Danna Korn is co-founder and CEO (chief energizing officer) of Sonic Boom Wellness in Carlsbad, CA – a software company specializing in stimulating, innovative corporate wellness programs that improve employees’ daily health habits.
Leveraging behavioral economics, motivational psychology, game theory, and evidence-based research, Korn teamed up with fellow co-founder, Bryan Van Noy, to revolutionize the corporate wellness industry in 2007.
Pioneering what’s now known as the “engagement” category of well being, Sonic Boom is constantly innovating ahead of the pack. Korn and Van Noy have grown Sonic Boom into a comprehensive, holistic, worksite well being solution that brings together the fun and socially engaging elements with the more clinical and measurement-driven initiatives, all under one automated and easy-to-use system.
In her other life, Danna is a motivational speaker and bestselling author. She has written several bestsellers:
Living Gluten-Free for Dummies
Gluten-Free Cooking for Dummies
Wheat-Free, Worry-Free: The Art of Happy, Healthy, Gluten-Free Living Gluten-Free Kids
Kids with Celiac Disease: A Family Guide to Raising Gluten-Free Children
Danna has paved the path for the worldwide gluten-free initiative since 1991, when her then two-year-old son, Tyler, was diagnosed with celiac disease. With decades of experience in what was then a nascent industry, she is renowned as the “Gluten-Free Guru” – the name People Magazine gave her when they featured her life’s work and passion in 2007.
An aggressive advocate for the gluten-free community and consultant to many national testing and food companies, Danna is also the founder of the world’s largest support group for kids on a gluten-free diet, Raising Our Celiac Kids (R.O.C.K.), and speaks around the world.
A serial entrepreneur, Danna started her first business when she was eight years old. Her several subsequent entrepreneurial endeavors include a successful marketing firm and recruiting agency. An adrenaline junkie, Danna enjoys thrill-seeking adventures that involve high speeds and helmets.
Tell me about your early career.
I guess I was always destined to be a serial entrepreneur, since I started my first business when I was eight years old! Each weekend, I set up a little table with a colorful, homemade sign that read, “Bouquets – 25 cents!” Then I’d go pick flowers to create the “bouquets.” What didn’t occur to me was that I was picking them out of the yards of people I was then selling the flowers back to! Most were elderly, and I’m sure they realized what I was doing, but they typically smiled warmly as they paid and took their flowers back. When I was ten, I started a dog-training business. For $15, I’d teach your dog three tricks. I put myself through college with two ventures: one was taking and selling notes for my hardest pre-med classes, and the other was giving windsurfing lessons and selling windsurfers at a mark-up. After college, I worked in TV and radio, and then I worked for a public relations agency. After a couple of years, I started a successful advertising/PR firm, and after that a recruiting agency. When the first dot-com bubble burst, most of my clients evaporated and my business was doomed. It was about that time that I was shoved head-first into the world of “gluten-free.”
In 1991, my then-toddler son was diagnosed with celiac disease, and I was told he needed to be gluten-free for the rest of his life: one molecule of gluten was like feeding him arsenic, they said. I was terrified to feed my own child! Having spent plenty of time in med-school libraries, I buried myself and learned everything I could about celiac disease, gluten-sensitivity, and gluten itself. Keep in mind, this was 1991, LONG before gluten was a household word like it is today. Typically, I’d go into a store and ask if they had any gluten-free products, and people would stare at me as though I had three eyes. “You mean glucose? Is he diabetic?” Ugh.
Writing is cathartic for me, so I began to take note of everything I was learning. Word spread, people asked for my notes, and they began asking me to speak at gluten-free conferences. My notes became a book, but everyone said it would never be published, and I had no desire to self-publish. I didn’t let the cynics stop me. I sent four proposals and got four acceptances. My first book became a reality. That one was geared toward kids, and soon a large publisher asked me to write one for adults. Before long, the prestigious “For Dummies” publishers found me and asked me to write not one, but four editions of their books. That same year, People Magazine did a feature on me, donning me “The Gluten-Free Guru.”
For a long time, I led a dual life, simultaneously managing my gluten-free adventures and a software company I co-founded 10 years ago, Sonic Boom Wellness.
How did the concept for Sonic Boom Wellness come about?
While speaking at a gluten-free conference many years ago, I met Bryan Van Noy, who had started a company selling gluten-free products online. His “day job,” though, was as director of sales for a large corporate wellness company. While I was in the wellness world, I had no concept for what corporate wellness was, and he explained that companies hired them to get employees healthier, and the way they did it was through telephonic coaching, biometrics, and health assessments. All I could think was how BORING that sounded, and I asked how on earth those things would make people improve health habits. He agreed – participation was dismal, and they rarely saw actual health improvement. It seemed so obvious to an outsider: You’ve got to FUN IT UP! And that’s what we did.
Sonic Boom was the first corporate wellness program to “gamify” wellness and focus on engagement rather than traditional clinical activities. Because it was a radically different concept, it was met with skepticism and people who just didn’t “get it.” Our challenge back then was first to convince employers that they needed a wellness program, then to help them understand why our approach – energized, fun, and social – would be more effective in producing long-term health improvement. It turned out to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated.
How was the first year in business?
