Have you ever had an idea for product you feel should exist but does not exist? For some, they would just leave it at that, but in Tommy Kelly’s case, when he struggled to find a natural, sparkling caffeinated beverage in the supermarkets, he decided to create one himself. In episode 76 of the Career Relaunch® podcast, Tommy Kelly, a former nuclear plant engineer turned cofounder of the organic sparkling drinks company Sound, shares his thoughts on figuring out the ideal time to make your carer pivot, building your ideas patiently and persistently, and finding a great cofounder.

I thought Tommy would be a great guest for the show because he made quite a radical career change, which I hope can inspire you to also make a change. Also, he has a firm belief that career changes, while incredibly daunting, can also be life-changing in a good way. He wanted to share his story as a way of inspiring others to turn their side hobbies into something more. I hope you enjoy hearing his journey as much as I did.

Key Career Insights

  1. If your idea doesn’t sell right away, it doesn’t mean you should give up, especially if you know some people have reacted positively to it. You can continue to iterate and improve, until you have your breakthrough.
  2. Learning, improving, and iterating are a necessary part of any career change journey.
  3. Our careers are in many ways security blankets in our lives that provide stability and predictability. Moving on from a job, even one you don’t like, can be incredibly daunting.

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Listener Challenge

My challenge to you is to fully acknowledge and attempt to overcome one of the daunting, negative emotions you may be feeling as you navigate your own career transition. Whether related to sadness, fear, pride, embarrassment, shame, or disappointment, try to give it a label so you can begin to process it.

While no magic bullet exists to tackle any challenging emotion in the midst of a big transition, half the battle is being able to identify it whenever it inevitably shows up during your journey.

About Tommy Kelly, cofounder of Sound

Tommy Kelly-Career RelaunchTommy Kelly is the cofounder of Sound known known for its unsweetened sparkling drinks that create unique flavors through a combination of Certified Organic teas, botanicals and fruit extracts. A former engineer at the Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center, Tommy came up with the idea for Sound inside the plant to satisfy his own desire for a crisp, carbonated, and caffeinated beverage that wasn’t filled with all of the sugar and artificial ingredients in soda. So he started carbonating tea. And that idea went from hobby to business in 2015, after teaming up with his former colleague, Salim Najjar. After gaining distribution in Whole Foods, they made the official jump to launch Sound in 2016. Follow Sound on Facebook and Instagram.

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Interview segment music credits

  • Night by ikson. Music provided by Plugnplay Music 
  • “Nettson – Last Promise,” “Hayden Folker – Adrift,” and “Keys Of Moon – Warm Memories” are under a Creative Commons (CC-BY 3.0) license. Music promoted by BreakingCopyright
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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): Your career, in a lot of ways, is a security blanket. It’s what provides income and stability. Saying that you’re moving on from that, whether you paved that career or not, is incredibly daunting. That was definitely the scariest thing for me.

Joseph: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I would love to talk about your entire career going back to your time working in nuclear power and then we’ll talk about your time as a founder. Could you first of all, just kick it off, by giving us a sense of what you have been focused on. What’s been keeping you busy in your career and your life?

Tommy: In life, definitely family. I have two young boys, a 2 ½ and 5-month-old. That’s been a lot and I have my wife, Lauren as well. I’m definitely prioritizing time with them. Career-wise, I founded a beverage company about six years ago which I sure we’ll dive into more detail. That’s been pretty much it. Life has been family, Sound and sleeping soundly while I can.

Joseph: How has your life been affected by COVID-19 and you can take that in any direction whether it relates to your work at Sound or even just balancing work with family life and your two sons.

Tommy: I think for myself, it’s been less of an interruption than maybe for most people. The reason being that I was working from home prior to COVID and our own team is very much remote. That didn’t really change. I was already set up for that. It’s been great in a sense where there is that lack of commute and I was able to spend time with kids and balance that life and career. Outside of that, it really just forced us to kind of all make our circles smaller and spend more time together. I would say that that’s really been the positive of it but from a career perspective going to the office hasn’t really changed.

Joseph: I want to go back and talk a little bit more about your transition into working in the space of entrepreneurship and more about Sound. I’d like to first go back in time. I know you haven’t always been the co-founder of an organic sparkling teas company. Way back in the day, you were actually working as an engineer at a nuclear powerplant. Could you tell me a little bit about that chapter of your career? And then, we’ll move forward from there.

