In Conversation with Caroline Strzalka of It’s By U
Describe your business in a few words?
It’s By U is a subscription flower box program curated from surplus stems shipped from around the globe. We match farms that produce specific types of flowers, with people and businesses looking for regular deliveries of fresh floral and plant decor. And then we give you everything you need to arrange them like a pro.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I ask myself this question every day! ;D My sister, Christine, is an award winning floral designer and we noticed that many of her customers wanted to make their own flower arrangements. This was at the same time that meal kits like Blue Apron were coming onto the scene. So, we thought that we could create the Blue Apron of flowers where we send customers everything they need to make their own arrangements, at a fraction of florist prices. Christine and I started It’s By U on nights and weekends while we were still working at our other jobs. Then we both took the leap of faith to work full time at It’s By U when we got accepted into the Techstars + Target retail accelerator in Minneapolis. After all, who can say “no” to Target?!?
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I worked with muppets! Seriously! I used to run digital media business development for Sesame Workshop, the home of Sesame Street. I did the same for Scholastic Media (Magic School bus anyone??). I did all the big interactive, audio, and video deals for these brands, and worked with companies like Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, Hulu, Google, and others. Prior to that I was an investment banker and I took companies like Kraft, Constellation Brands, and Leapfrog public. I’m also a Wharton MBA.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Ummm…no. The entrepreneurial bug attached itself to me while I was in business school on an ice climbing trip. Ice climbing is a dangerous sport, I mean you’re climbing frozen waterfalls! But I was trained to climb by an exceptional company who showed me the proper technique and how to climb safely, Together, we mitigated the risk of the climb. Even though you’re being belayed by someone on the ground so that you won’t fall, it’s still up to YOU AND ONLY YOU to get yourself up that ice. No one will hoist you. You are staying connected to the ice at three points with picks in your hands and crampons on your feet and moving one point at a time carefully. I guess I was toying with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur when I was climbing because I started making a lot of associations between ice climbing and entrepreneurship. I thought, “If I can do this, I can surely start a business!” That was when I decided that I could become an entrepreneur…now I just had to find the right idea.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I’m just going to call a spade a spade and tell it like it is — we had a lucky break! Of course, getting on “The O List” is a goal for every consumer products company. I happened to be out late one night with friends and met a guy who knew a guy whose subscription FISH company was featured in “Oprah Magazine.” Fast forward to 7AM THE NEXT MORNING and I’m meeting with the subscription fish guy to find out his secrets! It turns out that his daughters went to school with the daughters of this one-woman PR company who was close with the “Oprah Magazine” editor. I was introduced to her THAT AFTERNOON! We literally launched It’s By U by being featured on “The O List”! Because of that, we were then tapped for “The View” and “GMA.” So, it was all earned media! The lesson learned here is: Tell anyone and everyone what you’re building! You never know who might make your dream come true!
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Like most entrepreneurs, we built everything wrongly in the beginning. We used the wrong developers who overpromised and underdelivered and we built the site on the wrong platform. We literally had to shut down the first version of our site 7 weeks after it was built…and $70k later! What I learned was that we should have spoken with more e-commerce entrepreneurs before building the site. Collect as much knowledge as you can from people who have built something similar to what you’re building. A few conversations can save you a lot of grief!
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
It was the ability to fulfill our orders early on once we were featured in Oprah. We got thousands of orders in and our little team worked around the clock to fulfill. It’s not easy shipping perishables, but we got it done without a hitch! GO TEAM!
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have actually been COVID-catalyzed! Our business has more than doubled with people recognizing the joy that flowers bring to your life and the lives of those around you. We need joy now. Our souls are longing for it. So, we look to flowers.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
A TV show, books, podcasts, retail products…look for us telling the untold stories about flowers. STAY TUNED!!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Give people the benefit of the doubt always. Everyone is trying to do the best that they can given the circumstances. We are all suffering. When people ask you how you’re doing now, they actually mean it. So, tell them. Be vulnerable. We are all human. Oh and I NEED A DOG! 😀
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I moved in with my family. I joke that I’m living like a 12 year old, but really I’m just constantly surrounded by their love and good food. I’m also living in FL by the beach as opposed to my one bedroom apartment in NYC. I work outside as much as I can. I see the salamanders, sea birds, and dolphins coming through from my patio and I can identify them individually. (I’ve given the birds names — for instance, this one bird that comes by is called Niles Crane — yuk, yuk!) I take long walks with my mom every night. I have hunkered down on bigger projects and kept everything moving forward. I text friends a lot and help them out with their startups. Without others, I don’t think I would have stayed sane this year. No woman is an island!
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
YES. Do things that make you HUMAN (aka get away from screens!). Go for a walk or a bike ride. Cook. Do something nice for someone else. I think this is the best we can do right now.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m obsessed with dinosaurs. I think they’re one of the things truly deserving of the word “awesome” (meaning, “inspiring awe”). It’s crazy to think that these amazing creatures roamed the earth for millions of years. Not much in life is truly awesome in that way when you really stop to think of it.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
(1) Make a list and try to get through it as much as you can. Don’t know about you, but if it’s not on paper, I don’t remember to do it! (2) Follow-up with people. Don’t be meek. If you have a goal that is reliant on someone else to do something, bug them to do it. Oftentimes we don’t realize that our goals are tied to other’s actions. You have to get them to care about you and your goals and act for you. (3) GO OUTSIDE FOR A WALK. Again, get away from the screen and let your brain wander. The best ideas or solutions to problems come when you’re out walking.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Entrepreneur + Barista! (j/k though a good coffee to start your day of work is always a good idea!) To me, it means bucking the norm of what people think when they think “entrepreneur.” It’s women’s ideas coming to life because women are bringing them to life and leading.