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Botanicals: An Ultimate-Living Experience

Casey Cooper became an entrepreneur at age 6, selling beautiful autumn leaves for a penny apiece in Lexington, Kentucky. Returning from a New York City trip paid for by selling magazines and chocolate bars, Cooper decided to become an actor, but received good advice from a mentor; few actors make much money, so make sure you have a skill to fall back on.

Knowing that actors perform mostly at night, Cooper wanted a day job, something creative and uplifting, and a woman walking by with an armful of flowers gave her an idea. For over a year, she went to different florists, trying to find a job, but no one would hire her. Finally, she got a job with a local hospital flower shop and after 6 months, was moved to the main shop. A year later, the florist began teaching her the basic techniques and mechanics of flower arrangement. After earning a Bachelors of Fine Arts at DePaul University’s Theatre School in 1991, Cooper helped to create and then, and worked as the artistic director of a theatre company. Soon, Cooper started her own flower business doing events, parties and weddings.

After settling in Chicago, Cooper officially incorporated as Botanicals in 1995, starting out as floral design company, but utilizing anything and everything botanical including fruit, vegetables, herbs, bamboo and grass, roots - anything natural and textural. She worked out of her home basement using her washing machine and dryer as a work table. In 1996, she leased a spooky, but romantic, broken-down mansion and used it as a studio and later moved to a vintage store-front on Division Street. Eventually, Botanicals doubled in size as the neighborhood became more trendy and edgy.

By April 2002, Cooper was ready to expand again, but the space promised by her landlord was not ready on-time and rather than find her business homeless, she temporarily moved into a bare, rat infested, warehouse space with no heat or air conditioning. From June until November, when Botanicals finally moved into its state-of-the-art facility, Cooper promised clients that the quality of her work would not be compromised by her mean estate. Since then, Botanicals has grown about 30% each year and currently employs 16 people full time and up to 40 during busy season.

Small business is not for the faint of heart and it can be physically and emotionally exhausting – especially if you are balancing a home and motherhood too. Last year, Cooper and her husband and business partner, came to the conclusion that she was spreading herself too thin and should scale back her Botanicals activities to just 3 days a week. Instead of hurting her business, Cooper found that the breathing room rejuvenated her creativity and allowed her to think and plan rather than just keep pace with day-to-day business concerns.

Cooper realized that she need a unique selling proposition to differentiate Botanicals from the same 4 or 5 competitors she came up against with every proposal. She decided that diversifying by offering classes in floral design, wedding design and landscape and gardening as well as starting a summer Sunday farmers’ market would help consumers tap into Botanicals’ concept of the ultimate-living experience rather than just its excellent reputation as a floral design studio. In addition, since she was adding workload, Cooper brought in sub-contractors to help guide the development of the classes and the farmers’ market.

The Small Business Professors' Words of Wisdom

Small business owners who have been at it awhile often don’t realize the toll that being directly responsible for everything, including the financial well-being of employees, takes on both mind and body. Casey Cooper was smart; by taking a little time for herself, she re-energized her business, which allowed it to grow. Looking back at her core business now, she realizes that additional pressure and responsibility has been put on her employees, but they have handled it gracefully and gained some freedom in decision-making on their own.

Being away from the business also highlighted where personnel changes needed to be made, but transition and restructuring are helping to smooth over the difficulties. Cooper believes Botanicals has actually benefited from her additional time away; her long-term future looks and smells beautiful!

  • Case History: Botanicals www.botanicalschicago.com
  • Entrepreneur’s Strategy: Forecast costs and makes decisions based on worst case scenarios. If you can succeed in hard times, you can make it in the long run.
  • Could This Work For Me? Being realistic and objective about what can happen can make the difference between success and failure in a new business venture.

She worked out of her home basement using her washing machine and dryer as a work table.