Tommy: Yes, the unlikely transition. I was working as an engineer at a nuclear powerplant which is north of New York City and Westchester County. It was one of those things where in college, I was studying mechanical engineering and graduate with a degree there. I graduated in 2009 just as the bottom was falling out of the financial markets. There were a few different opportunities career wise that were presented, and this was one. I actually interned there previously. It was the best opportunity so I took the job. It was definitely a unique career to get into at the time.

Joseph: I’d say, I’m guessing that most people listening to this, including me, have not stepped foot into a nuclear powerplant. Could you give us a glimpse into what its like to work in one?

Tommy: I actually worked in an office building. I was an engineer but I was not in the plant at all times. I was often asked to go into the plant to inspect heat exchangers, valves—whatever it might be. I would spend 80% of my time in a cubicle. If you didn’t look out the window and see a nuclear powerplant right in front of you, it could have been anywhere but when you’re in the plant, it feels like it’s a very—it’s almost like a clean basement. You have boilers, piping, valves. We didn’t get too deep in on the nuclear side. Generally just one month a year during reviewing outages. It’s not a Homer Simpson situation. I think many people envision it like that.

Joseph: Right. What exactly was your role there? You mentioned you focused on mechanical engineering in your undergraduate studies. What exactly were you responsible for at Indian Point?

Tommy: I had primarily two roles there. The first was on the preventive maintenance side. I was responsible for managing and optimizing a lot of the testing of equipment. It’s like if you get your oil changed or get your car inspected. It’s the same idea. It’s how can we test and inspect the pumps and valves and the equipment to ensure that they’re not failing because it’s always more expensive to replace something that just maintain it. I shouldn’t say always but often times that’s the case. So, that was the first, the preventive maintenance side. Most recently, the career that I actually transitioned from, I was working as an engineer in the service water system which essentially took water from the Hudson River. We pull it into the plant, into the piping system to remove heat. It was just a lot of inspecting heat exchangers, maintaining the pipes and the systems related there.

Joseph: Okay, so, you are spending your time focused on maintenance. Sounds like you are working on things that I know very little about like heat exchangers. How did you then go from focusing on that sort of work to starting to think about this drinks company that you eventually went on to found?

Tommy: It was one of those things where I knew I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing. I just didn’t know what I did want to do. At the time, I was applying for MBA programs. I was also applying for jobs in the financial markets and something that I felt like had some relevance to engineering. I was applying also for engineering jobs, studying. I was kind of placing these little bets on every direction to see what felt interesting. One of those, at the time, I was carbonating tea just as a bored engineer at a nuclear powerplant. I said, you know, I was surrounded by soda drinkers and I was drinking tea and sparkling water one day and I was like, I wish I could combine these two things as a soda alternative. It would be cold, carbonated, and caffeinated like a soda but organic, unsweetened. It would be lacking all those chemical ingredients that are often found in most big soda brands. That was something that was just a hobby. I knew nothing about the industry. It just really evolved into something over time.

Joseph: It sounds interesting because it sounds like it just sort of started off as you trying to create something that you couldn’t find in the marketplace. How did you start to think that maybe you could be on to something and that this could go beyond something for yourself and maybe other people might enjoy it too?

Tommy: I can vividly remember sitting at the dinner table with my wife, Lauren, who was a registered dietician—she still is but she worked at a hospital setting at the time. In parallel with me doing sparkling tea, she would talk about patients who were just so uneducated. There was this predatory marketing where they would say, “Oh, I don’t drink soda, I just drink ginger ale,” or “No, I don’t drink soda. I drink apple juice.” There was just this kind of fire starting to build where it was like, this company needs to exist. There should be beverage companies and consumer companies out there that are advocating for human health and not just making money off of really clever marketing. That was kind of the convergence of where it was like, “okay, this makes sense.” It’s an idea and people seemed to like it and I think it was in those conversations where the passion for it started to build. I was never passionate about tea per se but the other thing in terms of positively impacting lives was something I felt very much passionate about. That was really the catalyst that took it from idea into more of, “How do we make this into a business?”

Joseph: I see. You mentioned earlier that you didn’t really know anything about the market, or how to launch a brand. I know that there are people out there who are listening to the show sometimes and they think, “Oh, I’ve got an idea except that I have no idea how to move forward with it.” How did you take this idea of something you were brewing up in your kitchen and turn it into a commercialized product?

