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Provenance Meals' Caroll Lee on using first failed business to thrive the second time around

On today’s episode I’m joined by Caroll Lee, Founder of Provenance Meals.

Provenance Meals is a convenient solution for health-conscious people that don't have the time or energy to cook, designed by wellness experts and health-supportive chefs.


In this episode we cover her journey to launching a second business and what she learned through the first time around, the power of starting small and building slowly, and advice for founders who are just getting started.


Remember to stick around until the end to get her ultimate ‘get smarter’ recommendations.


Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


00:02:16

Sure my name is Carroll Lee and I am the founder and CEO of Providence Meals, Providence is an organic premium prepared meal delivery service. We're really focused obsessed on health on feeding our customers healthy food. And to us that means organic, clean, well sourced ingredients, real food, nothing process nothing artificial.

00:03:18 And we also take out all of the inflammatory triggers that are out there that might be affecting our health without us really being aware of it. So to us that's gluten, that's dairy, that's refined sugars. So just clean whole food, we make breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for every day of the week and then we also have prepared cleanse programs so if you want to reset with a three day feel good fix or a seven day providence detox will give you everything that you need to eat and drink for those seven days except for water and give you instructions on how to follow this plan to reset your health within that short amount of time, sort of the kick start to a better eating routine and we find that people really need that little bit of guidance and help and instruction to reset their health. Gosh, it all looks so delicious. Um I wish that you were also in London, I would be signing up immediately, I want to go back to life before providence meals and find out what you're up to and how the light bulb moment came about where you decided to start the business.

00:04:25 Sure, I was working um in SAn Francisco with a lot, it was the early days of the internet and I was working with a lot of different startups and brand agencies design web launches, it was really exciting time to be in SAN Francisco and that evolved into me working eventually in house at Gucci group, I was doing a lot of luxury branding at the time. So Gucci group that included like biotech event in to balenciaga Yves, Saint Laurent, like all these major fashion brands and it was really exciting work and there was some really great work perks, but ultimately, I was feeling unsatisfied with selling really expensive italian shoes on the internet and really, my passion has always been food, I've just always been obsessed with eating well, delicious food, reading about restaurants, reading about, you know, new restaurant openings, which is really a foodie at heart, and certainly living in California, really feel that with all of it's fresh, clean organic ingredients all year round. But I think if I, if I really dig into like what then launched providence, My mother passed away at the age of 66 of brain cancer and that was a huge moment in my life where I just sort of, I didn't know what my next steps where I was lost in grief and it was just really challenging time, and then the following year, my husband's father died of heart disease.

00:05:51 Then the following year I got, I got my first baby and so I think the culmination of these three events made me really think a lot about our health, preventative health, like what could have prevented this, um, what, you know, what are we putting in our bodies every day that can help or hurt our health, and then being pregnant, really understanding that everything I was eating was forming the foundation of cells that was going to create human life, like, it was all sort of a bit of a mess in my brain, but when I look back, I think about how important it was to me to sort of think about what can we do, you know, as human beings to improve our quality of life and to prevent suffering and provide the foundation of healthy cells and cellular structure and biology. And that led me to nutrition. So I ended up leaving uh the e commerce and the branding world and going to school for nutrition and when I graduated, I started a health coaching practice where I was working with women a lot like myself, we're just kind of at that point in their life where they're like starting to age, starting to slow down a little bit.

00:06:56 Maybe the old tricks of getting rid of a few pounds wasn't working anymore. Um, and we're looking for a little bit of guidance and yeah, I give great advice. I was like, go to the farmers market, eat only grass fed beef, you know, and wild salmon and these are busy working women in new york city and they basically were like, that's great advice, carol, but can you just help me get the food, can you just give me the food to eat so that I can feel better because you know, I have started every client with a simple elimination diet and the results when people cut out things like gluten and dairy and sugar and maybe even animal protein in some cases we're pretty astounding for a lot of people, these symptoms that they had, That they just sort of accepted as like, Okay, this is life, you know, like for men, like all the snoring every night or um just acne at the age of 30, like never had as a teenager, but suddenly hormones were having an effect on them later in life. Um just joint pain. All of these things would like miraculously clear up and conventional Western medicine looks at the symptom and they treat the symptom, but I think if you look at more traditional medicine and um ancestral ways and how we used to eat as humans, not that long ago before processed industrial food came about.

