In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
When Natalie Gill graduated with a psych degree, she did what seemed like the natural next step for a 20-something overachiever: apply for a PhD in neuroscience. But, she says, she didn’t study and—thankfully—got waitlisted. For Natalie, the subject interested her but didn’t excite her. Over the next couple of years, she questioned her path, working jobs that paid the bills but left her unfulfilled—and stuck in San Diego gridlock. Then a social media post inspired her to dig up an old passion for arranging flowers. She quit her job on the spot.
Native Poppy started with meagre savings and a Yelp page as well as Instagram feed, and has since bloomed into a multi-location retail business. But along the way, Natalie’s flower startup drained her bank account and plunged her deep into debt. During her darkest days, she says, she was “not OK,” and the stress impacted her health, sleep, and personal relationships.
When I spoke to Natalie, she was three days away from opening her second location. The contractor bill for $60,000 USD was in her hands, and she didn’t have enough to cover it. (Spoiler: her grand opening was a success, she's mostly paid off that contractor bill, and her second location is now open to the public.) Here, Natalie describes being in a “weird, stressful place” but explains to me how this time, it’s different.
In Natalie’s words:
I was 25 years old, and pretty dissatisfied with the job market. I worked some really shitty HR jobs, and I just sat in rush hour traffic to be at my desk by 9 am. I would work in a windowless room filing paperwork, answering emails, then drive home. I was like, “This is fucked up. I cannot do this.”
I started writing a list of what I wanted my life to look like, and I said I wanted to: work with my hands, set my own schedule, be my own boss, do something creative, make people happy, feel connected to nature, and be out in the sun.
I remember eating a lot of rice and beans. Some weeks, I could get away with living on an $11 budget for food.
And then one day I was on Pinterest at my HR job, and I saw a flower arrangement. I had dabbled in flower arranging as a hobby and had always loved it. I just wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it could be a job. Then the light bulb went off, and I was like, “That fits every single thing on my list, and all I need is some flowers, a bucket, and a free Instagram account.” I came up with the name Native Poppy sitting there at my desk. I drew my first logo, and then I walked into my boss’s office, I said, “I’m quitting. I’m becoming a florist.”
I moved up to San Francisco to work with a florist friend for about five or six weeks, and I learned as much as I could about flowers and the market before I came back to San Diego. I had $20,000 saved [from my HR jobs] and I said, ‘I’m not going to spend one dollar on anything that isn’t a business expense for one year.’ I didn’t buy clothes. I didn’t go to the movies. I don’t think I really went out to any fancy dinners. I remember eating a lot of rice and beans. Some weeks, I could get away with living on an $11 budget for food. I was only spending money on flowers, flower tools, and education, and just business expenses. Maybe I would go out to coffee with people who I admired—I was just networking constantly. I taught yoga on the side, but it was like minimum wage.
It was at that point that I put up a Yelp business page. Somebody would email me, and I would drive to the flower market to buy flowers to make them one arrangement. If they had a $75 budget, I would spend $100 on flowers, but that was how I was learning.
In the second year, my business started gaining traction, and I had booked a lot of weddings and events. I was working in my one-bedroom apartment on my patio. I would go to yoga in the morning, and then I would take a walk in the afternoon, and I would drink wine, listen to music, and make flowers in my backyard at night. It literally was the best time in my life.
Very quickly I realized that I was not okay.
I kept being like, “Okay, how do I chase this harder?” I could have just invested in a warehouse space, but I saw a need in the market for this flower shop. That enticed me. I was like, “If I’m going to open a flower shop, I have to make it the best flower shop in the world.” In 2016, I got approached by this woman who wanted to open a coffee shop concept with a bunch of other vendors. I was going to get an 8-by-10 square foot little glass space in her giant coffee shop. It was going to be like $400 a month, and I was so terrified by that. But that never ended up happening.
I put my personal $20,000 in savings into a different coffee shop, and I took out a $24,000 loan [to build out the store]. It was really hard for me to find bank lending because I was 25 and my business was not super profitable. I used an online lender. I had the money deposited in my bank account the next day, but it was an 18% interest loan. Then I ran up two credit cards. I think I ended up being about $60,000 into that store.
No matter what stress I’m going through right now, this is actually better than the absolute powerless feeling that I had working at my HR job.
Very quickly I realized that I was not okay. I had to book 36 weddings the year that I opened to pay for the shop build-out. But I didn’t have enough staff. I was at the store trying to figure out how to run it, and at night I would stay late to work on my wedding flowers, then go home and do emails, and figure out business stuff. It was really horrible. I lost 20 pounds in the first six months that I had the shop open. I was never home. I didn’t eat any vegetables. I lost all of my friends—because I didn’t have time. I was so stressed, overworked, overcommitted. At one point, I hadn’t slept for three days.
And then we kind of just started shifting stuff around. One of the girls who worked for me from day one became my shop manager, and about six months ago, she bought into my company. Now she owns 10%, and I have a business partner. She’s just incredible.
It’s actually really therapeutic for me to talk about this, because no matter what stress I’m going through right now, this is actually better than the absolute powerless feeling that I had working at my HR job. And thinking back to the first time I was opening a shop, this is so different. Yes, I am stressed, but I’m not as stressed as I was before. I know what we’re doing now. I have support.
I’m uncomfortable all the time. But it’s fulfilling in a way that no other job has ever been to me.
There are good days and there are bad days, and to get to where you want to go, you’ve got to climb through a lot of shit piles to get there. It’s not glamorous. To be able to grow, you have to be okay with being uncomfortable. And I’m uncomfortable all the time. But it’s fulfilling in a way that no other job has ever been to me. It does something to your heart to make flowers, to be involved in humans’ most important moments—weddings, deaths, babies being born, sad things, happy things, birthdays.
What does success mean? I’m doing what I want to do. My life is in my hands; that’s really cool. I’ve gone through phases of feeling more successful than I have at other times. My high-vibration answer? I’m just finding joy in the world, and that’s success.Illustration by Germán González