Tommy: It took a lot of time. It’s definitely worth mentioning that my co-founder and business partner at Sound, Salim, who was also an engineer at Indian Point. We worked within the same small 8-person group. Between the two of us, I started it and was creating the recipes and brought it to him. He tried it. I started doing that in 2012 and we didn’t launch the product until 2015. It was a very long time where, between the two of us, we were just digging deeper into the market. We were talking to suppliers. We were figuring out how to produce this thing. It didn’t really exist in the market anywhere. No one was producing our product—an unsweetened sparkling tea. It took a very long time. We just let it grow organically. We did a little bit of a market study. We put it out there and see if people like it or not. We put it out in a couple of stores and see how it sells. It just slowly, slowly built.

Joseph: One of the things you mentioned was going to suppliers. Were you literally just looking them up and just making appointments with these people and pitch your idea to them?

Tommy: More or less. That was actually something early on, that definitely inspired us to really name the brand “Sound.” Actually, early on, our brand was called, “Sodterra.” That was what we launched it as. It was intended to mean “soda of the earth.” 90% of people couldn’t pronounce it but at the time we would be getting these ingredients and spreadsheets from certain suppliers, and it might be a peach flavor and it wouldn’t say peach anywhere on it. So that was a wakeup call to us about the industry in general which drove us towards “Sound” and “Sound” ingredients, organic extracts and other clean ingredients. Going back to the question, we were just asking around, reaching out on the internet, trying to find people who would sold [ingredients]. I remember just buying loose tea off the internet thinking that’s how you do it. One conversation led to another and the dominos ultimate start falling and you eventually get to the supplier who you should really be talking to. Unless you know someone in the space who can really make those connections for you, it’s a lot of just detective work, really.

Joseph: I want to shift gears a little bit. We’ll continue to talk about this topic of Sound. By the way, I love the name. I used to work in branding myself and there’s a lot of names I don’t like. The name “sound” works really well.

Tommy: Sodterra might have been one you don’t like.

Joseph: I don’t mind it! I like clever fanciful names out there. I want to talk a little bit about your transition. You said in 2012 to 2015, you were spending a few years trying to figure out if this thing has legs. Were you still working in the powerplant at this point in time? And if so, how did you balance those two endeavors?

Tommy: I was working there until January 2015. It ended up being about 2 and a half years from the time the concept started to the time I actually moved full time into running Sound with Salim. I remember one time specifically, I was doing a demo at my lunch break, doing a sampling at a restaurant nearby. I drove there during my lunch break and Salim called me. The plant had shut down and they needed all hands on deck. He left the hard hat for me on the stairwell and I ran straight to the plant but we were really using every spare minute to try to row this business. It was very much a great thing about the job itself too. It wasn’t demanding in a sense where we could be out the door at 3 or 4 o’clock and spend 4 or 5 hours a day or more later that day working on the business.

Joseph: How does one decide to move from working on an idea with, in this case, a colleague, Salim, to formalizing that relationship and actually becoming co-founders. I know that finding a co-founder is something that is not easy to do. A lot of people will have a falling out with a co-founder. How did you guys decide, “Hey, this is something I want to work on together, formally, long term.”

Tommy: That’s a great question. Salim and I—I think it was the perfect situation where…I think it’s really hard to start a business wit your best friend. There’s always going to be tension. There’s always going to be disagreements that are hard. The closer you are to someone, maybe, at least, the more that egos can play in. Salim and I were very close at work but we also had very complementary personalities. I think we truly saw the value in each other’s skill sets. I started, obviously, the concept and I was protective over it in terms of letting people in. So, it took a little while but Salim, if you knew him, is just an amazing guy and it really just positively impacts the business and me personally. He really did complement a lot of the skills that I knew. I think for starters, the single think to look at is where…if you’re a single person starting a business you need to look inward and ask “where are my weaknesses? Where do I need help? Where am I not good at? Am I good or bad at sales, marketing or whatever it might be?” If the person you trust is complementary to you and you can really appreciate each other and add value, to me, that’s the perfect scenario.

Joseph: Can you take me back to the moment when you decided that you were going to leave your job and work full time on Sound?

Tommy: It was late 2014. We got the product into Whole Foods and we picked up distribution. The time was right where we were like, “Okay, we need to stay through to the end of 2014 to get our bonuses and all that good stuff.” At that point, we had determined that the business has legs. There’s something here. We need to really invest into this to give it a chance and invest out time. There’s only so far that we’re going to take if we were working for 5 hours a day part time and being distracted. We made that decision, I think around the latter half of 2014. From the timing perspective, we were like, “Let’s finish the year. Let’s maximize what we can take from the bonus perspective and all that good stuff.” We were milking as much as we could there. So, there were actually 2,000 people on the site and there was only 8 of us working as a group where Salim and I worked together. We both had to break the news to the same boss. He actually was going to Lebanon. He’s Lebanese. We decided he would quit a couple of weeks before me. So, it kind of put me in an awkward spot. Back-to-back, two weeks in a row, we went to the same guy saying that we were quitting to start a beverage company. So that was a bit awkward. That was the scariest part of the whole thing, just breaking the news.