Agonizing. We were building the program, but without a platform. We had nothing to show, and we were essentially selling air, passion, and a concept. While people seemed to understand that “funning up wellness” was a good idea, few were willing to take the chance on such a radically different approach. Without revenue, we tried to get angel funding and other forms of financing, but we failed. We were running out of money fast, and at one point had about four months of savings left before we wouldn’t be able to pay our bills. In the meantime, we were living together and learning that working with your significant other poses its own – ahem – challenges. Oh, and remember the global collapse of the economy in 2008? Yeah. That was the year we launched our program. Let’s just say I cried a lot during that first year!
What was your marketing strategy?
Fortunately, Bryan had several years of experience selling corporate wellness to insurance benefits brokers and consultants, who then presented the program to their clients. It was a good distribution model, and we decided to stick with the formula, pounding the phones day and night. With his gluten-free business, Bryan had experience with SEO and made some wise investments in Google AdWords, giving our marketing site some great exposure. We had no money, so advertising, trade shows, and traditional marketing efforts were out of the question. We were literally dialing for dollars, while trying to get the business up and running. We couldn’t afford sales reps, and in fact, never did invest in a real sales team until only recently.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We launched the portal January 1, 2008 with three tiny clients. Within about three years, we had exceeded the $1 million mark in revenue with growth of approximately 40%/year. Without a sales team, we relied on our own efforts, word of mouth, and reputation.
How do you define success?
As far as the business is concerned, success for me is creating programs people love and want to engage in – programs that improve morale, camaraderie, and teamwork while driving improvement in daily health habits. Of course the bottom line is critical – without profits, we wouldn’t be able to support our “Boomers” and their families, but I think that goes without saying.
I define personal success as living your passions, overcoming fears by facing them head-on, and never being constrained by “in-the-box” thinking. I ooze passion for lots of things, and am fortunate to be able to weave them into my professional life. For instance, I’m passionate about helping people improve their health in ways that are fun and social. Creating programs people love and hearing their success stories is a huge high for me. My gluten-free life has been rewarding, as well. For 26 years, I’ve been excited about helping people live, and LOVE, a gluten-free lifestyle. I enjoy helping people understand the many medical conditions that benefit from a gluten-free lifestyle, and most importantly, to navigate the sometimes-challenging lifestyle while understanding how this can be a great thing in their lives.
Personal success for me is also about living life to its fullest. Typically, that means doing things that generate adrenaline and endorphins, whether it’s professionally or adventurously. I love embarking upon something terrifying and conquering the fear.
What is the key to success?
Oh boy, I don’t think there’s just one. Maybe that’s why entrepreneurs have to be so good at juggling lots of balls at once! I focus on tenacity, optimism, being a good leader, and acknowledging others. Stay true to your mission, your passions, and your ethics.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
One big mistake we made a few years ago is we took our eye off of our core competency and started diving down a rabbit-hole thinking it would be “fun” to have an activity tracker of our own (like a Fitbit). We learned the hard way that you should never deviate from your core competencies, and you should never outsource them, either.
What are some quotes that you live by?
I have a few! “The fear of losing what we have is what keeps us from having what we want” goes back to facing fears and challenges head-on. “Good deals get better and bad deals get worse” has always proven to be true. “Fail fast and fail often” seems to be the way we roll at Sonic Boom, “The rear view mirror is always clearer than the windshield,” and “Live your life in a way such that if anyone ever says anything bad about you, no one will believe it.” And one more, “An entrepreneur jumps off a cliff and builds the airplane on the way down.” I love that.
What are some of your favorite books?
Is it fair to name the ones I’ve written? 🙂 For years, I was so busy writing books that I didn’t have time, or a desire, to read them. But now that I’ve sworn off authorship for my future, I enjoy reading books about habit formation, motivational psychology, behavioral economics, leadership, and entrepreneurialism, but will admit that I get bored when it seems there’s too much of a “duh” factor. I’d rather read books about adventuresome activities I need to add to my bucket list. 🙂
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Bryan and I were on our honeymoon in Cancun in September 2008, nine months after launching the program with our first few clients. We had a term sheet for $500,000 in funding that was waiting to be signed when we got home. While we had sworn off TV for the honeymoon, we decided we needed to check the news “just once,” and when we did, we saw breaking-news headlines of the global economic collapse. Within seconds, our lives were changing. We knew there would be no term sheet – would our clients leave us? Would we return to an economy that couldn’t afford a “luxury” like wellness? We had no idea what was in store for us, and the dread, on the heels of the high of our honeymoon, was tortuous.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’ve faced a LOT of adversity in my life, even as a young child. It wouldn’t even occur to me to run or hide from it. I’m big on conflict resolution, and feel uneasy if I don’t deal with those things head-on. I’m not good at hiding or smothering my emotions, so I really have no choice but to work through it. It’s not hard for me. The adversity itself is what pushes me to move through it. “Bad” things don’t just go away. The only way to get them out of your life is to deal with them.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Follow your passions, and don’t ever give up. That doesn’t mean every idea is a great one, or that every endeavor will be a success, but passion is real, and it’s important to let yourself experience it to its fullest. And don’t ever let the skeptics or naysayers get you down. Everyone told me no one would ever publish my book. Everyone told Bryan and me that no one would buy Sonic Boom’s programs. Don’t be afraid of risk, and don’t think you have to know what you’re doing 100% of the time. Entrepreneurs jump off a cliff and build the airplane on the way down. You may not know how to build that airplane, AND you’ll figure it out. Never stop having fun.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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