CHICAGO – In 2014, Sarah-Eva Marchese had a vision for a whole new kind of floral company. But to attract the capital investment she needed, she sought the advice of a tech guru.
Female entrepreneurs face an uphill road getting investment. In 2017 only about 2 percent of venture capital had gone to female founders, even though female-founded startups are no less successful when funded. “In the male-dominated online floral industry there had never been significant capital investment in any female-founded or female-led company as of that time, based on information available to me,” Sarah-Eva recounted.
Marchese didn’t want any technical deficiency to derail Floracracy’s chances to do something big. She sought a technology and business guru to help give her answers to questions like whether the company would be better off as a corporation or LLC, where it should be incorporated and headquartered, and how the board and bylaws should be organized, so that she would be able to justify any of these decisions to investors.
But when she actually got to meet with this guru, he had other things on his mind. “He steered the conversation to telling me that I needed to make a decision whether to be what he called a ‘mommy business’ or to get a nanny and take my work seriously,” said Marchese. “It was a first-person glimpse into the attitudes that result in minimal investment into companies founded by women and the culture that can discourage women from even attempting to enter the space.”
Marchese used the encounter as fuel to keep going. “I decided I didn’t want anyone like that telling me how to run my business or live my life. They don’t have a monopoly on what success looks like or how it has to be achieved.”
Today, Marchese may be the first woman to successfully raise money for a company in the online flower space. Her company, Floracracy, is built on the vision of doing something big. “We give flowers at the biggest moments: weddings, funerals, ‘thank-yous,’ ‘I’m-sorrys,’ ‘I-love-yous,’ births, coming of age … the flowers we give should be big too,” she said.
Rather than sell premade arrangements, the company has developed a software platform. Floracracy Studio empowers people to design arrangements themselves, in their own style, even if they have no floral knowledge to start. The experience someone receives opening the arrangement is completely new, starting with what they call their “gated” box experience.
And for every arrangement sold, flowers are given to someone in need of a little bigness in their life. The company has a robust Corporate Responsibility Program, inspired by Sarah-Eva’s former life in the field of international relations. The company’s initiatives include planting flowering fruit trees in Haiti and regularly placing flowers in the rooms at domestic violence shelters.
“I was the least likely person to ever start a flower company,” Marchese said, “or so I thought. My area of study was peacebuilding, and I assumed that’s where I’d spend my career.”
That all changed when she got engaged in 2011 and stumbled on the strange world of flowers. A $105 billion global industry that, at least in the US, still employed technology from the ‘80s and ‘90s and had a reputation for customer dissatisfaction.
“Its problems fascinated me. I experienced firsthand how hard it is to be a part of the design process. But in the end, that’s not what has inspired me. I fell in love with what flowers do for the human spirit. Researchers are actually beginning to discover a complex, entirely unique connection between humans and flowers — one that gives us positive emotions when we simply engage with them. They are, in my mind, the ultimate peacebuilders, and I want to help as many people as possible connect with their potential in their lives in big ways. It meant we had to do things differently. We had to make flowers personal and surprising.”
Floracracy is set to begin beta testing in Chicago later this summer, but already industry leaders are beginning to take note, including the former CTO of FTD John Higginson, the $1.2 billion revenue leader in the online flower space. Having built a customization tool while at FTD, he was uniquely poised to understand what this type of tool could do for people wanting a more authentic way of relating to the flowers they buy. After working with the team for months as an advisor, he joined the team as an investor and board member.
“The team is doing amazing things with Floracracy and injecting spirit and emotion into an industry that has largely forgotten about it,” said Higginson. “This is the first company in this space that I was excited about and felt had the potential for me to invest in. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
And Marchese continues to do it on her terms. Floracracy has offices in Rockford and Chicago where it is beta testing this summer. Individuals are invited to join the waiting list at floracracy.com (shipping in Chicago only).