned us about VCs, and everybody said things like, “you don't want a VC, they'll try to take you over, they'll try to harass you, they'll try to make you do things you don't want to do, they are a huge hassle, they'll lower your valuation, etc.” There are all of these fears surrounding VCs, so we avoided them for a long time.
We had gotten to $7M total raised from friends and family and angel investments over six or seven different rounds. We were just constantly fundraising. We got to a place where we could keep going that route; we didn't have to go with a VC. We were flexible. We could do more angels. We could put together another round.
But CircleUp had approached us really early on, and we'd been talking to them for almost two years by the time we did the deal. CircleUp had provided a lot of free data from Helio. We had done a debt deal with CircleUp Credit Advisors, and they were a good partner for the debt process.
We ultimately got to a point where we were planning a Series A for September 2021, and it was around February or March. CircleUp said, “What if we did that Series A now?” and we said, “Well, we’re happy to talk about it, but we're going to need the valuation that we're going to get in the fall.” We told them the number we would want to get assuming that they'd run for the hills, and they didn't. CircleUp Growth Partners were willing to meet us at a place we felt like we deserved, ahead of other VCs.
The next question was the partnership question. They'll give us the money, but are they good partners or are they going to be the “evil VC” everybody's warned us about? And so we started talking to a bunch of references. I probably interviewed five other founders that have worked with CircleUp, including founders they introduced me to and some that they didn't. Everyone had the same story: “they've been really helpful” and “they've stayed out of our way.” That was really what we wanted to hear: that they might have different advice, but even if we want to go a different direction they [would] keep supporting us.
We really felt like, CircleUp, and Karen [Howland] in particular, came up again and again between the boards that she's on and the reputation she has as being a very founder-friendly partner who is smart and knows her stuff and is a mom. We felt she was going to be committed to helping us, and she's been super helpful on our board.
Serenity: I love Karen Howland! Having her as a resource who I can email and she emails me back, and gives great feedback on events, strategies, new concepts, etc. She's been nothing but ridiculously helpful. Karen’s really helped us upgrade our board meetings and decks, our processes, she has helped us in the hiring process with some of our senior staff. I feel honored that she is willing to be on our team and support us in this way.
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