00:08:09 Um you know, this is just clean, clean, real food. Um it doesn't lead to all of these health symptoms, you know, So I was just trying to get back to the source. So I started feeding my clients. I started working with a chef that I had worked with before in the past and another business and we just started dropping off meals. I just started designing menus that were really nutrient dense and packed with superfoods and very balanced and then that really just took off, that was the part of the business that people wanted more and more and more of. So eventually I stopped the health coaching and focus full time on growing providence meals, wow, amazing goodness gracious me. I feel like all the things that you described in your clients is the story of my life. Um I suffer from all of those kinds of things when you were in that process of I guess validating the idea by, you know, having your clients interested in you providing the food, how long did that go on for and how did you really know that that was what you were going to pivot the business into?

00:09:12 Yeah, well I started health coaching. I graduate from nutrition school in 2011, I started health coaching right away and by the spring of 2012 I was like, I realized, oh this is, this is a problem that we're solving, this is a real problem that people have busy and I was one of them, right, busy working professionals in new york city, tiny apartments, no kitchens, you know, um maybe small Children at home, maybe not, but either way like too educated to know that you can be outsourcing your meals to restaurants and take out, you know, or frozen foods and in the grocery store. Um but not enough time or energy or desire or maybe even knowledge to cook healthy meals for themselves, right? Like I always say, oh, it's, it's pretty straightforward. It's pretty simple. You just, you lot of vegetables cut out the processed foods, but when you come down, when it comes down to like actually doing that for yourself can be quite challenging. So um it was a pretty quick transition, I'd say two to starting this as a business and understanding that there was a big problem out there that I thought I could solve, um and I could really help people and hopefully minimize any kind of suffering.

00:10:25 And for me it has always been about this preventative medicine and it's so much easier to prevent disease than to deal with it. Once you have it, once you have a chronic disease like to reverse it, or or or a cancer diagnosis, to reverse that in your body is so difficult, but to prevent it from happening in the first place, it's not as difficult, right? It's it's really about lifestyle. So in 2012, r really dedicated myself to growing the business as much as possible. Um you know, in the early days I didn't really know what it was doing, I didn't really have a lot of knowledge around running a food business, uh mind finances accounting, all of it, you know, but that, that is part of the entrepreneurial journey. You really, you learn as you go, you make mistakes and you pick yourself back up and you keep going and every day you become a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger, a little bit more resilient. Yeah, totally goodness. I'm interested to go back still to that time in your life where you've just decided you've you've stopped doing the coaching and you're starting the meal preparation, what are the first steps I imagine you need to, you know, move into an industrial kitchen and you need to put funding towards, towards building this business.

00:11:36 What those early steps like to get the business up and running those are really good questions. Um And again it was all a little bit of trial and error but to me I remember the moment where I was talking to my husband and I had about $4500 in like in profit from the health coaching business. Um And I thought you know with that money if I just invest that $4500 into the business into finding a kitchen space um and maybe hiring another cook in the kitchen um getting a male chimp account, you know to start sending out newsletters. I thought I think I can start something. I already had a couple of clients at that point. I had about eight clients. They were from my my coaching practice. So I knew I had some steady income that would come in and I think this is really important is I really looked at those unit economics, I looked at the math and I thought how much do I need to charge for these meals for my time for my um Cook's time in order to make this a successful business. So I had another food business in the past which I briefly mentioned.

00:12:40 Um So when I left initially left the agency and branding world, I started a small market in park slope Brooklyn it was called Get Fresh Table and market and it was sort of like meal kits actually, it was semi prepared meals that had everything portioned out for you for busy professionals, busy parents, especially in Park slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, they could pick up on their way home from work and I could just do some really simple cooking at home and finish it off. And then we had a lot of like really nice artisanal, like made in Brooklyn goods and this was back in 2000 and six. So it was a little bit early. It was definitely before organic, local and seasonal, you know, was standard for a restaurant that was promoting itself as healthy or a market. Um, but with that business, I really had said to myself, oh well we'll build it and they will come, you know, so we invested, I invested a lot of money until a build out of a brick and mortar store. Um, obviously had to line the shelves with inventory come up with recipes that put all of this money and time into it.

