I cannot remember when I first knew this. However, I do remember my brother always telling the story that at the age of 5, I wanted to own my own business. At that time it was a hardware store, later a lumber yard.
Our Dad owned and operated a monument store in a small, rural community in upstate New York. I loved going to work with him. I wanted to learn letter engraving and Dad paid me to cut out obituaries from the newspaper. I got a penny for each one from the local paper and 10 cents from the ‘city’ paper (Schenectady.) At the time I think my allowance was 25 cents so this was big money.
Following the normal accepted career path for women of the 60’s, I set out to be a teacher – physical education. I grew up with a passion to play organized sports, ie back then, largely baseball! This passion transferred over into my first volunteer work. As a young person who loved to organize people and events, I became president of our GAA (Girls Athletic Association) in high school and captain of many of our teams. I fought to get lights on the back road driving up to the school. Many of us walked that way and it was dangerous going home after a late basketball game. I also led the charge when our athletics were threatened by the budget cuts of the late 60’s. We never lost our programs.
My college years and first real job:
In college, this trend continued. I was President of our Sorority House, the WAA (Women’s Athletic Association) and through my leadership in the House, we fired the cook and took over the kitchen. I proved to the Board that it would save the House money and fit our lifestyle better as we were never home for dinner as we were largely involved in athletics and team practices ran much later than the 5:30 dinner bell.
Upon graduation, the need for public school teachers was an all-time low. I cobbled together varying jobs and spent some very ‘thrifty’ years trying to get by. Finally I secured a full time job as Head Aquatics Instructor in a YWCA in Westchester County, New York. I still have my employment letter as I wanted to remember that in the pit of my own poverty, this wonderful new job in 1979 still only paid $9, 232 (that’s a year!) I had to travel 37 miles one-way every day and pay bridge tolls so needless to say, it was not very much money. I kept myself afloat by also coaching high school and college sports and officiating volleyball.
After a year in this position, I was promoted to Aquatics Director. I recall sitting at my huge empty desk on my first day in my new job and thinking to myself, “OK – now what do I do?’ It felt like I was playing a new game and I did not know the rules or the first move to make.
The Career Ladder
Over the next 19 years, I moved between two YWCA’s climbing the career ladder. I desired an executive position so I could try to do things ‘my way.’ I obtained the #2 position in a large YW and oversaw all program directors totaling a budget of $2.5 million. I was able to practice many organizational strategies and training programs as well as completing my Master’s Degree in Organization Development and Management Communications. This program became a critical part of my education and philosophy in working with large groups of people. Based on the Humanistic Education program out of Amherst University, my approach towards teaching and training is entrenched in assisting people to empower themselves to grow from wherever they are to make their dreams a reality.
I was deeply satisfied with my work as the Associate Executive Director in an organization that believes strongly in the empowerment of women, but after 10 years, I still wanted more. My next step was back to a smaller association as the Executive Director. I found that working with a Board of Directors, while rewarding in itself, it is still not your own – as in a business. My last move in the non-profit world was to Arizona as the Executive Director of the People with AIDS Coalition of Tucson. Here I helped form a merged organization of three HIV/AIDS organizations before leaving to strike out on my own.
My First Niche Business
Remember at the beginning of this story, I said that I LOVE BUSINESS. Although working in nonprofits for 25 years emulated running a business, you still have a board of directors potentially limiting the direction you want to take. Perhaps as a two-year old would, I felt like I stamped my foot and said, “I want to do it my way!!” But what would I do? I had been trying to find a niche for years having started many sideline businesses from greeting cards for the LGBT community to ceramics to candle making. I had not found that one perfect idea.
Having moved from the four-season state of New York to sunny two-seasoned Tucson, I started gardening in pots – largely floral combinations. This was a very rewarding hobby and all of our friends remarked on how pretty our home was. BINGO – the idea – would other people pay me to create beautiful potted gardens for their home? In order to create more than that one pot wonder, I thought, what services could I add to entice the clients active with me month after month. The logical answer was to maintain the pots on a bi-weekly basis.
I floated the idea around friends, family, landscapers, landscape designers and there was a resounding “Yes” by everyone surveyed. I could find no other similar business in the city so competition did not exist in the normal sense of the word. I was soon going to discover that my competition was that I had found a niche that no one would know existed.
Even so in my naiveté, I set out to ‘get people potted with Marylee!’ One of my very creative friends came up with this as a business name. Feeling like it might attract law enforcement officers, I said that while it was a perfect tagline, we needed a different name. The Contained Gardener was soon the top choice of our brainstorming session and I quickly designed a logo, put an ad into a local monthly paper that serviced the more affluent neighborhoods in Tucson and figured out my pricing. The very day the paper came out, I received a phone call from a couple who became my first paying clients which funded my advertising for the next six months. I was also operating with the knowledge that I had a financial safety net of a nonprofit consulting position which funded my needs during this time.
Over the first few years, I worked very hard in both of my niches. I gained residential clients, many of who were still with me when I sold the business 15 years later. But don’t let me get ahead of myself. I realized about three years in that I was making about $5 an hour after all was said and done. Those first years I wore all of the hats in the business. I purchased and designed for each client individually and did all of the labor myself.
I schmoozed my way in to my first commercial client who had about 45 small window shelf pots and two large flower beds. When it came time to change out the seasonal flowers, I realized I could not do this alone. I was fortunate in finding a part time person to help. I added to my part timers over the next few years, fortunate again in the fact that their salary was not their main income. This way during the slower seasons, they could work less hours and would still be able to meet their family’s financial goals.
