Dara Erck of SAM+LEO: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Launched My Business or Startup

Dara Erck of SAM+LEO: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Launched My Business or Startup

An Interview With Doug Noll

Taking the risk to start a company is a feat few are fully equipped for. Any business owner knows that the first few years in business are anything but glamorous. Building a successful business takes time, lessons learned, and most importantly, enormous growth as a business owner. What works and what doesn’t when one starts a new business? What are the valuable lessons learned from the “University of Adversity”? As part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dara Erck.

Dara Erck is a leader in global health strategy and the founder of SAM+LEO, a groundbreaking brand that’s revolutionizing teen mental health with gummy vitamins. As a mom of two teen boys facing their own mental health and learning challenges, Dara’s work is deeply personal and incredibly impactful. With a solid background in vaccine advocacy and resource mobilization from her time with the Gates Foundation, she’s here to share insights on mental wellness and parenting teens.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey into global health strategy and eventually founding SAM+LEO was a blend of professional passion and personal experience. It all started when I was working with the Gates Foundation on vaccine advocacy and resource mobilization. I saw firsthand the transformative power of public health initiatives, but what really shifted my focus was my own family. As a mom to two teenage boys, I experienced the challenges of navigating their mental health and learning needs. I realized there was a gap in the market for accessible, effective mental health support and products tailored to teens. This personal connection drove me to create SAM+LEO, combining my expertise in health advocacy with a mission to make a real difference in the lives of teenagers.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Starting SAM+LEO was far from a smooth journey, and I faced significant challenges right from the outset. Covid brought unprecedented uncertainty, impacting every aspect of life, including my work in global health where I was previously traveling quite frequently internationally. Around the same time, I went through a divorce, becoming a single mom to my two teen boys. Balancing their needs and my professional aspirations was incredibly tough.

Originally, SAM+LEO was focused on teen body care products, but as I navigated my sons’ mental health challenges, it became clear that there was a more pressing need for mental health support in a form that teens would actually use. This realization led to a pivot toward gummy vitamins specifically designed to support mental wellness. It was a daunting shift, requiring a complete overhaul of our product line and strategy. Despite these hardships, my personal experience fueled my determination to create something truly impactful for teens.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My drive to continue came from the everyday conversations I had with friends who were also navigating the complexities of parenting kids and teens. These vulnerable, heartfelt discussions revealed just how widespread and daunting the challenges of raising mentally healthy teens really are. Each story of struggle and resilience reminded me why I started SAM+LEO in the first place. I wanted to create something that could genuinely help parents and teens alike.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going well, and I’m incredibly grateful for the progress we’ve made with SAM+LEO. Success for me isn’t a final destination; it’s a journey and a process. Every day is an opportunity to learn, grow, and make a positive impact.

Grit and resilience were essential in getting us to where we are now. Success is about waking up each day with gratitude, recognizing that not everything needs to be a priority, and celebrating even the small wins. It’s these small victories that accumulate and pave the way for larger achievements.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest mistakes I made when starting SAM+LEO was with our very first product — a deodorant. I was committed to creating an all-natural, sensitive formula, but when I tested it on myself, it caused a skin reaction! I remember thinking, “If it’s not working for me, there’s no way it will work for our customers.” Despite my best intentions, something was definitely off in the formulation.

The lesson I learned from this experience was invaluable: always prioritize thorough testing and feedback before launching a product. It also reinforced the importance of resilience and adaptability. Instead of seeing it as a failure, I viewed it as a crucial step in refining our product line.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes SAM+LEO stand out is our focus on creating functional vitamins specifically designed for teens. If you walk down any vitamin aisle, you’ll typically find products targeted at kids or adults, but very little tailored to the unique needs of teenagers. This gap in the market is exactly what we aim to fill.

One story that highlights our unique approach happened early on when we were developing our first line of gummy vitamins. We gathered a group of teens to get their input on everything from flavors to packaging. During one session, a teen remarked, “Finally, something made for us, not just smaller doses of adult vitamins or kid stuff.” This feedback was incredibly validating. It underscored the importance of our mission and showed that we were on the right path. By listening to our target audience and addressing their specific needs, we’ve created a product line that truly resonates with teens and their parents, setting SAM+LEO apart in the market.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

To thrive in our industry and avoid burnout, I recommend a few key strategies. First and foremost, focus on being present. Whether it’s with yourself, your kids, or your business, being fully engaged in the moment can make a significant difference. We often over-schedule ourselves and take on too much, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed. When you notice this happening, give yourself permission to pull back and make the next day a bit lighter.

