How did you start your company?

An Interview with Caleigh Cross

“You’re so lucky. It must be awesome to have a successful business.”

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28-year-old New York florist Julia Testa hears such sentiments all the time from old college classmates and friends when they hear about her seemingly fairy-tale life. While the admiration is flattering, Julia can’t help but reflect that the road to success hasn’t been easy, and while a lucky phone call did factor into Julia’s success story, she puts most of her professional success down to good old-fashioned hard work…and a couple of old Pepsi-Cola fridges.

Today, the work of Julia’s life, the Julia Testa Company, is flourishing. They’ve branched out from their roots in floral arrangements to a bright future in home decor, promotional packaging, flowers for television, and exciting city events. After a year and a half in successful business, the Julia Testa Company put up its shingle on its very first storefront in Bed Stuy, New York.

Julia’s ride to success has been a roller coaster, and it is by no means over, but throughout her journey, she had to believe that anyone – even single women with no financial safety net – can take the plunge into entrepreneurialism, and even strike it big. That hope gave her the courage she needed to overcome the struggles of a first-time business owner – and those of a single, unsupported young woman in the big city.

Julia’s story began in her early twenties, when she found herself engaged to a man who wanted her to take care of him first and her fierce ambition second. Even then, though, her entrepreneurial drive was blossoming, and she had a hard time keeping it down. She bought two old Pepsi-Cola fridges, put them in his shed, plugged them in, and used them to store the floral arrangements she’d spend hours working on out there.

Even the hours she had to sneak in the shed gave her something she’s held onto and carried with her into the Julia Testa Company. Today, Julia’s designs are renowned for their tightly-packed, space-conscious style, a look she says came from trying to maximize the space she had left in the Pepsi-Cola fridges.

Julia’s passion for flowers started in her childhood, when she picked weeds for her dad’s rose garden in exchange for allowance money. Julia’s parents made it a priority to teach their children the value of money, and the Testas were anything but a lazy family. From an early age, Julia learned that she had to work hard and hustle for what she wanted, especially as a girl.

This attitude carried Julia through college, when she took a job at a flower shop. Throughout college, she’d worked in a bar to earn money, but after a while, Julia’s protective father wanted her to stop. He happened to be doing some construction work on a flower shop and made an agreement with them to trade some of his labor for a job for Julia. She came away from the job with a sense of direction and a passionate drive to create.

When Julia’s engagement fell through, her ex-fiance threw out those Pepsi-Cola fridges, and she was devastated. That anger and grief was what it took to kick-start Julia’s drive. She decided to give her love for flowers and design all the energy she’d been putting into her relationship.

What started out as a need to prove herself as the strong, independent woman she was to the man who spurned her turned into something much, much bigger.

“Bigger” has been the name of the game at the Julia Testa Company since she started. Her signature floral arrangements might be tightly packed and space-conscious, but Julia’s ambition is sky-high, and it has been from the very start.

Julia spent almost every dollar of her startup capital on her website. Once it was finished, she realized that now she had to do something to start bringing the money in, so she jumped onto the phone and started knocking on doors. She was going door-to-door in New York City asking people if they needed flowers when a man named Lorenzo who owned an Italian restaurant welcomed her in and gave her her first job. She celebrated her first week in business by doing Lorenzo’s arrangements.

Julia’s brazen confidence became her greatest sales asset as she moved forward into navigating the territory of a first-time, single, female business owner. “I just kept calling people,” she said. “Until I got really super lucky. I got ahold of a very high-up executive from NBC on the phone and he thought I was ballsy. It happened to be his wedding anniversary that day, and he asked me to make him an arrangement for his wife. On a whim, I put a few peonies in there.”

Those peonies may have been one of the best decisions of Julia’s life.

He called her back in shock and told her that peonies happened to be his wife’s favorite flower. He was so impressed that he got Julia her first NBC job. Today, she’s proud and happy to say that NBC is one of her biggest clients, and she’s developed real personal relationships with the staff, sending them flowers on their birthdays.

Julia’s forays into the world of beauty marketing all started with a lucky break at Marc Jacobs, who asked her to come up with a promotional package for them. Julia put together a textured, interesting arrangement captured in glass to promote the new Marc Jacobs fragrance, and now, the Julia Testa Company is one of the most sought-after in the city for promotional gear.

It’s not all promotions and NBC premieres, though, Julia is careful to emphasize. She remembers the early days of her design business, when she was sharing a basement space with another florist and having to go up two flights of stairs multiple times a day, every time she finished an order. Even then, exhausted and constantly dripping with sweat, Julia knew she would never want to do anything else.

And she hasn’t, not ever since. Julia has spent the past two years learning lessons about business ownership the hard way. She remembers the first time she bought a brand-new, two-hundred-square-foot fridge (more than quadruple the space she had in those old Pepsi-Cola fridges!) only to have the thermostat break and kill all of the flowers and the hard work she’d done for two days beforehand.

What could she do? Their first delivery that morning was at 10:30. She had no choice but to run out to buy new flowers and build the entire delivery on the site. When she got there, sweaty and rushed, she was told that all of her packages would need to be scanned for security before she was allowed into the building. She was panicking. She was a young, single female in brand-new business. She couldn’t afford to lose the client – and she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she did.

Luckily for Julia, she was able to get her arrangements into the building with just enough time to allow her to set up on site and knock the event out of the park. Today, Julia is able to proudly say that she has never once missed a delivery or disappointed a client.

All of the struggling was worth it. Julia has done what she set out to do, and she can’t wait to push her limits still further.

Julia’s story is nowhere near its end. Her vision for the Julia Testa Company includes several stores, one in the financial district and a few satellites, so that eventually she can franchise her brand. For now, though, Bed Stuy is her home base. Recently, a big client came to her storefront to place an order and expressed his shock at her new neighborhood. “Your store is gorgeous,” he said, “but what are you doing in Bed Stuy?”

“I’m here because it’s cheap right now,” Julia says bluntly. “We’re doing what we have to do. Luckily for us, it’s also an up-and-coming area, but we’re here because this is what we have to do.”

“This is how we’re doing it. It can be done. I wanted other women out there who have thought about doing something like this to know that. You don’t have to have help and you don’t have to wait,” Julia says. “You don’t need a rich father. If you want it bad enough to stay up all night and knock on doors and network all the time, you can make it happen.”