MICK Carr is a serial entrepreneur, the optimistically self-titled "chief energy officer" of one of his two most recent companies, the fun guy whose startup Grub Lab was recently valued at around $15.9 million and is poised to launch in the United States.
So it came as a shock for the proud Kurri Kurri man to discover three years ago that he was also mortal.
At the time, Grub Lab - an app which brings augmented reality (AR) to kids menus in pubs and clubs, inspired by Carr's own desire to take his three sons out and still be able to "sink a schooner" in peace - was beginning to take off.
But all those executive titles, including chief executive officer of the Kurri Kurri marketing technology firm The Village Co, were starting to be an anchor.
"Everyone thinks if you are in business you are a multi-millionaire and things are flying but the stress and impact on your health is huge," Carr admits.
"I was at at Father's Day breakfast with my young bloke [Carr has three primary school-aged sons with wife Lydia] and I was feeling off. My heart was out of rhythm and I spent 10 days in hospital. I couldn't stand up. I lost 10 kilos in a week."
Found to have myocarditis, Carr was placed on a defibrillator three times before medics "stopped" his heart four times as they tried to correct his heart rhythm, before he began to recover. Still on medication and embracing meditation, Carr says the health scare was a wake-up call - even if you get the sense that he's still burning the candle at both ends.
"It made me realise life is short, and to try and take a break, stop and smell the roses. [In business] instead of forcing things, we try and let go and trust that things will happen. It seems the more we let go, the more it will happen."
A lot is, in fact, happening for Carr and his team, currently at 26 but expected to grow to 50 by year's end.
After securing lucrative deals with the NRL and AFL to bring their sporting codes to virtual life via Grub Lab's app, the company has set itself a target to used by 90,000 venues in the United States by 2024 [To quantify that, each venue spends around $3000 annually for the AR platform].
Grub Lab has also signed a licensing agreement in with Universal Studios for Australia and the US, working with two of their biggest franchise launches, set to roll out soon.
"They have a massive budget and spend, we'll jump on the back of that," he says.
"It's surreal, very surreal. I think the [GrubLab valuation of $15.9m in September] and the fact we are dealing with brands like Universal, when you start a company you don't expect that to happen."
"Our vision is to charge towards a $100 million valuation by 2023, and the US gives us a greater chance of hitting that number."
Grub Lab is eyeing the caravanning and aged care sectors - the former sector will involve an extension of its existing technology and products; the latter, says Carr, will bring solutions to improve the live of patients through cognitive stimulation and increasing connection to their families remotely.
If the numbers continue to rise, and the product remains strong, it would not be out of the ballpark to sell the company: "You are always for sale as a business."
To glimpse Carr's drive is to return to his childhood, when hard work was expected from his dad, a coal miner, and mum, who worked in retail.
"They also had at least four businesses - a takeaway shop, a gift shop, Dad was a milkman too. They were just supporting family, doing good and providing," he recalls.
Carr's first money-spinners came at the age of eight, when he sold eggs from the chooks in his backyard. Soonafter he bought some flowers in downtown Kurri Kurri, split the bouquets in half and "upsold" them on Mother's Day on a main road.
Leaving school after Year 10, he got an electrician apprenticeship at BHP. When the steelworks closed he landed a job with Kurri Kurri electrician Col Brown, his first mentor in business.
By his early 20s, Carr was working in the mines with his brother and father when he came up with his first venture, Lazy Lads Laundromat. Its operations entailed collecting dirty uniforms from mine sites on a Friday and dropping them back by Sunday: "We set up a commercial laundromat in Kurri Kurri. I'd never washed in my life."
Next, Carr came up with Control Vend, a vending machine business that stocked safety equipment for mine sites, designed to minimise waste. It was acquired up by industry giant 3M, where Carr later worked.
By 2016 he had founded tech and marketing firm The Village Co, bringing in Angie Peterkin as chief financial officer, with general manager Mat Goddard and CTO Chris Hildebrandt joining.
"I left 3M with a view to do something good for local businesses," he says. "Our belief was that if we don't help them, we end up with Costco, gyms and coffee shops and that to us is not community," he says. "Community is the personalities behind the businesses, the publican whose family has had the pub for 100 years, the butcher who mows the lawns for the footy club, the hairdressers and mums on the P&Cs, it's the social structure we are connected by."
