Many have written about Larsen Jay and his now nationally-present charity Random Acts of Flowers. However, as it often happens with success, we only see the tip of the iceberg – the end-result, the success – but are not privy to the rest of the story. What happens before success is achieved and how does one get to it? I sat down one afternoon and asked Larsen about his paths and passions, understanding more about the man behind so many great production projects and great initiatives benefiting the Knoxville community.
About Larsen Jay:
While recovering in the hospital from a nearly-fatal accident in 2007, Larsen noticed how many of his fellow patients did not have visitors or flowers, two mood-boosters providing much-needed support to patients on the way to recovery. He re-purposed the flowers that had brought him joy and delivered them to some of his fellow patients. And the idea of Random Act of Flowers was born. Based in Knoxville, TN, the charity aims to improve the emotional health and well-being of individuals in health care facilities by delivering recycled flowers, encouragement and personal moments of kindness. Since its 2008 inception, the organization has grown into a nation-wide initiative.
Oana Harrison: How does one find one’s calling and is there more than one?
Larsen Jay: That’s a hard question. I’m on my third career, calling or path, about to enter my fourth.
OH: How do you know which path to choose?
LJ: I don’t know how you determine what your path is but it’s a gut feeling. I’ve been in a half a dozen situations in my life when I just knew I was forcing it and it wasn’t right. I was beating my head against the wall but I didn’t want to quit, I was stubborn. Then I’ve been in several instances where my gut told me I was right, and I was passionate about it – those are two very distinct feelings. I would equate it a lot to a marriage – when you know, you know. To me calling is circumstantial to where you are in life; you have to trust knowing that it’s right and dive full force into it. I’ve jumped off the cliff three-four times with half a parachute and figured half way down if it was the right thing to do. You just have to go for it.
OH: Tell me about the different paths you’ve been on so far.
LJ: I grew up passionate about the theater and the scenic design world. Although I grew up in Syracuse, New York, I spent a lot of time in Tennessee. My grandfather was a carpenter and a volunteer with the Little Theatre in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so as a kid, I came to Tennessee often, and spent time in the theater world. I always loved being around that environment, and in high school, I designed and built all the sets for live theater. I loved that it was part carpentry and part art – and I really found a passion in it. That’s what led me to the University of Tennessee and Clarence Brown Theatre. I put everything I had in my Toyota and drove a thousand miles down south, to Knoxville. I really wanted to do visual design, production design with the thought that I would go one day to New York and design the next big stage production. I worked at the Bijou Theatre through college. It was during college when I got the bug to do film production and that’s when I found my second real passion.
After I graduated with a theater degree from the University of Tennessee, I moved to Dallas. My aunt worked for a company called Lyrick Studios which produced kids’ programming like Barnie, Veggie Tales, and Wishbone. They were about to do the first Barnie movie and since I had a couple of film credits from working in Knoxville, I thought I would get to work on it. I was disappointed when I didn’t. I didn’t have enough experience – they looked at me like “yeah, whatever, kid.” So I was stuck in Dallas without much of a plan. I remember my aunt threw a book in my lap. It was the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals – like the membership club for production people. “Well, you’re here,” she said “figure it out.” Inside the book cover it said “we are a non-profit organization,” so I called them and said “look, you’re non-profit, which means you probably need volunteers. I give you a week of my time if you tell me how to get into the film industry.” They said yes. I went from running and managing staff at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville to taking out trash, bringing in lunch, licking envelopes – doing the grunt work in Dallas. I worked my butt off for a week and the Executive Director said “hey, you have skills, I’ll give you a recommendation.” I interviewed and I got my first PA (production assistant) job in a feature film, a Sony movie – Universal Soldier: The Return.
It was a grind house – there were 30-some production assistants who started and three of us who finished. We worked 13-hour days, 6-days a week, for 6 months straight. It was awful. From there I really got the bug to do film and I wanted to work in production behind the scenes. Everyone said I had to go to L.A. I threw everything that I had in my truck again and moved to L.A. I worked my butt off for 6 months trying to get a job; I was basically broke and about to turn around and leave when I landed my first job at Universal: Erin Brockovich.