00:13:41 Some unfortunate events occurred afterwards where my business partner just failed basically. After a few months, she, we were 5050 and she had moved to New York from Oregon to start it and I think that comedy shit being homesick and just the stress of opening a new business investing all of that money and time and not immediately see there's no instant gratification, right? It's a slow process when you're opening a store, a storefront. Um she bailed and she basically wanted like all of her money that she had invested back in the space, back into her bank account, which was impossible. It was in equipment, it was in rent, it was in security deposits etcetera. So that, that experience really, it kind of traumatized me honestly. And so when I thought about starting a business again, going from a consulting coaching practice to another business of providing food to people again, I was really wary. So that's why I focused on that math so much. I didn't want to be in a financial position again where I was just scared, I was scared like how am I going to do this?

00:14:48 You know, how am I going to deal with lawyer fees now and buying out a business partner and all of that mess. Just so a few things that I learned was like, okay, I'm not going to open up a brick and mortar location. That's really a huge investment of time money space that I wasn't prepared to make, I wasn't going to have a business partner that wasn't every lesson. I was like, I mean obviously having a co founder can be so incredible and so important, but for me be based on the experience, I have had the first time around, I was like, you know what, I'm just, I like being able to control the decisions and the consequences like that will all rest on me sometimes, that is a big burden to carry. But I felt that that was the safer bet for sure. And then I, I just worked slowly and instead of throwing a bunch of money at it with this, build it and they will come approach. I really built off every step of the way. So first I had eight clients I asked instead investing a lot in marketing. I just asked those eight clients help me spread the word.

00:15:50 And I started a little monthly newsletter where my list gradually grew through word of mouth. I wasn't jumping into thousands of dollars of online advertising. I did a lot of research, you know, there weren't a lot of businesses that we're doing a service like this at the time. I feel like I'm a little bit early in that world too, but in, in a sense, it's great because they've gotten Years of experience now, it was 2013 where I actually became like an LLC and really launched the business. Um So let's say that year between 2012 and 2013 when it became quote unquote official is where I was just soaking up all the information. I thought I was reading every like entrepreneurial, there was for other people who are doing similar things and trying to learn from maybe the mistakes that they had made. Um and just really devoting all of my time and energy, but not money towards the business. And I think that really paid off because when you get into a situation where you don't have the funds and you get into that kind of stress fight or flight mode, I think that you don't make good decisions for your business if it's coming from a place of um semi desperation, so taking the time to learn what I was doing, make sure that the numbers were right.

00:17:08 Um I think we're was really essential to getting it off the ground on the, on the right foot. Yeah, it sounds like you really built the foundation of the brand in those early days by building slow rather than going superfast, potentially also burning out and that kind of thing being a solo founder, I'm wondering at what point it started to feel like things were really gaining traction and it was having that snowball effect of, you know, word of mouth and word of mouth and word of mouth and you could really see that things were changing. Yeah, I think I I'm kind of consider myself a numbers person. We'll know what, you know what I'm saying that I'm good at math or accounting or bookkeeping in any sense of the term. I think I like money though. I think I like watching that, right? So um so seeing the money come in, you know, and and they're just the bank account number growing was super exciting. I think the turning point was when um we had reached a certain level of kind of word of mouth and the numbers were growing organically.

00:18:11 But then I reached out to um some health coaches at dr frank lippman's office, he's a renowned functional medicine doctor, he's like one of the O. G functional medicine doctors out there. He combined he combines Western medicine with Eastern philosophy and acupuncture. He says he's an acupuncturist as well. Um Just really smart guy who a lot of people really turn to as the authority on how to look at illness from the root cause instead of the symptoms. So that's the tenants of functional this and really going to the root. And I reached out to health coaches in his office, I said hey I have this service. Do you think that your patients might benefit from this? And um dr Lipman tried it is the people in his office tried it. They really liked it. They really the philosophy was the same, right, eat real food. Like take out inflammatory triggers, focus on the gut microbiome if you can pull these certain levers in your body that can really turn the corner on any health issues that you might be having.

00:19:16 That's huge motivation to keep going to keep eating and living a certain way. So So having his stamp of approval early on I think we started working with him in 2013 that we started bringing in some of his supplements and protein powders into our storefront. Um and even did a cleanse program together. That was a huge turning point. He's also the doctor to a lot of celebrities and we started getting some celebrities as clients who I wasn't savvy enough back then to sort of asked like you know with influencers today you asked them to post in exchange for X, Y. Z or whatever. Um it wasn't savvy enough to sort of I think leverage some of the celebrity clients that we had initially and now I have a very intelligent marketing director who was able to help you see where there's really great opportunities at the time. I was just really excited that some some big names were starting to eat our food and some of them did just sort of organically post about us and then and then the numbers just kept going up and then it just became a lot more structure around it.

