109. Working a Job to Finance a Dream Business | Althea Wiles

September 12, 2019

The usual story goes, you graduate from college. Then you land yourself a good job. Then you work yourself up the corporate ladder. At some point, maybe you’ll discover a new interest or rekindle an old passion. When you get brave enough, you decide to give it a go and start a side hustle.

That’s not how it went for Althea Wiles.

While she was in college, she discovered her love for flowers and realized that working around flowers was her dream job.

Not simply as a florist helping build someone else’s business. She wanted her own floral business.

But Althea was (is!) practical. She knew she needed the runway to build her experience and her business from the ground up. So she looked for a regular job with a steady paycheck to give her time and to help finance a dream business.

Today, Althea owns and is the head designer at Rose of Sharon, a floral design studio specializing in weddings and corporate events.

For this series on Side Hustles and Side Gigs, we talked about how she built the business while working her traditional job, the sacrifices she made, and the challenges she faced along the way. We dived into the realities of running a business that required physical space for inventory, and how she’s taking advantage of the technology now to facilitate aspects of her operations.

One thing I took away from our conversation is Althea’s practical and realistic approach. Although the floral shop has been her dream and she was indeed following her passion, she proceeded with a level-headed perspective and firm grasp of the numbers behind the business.

For anybody who wants to pursue their dream and start a side-business, this episode is an excellent primer on what it really takes to get it going.

Highlights of Episode 109:

  • Althea’s practical approach to following her passion
  • How she arranged her schedule with her then-manager to allow her time to build her floral business
  • What steps she took to build her client-base from the ground up while she still had her full-time job
  • How Althea prepared for the day when she would go ‘all in’ on her business
  • It’s not all arranging flowers! What it really means to run a seasonal business
  • Sacrifices and challenges, but it’s all worth it!

Follow Althea Wiles on Instagram or Facebook
Profit First by Mike Michalowicz*
The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks*
Lou Blaser on Twitter

Edited Transcript

Lou Blaser: Althea Wiles. Welcome to Second Breaks. Thank you so much for joining me.
Althea Wiles: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk to you today.

LB: I thought we’d set up our conversation by taking a trip down memory lane, back when you first decided to start your own floral studio.
AW: It actually started when I was in college and I found being a florist by accident. I volunteered at a shop over spring break and absolutely fell in love.

I was studying sociology at that time, and I decided I didn’t want to do anything with that after all. I would rather work with flowers all the time.

The owners of the floral shop were wonderful. They gave me a part-time job and I finished up my college career working part-time at that shop. Then I went to work for another floral shop, and then another one when I moved back to my hometown of Fayetteville.

From the time I started my first part-time job at a floral shop until the time I decided to open my own business, it was about four years. And in those four years, I worked at three shops. In the last shop, I had four bosses in two years, which was not really a good thing.

I had also grown up with my parents who had a small wholesale nursery. So, I grew up seeing my parents work a small business from home. I also saw all the issues and how hard it was but also the benefits of working for yourself.

I think even before I went to college, I knew that I would be self-employed at some point. That was just always something that really fit for me. Even though I could see how hard it would be.

Looking for a job to finance a dream business

So, after four bosses in two years, I was pretty much running the shop by that point. I was the only one there half the time and I had to learn how to do it. I had to make it work.

That’s when I realized I was doing this for somebody else. I could do it for myself.

I’ve always wanted to and that was just the tipping point. So, I decided I’m going to go for it. I’m going to do it myself. I realized that I really like weddings and events over the everyday type of floral design. And so, I decided I would focus on weddings.

I ran the numbers. I didn’t have the experience and I didn’t have the client base to jump into it full time. So, I started looking for a full-time job just to pay the bills.

I ended up being a department secretary for a concrete hand-tools manufacturer. I worked in the mechanical engineering department as an administrative assistant for six years. My boss knew, from the start that I was working towards having my own business. He was very flexible. He let me use my vacation days as time off so that I could work at my weddings. Because with a wedding and floral, you have to do it basically the day before. Or stay up all night designing or both.

So, I would take either Thursday afternoon and Friday off, or just Friday, to design. I never got to take vacations. It was always work even though I was taking off from my full-time job. I was still working on all those days.

LB: So, from the get-go you knew the full-time job was always just a stopgap.
AW: Right. It was a way to pay the bills to get where I needed to be.

LB: We hear this wonderful romantic phrase, “Make your dreams happen”. It’s a rosy-colored statement. And your story is really how you make your dreams happen.
AW: It would have been wonderful to be able to jump in and support myself with just weddings and events at 24 years old from the start. That wasn’t realistic.