Keen to "empower" local business owners, Carr initially worked alongside them to build their digital marketing platforms. But Village Co has now been dwarfed by the juggernaut that is Grub Lab.
Carr had the idea for the app when two of his three boys reached the age of two and it was difficult for his family to dine out because of the ensuing chaos: "It was like, 'Ah, there's an opportunity there'," he says.
A global survey by food manufacturer Simplot showed most family dining decisions were dictated by children, so Carr and his team of then six built a rapid prototype of their AR platform, which kids can download on a phone then scan a menu, bringing characters and associated games to life.
"We presented it to Simplot, they got really excited about it and we signed a deal to commercialise it," he said.
The path to success was not simple.
Carr says the company had at least 80 meetings to try and raise money, and then there was the heart scare.
"When recovering from heart failure, sleeping in the office in a hammock for three hours a day just to get through the day, one of our early investors rang me and said, 'Mate, are you sure we should keep going, I think we should pull the pin'," recalls Carr.
"I had no option but to keep going: I was personally in the hole for one mill [$1m), I had just mortgaged my parent's home to keep the doors open and make payroll, Angie our CFO said, 'We have four weeks to turn things around or it's over'.
"The next day I was driving on the Hunter Expressway and got a flat tyre just to add some more pressure, and I thought, 'How have I done this to my family? I have a big life insurance policy, I could just walk in front of a truck and solve everything right now.' I have since discussed this with one of my mentors and he said, 'Mate, if you haven't been through that start- up journey you don't get a jersey in the big game'. Thankfully that thought was only for a minute, and look where we are now.
Grub Lab won a federal government innovation grant of just over $320,000 then secured the backing of a Kurri Kurri businessman.
"He was our first investor and a major sponsor of the [Kurri Kurri] football club, we are forever grateful that he backed us," says Carr, who played 250 senior league games with the club, was on its "Old Boys" committee, and cites Craig Bellamy and Andrew Johns as personal heroes.
Grub Lab raised about $3 million in private and government investment before securing licensing agreements with both the AFL and NRL.
"Grub Lab is mostly in venues, so pubs and clubs and restaurants and cafes, and we've brought big brands like the NRL, AFL and Universal Studios to local businesses who normally wouldn't be able to access it. We're the connector or aggregator," he says.
The "secret sauce" to success, Carr says, is the way it was able to nimbly polish and commercialise the app, which he underlines has no advertising or in-app purchases aimed at kids.
"We knew that big brands like the NRL and AFL would be attractive to local business to help them market, what we didn't realise is the big brands can now access 1400 venues they couldn't before. They can access a local pub through our platform."
Carr is serious about making work fun.
"Most of us have left corporate life because it was boring and dull, [the office] is a place you spend a lot of time in, so it has to be fun," he says. "We are a kids' product ... we try and live by that mantra - bringing the fun."
Business is a family affair for Carr and his team. Among staff are Carr's wife Lydia, his mother Vicki and his mother-in-law Jenny, alongside the mums of co-founders Angie Peterkin and Mat Goddard, and CTO Chris Hildebrandt's wife.
Carr also involves his sons in business.
"I took my middle bloke to Melbourne as an excursion and he sat in two of the biggest boardrooms in the country, took notes and made a project on the company," he says. "He is 10 and selling honey with my father, they are doing bees. It's inspired him to shape his life."
Steve Meyn, chair of business advisory specialists PKF in Australia and also The Mutual Bank's board, says PKF invested in Grub Lab after the two men met in 2019.
"The passion and commitment is what got me interested in what Mick was developing, let alone the cutting edge technology that he then showed me," says Meyn, a mentor to Carr. Meyn says that Carr's willingness to surround himself with good people and "listen, take their ideas and advice and implement" is why Grub Lab has excelled.
Carr's younger sister, Kurri Kurri-based conveyancer Danielle Knight, says the entrepreneur brings out the best in people.
"He builds you up and makes you want to succeed. I wouldn't be where I am today without him," she says. "I wouldn't say [since the heart scare] he has slowed down, if anything he's taken life more head on. He put to the back of his mind the small stuff and realised you get one chance in life."
Carr doesn't hesitate when asked what he hopes his legacy might be.
"To set an example for my boys on how to approach life, that's more important than money and success," he says. "Limitless thinking - the opportunity that whatever they set their mind to, they can achieve. I try and expose them to business, because the lessons they learn there are as important as school."
Business, news and feature reporter.
Business, news and feature reporter.
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