King of Pops was born as a result of a layoff, a trip to Latin America and a popsicle dream. In true founder fashion Steven has never walked into King of Pops without a new idea and a pat on the back for the crew. His mind never stops moving, producing on average 100 ideas per week, and though most of them are beyond the possibilities, the 1% that make the cut are true gold. Steven has founded four additional companies as an answer to business needs: Tree Elves, King of Crops, King of Pups, and Perfect 10 Foods. He loves his community, his King of Pops family, and he truly couldn’t envision a different life. Steven Carse is one-of-a-kind; he has a really big heart and his employees are proud to have an owner who cares about their well-being as much as he does.
Shantel: Hey Steven, welcome to the show.
Steven: Thanks. Excited to be here.
Shantel: Yeah, we're excited to hear more about your journey and becoming and entrepreneur, kind of all the things. So King of Crops, King of Pops, Tree Elves. How are you staying sane managing so many companies, or facets of a brand? But I suppose to kick things off, will you tell our listeners a little bit about where you were before King of Pops?
Steven: Sure. So, I was a journalism major at the University of Georgia and went out west. I actually moved to Idaho to work at a very small newspaper. I was skiing at expensive places like Jackson Hole, a little bit more than my salary could afford and I ended up, my brother was working at AIG at the time, got me a job there. And I did really well for a few, two or three, years. Eventually, in 2009 though, getting laid off along with a lot of folks during the great recession. So, that's kind of my career path. And then now, I've been thinking a lot about popsicles for 10 years which is kind of crazy.
Shantel: Financial stuff's going on. You get laid off. Did you have a dream about it? How did this all start?
| THE PALETA DREAM |
Steven: My oldest brother is an anthropologist and he was doing his fieldwork and most of his fieldwork was in Latin America. He was in both Ecuador and Panama and hopping around. And whenever I'd have a vacation in college and after college, it was my default was just to go visit him wherever he was and stay on his couch. Throughout Latin America, the paleta ... which is basically just the Spanish word for popsicle ... is pretty common and we started to just seek them out. And fell in love with the idea, natural, high quality ingredients and then interesting flavors. And so, we just dreamed of it, literally dreamed of it, usually while having a drink or whatever and not really imagining that it would be a thing. But then, losing your job ... When you lose your job in something that is supposed to be as secure as insurance, you really start to question what is secure and what isn't secure. So, I felt like if I had an idea and we had an idea that we were excited about, we might as well go for it and see what happens, kind of with pretty small expectations too which is one thing I always feel is important to focus on a little bit when people are talking about getting started because expectations were certainly nowhere close to what we've done. Really, just wanted to be able to do something fun and make enough money to get by but didn't have these plans to scale and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. Kind of an interesting way to get started which is, I think, sometimes a little bit unique as well.
Shantel: Yeah. I think that's really fascinating with the expectations piece. I think sometimes it's tempting to think so big and then, if you don't reach that particular goal, you have this overwhelm of “I failed” and you have to try to shift that perspective. But if you just shoot smaller and then revise when you reach that goal, I think that's important to note. I'm interested, so you kind of touched and talked about feeling secure. And I mean, I know as business owners, you create something and then you have control over that. But are there any insecurities that may come in starting something new and running your own business that you can look back to?
Steven: 100%. We've always been very conservative. So as you would imagine, the popsicle business is pretty seasonal so that first winter it was just ... Nick joined the business full time. He had always been helping about three or four months in. That's my brother. And we were ... we kind of needed the help probably earlier but we knew that there was also going to be this period where we were going to have essentially no money coming in. So, we were always just on the more conservative side with adding people. And it kind of plays to that sense of security and certainly not want to sell someone an opportunity that we couldn't follow through on. So I think the same can be said for the business. If we had tried to open in 25 locations year two, I wouldn't have felt like it was super secure but if we were being conservative with both what we were paying ourselves and the opportunities we were investing in, I always felt like we could keep a pretty close eye on it. I mean, obviously things happen that you won't know everything from just oh, it rained all April to more serious things like losing out on a lease or something like that. But yeah, I wouldn't say I feel more secure. I think it's just an understanding that like you said, you're in control of it, know that things could happen at any moment and just as much as possible be okay with it, I guess.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I've spoke to a few people about this concept of imposter syndrome which kind of, I think, ties into that of when your company gets to a certain size and you have all these eyeballs on you like where are we going? What are we doing? What is the decision to be made? Have you ever felt that? So especially I didn't know 25 locations. Is that where you guys are currently?
