As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Corey Lewis.
Co-Founder Corey Lewis is currently a personal trainer and formerly a professional football player. His love for performance and fitness started in his early years when he began playing football. With his determination and drive, he found himself playing football in the Big Ten Conference at The University of Illinois. He was also given the opportunity to participate in the Academic All Big-Ten for three years and won the Big Ten Distinguished Scholar Award. Shortly after, Corey played a short stint as a professional football player and persevered through four ACL surgeries and seven knee surgeries. The trials ultimately strengthened him, and the experience he has gained over the years has been integral to his role at 1AND1 LIFE. Through 1AND1 LIFE, Corey is dedicated to engaging people and pushing them to reach them to their full potential.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you for taking the time to interview me today. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, between the areas of Red Hook, Flatbush, and Crown Heights. My love for athleticism started at a very young age. Having an older brother, I would always try to keep up with him and his friends, no matter what they were doing that day. Those experiences developed my athletic abilities rapidly and gave me an edge amongst the kids my age. When my parents started to realize my love for sports and physical activity, my father, who was a former professional basketball player, guided me and pushed me hard to be the best that I can be. Still, he also never pressured me to pursue sports, as one might think. He allowed me to explore different interests and figure things out on my own. With my father never forcing the issue with sports and me always striving to keep up with my big brother, I developed the ability to continuously self motivate at a young age. That self-motivation is what got me to where I am today and allowed me to achieve everything I have at this point.
Before founding 1AND1 LIFE, I played football in the Big Ten Conference at the University of Illinois, where I earned my B.A Business Communications and my M.S Business Communication and Sports Administration. After college, I played a short stint as a professional football player and preserved through four ACL surgeries and seven knee surgeries. These trials ultimately strengthened me and have contributed massively to my role at 1AND1 LIFE. Now I’m a certified personal trainer (ACE certification), and I’m incredibly passionate about health, wellness, and fitness. There’s also a side of me that’s deeply committed to building a community. So me and my Co-Founder, Thomas Drew, created 1AND1 LIFE. Through this platform, I want to engage people and push them to reach their fitness goals and find their true purpose in life, no matter how long it takes.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we originally started in 2016, we were getting ready to create this massive site for two very high-level influencers, and after going back and forth on names, we landed on Baby Fitness. Baby Fitness stood for Be A Better You. I consider this a funny story because we were so set on that name and that business model at the time, but the more we thought it over, it all seemed pretty silly. At the beginning of this journey, we were extremely hellbent on followers. We thought the more followers we had equaled how successful we were going to be, but in reality, it’s all about building a brand that makes sense. You need the right type of followers that are interested in the content you’re putting out. We also realized along the way that you want to partner with influencers that also fit your message. We spent a lot of time paying influencers just because they had a massive following only to realize their content didn’t fit our brand. At the start of your business, you’ll make mistakes and learn many lessons, we’re still learning, but we’re thankful for all the experiences because it helped us focus on building our brand correctly.
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?
There are a few people I am very thankful for and who have helped me get to where I am today. My uncle, John Utendahl, is the owner of the Utendahl Group, one of the largest African American-owned investment banking groups in the United States. He took me under his wing very early into my entrepreneur journey because he wanted me to have all the keys and knowledge to succeed in this industry. John always says, “Innocent Ignorance.” It was okay to make a mistake once because you never had to deal with a situation like that before, but moving forward, you need to apply what you learned to future obstacles. He taught me that in the world of business, you need to learn from your mistakes fast to keep moving ahead.
His demeanor, confidence, how he manages relationships, and how he works through any situation, no matter how stressful, are all attributes that inspire me and teach me how to be a better businessman. I’m blessed to have him in my life, especially when joining the business field. He mentored a lot of other like-minded individuals coming into the business as well. John loves to create a community of young and talented entrepreneurs so he can teach them the keys to success and help set them up for a bright future. I’m the same way, if I can lend a hand to another aspiring entrepreneur, I will. I’ve taken to how big John’s heart is, and although I have a long way to go myself, I will offer any advice I can give. Not only is John, my uncle, but he’s like a second father to me, and I am incredibly grateful for everything he’s done.
