Genae Griffin, Shay Ingersoll, and Ashley Holloway (pictured left to right) founded Aglow Event Styling in June 2018. The team spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about their startup experience and why they emphasize relationship building.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. When and why did you launch?
SHAY INGERSOLL: We officially launched in June 2018, but the ideation phase began in January 2018. Ashley, Genae, and I have always been creative, and we were independently working on our own initiatives. Ashley kind of pushed us to do something as a group, because we had that synergy.
We went through a few different ideas and then it clicked. Ashley and Genae were planning my 30th birthday. I really wanted to have a flower wall at my birthday party, and I wanted to know if we could do it ourselves. I also thought it would cost a lot to buy the materials and put the wall together, so maybe we could DIY it and rent it out to others. Then we all realized: Maybe this is what we could do as a business together.
NAN: You’re all coming together as creative mindsets. Does anyone have a business background?
ASHLEY HOLLOWAY: I’ve always been in the creative space. I went to college for fashion merchandising and business management. I always thought I was going to be doing something with fashion or design and then I got to the point where I was more interested in that merchandising aspect—getting the look of a store together, which ties into what we’re doing with event styling.
GENAE GRIFFIN: I’ve always had a passion for party decor. I started by planning and decorating my daughter’s birthday parties six years ago. I specifically love doing treat/cake table setup. I started by using YouTube to research ideas and teach myself how to make treats, favors, and balloon decor.
SHAY: I had a sole proprietorship called contribeaution, which I considered my hobby business. The name was a play on words with contribute and beauty. I hosted events for women where I’d collect donations and give money from ticket sales to local shelters. To supplement that, I started selling hats with phrases on them. I opened an Etsy shop, but it became another thing where it was good as a hobby, but it wasn’t good as a business.
I believe you shouldn’t do something if you don’t feel passionate about it. So, I kept the Etsy shop open, but I wasn’t pursuing it the same way I would if it was a full-blown business. Things had slowed down with contribeaution and I closed the sole proprietorship and was waiting for my next thing. I was thinking of starting a planning business when we came up with the idea for Aglow.
Also, I’ve had that business mindset and liked putting systems and processes in place ever since I was a child. I didn’t go to school for business, but I’m driven to figure things out, whether it’s learning to DYI by watching something on YouTube or just doing research. And I’ve enjoyed the process of putting our systems in place together. For example, we used Squarespace to build our website from ground up and we all had to learn how to use it.
NAN: Your startup is less than a year old. How have you evolved since you launched?
ASHLEY: At the time, we only planned to create and rent out flower walls. The business has grown quickly, which we didn’t expect. We’ve added in balloon designs and specialty signage. Shay has taken on learning laser cutting and hopes to become skilled in screen printing and embroidery as well.
GENAE: Once I taught myself how to do balloon arches and columns, people took notice. I would get hired by friends and family to decorate their events with balloons. Shortly after we launched Aglow, we decided to offer balloon décor. Adding in greenery and flowers to the balloons gives it a signature Aglow touch!
NAN: Who is your target clientele and how are you marketing?
ASHLEY: So far, our marketing has mainly been word-of-mouth. We work with wedding planners to arrange the styling for their events. We also have corporate clients and we target bridal showers, baby showers, birthday parties, retirement parties—really any event where a centerpiece is needed.
Our goal is to reach more wedding clients, which is our biggest demographic. We plan to attend some bridal expos this year. Last year, a couple rented one of our flower walls for their wedding. They also had a photo booth company that used our flower wall as a backdrop. The photo booth company later reached out and said they were working at a bridal expo and would love to use our flower wall as their backdrop again. So, they got us some exposure by bringing our wall to the event. That was great, but we want to get even more exposure and make sure we show our faces at these events.
NAN: What’s your biggest startup challenge?
ASHLEY: Funding is always a challenge. Soon after we launched, we knew we wanted to grow our inventory—and we needed more money to do more things. We did a mini crowdfunding event where we hosted an open house so people could come see what we do. We got some donations, but other than that, we haven’t really tapped into a legitimate funding source. That’s on our plate for 2019.
Although we aren’t event planners, we want to put on a couple events like our open house so people can see what we actually do. With that in mind, our one-year business anniversary falls on National Rosé Day in June. We’re planning to host a big rosé party to help spread the word about our business and bring something fun to Connecticut.