LB: It’s interesting that your boss knew. You weren’t hiding it from your bosses.
AW: When I interviewed with him, that was one of the things that I was concerned with. That it would be an issue. And so, I asked him how we could handle that. He said we could use vacation time or personal time. He was very flexible with that. And he also knew that at the time, it wasn’t going to be every weekend. Because I did not have a lot of weddings booked at that time. It grew over the six years, but it wasn’t like I was gone from the job every single Friday.

LB: Did you give yourself some kind of a time frame? Were you thinking, I’m going to do give this 5 or 10 years?
AW: I didn’t have a set time frame. I’m more budget-oriented. So, it was more about when the numbers supported it. I was willing to do it. I knew from experience, from watching my parents, how hard that could be. It’s not just how much you’re bringing in. You’ve got your cost and your overhead and all of that.

So, it wasn’t a specific timeframe but a specific money point. And when that money point came close, I started looking at getting out of my 9-to-5 job. Plus, the job sort of ended and it actually worked out really well. They moved my position to a different location out of state and I was offered the job but I wasn’t willing to move.

It was a really good time. I had done it enough. I had a good history of what my actual costs would be if I was doing this myself and. And the numbers were close enough that it made sense. It was still so very scary to make that jump and go from the full-time paycheck every two weeks to variable income, seasonal income.

“Weddings happen on the weekends”

LB: You were always working then, nights and weekends, and your vacation time. What was that like?
AW: I have never had a point in my life where I had weekends or vacation time. I started working when I was 14. Either I was working full time or I was in school. When I was in college, I was working then as well. I think probably the least amount that I worked was the year right after college.

But by the time that I had started Rose of Sharon, I was the only one there. It was not a good situation. My bosses were not giving me correct breaks or lunches or things like that. I would be there for nine hours with no break. And then if I did a wedding, I was working weddings on the weekends as well.

And then once I went full time with Rose of Sharon, it’s weddings and working for myself. And so again, there was no paid vacation. Weddings happen on the weekends.

I get months or seasons that are slower like July is slow or December might be slow some years. And so, I don’t get to recharge on the weekends. I get to recharge by season. And it’s just always been that way. So, it’s not something that was unusual for me.

LB: Did you take over from one the shops that you were working for before or did you start your own thing?
AW: I started my own.

LB: When you started did you open a shop? Like did you immediately have that overhead cost
AW: The retail version of it? No. I really wanted to do weddings and events. And I also knew that the overhead of a retail shop was a lot. Florists are very similar to restaurants and the types of overhead they have. They have a very high failure rate, especially for the retail brick and mortar type shops.

Since I wanted to do just the weddings, I actually started working at a home studio. That last few months of the admin job when I knew the job was ending, I started looking for a house because I needed to be able to prove my income to be able to finance the house. But I was looking for a place where I could have a home studio.

I’ve had Rose of Sharon for 21 years now and it’s gone through several variations. It started in a small back room while I had a full-time job. Then when I started doing it full-time myself, I had the home studio. I did that for about two years. Then I opened a semi retail place. It was focused on weddings, but I had a place where people could come to me. And then I moved into a bigger retail space and actually had retail hours. That’s the one I just recently moved away from. That was sort of an experiment to see if I still just like the weddings and events or if I wanted to move into some of the retail stuff too.

And no, I don’t. I want weddings and events. I recently moved back to a home studio.

LB: I would imagine because you have a lot of inventory, you have to have a specific place in your home as your creative and inventory space.
AW: Yes, and the temperature control. So, I had to try to have floral coolers and a space for the coolers. And being able to have different temperature controls in different rooms is very important as well.

LB: I’m trying to imagine this time in your life where you had your full-time job and you had your wedding clients. Were you trying to throttle down the number of clients to manage your time?
AW: I was actually trying to build them up. So, this was between 1998 and 2004. The internet was just barely started. No social media.

But during the time that I had a full-time job, I was doing things like advertising in the Yellow Pages. I think I might have had some newspaper ads and some local magazine ads. I also did the wedding shows. So, we’ll have a vendor show for the brides to come through and all the florists and the photographers and everybody had booths. I did that every year.

I was actively trying to build clients. One of the things with wedding clients is you rarely have repeat customers. So almost every wedding that you sell, you’re selling to a new client. You’re constantly starting your funnel. Even if you do have a repeat customer, it’s not a big-ticket repeat. It’s a smaller item type of thing.

Being practical while pursuing a dream

LB: You said that the job was ending because they were moving it to a different location. And that was the point you decided to go all-in with the floral studio business. Were there things you were worried about at that time? What were you thinking about and actively managing in your mind as you made that decision?
AW: Well, surprisingly having a steady income is very important to me and yet, I was willing to give it up. That was probably the hardest thing. Knowing that I was going from my steady paycheck to a variable income. That was scary.