I loved the work I was doing but I didn’t love L.A. – the rat race, the traffic. It didn’t have that community feel I liked and I really wanted more quality of life than just career. I came back to Knoxville for a visit with some college friends. That’s when I met the folks are RIVR Media and they were looking for producers. And that’s how I switched from movies to TV production. Six months into the gig, I met Adrian. She was a reporter for WATE Channel 6 for the morning news and I was the second resident of the Sterchi building downtown, which in 2002-2003 downtown was like a ghost town. She interviewed me on the morning news about being a “new downtown resident” and we were engaged six months later.
After several years of TV production, I sort of jumped off the cliff again, when Adrian and I started our own production company, the DoubleJay Creative. That was a whole different thing for me, going from being a producer, sometimes director, sometimes writer – being behind the scenes – to running a business in addition to all that. That’s really when I started to get more involved with the community. We worked and lived downtown for a while, so we got more involved with philanthropy and community projects, served on the Board of the Bijou Theatre, the Joy of Music School, the Symphony, and got involved with non-profits trying to revitalize downtown Knoxville.
I was the guy who brought the ice skating rink back to Market Square – most people don’t realize that. I was fortunate to be a part of the group that started Movies on Market Square, which is now run by the Knox Co. library. Soon thereafter, my good friend Scott Schimmel, co-owner of Bliss and Bliss Home said to me: “Hey, you grew up in New York, you play hockey, right? Then you must know something about ice rinks. You know that fourteen years ago the city used to have a dinky ice rink. I wonder if we could bring it back.” And that was the genesis. I started a non-profit called Center City Events, which is still going on now with other people. The idea was to create events in the inner city to bring people into the center of the city. The ice rink was the first project. Adrian and I ended up funding most of it personally for the first few years to get it up and running. Then we started the East Tennessee Chili Cook-off (which is now with Second Harvest Food Bank) and we did the Daddy-Daughter Dance (which we gave to the Girl Scouts). These bigger events brought in a lot of people into downtown, especially during the holidays. During the recession of 2008 a lot of sponsorships dried up and we had a hard time keeping the organization going. We’d accomplished a lot and done what we needed to do to bring people downtown, so we decided to give the ice rink to the City of Knoxville to keep it alive – and the other events were given to other organizations. It’s been exciting to see them all continue to do well.
Meanwhile, our production business was going very well. We did everything but cable television; we did visual story-telling all over the country: documentaries, tributes, trade show videos, commercials, internal communications, a lot of colleges and corporate material. At its peak, we had 20-some people working for us and crews all over the world. We worked hard at it and it was good.
OH: Sounds perfect.
LJ: It was. Then 2007 happened. Ironically enough, that year I had been helicopter skiing in British Columbia and then I spent a month in Nepal on a documentary scouting trip, I hiked all over – and came back unscathed from all the stuff that should have broken me. Then, on July 29, 2007 I had my accident. I had a workshop on the north side of town – my “guy oasis:” cars and junk. Adrian was out of town. On an early Sunday morning, the roof was leaking. I decided to fix it, so I went up and down the ladder, and the sixteenth time for some reason, coming off the top of the ladder, the ladder collapsed from underneath me. I fell face down onto concrete about a story and a half. I broke my left arm, my left wrist, right wrist, right elbow, right femur, my nose, had ten skull fractures – I really shouldn’t be here… I’m on borrowed shelf-life time; I know that every day when I wake up. I was in ICU for a couple of days, another ten days in level one trauma, another ten in rehab, and about three and a half months in a wheel chair, 12 surgeries and counting putting me back together. And that’s when the fourth career came about in the shape of Random Acts of Flowers.
OH: How did you make that happen?
LJ: It was the right thing to do, it felt great to help other people and to honor the fact that I was still around. It got to a point when I was spending more time on the Random Acts of Flowers non-profit than on my business. I remember people in the company wondering “are we running a production company or a charity?” It just was sort of the perfect storm when over a period of six months to a year Adrian and I had our first child, I was building up Random Acts of Flowers and transitioning Center City Events away. Ultimately, Brandon Ward who was one of our senior producers came to me to discuss owning his own production company. It was the right time for his career and for me, so I sold the business to him. They re-branded it into the Frame Theory and continue to run it successfully today. It was the right thing to do, it felt right to go all-in to the Random Acts of Flowers.