SHAY: I think our biggest challenge right now is the way in which we labor. Our business is very hands-on. And we’re creating a lot of different things now, so we have inventory in each of our homes. Our floral walls are huge and we’re running out of space! Being a new company, we want to keep our operating costs low because money is up and down. We can have 10 bookings one month and two the next. But we’re going to eventually need a space where we can build, store materials, and do our administrative tasks. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have a set place.
A big part of the client relations piece is interacting with people. So, we want the workspace to be a space where we can be building in the back and meet with people in the front. We also sell merchandise, so it would be good to have a space for people who come pick up their orders.
GENAE: Time is also a challenge for us. We all have full-time responsibilities outside of Aglow. We are moms, we work full time, and life gets busy! I think we’ve done a great job thus far managing our time and utilizing our resources to stay on top of things. In the near future, we see our business growing, so I’m confident that the sacrifices, booked weekends, and busy days will pay off.
NAN: In terms of other challenges is there anything you wish you had done differently starting out?
ASHLEY: It’s been less than a year. We’ve gone through trial and error just building our walls—we realized after we build them that they needed to be a portable. We’ve grown fairly quickly and grown wiser at the same time. So, I wouldn’t change anything. I think it’s going on the perfect path to making sure we’re doing things correctly.
SHAY: I agree 100%. Trial and error are embedded in everything we do, whether it’s physical labor or the backend stuff. We’ll be using a system—or maybe three systems—to develop something and then we find out we can simplify it. We’ve wasted some money and time, but it’s really not a waste because we really wouldn’t have known otherwise.
You can’t really go online and search for “how to start a flower wall business.” People can’t really conceptualize what it is that we do. It’s new for us, too but I have no problem navigating our own way and doing trial and error every day. I actually enjoy it.
GENAE: I agree with the Ashley and Shay. The three of us move quickly, sometimes without thinking things through fully because we get excited about our ideas. I feel that all our “errors” to date were necessary in the learning process.
NAN: Are there other local startups or entrepreneurs you can reach out and ask questions?
SHAY: We met as a team at the end of 2018 and set some goals for 2019. One of the big ones is relationship building—doing things like reaching out the YUPntwk and connecting with Innovation Destination Hartford. And learning about those resources, really getting out there and introducing ourselves. Because, since we’ve launched, we’ve been building by making props and doing bookings. Now we have to step back and work on the business side of things.
NAN: It’s learning to work on your business not just in your business.
SHAY: Exactly. So, through relationship building, we’ve met a ton of people who provide advice that’s universal and we can apply to our business. And because those connections are so important to us, in the beginning of the year we hosted a luncheon and invited other creatives who do blogging, videography, or modeling. We went around the room and asked them about their challenges and what they’re excited about. There were similarities and things we could apply to our business. But eventually, for the technical questions—contracts, business taxes, LLC—we’re going to need a business coach because we’re scaling a lot faster than we thought we would.
NAN: Speaking of relationship building, I want to talk about the YUPntwk, which is how we connected.
SHAY: Yes, we appreciate that Mallory Mason connected us! We follow YUPntwk on social media. I saw that they’re a hub, kind of like Innovation Destination Hartford. YUPntwk is connected with a lot of different entrepreneurs at a lot of different events, that’s why I reached out to them.
When I reached out, my intention was to find an organization that hosts a heavy foot traffic event where we could sponsor a wall to get some exposure. But I was surprised when I met with Mallory and she asked: What can I do for you? I wasn’t prepared for that! I was planning to offer something, and I walked away getting so much from that connection.
Meeting with Mallory was amazing. She gave me so much insight. We talked about legal issues surrounding our rental contracts, marketing, and public relations—because right now our audience is pretty much people who know us, so we need to reach beyond that. To meet someone for the first time and have them already be invested in our brand and validate what we are doing was invigorating.
NAN: I love hearing stories like that! Aside from planning a physical space, any future goals?
SHAY: Yes. Eventually we want to get to the point where we’re so booked that we’ll need employees—people to do the set up so we can step back out of the business and do the behind-the-scenes work. Right now, we’re focusing on making more connections and getting the word out.