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From Dandelions to Zinnia: How Lauren Raised Over $1M and Launched Her AI Platform for Human Connection

Friday, July 14th, 2023

There are two things to note about Zinnia: (1) the company is named after a flower and (2) the founder of Zinnia, Lauren Marturano, is remarkable. She was a perfect archetype of an extremely successful woman in Corporate America as she navigated her career through different companies. She was then ready for a new challenge. In this case study we look at how Lauren’s passion for human connection led her to start her Zinnia.

Our favorite quote

I want to build a billion dollar company

Financials

Funding
  • 2022: $250k from Atlanta Ventures
  • 2023: $765k
  • Revenue
  • $52k from May 2022 to June 2023
  • Case study

    How She Started: What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor?

    Lauren Marturano: Well, my very first entrepreneurial endeavor was I would sell dandelions to my neighbors when I was a little kid. Then I decided to start a cleaning company when I was 8, where I would go and vacuum and dust my neighbor’s houses. I would say my life, I've just had so many different things on the side. I started entrepreneurial endeavors within the companies I worked for.

    When I was in the corporate world, I founded different organizations and founded the women's network here in Charlotte for one of the companies. I helped start a nonprofit on the side, and I opened a wedding floral business on the side when I was still in corporate in 2017. I'd been wanting to create something from the ground up and decided it was time to take it full-time.

    • Insight: Having an entrepreneurial mindset can happen while you’re working a normal job.


    HSS: I think you've had a unique experience with how you started. Can you walk me through the process of becoming the Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at the Atlanta Tech Village? Then what kind of networking did you need to do to put yourself in that position?

    LM: I had a unique path to the EIR program. I quit Salesforce 2.5 years ago to launch a company previous to Zinnia with one of the engineers I worked with. It was in more of the Web 3 space, so the creator economy, Web 3, Discord and that's actually where I got connected to Atlanta Ventures. Kathryn, O’Day (a partner at Atlanta Ventures), who is incredible told me “we need more female entrepreneurs, so let's stay in touch.” We ended up having monthly mentor meetings.

    Meanwhile, my co-founder and I had different visions for the business. I want to build a billion-dollar company. He wanted more of a lifestyle business.

    We decided it was better to go our separate ways. That’s when I called Kathryn and asked What do I do? She said “Come to Atlanta Ventures and be an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR). Let's start something from the ground up together where you have a really firm foundation.” The only reason I got that opportunity was because I had gotten to know her over the past 12 months while building my other company. She talked me through their EIR program and it sounded like a great opportunity.

    • Insight: Strive to make connections and keep in touch with those connections.
    • Insight: Be open to new opportunities.


    HSS: How did you decide the EIR program was right for you?

    LM: I was going from leaving corporate, taking a 90% pay cut to launching that company and then we grew that company quickly. However, going from that and then seeing it all fall apart was pretty tumultuous. I remember calling Kathryn and saying “I called a couple of mentors back in corporate. I have a job offer to go to Microsoft and an offer for Salesforce making great money again. Do I do that? Do I go work for a startup? Maybe Series B/Series C or do I try to do this again? At the time I didn’t have the mental capacity to do this myself. I wanted that support system, that warm hug, the stability around me. EIR at Atlanta Ventures allowed me to not have to build solo and have their team supporting me while still being able to chase my dreams. I could be an entrepreneur without having to be on a lonely island by myself.

    • Insight: Seek out guidance and identify what’s important to you.


    HSS: How did you end up choosing events?

    LM: I don't have a background in the events. All of my background is in software and software sales and that led us to where we are today. We launched Zinnia as an offsite and retreat planning platform. Then we moved into customer-facing events and private dinners while being supported by AI.

    The reason we started on events was because of my passion for human connection. I think that human connection is the most important thing in life and business. We started events because people were remote first, so we asked the question: how do you bring people together in person to build that human connection? We then started expanding to customer-facing events. We address the question of how you connect with your clients and better understand their needs. Then the AI piece is understanding more background on people, so walking into a room and knowing that my client is passionate about these three things and this is an opportunity to connect on that on a deeper level. I chose events because I saw them as the core of how to connect with people.

    • Insight: You do not need extensive experience in an area to build a successful business, you can learn along the way.
    • Insight: Identify areas where you can extend your business to increase your SOM.


    HSS: How did you acquire your first customers? Are you far enough along that you can retain them and how do you retain them?

    LM: Our first couple of customers were friendlies. People in our network that knew me and put their trust in me. They said alright, we'll be your guinea pigs. Then honestly almost all of our other customers thus far have been through LinkedIn. I post a lot on LinkedIn. It can be annoying and could be silly but it works.