Joseph: It’s never an easy thing to resign but to know that you’re doing it right after somebody else in you team has done it is even tougher. Just to talk a little bit now about your journey at Sound. When you look back on, let’s say the first week after you reigned from the powerplant, and you and Salim were thinking about this thing, what was that like? What concerned you the most? What excited you the most?

Tommy: I think at that point, it was very much, “you don’t know what you don’t know” mode. In terms of what excited us, that was the easy thing. There’s an infinite runway. We were going to sell the business for billions of dollars in 3 years. That’s what was happening. So, that was what was exciting. The scary thing was just along the way and you figure out, “okay, this is actually incredibly hard.” This is something where it’s a unique product. It’s in line with trends. People are going to buy it. The scary thing was when people didn’t buy it. And you’re like, “Okay, what did I just do?” But that said, we continued to reiterate and there were enough people that loved it. We knew something was there. There was just improvements needed to be made from a packaging perspective, formulation, or whatever it might be. But I think that was the only scary thing about it in the early days.

Joseph: Can you just take me through how you then got this product onto shelves? A really big barrier for a lot of smaller brands is distribution and major retailers. How did you go about doing that?

Tommy: I think we initially grew up, most of us, in Duchess County in New York. So, about an hour and a half in New York City. There was a local distributor there that sold healthy dairy products. They did egg, milk, a lot of refrigerated food and beverage items too. They worked with Whole Foods. It was one of those, chicken or the egg things where you have to go back and forth. We were able to find those Whole Foods buyer and say, “Hey, if this distributor would start distributing our produce would you pick it up?” And we need to go to the distributor and say, “Hey if Whole Foods picks it up, will you distribute it?” It’s kind of just inching along those conversations to a point where ultimately they said, “Sure, we’ll give it a chance.” And a Whole Foods distributor picked it up. Prior to that, were able to sell it to a friend who had a deli but that’s not really moving the needle. The sort of getting it on the shelf was the big win for us was getting it on the Whole Foods shelf in the north east.

Joseph: Before we talk about some of the lessons you learned along the way, I just have to ask you about the product itself. I was just looking at your flavors out there which are very unique. You got things like rose tea with lime and cardamom, green tea with grapefruit and mint. How did you guys decide on the flavor combinations?

Tommy: Going back to the early days, the products were very much framed around function. Our first three flavors were chamomile, Yerba Mate. We had a flavor called, white tea that doesn’t exist anymore. But the idea was first around kind of how you used it within your day. The chamomile was the calm, and the white tea was refresh, and the Yerba Mate was called alive. It was highly caffeinated. So it was different flavors that you would drink through out your day. We started first with the base ingredient hence, the chamomile, rose tea, green tea or Yerba Mate. We were really looking at first, from a caffeinated versus a non-caffeinated perspective. And then also looking at trends. Rose tea was very on trend. It was unique and something that you don’t really see on the market. And then, we have an advisor that we brought in, probably about a year into the business, who still works with us now. We bring him general ideas and he’s the one who is a little bit more in the weaves (?) on flavor and understanding…he came up with the idea that well, cardamom and lime would pair really well with rose tea. It would kind of have a middle eastern concept. We would try a ton of different flavor variations but generally speaking, we start with one base ingredient and a complementary botanical ingredient like lavender or cardamom. There’s the fruit extract too. The fruit component is what we felt like pulled it a little bit more mainstream. Someone would be able to see vanilla, lime or grapefruit. We wanted it to feel approachable but also unique enough that it wouldn’t be just like lemon sparkling water or lime that you’d find anywhere.

Joseph: As I’m listening to this, Tommy, you sound very much in your element. If I hadn’t know that you worked in a completely different industry before, I would just assume that you’ve been working in the food and beverage industry for a really long time. How much of your past experiences in the nuclear powerplant end up playing a part, if at all, in your work at Sound now?

Tommy: I think at the nuclear powerplant, I have to say, very little. That said, I think it’s just the passions and the way my mind works and Salim as well, that both drove us to pursue careers in engineering. It’s very much about resourcefulness and the mindset that there’s a solution to every problem. It’s always having that mindset and continuing to learn. We both love to learn, improve, and iterate. I think all of those things from a bigger engineering perspective are all incredibly relevant. But if I was in a nuclear powerplant, for better or for worse, I think I didn’t retain a whole lot.

