In his senior year of high school, Elsea became the first employee of Bellhops, a startup on-demand moving service based in his hometown of Chattanooga.
Since its founding in 2011, Bellhops has expanded to 135 cities with over 7,000 contractors and a $50 million valuation. For three years, he watched the company mature to success, instilling in him the idea that anything was possible. Elsea’s entrepreneurial curiosity was sparked when he realized that the Bellhops model of empowering contractors around the U.S. took advantage of web and mobile-based platforms that had the potential of improving other staid service industries.
“The model is so new, and it’s so scalable. I wanted to see if I could bring that technology and mindset to other industries that needed it,” Elsea says. He quickly realized the opportunity for innovation in home organizing, an industry that some of his family members had been involved in.
But he didn’t want to start from scratch, so he reached out to his aunt, Marla Cilley, who founded FlyLady.net—now a leader in home management—in 1999. Though the Brevard, NC-based company boasts upwards of 900,000 members all over the world, its offerings are virtually free.
FlyLady sends emails providing home organization tips and challenges and monetizes only by selling products like calendars and organizers. Elsea knew it was the best organization to pitch his business idea: to include a premium service option which, for a monthly fee, would provide one-on-one guidance through Skype sessions, helping to humanize the home-organizing experience for FlyLady’s clientele.
Elsea’s proposal was to hire veteran FlyLady users to become mentors for members just beginning the home decluttering and organization process. He recognized that a dirty or disorganized home caused a lot of mental stress for women.
“If they have someone—a mentor, a friend—that’s invested in their journey to a clean home, they would be more likely to achieve their goals,” explains Elsea.
Elsea’s six-page business proposal was initially met with some doubts from the FlyLady executives.
“But I told them, hey listen, I’ve literally lived this business model for three years, and I know it can work. Let me build it; I’ll raise the capital, I’ll build the team,” he says.
After earning their good will, Elsea got to work. He reached out to all of FlyLady’s successful customers, inquiring whether they’d like to serve as a paid mentor for the new Premium subscribers (“FlyBabies”) in their regions.
After receiving 211 applications and conducting five rounds of interviews, the new FlyLady Premium team selected 26 women to help launch the service. The mentors support their respective regional cohorts by sending out motivational messages, organizational tips and decluttering advice through Facebook, GroupMe and Skype. The services range from $9 a month for “test pilot” option, to $49 a month for weekly mentor sessions.
Melissa Londenberg was a user of the FlyLady services for 15 years before taking on the role of a Premium mentor.
“It’s exciting to be part of a tech company that has an innovative way of reaching clients world-wide,” Londenberg says. She believes that the most rewarding aspect of her job is seeing transformations not just in the homes of her mentees, but in their personal lives.
“I have one Flybaby that has started feeling so much better about herself that she has started dating again after years,” she shares.
This feedback has affirmed Elsea’s faith in the company.
“I realized very quickly that this wasn’t just a business, but a platform that allowed people to make great friends in a very unique kind of way,” Elsea reflects. To date, FlyLady Premium has received 100% customer satisfaction reviews and even led to in-person meetups and social gatherings amongst the FlyLady cohorts.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When Elsea announced the launch of FlyLady Premium on a Duke University Facebook page, he received some backlash from students who claimed that this service “further marginalized women” and “promoted negative gender stereotypes.”
“Honestly, that really hurt. It was frustrating because I had dedicated a full year of my life to something that was changing the lives of women in such meaningful ways,” Elsea says.
Elsea admits he had begun to harbor some doubts. But after seeing the written testimonies and talking to women going through the process, his attitude changed.
“I don’t care anymore how students perceive it. You don’t start companies so your friends can think you’re cool. You do it because it’s a way for you to bring value to others on a massive scale. And Premium does that,” he says.
Participation in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program at Duke this past year helped build his confidence too.
“Being a founder can sometimes be a lonely experience,” he confesses.
The program connected Elsea with mentors like Howie Rhee, managing director of alumni and student affairs at the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, who helped him to refine his vision and stay motivated through the process.
“Alex consistently outperforms his own goals and does so with a positive attitude. I have loved every minute of working with him and know he is deserving of all the success he’s had and which will come his way in the future,” Rhee comments.
Elsea says his goal for FlyLady Premium is to have a presence in every major city across the U.S. within two years, even if he’s not the one leading the company post-graduation.
While he says he will always be involved in coming up with ideas for the company, he also realizes that when his vision goes as far as it can, he may no longer be the best person to run it. After seeing the passion and involvement of the FlyLady mentors, he knows that someone who has lived through the struggle of decluttering a home and life may better serve as the company’s leader someday.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop building businesses,” Elsea laughs. He believes he can bring his fresh perspectives and knowledge of new technologies to many groups of people or industries that may benefit from it.
“If I’m not being entrepreneurial, I’m bored. That’s just who I am.”