Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Rilee Acrey! Founder and CEO of BalloonWorks. BalloonWorks is a leading balloon stylist company specializing in one-of-a-kind, dynamic installations thoughtfully designed to add style, creativity, and personalization to all of the amazing moments in life. BalloonWorks installations are a unique way to take any event to the next level – from birthday parties and weddings to corporate events and grand openings.
Our client roster is made up of both brands and celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Kyle Richards, and Maybelline Cosmetics. In 2019, we’ve quadrupled revenue and doubled our team without any outside funding.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
BalloonWorks was born out of a desire for something more. I was done settling. Seven months ago, I took a leap of faith and put all of my trust in God’s plan for my life. I quit my crazy corporate job where I traveled a ton and had a secure income to build a company that is now known as BalloonWorks.
After leaving my job, I had a lot of faith but little clarity when it came to what my next step would be. That weekend, I was asked to use balloons to add a little pop to a friend’s gender reveal party. Two weeks later, I found myself at Paris Hilton’s birthday bash installing a 30-foot balloon arch up a spiraling staircase in the foyer of her home. Oh… and Kim Kardashian posted my work.
It was the boost of confidence I needed and the vision for what I was capable of. I immediately saw a need for newfound creativity in the world of balloons and knew I could put a twist on the standard, helium-filled balloon arches that have monopolized the industry for years. It was also the outlet I needed to put the corporate world behind me and walk into an opportunity that allowed me to be both expressive and creative while working with people to bring their vision to life.
To say it happened quickly would be the understatement of the century. Along with the adrenaline and the confidence came plenty of "Ohhh what the hell am I doing" thoughts. Eight months in, I can tell you it has been the most transformational, gratifying and humbling experience of my life. There really isn't anything like taking that leap of faith, believing in your ultimate vision and hustling to make it happen.
I go to bed with a plan of action to execute the next day and I am excited to make it happen! Nothing is more powerful than seeing your visions and company come to life.
To be completely blunt, it's been hard as hell. (Ha, I didn't even know what an LLC was at the beginning of the year!) My advice to future entrepreneurs is just START. I’ve always been taught that actions speak louder than words. It’s time to take whatever it is you’re passionate about and RUN with it. The time is never going to be right and you probably won’t feel ready, I sure as hell didn’t. But let the beginning of my journey be the push you need to begin your own path in this world. JUST START.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first question I get is always “Do you blow all of those up with your own lungs?” I instantly laugh and lucky for me the answer is NO! But in the beginning stages, I did hand pump every balloon for my installations and also used a needle and thread technique. Looking back it was very time-consuming. I’m lucky now to have purchased an exclusive air pump for balloons that has a peddle and four spouts and blows up balloons with ease. I also being self-taught I have come up with a technique of keeping that balloons together while creating a design that allows each installation a unique design/frame.
Looking back at my very first installation compared to now, the average eye can see a huge difference in quality, experience, and overall presentation WOW!
Describe the process of launching the business.
The first four months were a whirlwind, to say the least. I was getting my hands on any and all opportunities that would allow me to explore my craft and build out the ideas that had previously only existed in my head. What did that look like? Lots of pro bono work for friends, startups, and nonprofits that were looking to add a little POP to their upcoming events. In return, my skills were sharpened and my portfolio as proof of that.
I was ready to take BalloonWorks public, which meant filing for an LLC, building a website and launching our biggest marketing tool, our Instagram page, in less than a week.
I was the bright-eyed newcomer onto the balloon scene (yeah, that exists) and doing things differently than many people and companies had done in the past. I was disrupting an industry that hadn’t seen true evolution and certainly wasn’t open to it. With that came quick opportunities and quicker reactions from “competition.” It was clear that what I was offering was making competitors uncomfortable, which meant I was doing something right.
That conflict fueled me to better my craft, elevate my business and set huge goals for what we were going to accomplish, regardless of what other people were doing in the space.
The early days of BalloonWorks was a cash flow puzzle without outside funding or personal savings to keep us ahead. To stay ahead of the bottom line, we implemented a 50 percent deposit upon bookings so our team is able to secure the supplies needed to do the job without racking up credit card bills or pulling down our working capital in the process.
