When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.
Celebrations can be stressful — but they don’t have to be, insist celebrity party planners Sara Raffa and Linden Ellis. The co-founders were working together at a food delivery company, Daily Harvest, when they discovered their shared love of throwing parties. Together, the duo decided to launch Coterie, an online party supply company, with the goal of transforming the hosting experience and making entertaining so much less stressful. With Coterie, beautifully designed party essentials — everything from tableware to room decor —is available in a click.
Here, Raffa and Ellis chat with Thrive about the power of putting things in perspective, and why they never miss a chance to celebrate the small stuff.
Thrive Global: What gives you energy?
Linden Ellis: Outdoor activities! Beautiful places, endorphins, vitamin A are all incredibly rejuvenating.
TG: What’s your secret life hack?
Sara Raffa: My bedtime alarm! It goes off every night — Sunday through Thursday — to remind me to start getting ready for bed. I’ve been doing this for years, and now it’s actually a part of the Apple clock, which makes it even easier. I used to find that I’d stay up watching TV or doing work, without even realizing how late it had become. The alarm encourages me to stop what I’m doing and get to bed so I get a good night’s sleep, which I need to be fully functioning the next day!
TG: Name a book that changed your life.
LE: The Things They Carried. It’s a memoir of the Vietnam War, but also is a fascinating study of how people remember and the difference between emotional truth and factual truth. It’s one of those books that has stayed with me for years both because of the incredible writing and nuanced depiction of a horrible conflict but also because of the thought-provoking questions it asks of its readers.
TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
SR: We’re pretty good at disconnecting after work. One problem is that I work closely with our factories in China who are just waking up as we are going to sleep, so I definitely have some late nights WeChatting with our Chinese partners. Otherwise, neither of us feels that we have to be attached to our phones at all times. Usually, nothing requires an absolutely immediate response so once I get in bed I don’t think too much about my phone.
TG: How do you deal with email?
LE: Every morning I make sure to get my inbox below 20 before I do anything else. I respond to anything that is urgent and label to-do items. It makes things much more manageable and not as daunting.
SR: Throughout the day, I remind myself that I don’t need to respond to emails right away. If I’m working away on something else, I focus on getting through that project first. It can really ruin productivity if you are constantly looking back and forth to emails. If anything is really urgent, my team and partners know my phone number.
TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
LE: I think entrepreneurs experience mini burnouts frequently. You have really good days and then you have days when nothing is working. You just have to keep forging through and remember that good days usually follow bad ones.
TG: What is your top tip for planning an event without inducing stress?
SR: Delegate and plan ahead. Get your friends or guests to bring items for the party so that you’re not responsible for every little detail. Make big-batch cocktails so that you don’t have to make individual drinks, choose foods that are easier (and just as tasty) to make in large formats, and serve family style!
TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
LE: Failure is how you learn! We fail constantly, usually on a smaller scale but sometimes there are bigger moments! We tried a partnership that we thought was going to be a slam dunk, spent a lot of money on it, and it did almost nothing for us. But we learned a lot from it and have adjusted how we communicate with and market to customers as a result.
TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
LE: “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.” —Jane Eyre
TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?
LE: Make a small to-do list. Nothing is more overwhelming than a to-do list with 50 items. I make a list of the three to five most urgent tasks and leave the other gazillion minor tasks for another day.
SR: I add checkboxes to my to-do list so that I can check off each task as it’s done. It’s surprisingly motivating!
TG: What’s your personal warning sign that you’re depleted?
SR: I have trouble focusing! Usually a good sign I need to step back, take a coffee break or get a good night’s sleep.
TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?
LE: Work out, get enough sleep, and eat right. I feel stress very physically so making sure I take care of my body is crucial. These steps are also very tangible and actionable so making those adjustments doesn’t add to my stress and actually diverts my attention towards a more thoughtful mind space.
TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?
LE: I organize my bookshelf. I love to read and I find it very relaxing to revisit the books I’ve loved and queue up books to read next. I’ll shift books around based on color or theme, read a few pages here and there, and remember all the amazing stories.
SR: Cooking! I love spending time in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. And I always feel better when I cook my own healthy dinner or treats!
TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?
SR: Reframe it to be solution-oriented thinking. Negative thinking is simply not helpful in any situation. So instead of dwelling on what has gone wrong we really try to shift quickly into problem-solving mode. Easier said than done of course but focusing on how to tackle obstacles is not only better for business, but it also helps preserve my sanity!
TG: What brings you optimism?
LE: The ability to learn and evolve. Especially when things are not going as well as we would like, it’s best to reframe the scenario as what we can learn and how we can move forward. There is always something to be learned and things you can do to adapt.
SR: For me, optimism is all about putting things in perspective. We’re selling party supplies, not curing cancer (although, we are trying to do our part with our Not Today, Cancer Set, which also brings a sense of optimism). No matter what is going wrong, it’s good to remember how fortunate we are to be running such a fun company!
TG: In your business you have to deal with a lot of different personalities. How do you handle difficult or combative people?
LE: The best way to deal with different personalities is to not take anything personally and try to understand what they’re trying to achieve. Everyone has different styles of communicating but if we’re all working towards the same goal then it just takes a bit of listening to turn what might seem like a combative response into a constructive conversation. There have definitely been times where we’ve had disagreements with external parties but firmly believe in not burning any bridges and working with these people/companies to mutually decide on a way forward.
TG: At Coterie, you believe the people are what make the party. What people inspire you and help you thrive?
LE: Friends and family. We both have an incredible group of friends and family from various walks of life who have supported us from day one by showing up to events, ordering when they really didn’t need anything, and spreading the word. Getting together with our friends is a huge part of our lives outside of work. From Sara’s book clubs to my annual Friendsgiving, the parties we’ve thrown and the fun we’ve had with these friends are major inspirations for Coterie.
TG: Your mission is simple: More good times. What is your definition of a good time and how can we have more of them?
SR: Our definition of a good time is when you’re surrounded by people you love. We can make these times happen more often by embracing moments when there isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. Any moment can be turned into a party — you don’t need a ton of people, you don’t need to get all the decorations right, you just need your people.
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