00:20:20 You know it really was just me and a couple of cooks for a long time. And then when when that started to go I started to build the infrastructure of the business as it is today. Gosh how exciting it sounds like there was obviously a little bit of serendipity there that you're able to get in front of um dr frank Lipman and have him on board because I imagine those kind of people are bombarded with different like offerings and products and that kind of thing. So for it to actually, you know, go to the right person and and them to enjoy it and then spread the word is just really incredible. It's so exciting. I think that the timing was great just because again, we're a little early, you know, that was, I think it's very, of course people will talk about clean food and clean eating all the time now. But I think back then it was just, you know, it was, it was very different. The idea of doing a detox or detox still meant a juice cleanse. And so to have, I think a business that really match the philosophy of doctors who were looking to get better compliance with their patients but didn't have tools that they could give them, you know, as a doctor, you can only make recommendations, maybe write a prescription and then I hope that they follow your guidance.

00:21:30 Whereas if you can give them a tool like here's a delivery service, it will prepare the food that you should be eating and drop it off at your door. You know, there's, there's a lot less excuse to not do a program like that if you know, it's going to benefit your health totally. Did you also then from that experience knowing that it worked so well. Did you try and replicate that in finding more practices that could recommend your product to their clients? Yeah, I don't know if it was intentional strategy so much as um realizing like yeah, more, it always comes from a place of service for me. So I always have wanted to grow the business um to help as many people as possible and to reach as many people as possible. So I felt like, yeah, working with other wellness practitioners was going to be the fastest way to help the people who needed the help the most like if you are already investing in your health by seeing a functional medicine doctor or working with an acupuncturist or a nutritionist, then you were, you are more likely to adopt um the lifestyle that goes along with it instead of just just those appointments with your practitioner.

00:22:38 So it just made a lot of sense to me to do that. I think later down the road we again, we formalized it and made it into our wellness partner network, but as we were growing, it just uh, it just was obvious to me that like there's a lot of people out there who are suffering, they don't need to suffer, we can help them feel better. So we tried to reach out through healthcare practitioners, incredible. And since then, during that time and over the years, how is your marketing evolved? And what is the biggest driver for growth for you now, aside from the wellness partner program? Yeah, well, the market, so I realized that I needed help with marketing probably around 2015, I was, yeah, it was a growing business and I really was still doing a lot by myself. Um not the cooking but it was probably still doing deliveries at that point. I'm not sure. Well my husband was enlisted often to jump on his myself right a bag up to the Upper East side from from Brooklyn.

00:23:41 Um But I realized like okay if we're really going to grow this thing we need to have a more coherent marketing strategy. It was really kinsman at that time I met my marketing director at a I think it was a like a workshop to how to take better food photography with your phone or something like that that I had was attending and we went around introducing ourselves at the beginning of the session and a woman said, oh I'm a I'm a freelance consultant, a marketing consultant. And I work, I love working with food companies and a little light bulb went off and I was like okay I have to meet this person afterwards. She ended up working, listen, today is her name, she worked with us for two years as a freelancer. And then um she told me you know what, I don't even really want to work for my other clients. All I want to do is work on providence, like that's what brings me joy. And I was like great hallelujah, when can you stop? Exactly. She came on board full time um and has grown our marketing department and has just been sort of the linchpin in growing our marketing and the strategies that she's employing.

00:24:48 I think, you know, there's a lot, there's online advertising obviously, which we've done a little bit of that. Um there's working with our wellness partner network and having them spread the work, starting to just work with influencers a little bit now on social media. Um there's all the content and education that we put out, which I think is really important. Um and I think that draws a lot of people in because they recognize themselves in, you know what we're talking about something as simple as like aging for example, right? Who is not concerned about aging? Well you want to live a long time, but you want that quality of life to be high for that long time. So talking about how will we eat affects the aging process or talking about inflammation and and what are some of the symptoms of information Is this you could this be the root cause of your problem. I mean food nutrition and food affects so many things. So there's so much content that we can put out there. Sometimes it's a real problem. It's almost maybe one of our biggest marketing challenges is that food can help in so many ways and not just with people's health, but the environment, like how you grow food, the soil that it comes from like regenerative agriculture.