Joseph: The last thing I wanted to talk with you about, Tommy, is just some of the lessons that you’ve learned along the way of your quite radical career change. One of the things you mentioned to me before we started recording today is that making career changes can feel incredibly daunting but also life changing. I’d like to ask you about both parts of that statement one at a time. First, what did you find mot daunting about making the career change?

Tommy: The most daunting for me at the time, was really just… Your career, in a lot of ways, is a security blanket. It’s what provides income and stability. Saying that you’re moving on from that, whether you paved that career or not, is incredibly daunting. Just losing that, making that major life change is daunting. That was definitely the scariest thing for me. Moving beyond that, I mentioned we had this stage of bliss where you’re like “Okay, we’re free! We’re off the leash!” And then I would say years after that is when it really started to become a bit scarier on the financial side. In a prior career, when we you need a day-off, you can get a paid day-off. But when you run your own business, generally, the only thing moving the needle forward is you or your business partner. If you’re not working, that’s it. The clock stops. So, that’s the scary thing there from a financial perspective is you have to be working every single day, generally, to be able t continue pushing that forward—to be able to get back into that level of security where you know there’s enough of the business around you to keep paying the bills. I think that’s how things evolved from scary to exciting and then a blend of both. But mostly driven by the security that your career provides for you.

Joseph: How has your life changed since moving from working in a secure job at a powerplant to launching and now running your own drinks company?

Tommy: It’s definitely been an incredibly positive change. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments where there was “Okay, what are we going to do if we don’t close on this financing?” Or when we can’t pay for this or that. That’s always present and it’s kind of looming. Anyone who owns a business has that in the back of their mind. But beyond that, it’s been an incredibly positive change where I used to wake up and dread going to work. I would sit there and just scroll through the internet or whatever that might be. At this point, I wake up and I’m excited. I wish I had more time to work. That’s what we all dream about in a sense. Not just to want to work every single minute of every day but to love what you’re doing that much that you would actually even consider that. It’s been incredibly positive and my wife actually works with us here. To be able to work with her and be able to have that balance with the family as well has been incredibly positive.

Joseph: I did want to ask about that, Tommy. You mentioned that you’ve got a couple of very young boys. I think one is 6 months old. The other one is not even 3 yet. How do you balance the work with fatherhood and parenthood. I’ve got one young daughter and she’s coming up to four and I can barely balance anything going on around the house versus spending time with her and also running my own business. What have you learned about managing that balance yourself.

Tommy: It’s a lot. My wife and I joke about that it feels like every minute is scheduled to an extent but the first things to go are things that are for yourself like leisure. I have friends who are golfing and going on trips and outings and this and that. The first things to go for me are golf, watching sports, or whatever it might be, right? That’s something that I’m very much comfortable with. Loving what I do, building that and then spending time with my family. I love being a parent. I think as long as you kind of love what you do and love being a parent and you’re willing to invest into both, it’s great. It’s definitely tricky especially in the past year or two with COVID and all the challenges that it brought especially not being able to leave. There’s definitely those challenges but I think it comes down to being focused and being scheduled. Getting up early to get your work in or to get your half hour of just to sit and do whatever it is you might want to do like read a book. And just not having wasted time is really the biggest thing.

Joseph: I want to wrap up, Tommy, with what you’re doing right now there at Sound. Can you just tell me a little bit more about what’s next for you and what’s coming up on the horizon for you and Sound?

Tommy: For us, a lot of it now is just continuing to grow distribution. We spent a long time just iterating and evolving within the market. A few months ago, we launched a completely revamped brand and packaging and all that which has been huge for the brand and our sales velocity. So now, we’re starting to expand geographically, growing our team. We just hired a couple more people over the past month. The team is growing, the business is growing. We’re really just focused on expanding now that we feel like we have the positioning, the product and the right spot.

Joseph: That’s very exciting. If people want to learn more about you or Sound, where can they go?

Tommy: For Sound, it’s drinksound.com. You can find us on Instagram too @drink.sound. I’m personally on Instagaram, @tommy.kelly. You could also email me, anytime at tommy@drinksound.com. I think those are probably the best two spots.

Joseph: Thank you so much, Tommy, for telling us about your unique journey towards founding your own company, the upside of making a bold career change, and also your life as an entrepreneur and father. Best of luck with that new distribution push and with growing the business. Thanks again for your time.

Tommy: Of course. Thank you so much for having me on to tell the story, Joseph.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and do more meaningful work. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from his decade of experience relaunching global consumer brands to help professionals to more effectively market their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.