Steven: We're in seven cities.
Shantel: That's amazing. So, yeah. We probably have a couple hundred carts but we probably only utilize all of the carts on maybe 10 weekends a year usually. You want to have them if you need them type of thing. Yep.
Shantel: That's amazing. So, in that process of growing and growing rapidly, did you turn to other entrepreneurs? Do you have a mentor and support system to help talk through some of those things you haven't done before?
| BITE SIZE CHUNKS |
Steven: Early on, we took a visioning seminar at a company called Zen Train. They started a deli called Zingermans up in Ann Arbor like 30 years ago. And was really inspired by those guys and have leaned on them a lot for, I guess, thinking about how to look at things. And then, more tactically, joined an entrepreneur group called EO that sets you up with a forum. And then, in addition to that, I read the book Traction by Geno Wickman. And that was actually really, really helpful for us. We've been implementing the EOS system for about four or five years now and that's been very helpful as well when it comes to tactics and how to look at things. Because if you just try to do everything all at once, and build an accountability chart and pick your core values and do your five year strategy and what's your marketing plan, and all the things at once, it is just very, very daunting. And it helps to break it down into more bite size chunks that you can actually work through instead of trying to do a little bit of everything at once.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I love Traction. We've also read that and specifically around the quarterly goals and the rocks and the dashboard. Something I admire about everything I see that you guys put out there, one, I think the culture shines through. Every person you interact with has a smile and they just have this warmth to them. How would you go about, if you were starting another company, creating that culture and just being really intentional about everything you do? Do you have any experience to share on that?
Steven: The big thing that I think that we are pretty good at that I don't think is super common is letting other people contribute and then almost insisting that other people contribute. If all of the marketing or all of the activations or different things that we did came from me and a couple people on a marketing team, I think it would feel very different than the hundred or so folks that we have out on the cart bringing their interests and passions to our brand. So, that's super important when it comes to the authenticity that you're talking about. I don't know how you necessarily do that in all brands because we happen to have a popsicle company and both yoga and art and music, although they're not direct connections, they don't feel wrong. So if you're going to a funeral home, for example, it might be a little bit different. But maybe not actually, who knows? So that's one tip that we try to stick to and remind ourselves a lot. And myself, personally, if I hear somebody say we should do this, I say you can do this. Why don't you do this? And I think people realize that if they say something, it's close to them signing up for it. We're oftentimes worried about things being exactly perfect but I've got a, I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing, but a lot of faith in people and just don't really think that it is a science that anyone has exactly figured out so if no one has it figured out then, you can't really mess it up, if that makes any sense.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. I think it does. And I think that it's creating just such a sense of shared ownership. Everyone is contributing to the success of the company and their ideas are being heard. And just pride in where they're working because they're excited to be contributing to bigger things. Where does ... So I'm curious with the name King. Because I've seen the thread in a lot of the other things you've started.
Steven: I don't know. There's no great story. We were just in the naming process and it was the best name. Our other one was Tres Hermonos, which was Three Brothers. El Pobra Diablo, Frozen Man. Fria. A bunch of names and I put it out there and certainly when I knew less than I know now and had people vote on what they liked and Fria, actually was the top pick. And I was just like man, that just doesn't sound like us. It sounded more serious and kind of maybe a bit more, I don't know, whimsical instead of not taking yourself too seriously which hopefully is what people get with the King of Pops name. And then, once we went with that, we just thought it was equally silly and fun to just kind of name everything that. So we have King of Crops, King of Compost, King of Pups ... which is our dog treat that we sell out on the cart as well, frozen dog treats. So yeah, it just kind of makes things easier. We were trying to come up with other names for a few years and our Christmas tree delivery business and our distribution company don't have King of which to me is just a real shame. One of them is called Perfect 10 Distribution and the other is Tree Elves, which is our Christmas tree delivery business.