But because I had always planned on this job as being a temporary thing, I had set money aside as much as possible so that when I left the job, I’d have a little bit of a cushion.

I had done the 401K and things like that because I knew as soon as I went self-employed, I was not going to be able to do that for a while. And then I jumped all in and used savings for a little while.

LB: What I’m hearing from you is that a large component of your decision was the financial stability of the business at that point. Did it immediately replace your salary?
AW: No, it did not. It was two years before I could move out of the house. I did not want clients coming to the house for consultations. And so, I had to do coffee shops and things like that. Now I do video consultations. And so even though I’m working from home again, I don’t have clients come or potential clients coming to my house. But at that time, I had to either have them come here or meet them at a coffee shop or go to their house.

And it took a good two years before the finances said I could afford to rent a space to have them come to me. Part of that was I ended up having a couple of very large weddings that gave me a huge infusion of cash. If I had had only small weddings at that time period, it would have taken longer before I could have afforded to have a retail space away from the house.

LB: Let’s talk about the retail store that you opened, which you have since closed. Was that primarily a cost-cutting decision or something else?
AW: Partly cost. There’s a ton of overhead with having a retail space. But it’s also because I didn’t like being tied to retail hours. Or having to have employees there just because I have 9-to-5 listed on Google. I had to have an employee there even if it was July, on a Tuesday and nobody was coming in or calling. I still had to have somebody there.

Weddings have been the area that I loved and the things that were annoying me the most were the retail side of it. And when I looked at the numbers, I realized that it was my least profitable section and the most stressful section. So cutting that was a win-win.

LB: It sounds like it was an easy decision for you to make to cut that out.
AW: Except for I knew that I would be losing a little bit of gross revenue. The profit for those retail items was less than what my profit on a wedding or a funeral or any of those types of events for various reasons. But just knowing that that gross number was going to go down a little bit was a little bit scary.

Taking advantage of technology

LB: I found it interesting when you’re talking about your evolution of the business, that you had taken advantage of what the digital world would allow you to do. For example, online consultations.
AW: Yes, and that was one of the big reasons I was comfortable moving back to working from my personal home. I knew I can still have that boundary, whereas I couldn’t back in 2004 when I did it the first time. But I’ve always been an early adopter of technology. I think if I had not been so completely drawn to being creative and being a florist, I would have ended up in the tech-field.

LB: It sounds like it! Do you find that the brides-to-be are open to having online consultations?
AW: They definitely are. The mothers, who are now my age… When I started, the brides were older than me. Then I was the same age. Now, I’m the same age as their mothers.

The mothers are a little hesitant with the online consultation. But once we get into it, it’s not a problem, but the brides and the grooms themselves, I haven’t had any pushback at all. Actually, that they’re sort of thankful because they don’t have to leave their work or figure out a time to come into town or things like that. They can do it at the lunch break or right after work. And so that’s a lot easier for them

I think online meetings will be more and more accepted and easier to do and expected. I think people having to go to a florist shop is going to become less common. I think catering and cakes will continue because you really do want to taste those. But like I said, you’re not necessarily going to get the flowers that you want for your wedding because I don’t know what you want when we first talk and may not have those in stock no matter what.

Willingness to do what it takes

LB: What have you learned about yourself through all these, having both a full-time job and being able to build your business on the side? Or your experience of just being able to go all-in and fully supporting yourself through your business?
AW: I’ve always known that I wanted to be my own boss and be in charge one way or the other. I really do like working for myself. And I think I’ve proven that to myself over 20-something years now.

I’ll do what it takes. I’ll take a side job if I need to for a season. I had a newspaper route for six months at one point to take care of some debts so I did not have to give up my business and go back to work for somebody else.

I will do those things, even if they’re not glamorous. And there’s security in knowing that I’m willing and can and have done those types of things to make this continue happening.

LB: Thank you for sharing that. That is so critical. This is what it takes to make our dream happen. And there is a cost to whatever career choice we make – whether it’s starting a business or staying on a traditional corporate path.
AW: I have two sisters who are younger than me. One of them said from the very start, that she did not want to ever be self-employed and she has had jobs with various state agencies. She’s always had very secure regular paychecks and good benefits.

And then I’ve my other sister who is very creative and could absolutely be a self-employed artist. She has always done things so that she had a full-time job and sold her art on the side.

Right now, she’s a graphic designer and she sells her various forms of art through shows and things like that, but she needs that balance. She needs that secure check and the ability to be creative.

“It’s not always arranging flowers”

LB: Do you think that having parents who are also entrepreneurs and were also running a small business helped you with your own mindset and your discipline around how you approach your business?
AW: It really did because I was able to see both the benefits how much they got to spend time with their kids. My dad was at every single basketball game that I ever had. He never missed a single game. My mom was home from so when we got home from school, she was always there. It was very obvious that it was because they were self-employed.

