Originally from Indianapolis, Laura Helm, founder and owner of Ashton Events, first experienced what Lakeland has to offer when she was connected with an internship at Cypress Gardens through the Lakeland Economic Development Council during her senior year in college. Little did she know at the time, just how much of an impact her own work would have on the development of this up-and-coming and entrepreneurial rich community.
"Ashton Events will turn 8 years old this August," Helm said. "When I graduated from college, I took a full-time job doing events planning for an insurance company. It took about six months for me to realize that the job wasn't creative enough for me. I approached my boss and asked about starting Ashton Events on the side. He was incredibly supportive. I worked both jobs for about two years and eventually the insurance company asked about me taking on more responsibility with them. My heart simply wasn't in it, so I parted ways with them. I ended up finding a new part time job at Florida Southern University in Lakeland."
Helm explained that this job was a great fit and one that allowed her to focus more effort on Ashton Events. She remained in that part-time position for about a year until some unexpected things happened in the summer of 2013.
"I got really sick and needed surgery that summer," she said. "I was also notified that my position with Florida Southern had to become full-time. I said 'no thank you' and in the fall of 2013, I devoted my exclusive attention to Ashton Events." About that time, Helm had coffee with the Director of Catapult, a community centered co-working space in Lakeland. The project wasn't even public yet, but Helm agreed to rent a space and joined the growing list of entrepreneurs looking for a community of like-minded individuals.
Ashton Events started as event planning and design, but Helm admits that, at the time, she didn't really understand the full potential of the design aspect and what those opportunities looked like. While still working part-time at Florida Southern, a mentor encouraged Helm to change the design process into more of a story telling process. As a result, they now incorporate a 'Design Narrative', which allows them to send clients a narrative of what their day will look like. These narratives create a framework for planning the process and their expectations.
Ashton Events will help guide you through every step and decision of your magical day. Using a four-step approach, Helm and her team act as advocates and stewards as they develop a truly unique narrative that captures your story. Helm explained, "Our specialty is working in non-traditional spaces," she said. "We've worked in all sorts of peculiar places, including downtown streets and back porches. We try to create the environment of your home and what you love most about it, no matter where we're at. We hear clients say, 'My porch is my favorite place on earth.' Our job is to make that space work."
Going back to her days of playing collegiate tennis, Helm has always enjoyed working and competing in a team environment. At Ashton Events, she's managed to create a fun and dynamic environment in the office. "I enjoy fostering the team and figuring out the right blend of people. It's often part excitement and part terror, but it keeps life interesting." Ashton Events has one full time employee, four part-time and four interns. Helm also employs a team of five to seven women that help with flowers and day-of implementation at weddings.
Helm's teamwork mentality extends beyond Ashton Events. She was part of a collaboration project with the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency. The results of the collaboration produced The Collective at Mass Market and HAUS 820, among many other incredible additions to the burgeoning creative scene in Lakeland. The Collective is an office building, shared with six other tenants, where Helm and her team now call home. HAUS 820 is a renovated historic warehouse with wall-to-wall white brick, large windows and industrial finishes, giving the former A&P grocery store a perfect blend of modern day amenities and vintage charm. Helm formed HAUS Management to operate HAUS 820 and offers it up as an additional space for her customers to host events. "It's a blank canvas that you can transform," she said.
Through it all, Helm remains humble, authentic and honest about what it means to be an entrepreneur. "I love creating things, but I don't find the business side very enjoyable at all," she said. "The freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur is great, but the business side can be challenging. For example, owning and claiming my own value. Initially it was difficult to justify charging as much as I did for something that comes so naturally to me. Over time, I learned that monetizing my time is an important part of doing business."
Looking ahead, Helm knows she has an incredible opportunity to impact the lives of so many individuals. She knows that her services are something people need, but she's learned to not take anything for granted. "I met another owner at a conference who ran, what seemed like, a successful event planning business," she said. "For whatever reason her business closed down and she's been working for others ever since. That taught me things can change in an instant, no matter how prepared you are, and to remain open-handed and humble. Whenever we experience a lull in business, I'll sometimes joke with my friends about being a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines if things don't work out."
What advice does Helm have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "I can't stress having a mentor enough," she said. "Find someone with business prowess, integrity, and most importantly, someone you respect. Sometimes it's easier to have someone out of your industry because they're just guiding you to the best business practice. Remember, the onus for keeping the relationship going is on the mentee. It's up to this person to do their homework and to be conscious of the mentor's time. Approach the conversation yourself and make it easier on the mentor." Helm also recommends The Tribe of Mentors podcast series.