Brian Sheth is someone I met through my uncle and is another person who’s helped me become who I am today. He’s a lot like a big brother to me. Mr. Sheth is extremely talented at what he does in the world of private equity. He took me under his wing because he saw the potential I possessed and wanted me to be able to execute it properly, and that’s something I am incredibly grateful for. He’s also one of the smartest people I know, and when I’m around him, I try to act like a sponge and soak up all the gems that he drops. When there is something I’m struggling with, Mr. Sheth has no problem breaking it down in a way that I can understand, which always makes me feel way better about the current situation I’m dealing with. I’m so thankful for his willingness to open up to me, and I don’t know where I’d be without him.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
1AND1 LIFE originally started back in 2017 when myself and co-founder Thomas Drew decided to work together to start a digital fitness platform for our friend and influencer, Andrea Denver. Soon after, we realized how well we worked as a team and how we could create something so much bigger and impactful, together. We both knew we wanted our company to be rooted in inspiration, something that would help our readers become the best versions of themselves physically and mentally through product, content, community, or all three. We then settled on combining my partners love and experience for brand building, community, and strategy, our shared interest in holistic wellness, and my professional sports experience, certifications, and wellness and fitness expert to create the current business model.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This year was the year we were planning a launch for our new physical and digital products in April. Right, when we were gearing up, COVID-19 hit hard, and I remember having to have this conversation about how we’re going to move forward effectively. We had plans to bring on more people, and unfortunately, we couldn’t because we didn’t know what the future would hold. We had to stay lean in a time like this. Those conversations with the people we wanted to bring on were tough, but to stay afloat, we had to tighten the ship on cost and payroll. We also had to have a few conversations with our internal team. We weren’t sure what was going to happen next, and we still don’t know, but we’re continuously adapting to the obstacles in front of us. Fortunately, we didn’t have to let anyone from our internal team go, but we did have to adjust, and many of us are wearing a few different hats in terms of getting things done.
Ultimately we put our digital product and physical products on hold for the time being. We didn’t want to create a massive marketing campaign during a difficult time for many people. Instead, we shifted our focus on giving back. We didn’t make as much money as initially expected, but we’re willing to lose what we have gained to give back and create a community. If you can pivot to give back and help, even as a small company, and stay on track to have a good year, I think that’s more important than anything else. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it worked out, and we have our new releases on track to launch very soon to the public. We’re super excited and looking forward to our community receiving it!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I can’t say I ever considered giving up. As someone who’s endured four ACL surgeries and seven knee surgeries during my NFL career, giving up isn’t in my vocabulary. If I had to think of a time where things were uncertain, it would be about a year ago. My co-founder and I didn’t necessarily love where we were as a business, and it wasn’t doing as well as we wanted it to. There was a lot of unknown, but I leaned on people like my Uncle and Brian heavily in that regard, and they gave me the motivation to keep going during those times. Them believing in me made me believe in myself. When we got our confidence back, my co-founder and I locked in and got to work! We found ways to run our company on a lower budget and streamline it to get us back on track.
People that are there for me no matter what keeps me motivated because I would never want to let them down. Everyone supports me and my dreams, and they want the best for me, that’s why I push myself the way I do because I want to prove them right. Another motivation would be seeing my mother happy and being able to provide for her as she did for me growing up. Also, being able to provide a platform that can give back and create a community is something I’m incredibly passionate about. I want to get to a point where I can help as many people financially, socially, and emotionally as I can. That’s what I strive to do with 1AND1 LIFE right now, and hopefully, one day, I can do it at a much higher level. These are the kinds of things that sustain my drive. I want to make an impact, and I won’t stop until I do.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of being a leader is your state of being. As a leader, you must stay calm, no matter the situation. Other people, like your employees, are looking at you for your direction. Due to the uncertainty, your employees may be panicking, and the last thing you should be doing as a leader is showing any sounds of doubt or giving up. That’s something I learned from my Uncle. No matter what you’re going through, those challenges and obstacles aren’t going anywhere if you panic, you need to put your game face on, dig through the weeds, and get to work. I look at challenges like headphones that get all tangled up in your pocket. You have to lock in, untangle that cord, and get those headphones back to working order. Sometimes those challenges we face may take us a couple of days to get through, but I’m always confident we’ll overcome them. You should also implement plans and have a process to fix any problems you may experience. I learned this from Brian, as well. Create best practices for different situations, so when you do run into challenges, you have a system in place to overcome it.
