This week, I’m excited to roll out a new feature on our blog. Every other week we will tell the stories of freelancers, small business owners, and startup founders who have been a part of our business accelerators. Whether you’re thinking about getting started or have been in business for a while, we hope that you find inspiration in their entrepreneurial journeys.
For our first post, I had the honor of interviewing Ariana Marbley, Founder & CEO of Esscents of Flowers, an Oakland-based floral business. Esscents of Flowers currently runs a pop-up shop and provides floral arrangements for special events. Through Esscents of Flowers, Ariana is sowing back into the community with a youth training program to support young ladies in learning job skills and building confidence. In this interview, Ariana shares how the seeds of her idea have grown into an operating business over the last year.
Where did your passion for starting a floral business come from?
My grandfather, who I considered to be more like a father, grew up on a farm. After he moved to California, he continued planting and put a garden in the back of the house where he grew tomatoes, corn, different leafy greens, and other vegetables. When I was younger, I had been asking him to help me start a garden, too. One year, he came over and we started a garden my backyard. It was a significant experience for me to be with him and plant the garden, and then to see it come to life and also see how others benefitted from it. While I enjoyed planting different greens and other vegetables, I became drawn to the beauty of flowers – their different textures and colors, and what I could do with the arrangements to brighten up a space.
I have to ask you this question. When I first chatted with you about joining Uptima, you told me your plan was to complete our program and, in a couple of years, start your business. I understand your plans quickly changed. What happened?
It’s funny. I know this is always going to be our story, “Hey Ariana, what happened to your two-year plan?” I’m big on planning, writing things down, and then sticking to the plan. However, after starting the first module of Uptima, I was asking myself, “What is keeping you from taking the next step? Why can’t you do this now?” I couldn’t answer those questions.
I realized my hesitation came from fear of stepping out and creating my own business, and that I had the power to reframe that.
I worked on turning my thoughts into “There’s nothing stopping me. I can start this now. Maybe, I can start with a pop-up shop.” And, it progressed quickly from there.
How were you able to reframe your thoughts from “I can’t because…” to “I’m going to do this”?
I think there were a couple of things. Being involved in the Uptima accelerator helped. It helped me see my idea outside of my head by putting it down on paper. Also, having the community of people around me to support that process was huge. Many people with ideas tell themselves or hear from other people that “you’re crazy!” or “why would you do that?” That’s what I was dealing with. I work at a pretty stable job, and it provides money every two weeks that I count on, especially with a family. Without the support and encouragement, it would have been easy to fall back into the security of doing what was expected. The program helped me see that I needed to bring this out into the world.
I also have two little boys. It’s important for me to show them that they can carve out their own pathway. I want them to understand that they can absolutely think of something in their beautiful minds and bring it out into the world. And, they can find a way to put it all together and turn it into a business. It is something I can give them.
How did you feel doing your first pop-up? And, how do you feel when you do pop-ups now?
I was so nervous leading up to the first scheduled pop-up. Then, the date I scheduled got rained out, so I had to cancel it and go through the whole process again. But, it gave me a couple of weeks to spend more time getting organized and making sure I had everything I needed. I realized I had missed some important things like shade for the flowers, and I had time to buy a canopy. Then, soon enough the date rolled around and this time, there was no raincheck. I remember the morning of April 2, 2016, I went to the flower market and drove back the to the Laurel District, put in my earphones, turned up some music, and just started setting up. By 8 o’clock, I was ready to start. And, people started coming to buy flowers! I was expecting to be there, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting anyone would purchase anything. But, they did. That was a good feeling. After about the first hour or so, I started to feel like I was in my groove, and there was a line of people waiting to buy flowers.
Now, my nerves have subsided. I still have the same process. I’ll get my flowers, set up, have my music playing. And since I’ve done the pop-ups so regularly, there are now people who are expecting me to be there. If I miss a Saturday because of rain or something else, they’ll say, “Oh, we missed you, we wanted to replenish our flowers.”
Now, I feel proud because what I’m providing is needed in the community. That’s a feeling I didn’t know or didn’t think was possible.
You had a setback with the pop-ups over the last year. How did you handle that setback and get your business back on track?
When I started, I had an agreement with a local business in the Laurel District to pop-up in front of their place of business. For the past 20-30 years, the Laurel District didn’t have a floral business, so I had a great opportunity in my own neighborhood. Everything was perfect for the first few months. Then, a new florist entered the Laurel District, and she was splitting a brick-and-mortar store with someone else. By that time, I had built up a loyal customer base and people were expecting my pop-up on the sidewalk. Perhaps because my business was cutting into her profits and she was tied to the community by having a physical space, I was asked to leave.