But on the flip side, it was not a well-paying self-employed job. And so, my dad would leave for two weeks at a time and go work for his parents in Louisiana. We actually only had Dad home half the time because he was trying to make that paycheck to make this dream a reality for them.

I got to see things like how hard it is to keep good help. When you’ve got a seasonal part-time position, that’s very low paying. As a business owner, you might not have the income to keep an employee through December, when you’ve got no plants growing or being sold, but you need to pay them something so that they’re there in the spring rush.

And also how hard it was taking care of the people that they’ve been close to. When you’ve got six people working for you, it’s family. You want to take care of these people and you want to make sure that their lives are good. But when you’ve got no income, how do you balance that? And so, I saw my mom do that for years and years. Or how she would have somebody that was really great and then move. So you’d go through finding somebody and training somebody and then they leave. It wasn’t always a bad thing that they left but it always was hard on the business.

LB: I didn’t think about that element because I always thought that when you have a seasonal business, you can ramp up your seasonal employees when you need them and then ramp down. But there’s that other side of it, which is the hard part – finding the talent when you have a seasonal business because you can’t hold onto them.
AW: They need a full-time paycheck too. And if your slow time is in the winter, they need something to pay for Christmas. Basically, and so they have to have an income and if you’re their sole source of income, and if you can’t provide that, they’re going to go somewhere else.

Agriculture specifically but floristry as well. We have big seasons, like June. I don’t think I had a week where I worked under 60 hours. July, I was able to take a vacation.

Like I said, I get my brakes for seasons, not weekends. And that’s actually something that’s really difficult for florists to do. They don’t realize that they’re giving up their weekends and their holidays if they go into events. Especially if they’re coming from a corporate job where they’re used to having those weekends off. That’s a huge switch.

We are so conditioned to recover on the weekends. Just sleep late or do family things. Well, that’s when weddings happen. If it’s a busy season, I don’t get a Saturday or a Sunday for me to recover.

There’s something called a wedding hangover. It’s because you’ve worked so hard and didn’t take care of yourself. You’re dehydrated. You’re exhausted. You’ve probably been on your feet for the 15 hours the day before. A lot of times, it’s outside, in the sun. So, the next day, you’re just beat. Even if you have things to do, you’re not necessarily going to be able to do them.

That period can last for six weeks or eight weeks.

And then people think holidays with three-day weekends are great times for weddings because your family can travel, they can come in. Well for the vendors, you don’t get to see your family unless you block that day off. Or say I am not doing a Christmas Eve wedding, or a New Year’s Eve wedding, or Labor Day weekend wedding. You have no holidays.

LB: This is another element of that “following your passion” thing. Because sometimes. we look at the thing that we think we like to do, in the case of a floral studio, you think, “I love flowers and I level arranging flowers.” But doing that means these other things that you’re talking about. This is what it means to actually be doing this dream job. It’s not always arranging the flowers.
AW: We always have people that call or come in and say, “Oh it must be so much fun to play with flowers all day.”

Well, yes it is. But “all day” means all day on Christmas and Christmas Eve. And there’s always a Saturday after Thanksgiving wedding. I think I’ve had one year in 21 where I did not have a Saturday after Thanksgiving wedding.

And there’s also things like you get repetitive motion injuries, like carpal tunnel, because you’d been using scissors for 20 years. Or you’re carrying things you’re supposed to carry close to your body and have it balanced. Well, you can’t carry flowers like that. You have to carry them out and away from your body, otherwise, you’d crush the flowers. So, you get wrist and elbow injuries from those types of things that. Not fun. I mean I can go on and on.

LB: Every job has the part that you love and there’s a part that you like. There’s the painful part or the boring part. Or the part that you wish somebody else could do for you.
AW: Like washing buckets! So many buckets. I mean, I always have buckets to wash.

Book recommendation

LB: What’s a book or two that’s made an impact on you, your career, or your transition?
AW: Profit First. I think that the book reinforces the way that I already thought about money. I’ve always been a budget conscious and things like that, but it gave me a very good framework for how I was doing it and polished it up a little bit. But I think it is a good method for almost any business person so that you’re not hit by big unexpected expenses at you know and not have that saved.

The other one that I really enjoyed, and I’ve read several times is The Big Leap. It’s about overcoming your own obstacles. That’s one book that has helped quite a bit as well.

LB: Where can we find you online?
AW: I am on all the big social media platforms that are visually oriented. Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. My website is https://www.roseofsharon-eventflorist.com/. And then, of course, I have all the social media links on the website as well.

LB: Cool beans. Althea, thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for sharing your career journey with me today.
AW: Thanks for having me.

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