Another critical role is being able to listen. It would help if you listened to your other executives, employees, role models, your followers, and people that matter to you. These people are rooting for you and might give you an idea of how you can overcome obstacles during challenging times.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
When COVID-19 happened, we had to rally the troops and have a meeting. The best way to boost morale and motivate your team is by being first and foremost, transparent. You want your team to be able to trust you. You also have to be inspiring and believe in them as much as they believe in you. Make sure they know how much they’re capable of. I told my team many times that even though times were tough, there was no other group of people that I would rather be working with as well as how thankful I am for them. Even though I am the CEO, I am nothing without my team. I always compare my life and business with my love for sports. Behind the best athletes, fantastic coaches and teammates are contributing to the success of the team.
I also implement an open door policy. I want the individuals I work with to feel like they have a voice and feel comfortable asking questions they have. I also implement words of affirmation and encouragement to keep morale up. There’s no better feeling than being acknowledged for the hard work that you do. It’s essential to create a positive working environment and culture, especially when people are working on multiple projects and wearing many different hats. Lastly, make sure you have a plan, and you’re transparent about it. That way, they can see your step by step playbook, and if they have any suggestions, feel comfortable enough to contribute them.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There’s no right way to deliver bad news. It’s always tricky, but when you do have to, do it immediately and with full transparency. Tell who you’re delivering bad news to why and don’t sugar coat it. Depending on the situation, difficult news often deals with a mistake that was made, and you need to be able to own that. For example, we were going to hire a few new people, but unfortunately, due to COVID, we had to stay lean as a team and were unable to bring them on. That news was difficult for me to give, but I made sure I was completely transparent with them. I let them know that it had nothing to do with their performance, but we didn’t know what the landscape was going to look like, and they appreciated the honesty. Human error happens, but if you can figure a way to make it right, I believe it minimizes the bad news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Implementing best practices and policies that you put together with feedback from your team is extremely important. By coming together and collectively brainstorming strategies, you can create an environment that works for everyone, even in the most unpredictable times. As a leader, you also want to make data-driven decisions. Take a look at what lane your business is in and follow the data. If you see any areas that are doing well, push that way, but if you notice any areas that may be struggling, you and your team should reevaluate and create a plan together.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle goes back to empowering your team and the people around you as well as staying cool, calm, and collected as a leader. The example I like to use is to imagine you’re on an airplane and there’s turbulence happening, if the pilot starts screaming, everyone is going to freak out. My co-founder and I always try our best to keep a cool head and figure out a way to empower our team through difficult times. You can do this by making them feel good about themselves and the work they’re putting in as well as reassuring them that you will get through this as a team.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I think a common mistake companies make is not providing their customers with the best customer service they can give them. I see companies make that mistake a lot, and that’s something that can ultimately hurt your business. Companies also not focusing their attention on morale and ignoring the outcry for help by their employees is also another common mistake. We see this a lot with more prominent companies that let toxic culture continue for years. With that being said, as a leader, you need to keep your hand on the pulse of the company and connect with your employees as well as the HR team to find out the source. Every day isn’t going to be perfect, things are going to happen, and you can’t control that. When you have several different personalities in one workspace, there’s a possibility everyone won’t get along. As a leader, you also need to learn to take a step back and appreciate those that make you successful.