About the same time, I also went back to business school for an executive MBA degree, which was interesting, after being thirteen years out of undergrad. You learn to learn again and it helped me gain the skills necessary to scale Random Acts of Flowers nationally.
OH: So how was business school?
LJ: Business school was great. It was hard – it was the hardest workload year in my life because the executive program is condensed into one super-year. That year, 2011, we had our second child, so I had a newborn at home, we moved, we sold the production company, and I went to school – all in the same one year, so it was insane. I liked that though, because you can do anything for a year and I wanted to go all in. Going through the program really helped me. It helped take what I used to think was business-decision making and turn it into critical thinking: really analyzing, weighing and measuring before deciding, making better and well-informed decisions. It honed in some skills in the finance area and improved others. It ultimately was a crash-course in taking business practices and turning them into business solutions. Because I went for the Executive MBA, I had Random Acts of Flowers as my main school project, allowing me to graduate not only with a degree but with a plan on how to scale the organization nationally. That year almost killed me but it was also awesome, and I walked out of there with a huge amount of skills and a new network of people. I go back to talk to the MBA classes each year and I try to support the business school and give back to the program.
OH: How did the plan translate into action?
LJ: I have been all in, focused on growing Random Acts of Flowers, and now we just opened our fifth branch in October in Indianapolis. We are now in five states. We actually opened six locations but the one in Greenville, TN didn’t have enough resources to support itself. It ran for about 15 months and served about 6,000 people, though, and it generated a group of volunteers that continue the mission with a local club, which is what’s important. I was very proud of that branch. It helped us learn more about the expansion model.
OH: What’s next for you?
LJ: My next chapter is focused on service to others. I had my mid-life crisis at age 31 with the accident – because I should be dead, you know. I wake up every day with a different perspective, and I’m far more humble and focused on people instead of stuff, I’m far more focused on community and what I can do to be helpful. I sort of go into everything with the attitude “how can I be more helpful?” and I didn’t have that ten years ago. Most people don’t until they are retired but I just got a jump-start.
OH: It’s easy for people to just see the end-result and not the work that goes into creating your success. So what are some of the lessons you learned along the way?
LJ: I think that the biggest thing for me is, from the minute I left home to come to Tennessee and at every stage of my life since, there are a hundred thousand people who will tell you “no” or “it can’t happen,” or they just can’t see it. For some reason it’s really easy for people to discourage someone else’s idea and it happened to me at every stage of my life. So the biggest lesson for me was that if it were easy, anybody would do it. Most people will tell you “no” because they have a fear of doing it themselves. Most people are risk-adverse. I’m not. I’m O.K. jumping off the cliff with half a parachute and figuring things on my way down because I don’t really mind falling on my face – no pun intended. I guess I don’t worry too much how we get there. If you are doing what’s right, if you are doing it for the right reasons, you’ll figure it out on the way. But you have to stand up and say “yes, I’m going to do this.”
OH: I think fear of failure is a huge factor for people.
LJ: Oh, I got rid of that a long time ago…. If it fails, fine, try again or go do something else.
OH: What other ingredient is vital to success?
LJ: Another lesson I learned was that you’re the only one who’s going to work harder to see your dream through. You can’t look around the room for that. You have to be the one who gets to work first and leaves work last. I don’t have it in me to do anything half-way so anyone who’s ever accomplished anything it was because they were committed to it. Be honest, tell people that you don’t know when you don’t know, if you fall on your face, just focus on fixing it, on finding the solution, and move on. But you have to work on the solution not just complain about the problems.
OH: How do you deal with naysayers, especially when you have so many things going on? How do you stay focused on your work and how much “no” can you take?
LJ: That’s a hard question. I don’t know. I think it’s part of people’s DNA, your work ethic. There are some people who can drive through negativity but it’s hard, it’s not easy. There are times when I’m thinking it’s all going to fall apart, there are times when I’ve done stuff and the organization was almost broke so you worry how you’re going to keep the lights on. But you learn to rest, not quit. You learn to solve it one piece at a time. At age 31, when the accident happened, I gained a different perspective, you know. You have great clarity when you know you’re on borrowed time. It drives me bonkers to sit around. I feel like I ought to be doing something.