Shantel: Well, I think at least for a customer of Tree Elves, the branding overlaps. It still has that fun feel. So were these, I imagine they came after King of Pops was established and maybe you did have a bigger team to help execute some of those pieces. Were you feeling like you were missing something or you were passionate about something else and that's what sparked you to start these other companies?
| A RESPONSE TO A BUSINESS NEED |
Steven: They were always pretty much a response to a problem or an issue that we had. So, Tree Elves was a response to our seasonality. We had a bunch of great employees that liked being in front of customers and we had some pickup trucks and a Christmas tree delivery business could get people paid more through another month and a half. The distribution company came about because we weren't super satisfied with the way that our company was getting represented on the shelves and the people that were selling it, they couldn't. They had like 10,000 products that they didn't really know anything about it and so, we wanted to do it ourselves even though that meant doing it a little bit smaller. The farm. The farm was maybe a little bit maybe more strategic but we wanted to buy some of our own produce because we talk so much about the importance of sustainability that we felt like it was important to put our money where our mouth is a little bit and be a part of that world and try to grow some of our own produce. So they've always been a response to a business need more so than I want to make shoes or something like that. We try to solve some of our own issues, I guess. And it's not always probably the right move. I mean, there's a lot of people that would certainly say and likely be right that we're trying to do too much and we're focusing on too much. In a way, we've kind of been slow in our roll down a little bit when it comes to starting the companies.
Shantel: It does seem like an ecosystem, each of them support the other one in a different way and maybe circle around. How do you split your time between them? Is it like 25/25/25/25%.
Steven: We change it up pretty regularly, probably again, too much. I have been running the marketing side of the business pretty consistently. And then, Nick has always done the distribution business. But other than that, it seems like every year to trading hats depending on what's going on at the exact moment. We organized our business this year which hopefully is how we're going to keep it, by function, instead of by entity which I think is an important distinction and something that is, I hope, going to be really helpful. We were kind of mixed before where we had somebody that was running the King of Pops company. And then, also somebody that was running marketing and production. And then, someone that was running the Perfect 10 company. So entity versus function kind of created some gaps that were hard to deal with but I try to spend my time. I'm very easily distracted because I love all the stuff and like working on each of the businesses, but specifically on the marketing and then, the visionary-ish seat where you try to think about what could we do in one to five years plus in the future as well. I'm not great with that. That's where I want to be spending my time but it takes some real effort to not work on the problem that is right in front of you sometimes.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it's so fun to think big picture. You hear of it maybe in EO you've heard of it as well, like that shiny object syndrome. There's always something else. And we did some fun retreat exercises this past year of my personality will always come to the table with 10 ideas and I will move very quickly on them. But for other people on the team, that is so overwhelming. And so, it's a neat balance to learn of when should I say we're going to do XYZ and when should I just let the tide settle before I go on to my next thing for a new podcast we're going to launch or something.
Steven: When to talk about it is really interesting as well. You can freak people out if you go to a conference or leadership something and you come back and you've got 75 new ideas, it can certainly be overwhelming as well.
Shantel: Yeah. I think I need to continue to get better about that and maybe refine the delivery process. I have started to keep in the back of my weekly agenda just a running list of things that I'm thinking of that I'm trying to reevaluate once a month so that it may not be even the priority a month from now or something that I think is a good idea anymore, which helps a little. If you don't mind sharing a little bit, I think it's interesting to study a little bit the family businesses. So have you been able to maintain a relationship with Nick in a brotherly capacity too-
Steven: I'm sorry. Could you repeat that one more time. I had my headphone did something weird and I was trying to ... I'm sorry. Repeat the question, please. Sorry.