It’s important to recognize that not everything has to be a priority all the time. Celebrate the small wins and don’t be afraid to delegate or say no when necessary.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

One person I am particularly grateful for is Mick Freedman, a mentor I was introduced to after I won a pitch competition. Mick selflessly dedicated his time and expertise to help me refine my strategy, perfect my pitch decks, and develop robust financial models. He also made valuable introductions to other key resources.

I vividly remember a time when I was preparing for a critical investor meeting and was feeling overwhelmed. Mick stepped in, offering his support and guidance, helping me to clarify my vision and present it confidently. His mentorship was invaluable, and I look forward to paying it forward one day, helping other entrepreneurs in the same generous and impactful way that Mick helped me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our mission has always been driven to bring goodness to the world, particularly in the realm of teen mental health. From day one, we’ve prioritized the cause first and the business second. This also means that a portion of our proceeds goes directly to supporting nonprofits dedicated to mental health initiatives. Our business model is built on the belief that by prioritizing social impact, we can create a sustainable and meaningful change in the world.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first launched my business,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 . The Loneliness Factor: Entrepreneurship can be incredibly isolating, especially when you live in a rural town and are a single mom with a very lean business team. You’re often sharing ideas with people who are more interested in pitching their services than offering genuine collaboration. I remember attending countless networking events, hoping to find partners who shared my vision, but instead, I encountered a sea of sales pitches. It taught me to seek out true collaborators who believe in the mission and are in it for the long haul.

2 . Specific Asks for Support: Don’t assume that your kids, family, and friends will automatically jump in to help. Just like hosting dinner guests, you need to give them specific tasks. Early on, I found myself overwhelmed and expecting my loved ones to intuitively know how to support me. It wasn’t until I started making clear, direct requests — like asking my kids to help with packaging or requesting friends to spread the word on social media — that I began to receive the help I needed.

3 . Finding Flexible Partners Look for companies willing to work with minimum orders. During the early stages, this flexibility is crucial for testing the market without overcommitting financially. Initially, I thought I was getting a decent MOQ with my first manufacturer, but it turned out to be too much inventory to begin with. I eventually found a local, more boutique manufacturer who was willing to work with smaller batches and saw a pathway to growth. This partnership was a game-changer in managing costs and scaling gradually.

4 . Build Your Community Early: Start building your online community long before you have a product in hand. Engage potential customers, create anticipation, and gather feedback. I wish I had started even earlier than I did. Having a blog, newsletter, or an email list from the beginning would have been incredibly beneficial.

5 . Prioritize Ruthlessly: Every day, prioritize your to-do list. Accept that you can’t do it all. Focus on high-impact tasks that drive your business forward and learn to delegate or delay the rest. In the early days, I tried to tackle everything myself and quickly became overwhelmed. I like using an app like the To-ist as well as focusing on accomplishing just three items on my list a day.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

One of the most motivating moments is seeing a parent get excited about our products or hearing someone say, “Wow, you identified white space in the supplement market!” These affirmations are incredibly energizing and remind me why I started SAM+LEO in the first place. Celebrating these wins, no matter how small, helps sustain my enthusiasm and drive. On the flip side, the lows are inevitable, but I try to view them as valuable learning experiences. For example, when our first product caused a skin reaction on me, it was initially disheartening. However, it taught me the importance of thorough testing and opened the door to refining our product line. Recognizing that setbacks are part of the journey helps me stay resilient and focused on long-term goals.

Building a strong support network has been crucial. Whether it’s talking to mentors like Mick or having candid conversations with friends and family, staying connected helps navigate the emotional rollercoaster. These relationships provide perspective and encouragement during tough times. As a single mom with a lean business team in a rural town, I’ve also learned the importance of self-care. Taking time for myself, whether it’s a short walk, meditation, or simply unplugging for a bit, helps me recharge and maintain my mental well-being. Whenever I face challenges, I remind myself of the mission behind SAM+LEO — supporting teen mental health. This larger purpose keeps me grounded and motivated, even when things get tough.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be one focused on supporting teen mental health. This cause is incredibly close to my heart, as I’ve seen firsthand the challenges that teens face today. By creating more awareness, providing accessible resources, and fostering open conversations about mental health, we can empower teens to navigate their struggles with resilience and hope. This movement would aim to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and ensure that every teen has the support they need to thrive.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

SAM+LEO: https://shopsamandleo.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shopsamandleo/

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@shopsamandleo

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daraerck/

Amazon Store: https://www.amazon.com/stores/SAMLEO/page/824B857A-62D2-40B7-AC77-D4746588C259?ref_=ast_bln

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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