OH: Should one play by the rules in order to be successful?
LJ: By the law yes but not necessarily by the life rules – I think that good people in the world are attracted to other good people with a passion to do something. In non-profit, people give to people first and then to the cause. They believe in me and I believe in the mission. I answer their questions and concerns and they give to me, they trust me to follow through. If you are truly passionate about something and you call someone up to say I want to open, say, a hot dog stand, and ask them to tell you what you know about business so you can make the dream happen, someone will help you. If you are all in, people will jump on board. If you are wishy-washy…who invests into a half-assed passion?
As an example, the very first place where we expanded Random Acts of Flowers was Tampa, FL. I wasn’t thinking about that location and didn’t know anyone there. A group of people who were very passionate about the idea, professionally stalked me. They called me every week and said “we are bringing this to Tampa, we have resources lined up, will you do it?” I was thinking more about expanding closer to Knoxville. But they hounded me and they were passionate about it. I told them they could come visit and sure enough, they showed up. So you have to be willing to work for your idea – there is a fine line between being a pain and being memorable. If you can be somewhere along that line, people will see that you are really passionate; they’ll say “they’re not giving up, so we’d better talk to them.”
OH: What if you have too many ideas – how do you choose what to pursue?
LJ: Get rid of all the half-baked ideas – put them aside. Ask yourself what is the single best thing I can get accomplished in the shortest amount of time and focus on that one. Adrian, actually, has a great system. If she touches a piece of paper (or folder), she must do something about it, finish whatever task is needed before picking up the next one. I think that that’s one of the main things I learned that you have chapters in your life, and you need to be willing to turn the page, to say I’m done with that chapter, this is what I’m focused on right now. Who cares what I didn’t do ten years ago, or six months ago? This is what’s most important now. I’ve even done that with friendships. I don’t fault people for not maintaining good friendships. It takes a lot of work. I may not be a part of their chapter right now and that’s okay. If they come back around, I’ll be pleasant and catch up but I don’t angst that someone didn’t call me. You have to let it go.
OH: What if people stole your idea?
LJ: I’m flattered. Do you know how many people have stolen the Random Acts of Flowers idea? There’s a dozen other organizations do exactly the same thing. Guess what? We put a page on our website and invited them to connect with other resources in the community; I spend time with those people who want to open the same type of business and help them out, give them advice. Someone stole your idea? Fine, go be better than them. There’s hardly any idea that someone else hasn’t already have. If you have the best idea for a product, seriously, most likely someone else is already doing it. Be first at it, be better at it, and then go do something else. Do the best you can with what you’re passionate about. There are so many things you can do – go do!
OH: What has been the most fulfilling endeavor for you so far?
LJ: The most fulfilling thing for me is service to other people. When your entire motivation is to be helpful to someone else, it’s an easy compass. I find great passion in that. I’m very fortunate: we had great careers, we are very fortunate and just making money is not my motivation. I work at a non-profit. I find great passion in helping others and solving problems – and be the most helpful in whatever it is. When you want nothing and you want to do for others, it’s easy to stay motivated.
OH: How do you balance hard work and family life?
LJ: You just include your family in what you do. And know what your priorities are. I have three basic priorities: my wife and marriage, my kids, and my community. Well, and there’s also me; so there are four parts to this equation. The reality is that, at any given point, someone in that equation loses. You can only pick two or three at a time, so it will depend on the situation which three I pick. If my wife needs me, I’m there. Who needs me most at the time? I’m last in the lineup, so that suffers sometimes too. But you have to know what your priorities are and when to say no. There are times when I walked out of meetings for my family. Time is short, and I’m on borrowed time. It’s a balancing act, no doubt.
OH: So what’s the next chapter for you?
LJ: I’m taking my focus on service and community and helping others. I’m hoping to serve in a civic capacity and will be running for County Commission in the next election cycle. I believe in servant leadership and hope that I can bring my leadership skills and experience to the community in a new way. Certainly, this is a whole new chapter and I am jumping off the cliff again; I know some of it, I’ll work hard to learn as much as possible, and the rest I’ll figure out on the way down.
©2017 Oana Harrison; Photos provided by Larsen Jay.