Five years into the business, I knew I had to make a decision to go full time with either the nonprofit consulting or TCG as I started calling The Contained Gardener. It took me a while to make that final call but when I did, I never looked back. With this ‘all in’ decision, I needed to bring my look, i.e. my logo and collateral up to the scale of who I was serving. To increase awareness of this service and add to my gaining credibility, I needed to advertise in the glossy magazines available at that time in Tucson. Soon after this, I moved out of my home office and hired my first office assistant and first full time field staff member. This allowed me to spend most of my time on sales and design.
Planning for the next steps
I had an epiphany moment around this time, wondering if my business was one that someday would become sellable. Having more than just a client base and goodwill, I did some research on what else I needed to do to make my business attractive to a buyer. I always kept this knowledge in focus; creating the systems needed to run the business efficiently and profitably.
This was not always an easy task. Economy downturns, staff challenges, growing pains all took a toll on me and the business. But I was committed to see it through and do what was necessary to be ‘successful.’
In 2011 I decided it was time to position the business to sell. I put together a three year plan and made my ‘A’ List of potential companies that I thought would align well with my niche. I also mapped out what I wanted for the sale. Not only my financial goals, but transition contracts, ongoing consulting and positions for my staff.
In December of the same year, I heard a presentation made by the President of one of my ‘A’ List companies about the planned growth for his family-owned business. Hearing his plans, I said to myself, “Eureka” that is it. I invited him for coffee in January 2012 and the rest is history. Sonoran Gardens bought The Contained Gardener in August of 2012 and met all of my sales goals. They continue to grow this new branch of their company and my two key staff remain with them today.
The Birth of Blossomosity
During this same period of time, encouraged by several of my closest colleagues, I began exploring what it would feel like to shift my business of Pangman Enterprises to business coaching. I first volunteered as a mentor with ASBA (Arizona Small Business Association) and as I met with my sole mentee, I LOVED IT. I started taking on a few clients and the joy I felt seeing them grow and prosper in their businesses was one that I feel when I am teaching. Pure elation. I knew I was on the right path.
However, what would I do with all of the knowledge and experience that I had gained about growing potted gardens in the desert? I could not just stop. I was in the process of putting together a book on the topic, teaching classes and still doing garden consultations. If you are not from the desert, you can only begin to imagine how challenging the desert climate is, especially when you are trying to emulate your lush gardens from ‘back home.’
Being a logistics person, I was now faced with how to I talk about and market these two very divergent businesses. I like things neat and tidy and I know it is not all about me but my marketing message and my clients. But I still wanted one concept to bring my two worlds together. I turned to my MasterMind group and we decided there was no existing word or combination of words that would do the trick. Trust me, we tried.
We began playing around with words, and parts of words that when combined might express the growth of both a garden and a business into one of a “fabulous’ nature. Here, Blossomosity was born. You tell me, how does this word make you feel? Sure you may stumble a little when you first try to sound it out. Nevertheless, on the second try or when people hear the word, a smile always comes to their face.
I struggled to settle in on my target market. The garden part was easy – Desert Dwellers. The business side has seen me floundering more than I like to admit. Without trying to be egotistical, because I have been in the trenches, done the work, felt the pain and the joy of running your own small business, there are many ways I can help a small business owner. We know the experts say, you have to find your niche and zero in on them. Again, with my earlier gardening business, my niche was very clear. Potted gardens for upscale homes and businesses with entries and patios. Pretty succinct, don’t you agree?
I have worked with groups such as small professional offices, solo-entrepreneurs, gardening businesses, designers, artists, restaurateurs. While all of these have been rewarding, it is very hard to market to such a broad group of entrepreneurs.
The Next Chapter
2016 brought with it a dream realized. The opportunity to live full time on the island of Kauai. We had vacationed here for 10 years over the holidays. Running our own businesses, we were able to start with two weeks and that grew over time to two months. We were always very sad to leave what felt like home and the tropical paradise! We were given an opportunity to move here with part time jobs and my portable business. A dream come true.
After we made the move, defining my coaching niche gave me great angst. As you can see, I enjoy writing and telling stories. Many times when someone asks me a question and I start to answer it, I find myself saying – “Well, that is a story.” Therefore blogging and writing columns is part of my service delivery. Still – who is this focused on?
I also found it difficult to decide how to use my time and how much did I want to work and what did I really want to do. Many of my colleagues and followers are coming to the same question as they get older. We all love running a business and many of us cannot imagine life without some kind of business under our command. I feel I have figured it out and maybe I can help others do that too – figure it out that is!
Therefore my three year plan is to work a reduced number of hours. If the sun is shining, I will be on the beach and my work can come with me. I am offering business coaching remotely to people who want to find their way to running their business on a part time basis. This might be someone headed towards retirement, a parent with family demands that prevents full time hours or just someone who wants a part time but serious business.
I feel that my followers will largely become people in garden-related businesses but I am not restricting my clients to that niche. I have a large following on my gardening blog, The Potted View and use this business as a case study along with my successful growth of The Contained Gardener to help other garden writers and garden service providers grow their business beyond today. I am planning to publish some more books over these next three years. All about growth – Potted Gardens and Businesses – well those are not potted!
Stay tuned! You never know what’s next!