I sat with it. I sulked a bit. I spent so much time on figuring out where I was going to hold the pop-up and did market research in that specific area. I felt like I had put in so much work, and it was all for nothing – in one swoop it was being taken away. And then, I said to myself “That’s enough! You can’t allow this one setback to just shut everything down. This isn’t the end. What are you going to do next?”
After about a week, I went to talk to the other business owners in the Laurel District who had been buying flowers from me. I was being courteous, dropping by to let them know I wasn’t going to be there anymore because I didn’t want them to think I had fallen off the face of the earth. Jason, the owner of The Laurel Cyclery, went to bat for me. He and a few other businesses let me know they appreciated my sidewalk pop-up and what that brought to the neighborhood. Jason offered the space outside his store for me to relocate the pop-up, starting the next Saturday. I maintained my pop-up in the Laurel District, about 5-10 feet down from where I was originally set up. I ended up in a better location because I’m right in front of a parklet where a lot of people sit and wait. I have more visibility with more people who can purchase from Esscents of Flowers. In the end, it worked out better.
That setback further accelerated your plans, too. What’s next for Esscents of Flowers?
Coming into Uptima, I wanted to have a brick-and-mortar store. Traditionally that’s how floral shops operate – there is a storefront, people come in, and they purchase flowers. I had an idea of how I wanted it to look. Then, through some one-on-one mentoring, the concept of a mobile truck came up. I evaluated the concept and determined that it would better serve Esscents of Flowers’ mission. I could take the pop-ups mobile and reach more people in Oakland, particularly in areas with limited access to flowers. Now, our next big step is to purchase and launch a mobile truck. Currently, I’m focused on tightening up the business plan and financials in order seek funding within the next few months.
As you get ready to purchase and launch the mobile truck, what’s your biggest challenge? And, how are you approaching this challenge?
It’s definitely the financials – putting everything down on paper and seeing the number that’s needed to get this off the ground and make it work. It comes back to a personal relationship with money – how I treat money and how I feel money has treated me. And, money is a huge aspect of running a business. I’m retraining my mind to think about, look at, and deal with money differently. When I see that dollar figure, not to be afraid of it, but to understand that’s what it takes to get through to the next step and run this business successfully. It helps me to think about how important Esscents of Flowers is to the community and how important it’s going to continue to be. That supercedes how I feel about money and keeps me pushing forward.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
Part of Esscents of Flowers’ longer-term strategy involves giving back to the community by delivering a youth training program, focused on supporting young ladies in learning basic job skills and building confidence. I’ve been thinking about what I could have benefitted from as a young lady in the inner city. And, I started piloting the training with my niece. She’s been spending time with me at the pop-up. When I first asked her to be a part of it, I could tell she was really nervous. She was worried about what she was going to say when people would come up to her. The first time she came with me, she sat a couple feet back from behind the table. Over the course of a couple of weeks, she started to come out of her shell. By being in this environment and having to fulfill these job requirements, she is developing more confidence. It reaffirmed to me that Esscents of Flowers is capable of giving back to the community in this way.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
I encourage you to step out on that edge and just jump. You have so much to offer the world, and the the world has so much to offer you. When you realize the business is not just about you, it pushes you to do that thing you were meant to do. And then, you can’t turn back.
You have to follow through with that voice that’s telling you to go. Because so many people will benefit from you accepting what your purpose is and following through with it. By operating in your passion, you get a certain kind of joy that you can’t get anywhere else.
You can pick up some beautiful, fresh cut flowers at Esscents of Flowers pop-ups outside The Laurel Cyclery, as well as at Jack of All Trades, Treasure Island Flea and Grand Lake Farmers’ Markets. Or, inquire about how Esscents of Flowers can provide floral arrangements for your next special event. Keep up to date with Esscents of Flowers as they go mobile by following their blog.
So very proud of my niece…she’s an inspiration to us al. Her grandfather, Rev. Frank Gilbert, is beaming as he cheers her on from heaven. Ari is committed, creative and charismatic enough to achieve all of her dreams. She’s exactly the kind of business owner Oakland needs as we try and sustain our traditions…our hear and soul. Please support this dynamic young woman. You won’t be sorry!