00:26:03 We only work with farmers that are growing organic, no pesticides. Um there's just so many issues across the board of climate change, like subsidies for corn and soy and processed foods and big food uh you know, as well as your personal health and development, so addressing all of that and being in some ways a big part of the solution for that as well. It's a it's a big nut, you know, but as opposed to just like acne and skincare product, you know, it would almost be a lot simpler for us if we just had one specific problem with one specific solution. But in a way it's so big that I think that's been challenging but I think lives has done an amazing job of sort of getting that education out to our clients through our blog, through our social media posed through our email newsletters. Um and then I think another marketing challenge is that food, the food itself is so special. It's not just healthy food. And I think people have a They have a you know, there's a stigma around healthy food being like just salads or being bland and boring like you can't salted or something ridiculous like that or or 80s dogma of like low fat or step that you know, I think people just have are still very confused about nutrition and it's so um individual.

00:27:22 So our food is so creative and so elevated. We have Michelin star chefs in our kitchen, we have people who have just come from the fine dining world and the menus are amazing. So we have all this messaging around help and how we can help you feel better and look better in your everyday life. And we bring in other areas of wellness, like lifestyle like movement and spirituality. And then on top of it we've got this incredible like fine dining creative menu. So we just have a lot to say. I think that's been sort of the challenges is getting that all across to people in the limited time and attention span that you have, there's so many brands, there's so many things pulling your attention away right now. Um So that communication is just is key and I think Liz has done an amazing job, but I think it's still like a big, big challenge for us to tackle. Mm Yeah, that's such an interesting challenge as well because it's obviously so good that you're able to produce so much content.

00:28:24 But then the challenge of getting it seen and getting it in the hands of people who need it for a specific reason. Yeah, I totally see that the tar targeted audience, right? Like we want to speak to specific people about specific issues. Um we have so many people that we could talk to about specific things. So I guess finding them and then making sure that they, you know, see us as a great resource um is kind of our next step. Yeah, totally. I feel like also, you know when you're speaking, I'm like yeah, I want all of that information. But the problem is I can't order your, your products, but maybe they're like opportunities where I could order like a cookbook from you or something where you know, I could access that content and be able to implement it into my day to day life from from here. Yeah, we just launched nationwide. So we are now available across the entire United States with our three day feel good fixed cleanse program. So that happened this year as well as putting some of our individual products um online to ship from our wellness shop like granola and chili oils and delicious pantry staples.

00:29:30 Um so who knows, maybe international will be next to us. Let's see if we can grow that fast. But I would love to be in London. What an amazing food city. Oh my gosh, yes. So many great food opportunities here. What does the future look like for you? What's coming? You know, next year? So we did just expand nationwide. But with only this one cleanse program. So what we're experiencing now is people who never were able to try our food before because we were based in new york are now trying a three day program and it's a good problem. They're like great. I'd like to get more. We have a menu that changes every day every week um for our new york clients. Right, the ones that we can reach through our local couriers through Fedex. We're not quite at that point where we can put you know weekly changing menu into a into a box and ship it via Fedex and and feel secure that it will arrive. The way that we intended it to arrive. So that's what we're working on is how can we get that?

00:30:31 Our daily essentials menu is what it's called. How can we get that to people all across the country? So we started out by um opening an L. A. Kitchen. So we're about to launch that and that will come in early 2021 providence meals Ella, it'll be similar in service as our new york company and that you can get this daily menu delivered to your house you know 23 times a week. And then with two hubs on either coast we will be able to ship more easily to surrounding areas. So whether it is shipping in a box with Fedex or if it's just using our local logistics teams to kind of get further and further out to cover more of the northeast and the west coast. Um And maybe who knows, open a hub in the middle of the countries at some point in the future. But for the year ahead that's what we're really focused on is is expanding on a faster timeline to improve healthy meal options for as many people as possible. Gosh, that's so incredible.

00:31:33 Congratulations. I'm excited to see everything comes to life in L. A. That sounds so cool. Thank you. I'm actually in L. A. Now. I'm I'm actually moved from Brooklyn to L. A. This year to help get this operation off the ground. There's a little bit of, I mean we are going hold me and my whole team, I've always been fast movers. Um we're always trying to get the next thing done and I'm just such an optimist at heart that I I think, yeah, this is a great idea. Let's do this. You know, and of course we put in the planning and the strategy, but the timeline is always a little too optimistic is what, So I'm trying to slow down a little. But at the same time the strange upside of the pandemic for us honestly is that we're able to reach more people who are at home looking for healthy meal options, you know, more than ever. So we're just really extremely motivated to improve health, reduce stress for people and just provide an option.