    We have a huge focus on customer satisfaction. For retention, we're early. However, all of our customers are satisfied and have come back again for their next events. Even further the ones that came in for offsites are moving over and using us for their sales events.

    • Insight: Use your network to your advantage.


    HSS: What does customer service look like?

    LM: I think of it more almost like a customer success journey. From customer acquisition to understanding their needs, and finding the right fit for them. We transition them from the sales process to more of the planning process with their planning event team, but also having that sales person who can be connected the entire time. In terms of customer success, we have checkpoints where we ask how's it going. What are we not doing? What are we doing well?

    We also do an off-boarding survey, so we always interview them. After the event, we ask questions like what went well. What didn't go well? How can we better support you? What feedback do you have? Do you want to sign up for your next event? It's really like the journey of making sure that they feel like their hand is held the entire way.

    • Insight: Ensure you have checkpoints with your customers to gain feedback and iterate quickly on that feedback.


    HSS: How did you research the competition and how does Zinnia fit in the competitive landscape?

    LM: Well, I think we've gone through a pretty massive pivot over the last three months. Our competitive landscape is a little bit different than when we originally started. When we started the offsite retreat planning, there were a couple of competitors out there, maybe two or three and then actually in the last year, there's been nine new competitors in the offsite retreat planning space that popped up.

    It's becoming a very busy market. There's not any specific technology out there focused on field marketing events or sales events, and there's no platform around revenue-driving events. What differentiates us is the integrations we are building into CRM, talking points, and AI that allows you to connect with your customers.

    • Insight: Ensure your organization is nimble and that you can pivot.
    • Insight: Points of differentiation allow your brand to stand out among the competition.


    HSS: Was there a time when you felt that this was not worth pursuing?

    LM: Oh, of course. What's so interesting is I'm in an EO Accelerator. Someone asked the question “How many of you guys have ever felt like you didn't even believe in your idea?” I was hesitant, and then everybody around the room was raising their hand. I thought: these are people with billion-dollar companies. One of them said I didn't believe in my company until the day that it sold.

    There are sometimes I had second thoughts. Some days you wake up and you're like, yes. Some days you're like, Oh my gosh, everything seems to be going wrong. Ultimately, I believe in our team. I believe in what we're building and I know it's worth pursuing. There are some days though where you think: what in the world, I'm hitting my head against the wall.

    The thing is my idea is great and I know it's going to work. Some days though you’re feeling down. Some days you think what in the world am I doing here? Why would people buy from me? Imposter syndrome comes up, but I'm able to push through.



    HSS: What are your lessons learned so far?

    LM: The most important thing that you can do as an entrepreneur is build the right team. That's my biggest lesson because we have made changes and pivots, but I know that we will be successful because we have the best people for the role. I'm happy to come to work every day. My team works so hard. They're all so brilliant and our customers love them and that's what matters.

    • Insight: Building the right team can make your business incredibly successful.


    HSS: Do you have any additional advice for female-founded businesses? When was it an advantage to be a female and when was it a disadvantage?

    LM: Well, the disadvantage is that only 2.2% of capital goes to female-founded companies. In terms of advantages, there have been times when I've been the token female, and someone will reach out to me and say “Hey we need a female to speak at this conference so can you be there?” I hate the fact that there has to be a token female, but if there has to be one, I will fill the role. I think I've been given opportunities because I'm a female and because there are people that want to uplift female entrepreneurs. Hopefully, my participation will lead to more females at these events, so that we can move beyond tokenism.

    My biggest advice is that not many people know what they're doing at all. Females tend to experience impostor syndrome on a much higher scale than males do, but the fact is, no one really knows what they're doing. I think that everybody feels it but that doesn't mean that we're doing the wrong thing, or that we're not capable.

    • Insight: Have confidence in your vision.


    HSS: Thanks much for taking the time.

    Insights

    • Insight: Having an entrepreneurial mindset can happen while you’re working a normal job.
    • Insight: Strive to make connections and keep in touch with those connections.
    • Insight: Be open to new opportunities.
    • Insight: Seek out guidance and identify what’s important to you.
    • Insight: You do not need extensive experience in an area to build a successful business, you can learn along the way.
    • Insight: Identify areas where you can extend your business to increase your SOM.
    • Insight: Use your network to your advantage.
    • Insight: Ensure you have checkpoints with your customers to gain feedback and iterate quickly on that feedback.
    • Insight: Ensure your organization is nimble and that you can pivot.
    • Insight: Points of differentiation allow your brand to stand out among the competition.
    • Insight: Building the right team can make your business incredibly successful.
    • Insight: Have confidence in your vision.


    How We Met: In person Networking Event

    Lauren was leading a workshop called I Am Remarkable at a woman in tech event at the Atlanta Tech Village. I spoke to her after the event, followed her on LinkedIn, and reached out to her.