Shantel: Yeah. Yeah, of course, it's okay. So just thinking about Nick and you working together, have you been able to maintain maybe a healthy balance of brother and business partner?
| MUTUAL TRUST AND RESPECT |
Steven: Good question. We have a great relationship. I would say that I cannot think of a time in the last month or six months that we haven't at least touched on something work related. So that definitely is maybe a bit of a sacrifice. There's certainly times that we're not thinking about very much work but things always come up. And we're lucky that it's just something that we really love, so that's a positive. But yeah, our relationship, I think, as long as we're in business together is just going to be fundamentally a little bit different. The same can, in some ways be, for our family as a whole. I kind of feel bad for my oldest brother who is the anthropologist. I think he has to hear about King of Pops stuff way more than he wants. And my parents, they come down here and work some and have been pretty involved, so they're always really curious about what's going on. So, it's changed our family in a positive way and I've thought about that a good bit. We have to sometimes be intentional of like my mom handles a lot of our AR and she just gets so caught up on it that I'll go home to see her and I haven't seen her in a couple weeks and she's trying to talk about this check that she's hunting down from so-and-so and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh and I have to just ask about other stuff like what's going on with your work? What's going on with ... But I mean, I wouldn't trade it for anything because if anything, it's brought us all together.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. And it does sound like you guys have a pretty good understanding of each other's strengths so that if you're tackling marketing, he's going to lean on your more heavily for that and trust in your final thoughts as opposed to the ...
Steven: That's imperative to just say ... You can say whatever you want, but we have to trust each other enough that we can run with the areas that we've delegated out. He definitely has a lot of great marketing ideas so it's not like I'm not listening to what he's saying but if I can't run with something, then we'll never get anywhere. And the same with all of the stuff that he's working on. It's just mutual trust and respect, I think. It takes work though. There was a period where we weren't meeting and getting on the same page, another traction thing, as often as we should. And you could tell. It was like what? You did that? But if you ever talk it through and at least know where they're coming from, it's completely different.
Shantel: Yeah. I love that piece. And that was something we also implemented. My business partner and I meet weekly, every Tuesday for breakfast. And at first, it was like I've seen you all day, what else could we possibly be talking about?
Steven: That's a different thing, having your wife in the office.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. And oftentimes, there's not an agenda but things just naturally come up of we do need to talk through or we'll come to the table with a couple of things about oh, I didn't even know that's a challenge of yours or vice versa, to help problem solve.
Steven: We do something very similar.
Shantel: So, seven cities. I know you're starting to do quite a bit more public speaking. Are you traveling to all of those cities and to all of the ...
Steven: Yeah. I go to each of the cities once per quarter. That's the minimum for me. And I mean, we wrote a vision for our company in the year 2030 and decided we wanted to stay only within the South for this reason so we could ... I mean, once a quarter isn't much but when you're living it, it starts to feel like it is because you're at a place for two or three days. So, that ends up being about two to three weeks of travel per quarter. So a little less than a week a month. But yeah, it's a lot to handle but there's certainly no real way around it that I've figured out yet. I've been flirting with the idea of getting my private pilot license just to implement a hobby into my work life as well because it's something I've always wanted to do and it would be both ... not economical ... but at least I would be able to do something personally for myself while I'm also traveling instead of just sitting in a car listening to an audiobook. It could save some time. That's what I'm thinking.
Shantel: Yeah. I imagine that could possibly save some time too.
Steven: I'm not even allowed to joke about flying. My fiancé is not super stoked about the idea.
Shantel: I guess you wouldn't be able to knock out emails on the plane though. It does sound scary when you think of Steven in the air just flying but it is pretty cool. So when you do that, if you make that a goal, we'll be excited to follow along. Is there anything super exciting on the horizon for you guys? I mean, I know you're an idea guy. What's on your radar now that you're exploring.
