Elio Calabrese | Urban Planting Cleveland
The first time that I heard about Urban Planting Cleveland was at the Hessler Street Fair on Cleveland’s East Side. I was immediately drawn to their tent because of their framed moss pieces, but I soon wanted to take home their entire collection. Of course, it helped that Elio’s parents, who were manning the booth, were absolutely delightful humans. They spoke so highly of their son and his small business that I could not help but to support the cause—plus, the plant art was simply to-die-for. After hanging my moss frame, I tagged Urban Planting Cleveland in a picture and posted it to Instagram. Within a few hours, Elio had responded, personally thanking me for my purchase and support.
From that moment on, a virtual friendship was born. So, when it came time to finally meet for the first time, I was excited to get to know the man behind the plants. During our conversation, I learned that I was one of the first to tag Elio’s pieces and, after quite a few months, he was still ecstatic about it.
When we first set up our face-to-face meeting, I told Elio that it shouldn’t go longer than an hour or so. Rather, we got lost in conversation and sat sipping margaritas for well over two hours. Elio is a laid-back, easy-going guy with a grounded outlook on life. Through our conversation, it was evident that he has an encouraging support system of friends and family, whom he relies on heavily to keep him going.
This is Elio’s story.
Elio Calabrese grew up in the suburbs on the westside of Cleveland. After graduating from high school in 2009, Elio ventured to the University of Cincinnati for college where he majored in Communications and Public Relations. He loved his major up until senior year, when digital media started to play a major role in the curriculum. He remembers seeing the shift from learning about traditional public relations to utilizing social media for ad campaigns. This shift caused Elio to feel uncomfortable in the education he had once loved.
“Through my sophomore or junior year in college, the trend was all about press releases. And then that part disappeared and the education became all about social media. Suddenly, we were learning how to advertise and run campaigns using different social media sites. I’ll be honest, seeing and feeling this shift in education made me really start to hate social media!”
Elio admits that he doesn’t like feeling intertwined in other people’s personal lives. When using social media for personal use, he would catch himself knowing entirely too many facts about people that he never made the effort to talk to in real life. This made him feel uncomfortable and got him thinking about what other people were saying about him. In fact, he deleted his Facebook almost 10 years ago for that reason. But, in April 2018, for business purposes only, Elio decided to give social media another shot.
“Having a business page is actually kind of cool because it gets my name out there. Any time someone posts about my business, tags me in a picture, or in their Instagram story it is like, the most exciting thing for me! It doesn’t matter who the tag comes from. Any time I see my business tagged in a post it’s like, ‘Yes! I’m making it!”
While Elio’s business is young, his love for plants dates back to his college days. His roommates at the time were starting to get into the art of keeping plants and Elio decided to take an elective horticulture class to learn more about them. But, to his disappointment, the class became all about cells and plant biology and less about garden cultivation; By the end of the semester he had little inspiration to take away. Thankfully, he had his neighbor Julia to pull him back into his soon-to-be-passion.
“Julia was incredible. She had plants galore, inside and outside. I wish I had a picture of it because it was insane. We would hang out with her all the time and she started teaching us about them. She knew plants on an intuitive level; she knew exactly what they needed to survive. My two roommates were already into caring for plants, but Julia really helped me understand them on a different, non-scientific, level.”
Once Elio graduated and left Cincinnati, he returned home to begin his career search and worked at a restaurant in the meantime. However, as he started to look for jobs, it soon became evident to him that he would not enjoy working in the field of public relations.
“I had always known that I wanted to own my own business eventually. My dad was in the construction business for a long time and ultimately started a handy-man business in order to spend more time with family. Watching him switch career paths and build a thriving company sparked my interested in doing the same kind of thing. He inspired me to follow in his path.”
After a year-long search, Elio landed a job at a small, locally owned company in the plant industry This lead him to going to multiple plant shows and exhibitions through the year where he has gained helpful insight from various small business owners.
“Getting to know other people in the business and being able to see what they are doing creatively has opened my eyes an enormous amount. The resources that I have gotten are unbelievable; it’s like free college! Learning from other people has been the most valuable thing; I have gained a ton of knowledge that will remain with me forever.”
While he was launching his career and becoming more comfortable in the field, Elio started buying creative plant items and playing around with his artistic side. But, when these items lost their thrill, Elio began creating less and less. Eventually, they found a spot tucked away on storage shelves and Elio ignored his creative drive, with the active thought that there was no way he could start a business surrounding creative horticulture. That is until one day, he woke up and, without explanation, decided to just go for it.
“Starting this business literally happened for me in a span of three days. Mind you, it was something that I had always talked about doing, but never put the effort into making it happen. I had bought little things here and there, like a living wall system, but I was just sitting on them. I knew I was putting this idea off but I have no explanation as to why. Finally, one day, I texted my Uncle who is an accountant, and who had helped a lot of small businesses, asking if he could help me sort out the financial aspect of my idea. He almost immediately texted back and said ‘What do you say we go out to dinner tomorrow?’ And that’s exactly what we did. The day after that dinner, I purchased my LLC.”
In late 2017, Elio launched Urban Planting Cleveland but had no concept of how difficult it would be to thrive as a small business owner. Yet, he was fortunate enough to have local artist Chris Deighan on his side. Chris took Elio under his wing and immediately taught him everything there is to know about building and running a successful company.
“Chris truly helped me get started. He has been the biggest help because he gave me all of the insider information that I would have had to figure out for myself otherwise. From tent quality, to the perfect event set-up sequence, to teaching me about adding sales tax to items upon checkout; I would not be where I am today, nor would I have had the knowledge to grow so rapidly, without him.”
