“Talent to the task.” Hiring well was the hardest thing when starting my business, and I was slow to get it right. I eventually started to hire people that I just thought would be great for our culture and our team, and then figured out how they’d fit into it. This was inspired by an investor and mentor, Gloria, who told me: talent to the task.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara-Eva Marchese.
Sarah-Eva Marchese is founder and CEO of Floracracy, a technologically advanced premium floral brand, which launched in October 2020. Sarah-Eva leveraged her training as a terrorist profiler to track facts and trends in the floral industry, which became the basis of Floracracy’s patent-pending software. She was inspired to start Floracracy when her family needed to order flowers for her wedding and her grandmother’s funeral within a two-week period. Before launching the Rockford, Illinois company she was a member of 1871’s WiSTEM in 2018 and Chicago Innovations Women’s Mentoring Co-op in 2017. She holds a M.Litt. in International Security from St. Andrews University and an MA in War Studies from the University of London, and previously worked for a private intelligence agency and in sales.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I went to graduate school to study international relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I became really interested in conflict resolution theories and also was trained in terrorist organization profiling. I started to explore the role of narrative theory in resolving conflicts and built a peacebuilding theory that won me high honors. I’d planned to pursue a PhD at Cambridge based on that work, but decided it wasn’t the right path for me.
A few years later, I had to order flowers for my wedding and for a funeral in a short span of time. I began thinking about the important role flowers play at meaningful times of our lives. I became absolutely fascinated by the research about flowers and their impact on people and communities — and I knew that I’d found my purpose.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
For decades, people have sent flowers by ordering premade arrangements online. But when a lot of people go online to order, they get the same dated interface and few options to personalize their arrangement. Often some of the flowers aren’t available in a certain area, and the flowers that wind up being delivered might look quite a bit different from the photo on a website. This makes the experience feel less meaningful and the end result, less-dependable.
That method of buying flowers is also far removed from the rich and deep relationship humans traditionally have had with them. Some of the earliest humans are believed to have used flowers in rituals and as a means of communication. Languages developed around them in almost every culture around the world. All of that had been lost.
My vision for Floracracy was simple: to create a more meaningful and personalized way to buy flowers that are delivered exactly as ordered. On our site, you can choose an arrangement based on styles created using the symbolic language of flowers. Each customer has the option to adjust the arrangement based on a series of options that may suit the style or taste associated with the recipient and occasion. We process our own orders, allowing us to guarantee that they include exactly what was ordered. And we ship in cooled boxes to the lower 48 states.
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?
Last December, we were running a beta test at the exact same time I was due to give birth to my third child. I was due December 23, the last day of our beta test. I was hoping that she’d be born on her due date or after. Instead, I went into labor on December 20th. My team ran into troubles with an order they were fulfilling. I was determined that quality would not be compromised, so I had my husband leave the hospital and go get the order that was causing trouble. He brought it back along with a hazmat suit. I was at this point 5 centimeters dilated, and I was told the baby was coming in a few hours. I threw the hazmat suit over my hospital gown, and I stood in the hospital room making the floral arrangement, stopping every few minutes for a contraction.
My team member was connecting with me by phone, and every time I went into a contraction, she would stop and breathe with me.
Word got around the hospital that there was a woman making floral arrangements while in labor. Nurses started walking by my room, or knocking to see if they could come in to see if it was true.
I got the arrangement done. I tore off the hazmat suit and got back to birthing my baby.
I had been terrified about having a third child while in such a critical time of my company, but I didn’t want to resent my company for making me pick between it and the family I also really wanted. What I learned from this experience is that we have internal reserves of strength that we can draw on. When we think we are doing everything, there is often another idea or another way to reach the goal. And most of the goals worth achieving are on the other side of what looks impossible — like making arrangements in a hospital while in labor. While terrifying and awful at the time, moments like these are gifts because they help us realize, when things get rough, that we have so much more within us to overcome the challenge.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I cannot stress enough how much I believe in mentorship, though I also cannot stress enough how much I believe in the importance of good mentorship. I don’t think we talk enough about what makes a great mentor. Great mentorship can change lives, and mentors have changed mine. A bad mentor can do more harm than good.
While I was still a stay-at-home mom, living in a tiny apartment in the Chicago suburbs. I got up early one morning and sat staring into the night wondering why my dreams were not happening. I had done everything the books said I should do. I’d even become an early morning riser! I realized I needed the support of mentors, but I wasn’t sure anyone would want to spend time with me. I didn’t think that I was serious enough as an entrepreneur or that my dream was worth someone else’s time.
I was determined to succeed, though, so I signed up for some mentorship programs. When I was accepted to Chicago Innovation’s Women’s Mentoring Co-op, my business started to move forward. I also began to research, find, and reach out to individuals that I thought could help me learn. I would figure out my weak spots and my areas where I had a strength worth developing, and I looked for people who could support this growth.
Since then, my mentors have included John Higginson, former CTO of FTD and now CTO of Groupon,Tim Grace, the former CPO of TrunkClub, Tim Storm, the former founder of Fat Wallet, Aimee Daniels, Vistage Master Chair, Troy Hennikoff, the former CEO of OneWed and now partner at MATH Ventures, Leslie Vickrey, the founder of ClearEdge Marketing, and Harry Gottlieb, the founder of Jellyvision and Jack Box. I also have some amazing mentors in Rockford, Illinois from the manufacturing and business side, including Gloria Pernacciaro, former President of Reliable Machine, Duane Wingate, founder of Ingenium, and Jim Keeling, a Partner at Hinshaw and Culbertson.