Steven: Yeah. So we've only made one product ever, which is popsicles. I guess compost kind of counts as a product but we're going to be opening a restaurant with our friends who have, in Atlanta here. The restaurant is The Lawrence in Bon Ton. We're opening a restaurant on Memorial where we're going to be debuting soft serve and we'll probably also have soft serve in a few new brick and mortar locations over the next year or two. So I'm super excited about that. And then, personally, I'm trying to do a bit more public speaking like you mentioned and put myself out there and go around and share our story, a little bit of what we learned, as well. But certainly plenty busy. We've got a lot of cool co-branding things coming up that I'm excited about and it's just fun. Just letting whatever comes to us, trying to be positive about it.
Shantel: Those are really exciting. Does the soft serve piece kind of fill a ... You mentioned they all filled a need. Is that a piece of the sustainability puzzle or?
Steven: Good question. I guess less so. The project is the Atlanta Dairy's Project and we really wanted to be a part of it. And they were really excited about dairy having ice cream added. So, we've been talking to them for about a year and decided we wanted to try it. And then, we've got a bar at Ponce City Market. So we've dipped our toe into the brick and mortar and just feel like at those types of locations ... it would never really work in a cart ... but a chocolate/sea salt mix is pretty similar to a soft serve mix and so, offering it in just another format, why the heck not? But I can't think of how it is fulfilling a problem that we have other than having our brick and mortar locations having a bit more of a draw is probably the main angle there.
Shantel: Yeah. Well, that's a great reason. I'm excited about the public speaking and just want to spend one of my last questions. So do you work with a coach? For our listeners interested perhaps in that is like someone who helps book those or are you hitting the pavement trying to find these opportunities?
Steven: So I've done it just enough to be ... I don't know what the right word is ... since the beginning, maybe four to five events a year. And then, yeah, this year, I've got a coach/manager and she's just helping me with honing my message and really trying to dial in and then also, helping with sales. So a dedicated person that doesn't actually work here which is probably a good thing, that has a lot of connections in that world. And then, is also, I think I've got a really good message and she's really been helping me refine it. I, oftentimes, go a little bit too much rambling so just putting in the prep work and making sure I'm ready for that type of stuff. But it's been a lot of fun. I actually just had a talk last night. It went really well.
Shantel: And do you not any more ... I'm not assuming, I guess, you ever had nerves before ... but you had nerves?
Shantel: Okay. And do they still happen, or are you ... it gets easier?
| WORRYING DOESN’T HELP YOU DO BETTER |
Steven: My talk is about anxiety and worrying and how worrying doesn't really help you do better at anything. It just makes you unhappy. And how we all do it and how we can have some tips that I've learned that both from when I got laid off or when certain things happened throughout our business that helped me not worry quite as much. But then, it's a little bit ironic when you're preparing for a talk and it's about not worrying and you're sitting there worrying about it all day. I'll definitely say the mornings before I have a talk, although I'm trying to do other stuff, I'm usually just anxiously reviewing my slides instead of working on the stuff I should be working on.
Shantel: Well, thanks for being human there and being real. Because I don't know if that feeling will ever go away of the butterflies and the shakiness, anyway.
Steven: Yeah. I feel good once I'm on stage but I'm definitely I'm not to the point where ... It's all consuming prior to. It's all I can think about for a few days before it. I'll get over it hopefully one day.
Shantel: Well, Steven how can people get in touch with you and learn about King of Pops and all of the other brands?
Steven: Yeah. Best way is to take a look at what our brand is all about is kingofpops.com, if you want to go to our website. Or Instagram, we're very active on that. And really, try to be more than just about popsicles but about what's going on in our brand as a whole. So I'd start with King of Pops and then, you'll be introduced to the other brands from there.
Shantel: Great. Well, thank you so much for carving out time to connect. We're excited to learn more about the soft serve and we'll be sure to share all the details when it's ready. But I appreciate your time.
Steven: Thank you so much.