An interview with Phil La Duke
Turning down business is ok. When I started, I took any and all business that came my way. While it helped me establish L+P as I grew the brand, I started to understand that I can pick and choose projects that excite me or appeal to me aesthetically (or financially).
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Williamson. Margaret, Creative Director and Lead Designer, founded Leaf + Petal in 2015. Leaf + Petal is a floral design studio based in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans that offers beautiful custom florals for weddings and corporate events. Their floral work has been published in various web and print publications, including Vogue, Style Me Pretty, and Green Wedding Shoes. Leaf + Petal has also partnered with major corporations and celebrities for events and weddings, including Mary J. Blige, Town & Country Magazine, and the BBC. Prior to starting Leaf + Petal, Margaret worked in the fashion industry as director of PR & marketing for various showrooms based in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Upon relocating to New Orleans, she decided to pursue her interest in floral design and received her floral license. After gaining valuable experience through working with established florists, she opened the doors to her own studio. Margaret lives in New Orleans with her husband, who is an attorney, two pugs, and a kitty. In her spare time, which is unfortunately limited, she enjoys gardening and cock-tailing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Margaret! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m from Fort Worth Texas, grew up in the same house until college at TCU (also in Fort Worth), so I guess I didn’t stray far from home. My parents divorced when I was young and I grew up with my mom, who’s an interior designer, so it was a very creative household. I moved to New Orleans about five years ago.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
When I was in Texas, I worked as the Director of PR/Marketing for a fashion showroom in Dallas. I’ve always had a passion for flowers, and totally randomly (in the like 8 hours I had off during the week) I decided to sell flowers at a small farmers market during one summer on the weekends. And I was completely terrible at it, but the ‘ah-ha’ moment was when I realized that regardless of how bad I was at figuring cost vs selling price, or knowing anything about flowers in general, I loved doing it. It was at that point that I decided instead of quitting I would immerse myself.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I don’t know that it was my idea of being a florist that overcame the challenge, but more the fact that New Orleans is an event industry-driven city. Tourism is a crazy lucrative business here, which in turn feeds the corporate event and wedding industry. I think I happened to create Leaf + Petal at a time that capitalized on that. It was more fortuitous than anything else. That, and I make a mean bouquet.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
It’s scary, I remember being on the fence before I finally decided to create Leaf + Petal. I had been going back and forth for a while more so over the fact I was concerned about not having enough experience on the floral side, and even less so on the business side. I think having a hobby you love is wonderful, but it’s the business side that I think people are unprepared for. That, and the amount of work it takes to get it off the ground. But I will say that you can’t half-ass it; I had tried to kind-of start and to lightly test the waters. It was finally throwing myself into it that enabled me to turn a floral hobby into a career.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
That made me laugh. I actually hadn’t heard that before, but if that isn’t the truth. It’s funny because some days at the studio I look around and think about how lucky I am to love what I do so much. Then there are days it feels like my own personal prison. I think regardless of what a well-adjusted person you are and how much you love what you do, it’s bound to get to you. I would say drinking wine helps, but also that I’m fortunate that every week we do something different. Every wedding we do has a different vision and design, so that keeps me on my toes. It keeps work fresh and interesting. I hear some people take a vacation.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Definitely what I enjoy most is the freedom and the creation of vision. I have a vision of what Leaf + Petal is and I love continually working towards that. I love that it’s always evolving as we evolve as a business. I love the freedom of creating my own hours and being my own boss.
But on the opposite standpoint of all that is that this rests on my shoulders. If I make the wrong decision, it not only affects me but the business and employees I care about. For me, the downsides are the stress and then maybe compound that with a little bit more stress. Owning a business is hard because you never know what the future holds. I can’t overcome that, and it’s scary. All I can do is work hard and hope that what we create at Leaf + Petal speaks for itself.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
There are not strong enough words to describe the actual amount of work. When I tell people what I do, the response is always, “Oh my gosh, how fun!,” which is (very) nice but I think people are envisioning me doing nothing besides sitting in a studio being all creative with beautiful flowers strewn about (which was what I was kind of expecting when I started). I would say there’s just as much planning, office work, production, designing, and aspects of maintaining the business as there are flowers. But I love it. Even the stressful stuff.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Fortunately, no. I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get to it. Makes me a little apprehensive.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think in any industry that is so deeply involved in customer service, you’re going to get a lot of weird requests. If there’s something I have learned in the last four years, it’s that people are weird. Like really weird and I absolutely love it. It keeps my email inbox interesting. From people asking if I have any dead cats to use as wedding decor (the answer is no) or a woman wanting me to decorate her naked body with flowers (also was a no but more because I was busy and couldn’t–I was intrigued to see exactly what the final outcome was going to be with that one). But yeah, all sorts of weird shit. It’s great.
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?
I can’t think of any funny mistakes, per se, but I can easily think of many general mistakes. I learned from all of them. When I was looking to start L+P but didn’t want to invest in coolers yet (that straddling the fence thing), I kept flowers in an extra fridge we had. I would have to buy extra because they always froze. Always. When I started I had NO idea of what people charged for service fees (think delivery, etc), so I would basically drive all over the state for $15. $15!!! Gives me heart palpitations just thinking about it.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
While there are so many people that inspire me on a daily basis, the one that inspires me to be a better leader is my mom. I mentioned she was a single mom and she single-handedly worked hard to give me an amazing life. She’s a daily inspiration of strength that I work hard to emulate.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Leaf + Petal works with several charities in New Orleans annually. Being able to donate, even sometimes only on a small scale, helps.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Hours can be long. When I started, to keep costs down I was my only employee. Well me and my husband who worked for free. I worked seven days a week, but on Saturdays I could work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. But, you just do it because you don’t really have another option.
- The amount of stress involved is absolutely nuts. While there’s a general understanding that having a business is stressful, it can be oppressive at times. I’ve been in business for four years now and have mellowed out a little. But I swear those first two years almost broke me.
- Turning down business is ok. When I started, I took any and all business that came my way. While it helped me establish L+P as I grew the brand, I started to understand that I can pick and choose projects that excite me or appeal to me aesthetically (or financially).
- You can’t do everything yourself. While it started that way to keep the lights on, about two and a half years ago I hired our first actual employee (shout out Leah) and have slowly released the tight grip of control (Leah might argue that).
- Not everyday is a smorgasbord of creativity. Today, I started at 6:30 am and it’s now 4:50 pm and I’ve been sitting in front of this computer all day. I’m a florist that hasn’t seen a flower all day.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. 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.
When I was growing up in Texas, I worked at a ballet studio. The woman who owned it was in her early 80’s then, and had started it in her twenties. When I worked there, every year she worked relentlessly to bring ballet into communities that didn’t have ballet programs. It was showing these young people that would otherwise never get the opportunity to learn the beauty of ballet. I’ve always looked back on that, and while she might not have been out there feeding the masses, she was giving back in the best way she knew how. She believed everyone in the world should have the opportunity to have exposure to dance.
I’ve always felt the industry that I work in is obviously limited to the people that can afford the luxury. So while I can’t do a lot of things, I can make some great florals. For me, maybe not so much a movement but being able to give back to people that would not normally have the luxury of being exposed to flowers and learning floral techniques.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I always think of this with each milestone and/or hurdle that gets accomplished. It keeps me grounded in thinking when I get apprehensive about large projects or doing something we haven’t done before.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Anna Wintour. I want her to hire me for the next Met Gala. And you can’t not respect her. #ladybossgoals
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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