I believe that actively and authentically seeking mentors is one key reason I was able to raise a seed round successfully. Most of my investors started as mentors. Some of my mentors also introduced me to people who became investors.
Being a successful entrepreneur requires the ability to adapt and change constantly, and that’s hard. I believe great mentors get your vision and are able to help you set your eyes on the next bit of horizon when you can’t see through the fog anymore. There are not enough imaginary pages in Google sheets to capture all the ways my mentors have helped me achieve this, such as when one said: “You’re ready to literally get out of the basement and find yourself an amazing space.” Or when another mentor told me that I had to stop living in survival mode and believe in abundance.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Your question acknowledges the fact that there often are negative consequences to innovation and disruption. Virtual engagement, for example, has revolutionized how humans connect and given us many more ways of communicating. On the flip side, about 40% of Americans report being lonely and suicide rates keep rising. Is this a deeply negative consequence of something that has also been amazing for humans? Possibly.
I think disruption is an overall positive when the change is in service to others. Focusing on the customer means that the wellbeing of others is at the heart of your business. When that happens, you accept that you are never finished. Your products or services may have consequences that you absolutely must address. That requires a sense of humility and an openness to keep innovating. If you can keep that vulnerability and a relentless focus on the customer, you might be able to minimize any of the less desirable consequences of innovation. You’ll recognize the complexity of change.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- “Talent to the task.” Hiring well was the hardest thing when starting my business, and I was slow to get it right. I eventually started to hire people that I just thought would be great for our culture and our team, and then figured out how they’d fit into it. This was inspired by an investor and mentor, Gloria, who told me: talent to the task.
- “Don’t launch until you get your product right.” This advice went in the face of a lot of advice out there, but my mentor, Harry Gottlieb, was adamant. We tested so many ways of presenting our product that I’ve lost count. Nothing felt quite right. But then all of these ideas and bits of feedback from testers started to come together, and I knew we’d gotten it right.
- “There is always a solution. The question is if you’re willing to pay the price.” I have always had a fear of not having enough money. After all, I’ve heard over and over that most companies fail because they lack enough funding. That advice helped me remember that I’d bailed myself out of so many scrapes and ulcer-inducing situations that I knew with certainty I could always find a solution.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We’re really interested in how we can take our personalization experience further, leveraging AI to provide even more ideas and direction to users when it comes to the right message and style that is right for them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Early on, I faced a number of people who assumed I was not a serious entrepreneur because I was a Mom. One influential lawyer in the business called my business a “mommy business” (which he did not mean as a good thing). I also know it is a lot harder to raise money. I believe that I succeeded because I only needed to raise about $300,000. If I had asked for a million dollars, I don’t know that I would have been as successful. There are some benefits to this. I couldn’t afford to take any really big risks, so I only made mistakes that cost me a few thousand dollars. However, not being able to take those risks limited my hiring choices and changed the trajectory of my business.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Early in my journey, I read Dame Stephanie Shirley’s Letting Go. It is an amazing book. Shirley came to the UK from Germany as a child refugee and started one of the first software companies in the 1960s in England. She hired stay-at-home mothers — she was one of the first entrepreneurs to think of alternative ways to build a staff. She also had a son who had nonverbal autism at a time when not much was known about it, and writes about how she built her business from inside hospital rooms.
Shirley had people steal clients, her marriage suffered, and she faced terrible pain. Still, she helped a lot of people along the way. After changing how companies work, she was at the forefront of thinking of new ways of supporting children with autism.
More than any other book, Stephanie Shirley’s felt truly honest about the price of working toward a dream. She helped me see in another story what I felt in my own: that often the hardest, darkest parts happen right before something big and wonderful is about to happen. She describes deciding to wear a fur coat to feel the promise of success when she really wanted to sell it as she was so broke, of working through vacations at the expense of family time, and the impact her work and focus had on personal relationships. I faced each of these moments and decisions. Her book helped me recognize these terrifying decisions (and socially “unacceptable” ones to some degree) as part of the process.
She gave me a role model of learning to be okay with the struggle and to really be willing to invest completely in my goal. During some really lonely moments when I wasn’t sure if I could get us to the next level, I would go and sit in my closet on the floor away from kids and employees and everyone else. And I would replay her story in my mind as a technique to remind myself that this is part of the process. I would stay there as long as I needed, and then I’d get up and go back to work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)
Early in building my business, I interviewed the first florist in Mogadishu, Somalia in over 20 years. He was flying flowers in from Nairobi because there were literally no flowers left in his country. He believed that if more people saw real flowers, it would help the healing process after 20 years of civil war.
This was a city where electricity was regularly unavailable, but he believed that flowers could help build a future of peace. People started to buy his flowers, especially on Valentine’s Day, which was an illegal holiday. He also started to work with orphans planting flower gardens in this city, until a band of terrorists tracked him down and killed him. The youth of Somalia rose up in protest against his death and that nothing was done about it.
When I had interviewed him, I asked him if he was afraid. He said that he did get scared, but he was determined to stay because he felt he was making a difference.
He was the first person in the industry I met who shared my belief that the meaningful nature of flowers themselves was something humans needed. I think about Mouhammed every single day and how he thought a flower was worth his life.
When people buy flowers on our site, they are encouraged to write a personal note that expresses how the floral meanings capture how they feel.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” — Anais Nin.
This has been a favorite quote long before I was even in the flower business. I love it because I think it captures the weirdly awful experience of growth and reaching for what you want. Getting what you want involves a lot of coaxing and often uncomfortable pushing toward your heart’s desire.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can follow our company @floracracy on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. They can also join our email address on www.floracracy.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!