Through the growth, I’ve been able to keep my hand on each and every project that comes through the company. I believe that the leader of the business is the person who has to have their hands the sharpest in the craft and be directly involved in the outcomes, especially early on. This is not only my business, but it’s my reputation and my word on the line. I don’t take that lightly. Every job we do is a direct reflection of the heart behind why we exist: big faith, hard work and hustle you need to make it POP!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Early key to success? Smile and dial. I called every event planner I could find and explained BalloonWorks to anyone who would listen. I spoke as if I had been doing this for years when, in reality, I could count on one hand how many jobs I had done. It didn’t matter, my confidence was evident and my faith for what we were building was stirred up in a way that I had yet to experience in my professional life.
The work we do is arguably more visual than any other industry, which makes Instagram our biggest marketing channel and the tool where we get 90 percent of our work. The page grew organically for the first five months through word of mouth and well-placed giveaways alongside partnerships with companies like Pacific Organic Pops and the Picnic Collective. After seeing success with these natural integrations, we were able to take our reach to the next level and invest in promotional ads that target businesses in Southern California.
The best customers are returning customers. Good work and great reviews speak louder than any “about” page ever could. BalloonWorks thrives on repeat business, especially through corporate clients, event planners and retail locations that host events year-round. Customers come back because of your work AND because of the relationships you’ve built with them.
The culture of our company is to go above and beyond for the client and always say “yes” whenever possible. Our mindset and actions lead to trust, respect and excitement for what we’re building together – involving the client throughout the entire project. When you do great work and you treat people well, you’ll go further than most… especially in a city like Los Angeles.
The power of social media is no joke. If you’re consistent with your efforts and you post content people actually want to see, your community is going to want to follow you and engage with your business. We see success when we’re bringing out followers along with us, showcasing the behind-the-scenes look at how we get jobs done and the real-life realities of operating in this industry (like blowing up balloons from 11 p.m. – 5 a.m. for 28 storefronts on one of LA’s busiest streets).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we’re moving into what I see as phase two of the company, exclusively taking on large-scale events, launches, and A-list parties. We see property development as an avenue for us to expand, providing a POP to mall openings, corporate conferences, residential housing communities and more.
Our short-term goal is to use our profits to buy the tools we need to efficiently run and scale the business, which will minimize rental needs and cut our overhead costs in half. We are on track to make these purchases, which include a BalloonWorks wrapped sprinter van, by the end of the year.
Long term, we will move into a studio space that will allow us to host people, companies and media outlets from all over the world for photoshoots with our one-of-a-kind backdrops made up of balloons, flowers, streamers and more. We will also operate our rental house out of this space, giving people the opportunity to bring backdrops, photo-booth installations, and other unique balloon integrations from our space into their party.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m lucky for the tribe of people that have been supportive around me that helped spread the name of Balloon Work in it’s beginning stages. I really believe I chose a great industry to be apart of, balloons are really all around us. No matter the event, occasion or place. I am extremely lucky for the past jobs that have shaped and molded me such as learning to cold call and not being afraid of rejection. Taking risks of emailing and creating my own marketing campaign to send out, regardless if I hear back or not.
Early key to success? Smile and dial. I called every event planner I could find and explained BalloonWorks to anyone who would listen.
A major lesson I have learned along the way is, business requires you make tough decisions and that going into business with friends or family may be convenient but not always the best route. If they don’t bring something that you already offer and more to the table it may be best to make those hard decisions and have those hard conversations in the beginning and operate as a business. Find reliable people that have values and skills you can add to your business.
Some great habits I have gained along the way are going to bed with a plan of action to execute the next day and being excited to make it happen! Nothing is more powerful than seeing your visions and company come to life. Making a conscious effort to be thankful we get another day to operate is what keeps me going. The Power is in the NOW! Take each NOW moment and keep pushing forward.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tools for business is UNUM, an all-in-one app for visual planning, data-driven insights and publishing capabilities for digital content.
I also use Square, which has allowed me to elevate the way I invoice, track payments and send out estimates to clients.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Some of my favorite podcasts are How I Built This by Guy Raz which is a podcast that dives into the stories of some of the world’s best-known companies and their journey of starting. Along with Often Ambitious that talks about real and raw behind the scenes and different perspectives of successful women entrepreneurs in today’s society.
Top books: Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, a pivotal book for any age and gender. This book helps you maximize your thinking potential and change your view.
Own the Moment by Carl Lentz, inspiring book by a not so typical Christian Pastor that leads, teaches and gives you practical handles on how to enjoy the NOW that God has given you.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Just Start! If there is something you are passionate about, go in with all your heart and JUST START! Hustling and working for what you want isn’t easy and there will be sleepless nights, early morning and the constant “what if”. But enjoy the journey, live in the NOW & go for it. Better off trying than not trying at all.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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