Yet, with all of Chris’s help, Elio continued to learn so much on his own. He laughed while reminiscing about maintaining his tent through inclement weather during one of his first events.
“I learned about tent weights that day due to the high winds we were experiencing. At one point, I was literally hanging from the beams in the middle of my tent to keep it on the ground. The Pierogi Lady, Autumn Johnston, was in the booth next to me and ended up tearing down her tent early due to the weather and loaning me her tent weights to keep me grounded. I will forever be grateful for her kind gesture that day. Honestly, this entire year has been filled with experiences like that. When you own a small business, you truly live and you learn.”
Aside from learning the basics of event participation, Elio has continued to discover how to appeal to his audience. He’s had to come to an understanding that part of that process involves learning that something that he may be obsessed with as a business owner may not be as popular with his customers.
“My biggest problem is realizing that things that I don’t like, other people may be obsessed with. That’s hard for me creatively. Like succulents; People are obsessed with succulents and they are not my favorite. I prefer tropical foliage and trees, leafier plants. My heart really goes into creating moss frames; they are something that I make that I am super passionate about and proud of, but they have never really taken off with customers. You know, there is hard work that goes into caring for plants. But, the moss frames take some time to create since I actually design and create every single one myself; there is a lengthier process behind them. I try not to let other people’s preferences bring me down, but that’s hard to do when your heart goes into creating pieces that just don’t sell as well as others.”
Elio is lucky that he has such a strong support system to keep him going when creating gets tough. Take his friend Wayne, for example. Elio met Wayne at one of the first events he ever brought his business to and they have since become unlikely best friends. Wayne is a retired, older gentleman but his positivity and charm keeps Elio going, even on the toughest days.
“Wayne, man, this guy. Talking about him honestly makes me tear up at times. He has come to basically every event that I have done and he is always popping over and bringing me plants. He will call me out of nowhere, usually coincidentally when I am having a horrible day; It’s just like he just knows. In the middle of winter, after some of the darkest days, Wayne will call me and say ‘Brother Elio! The sun is shining today!’ Or he will call to tell me about cool shelves he saw at Home Depot and explain these visions he has of me putting my plants on them. He’s one of those people you know, that pops up right when you’re questioning why you do this work, and he reminds you. He keeps me going on the dark days.”
Like Wayne, it’s people in general that keep Elio focused on the positive sides of business. Earlier this year, after participating in an event that went horribly wrong, he met a stranger that turned around his whole day around. A man approached Elio at his tent and told him that he had a huge plant at his house and asked him if he would want it. Oddly enough, Elio admits that situations like this happen to him at almost every event that he goes to but he usually passes up the offer and never hears from the person again. On this particular day, however, he decided to follow through with the opportunity.
“It’s a funny story, actually. I was exhausted after packing up from the event, I hadn’t made any money after working all day, I was frustrated, and I was far from home. But something in me decided that if I was all the way out in the area anyway, I might as well accept the guy’s offer and go see the plant at his house. Mind you, I hadn’t even seen a picture of the plant at this point. I texted the gentleman multiple times without a response but he had given me his address, so I decided to go check it out. As I pulled up to his house, I immediately saw the cactus in his hard and fell in love; it was huge and one that is cold-hardy up here. So, I went and knocked on the door. He answered and I ended up spending a few hours with this man and his wife. They hooked me up with a ton of plants and educated me on each one of them. He was super excited to share them with me. It’s people like him and the real connections that I make that makes everything in this business worthwhile.”
With the momentum of his first summer event season coming to a close, Elio is excited to focus his selfcare while dreaming up ways to continue to expand his business and give back to the community.
“I am currently working a full-time job on top of running Urban Planting Cleveland so trying to find selfcare in the midst of that is difficult. Over the past year, I have learned from other business owners that you have to find ways to release your mind and make time for yourself. The most difficult part is knowing that you can’t make working too much of a routine because you’ll go crazy. But, you can’t just lose complete sight of having a routine because you need to grow and remain passionate about your work. Finding a work/life balance is truly a never-ending struggle.”
When it comes to maintaining a work/life balance, Elio has his fiancé Liz to thank for keeping him grounded and afloat. She has taken it upon herself to become completely involved in all of the behind-the-scenes aspects of Urban Planting Cleveland and has helped Elio evolve his business into what it is today.
“From buying table cloths, to writing all of my signs, to coming up with new ideas, and advising me on how to utilize social media to my advantage, Liz does it all. She’s truly amazing. Sometimes, she will just come home from thrift stores unexpectedly with bags of stuff- things for displays, planters, and any other random items that she finds that she thinks I can use creatively. She hates being in the spotlight but she does so much behind the scenes. And, most importantly, she brings me back down to earth.”
Elio knows that continuing to expand this business is what he is going to do; It’s what he wants to do. But, just like he felt when he had the idea to start this business, he is trying to get to the point where he is ready to take another leap of faith. He is consciously working on ridding his mind of all negative thoughts in order to push himself forward in life and in his business.
“I recently heard in a podcast (Episode #76 of The Morning Inspiration Radio Show: How to Schedule Your Goals) that you can never say that you are going to tryto do something. If you say you are going to tryto do something, you automatically leave room for failure. You can’t try to do something. Either you do it or you don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.”
Elio’s advice to you? The same advice he is currently giving himself.
“If you think you want to do it, just do it. It may not be as hard as you think. I am guilty of having a thousand ideas I never pursued, and I am sure you are too. So, stop making excuses and just go for it. You will never know until you try. If you believe that it is a good idea, you can make it into a reality.”
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