From a small business perspective, something we learned the hard way is you need to have a plan. We see a lot of the time people have a great idea but lack the execution. Sometimes, people do not put in the time, energy, and effort it takes to create a process that works. They might receive instant gratification but don’t execute the business well enough to keep it going. You don’t want your business to run its course quickly, so put strategies into place to keep it going. Keep in mind that common mistakes often lead to growth and betterment as well. Learn from those mistakes and use these lessons to better yourself and your company.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We spent most of 2019 focusing on brand awareness and storytelling. After going back to the drawing board to relaunch 1AND1, and after many discussions with our internal team and Investor, we realized that for us to reach people in the way we want to, to be able to help them, we had to focus on our brand identity. With that being said, we went all-in on marketing and high-quality content creation (digital, social, editorial, etc.) that ultimately generated a fantastic amount of brand awareness, and the capturing of a targeted audience and community we could now build upon, as well as monetize.
Fast forward to 2020, we were ready to release a few projects we were working on like coaching plans and all-natural supplements, but when COVID-19 took the world by storm, we knew it was time to switch our strategy. Of course, we were bummed that a pandemic took the world by storm right as we were getting ready to scale the physical and digital products that we worked so hard on and had a real good chance to even potentially surpass our revenue projections. However, due to us being who we are, Thomas and I wanted to focus more on giving back to people, and not attempting to throw a bunch of products for sale in people’s faces, as the world worked to figure itself out. We found multiple ways to give back in every way we possibly could and provide as much valuable content and products for free. Internally, we, of course, simultaneously worked to sharpen our strategies for our digital and physical products.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- A business leader should be calm and collected throughout difficult situations. Although these challenges aren’t always quick fixes and may require a little more work, you’re bound to figure out if you stay calm. Implement best practices for your business, that way you’re prepared for any situation. For example, we didn’t know COVID would take the world by storm the way it did. Moving forward, implement strategies for hiring, working from home, budgeting, and more, so if in the future a similar situation arises, you can tackle it.
- Implement a positive work environment for you and your colleagues. Too many times, we see companies who leave company culture as their last priority. Create staff meetings where everyone can come together and give their feedback and opinion. Take constructive criticism seriously, and change the problems that need to be addressed. Implement an open-door policy, so your employees also feel comfortable coming to you as the CEO. Lastly, immerse yourself in the culture as the leader. Join your employees for events, night outs, etc. so they can get to know you a little better as well.
- Always put the customer first! Your customer is the reason your business is thriving, and they deserve the best customer service you can give them. For example, if we accidentally send the wrong shirt size to a customer, I am immediately thinking about ways we can make it right, like replacing the shirt and sending over a discount for their next purchase. We want every customer to have a positive experience because every customer matters.
- Always have a plan before you launch your company. You often see companies start with no clear direction, and unfortunately, they run their course. We had to learn this the hard way. Take your time. There is no rush to get your business off the ground. It’s also important to note that there will be hiccups, and you will make mistakes, but you should learn from them and apply them to future obstacles. For example, when my co-founder and I first started our business, we were so focused on a lot of followers. There wasn’t a clear direction at first. After taking the time to realize we needed to build a business plan that made sense with our following, things started coming together. We spent less time paying influencers who didn’t match our brand and more time building the right community.
- Lastly, listen to the people around you and take constructive criticism. It shows you can be a true leader when you can listen to the suggestions of others. Take those suggestions into consideration and apply it to your business model. This is going to help you build a well-rounded community where everyone feels safe and productive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is, “Struggle builds character.” This is a quote that has always stuck with me. It’s something I would think about when I went through my knee surgeries and the end of my football career. I took time to myself emotionally and physically to process what was going on in my life and what step I needed to take next. I was always considered a high-level athlete, but it didn’t work out for me the way I thought it would, and during that time, it was something I struggled with. At the end of the day, I think those tough times help me build character. I genuinely believe that struggle builds character and makes you who you are. Personally, I am a believer in God, and I lean on that spiritual side when I am dealing with adversity, and he guides me. Bet on yourself, continue to fight through, and I promise on the other side there’s something better waiting for you. It might last days or even months, but if you keep chopping wood, that tree is going to eventually fall.
How can our readers further follow your work?
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