Nicole Rock, co-founder of White Rabbits & Magic Bank pictured at Cafe Amelie courtyard in New Orleans
Nicole Rock can recall the feeling of being suddenly paralyzed with inexplicable fear when she first arrived in New Orleans.
Leaving behind the speedy New York City lifestyle and her cushy job as an executive assistant, Rock had moved to New Orleans to expand White Rabbits, an event planning company she had started with her best friend and business partner.
But as soon as she had unpacked her boxes and realized the gravity of her decision, she found herself in a panic.
How she could expand her business without a deep understanding of the city or any existing connections, she thought.
In New York, Rock was in her comfort zone. When a client wanted to plan an anniversary dinner, she could rattle off a phone book worth of incredible restaurants, venues and activities. She would introduce White Rabbits to restaurateurs and hotel managers without any hesitation.
In New Orleans, she didn’t know where to start.
What came next was what she calls a divine intervention. After two months in New Orleans, while she was out scoping a co-working space one afternoon, she mistakenly walked into the doors of The Idea Village, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in New Orleans.
Her timing was perfect. She had not heard of it, but was eager to learn more. Next, she would go on to apply for an accelerator program and spend the next three months there expanding White Rabbits, and developing the company’s event planning platform, Magic Bank.
We sat down with Nicole to hear more about how her and her co-founder pulled off working full-time jobs in the hustle and bustle of New York City, while getting White Rabbits off the ground, and taking the company from New York to New Orleans.
EF: In your own words, what is White Rabbits and what is the philosophy behind it?
White Rabbits is a customized gift giving and experience planning company. We look to help people who want to do something extraordinary, whether for a personal event like a wedding or a romantic getaway weekend or a full-blown corporate event. We come from an executive assistant background and we found that people are really looking to do something different and inspire their employees, or really pull out all the stops and make people leave going, “Wow, I experienced something there.” We decided to start a company that specialized in putting things together that people didn’t know were possible.
EF: Both you and your co-founder come from an executive assistant background. Can you draw on that a little bit?
Kristen, my business partner (she is in New York) and I have been executive assistants for top level CEOs in private equity, and I worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair, hedge funds. So we were kind of doing all these things for our bosses. Everything from planning our boss’s daughter’s gluten-free 14th birthday party to planning these corporate retreats at Sundance. She and I met when we were assistants in New York and came together and said, “We’ve been doing this this whole time for someone else, why don’t we do it on the side and see if we can start a side business.” So we did.
EF: When you started your side business, did you still have your executive assistant job?
Yes, we were both executive assistants 9-5 and then planning events, weddings and giving services at the same time. It was definitely a lot to balance. We were sneaky, sneaky. You never knew what those executive assistants were up to. You have to follow the dream, right? We both liked a lot of the aspects of being an assistant, we like planning these events, but it’s hard to have a startup, especially in New York. There’s all the burdens of finances and everything that come along with it, so we decided to to do this on the side. I’ll never forget. We planned a full-blown four-day corporate retreat here in New Orleans for a marketing firm based out of Austin and we planned it all remotely from our desks, from our cubicles.
EF: How was your transition moving to New Orleans? In terms of your business, it sounds like that was the right fit. Coming from New York, it must have been an adjustment.
It was an adjustment for sure. In New York you feel like there’s a lot of noise. It’s go-go-go all the time. Everyone is so busy. Everyone is distracted. It doesn’t matter if you have the most amazing product or service, at some point it’s all just noise. In New Orleans I was having the same meetings with hotel concierge or head of marketing that I was always having in New York, but all of a sudden it was like I was being heard. Instead of “Oh yeah we should do something!” it was “Yes, we want to work with you. We want to hire you.” Period. It was much more natural and organic and it happened much quickly and easier than in New York.
EF: Since moving here, do you feel like you are making the progress you were hoping to at this point? Or do you feel like it’s happening at a slower rate than you thought?
The service side of our business definitely happened more quickly than I thought it would. There are so many events here in New Orleans, so many festivals and parties. New Orleans is the #1 city for destination weddings, #4 city in the U.S. for corporate travel. There are a lot of groups coming here who want the New Orleans experience and don’t know where to find it. You can get lost on Google searching through the swamp tours and the ghost tours, but for someone who wants a really authentic experience, they’ll come to us for that.
EF: Your business partner is in New York and you’re here in New Orleans. How has that affected your business? I’m sure it’s an asset in some ways and difficult in others.
My business partner is also my best friend and no matter how crazy the day gets or how many emails we go to bed with, we always wake up and the first thing that we do is talk to each other about goals for the day. I think that helps keep us focused and on track, and also stay accountable. We’re not sitting next to each other in an office but we have to still be working together. I would be shocked if business partners who work in the same office talk more than us. We talk all day, everyday – Slack, text, email, phone calls. We try and keep constant communication to make sure we are both in agreement on the direction the business is moving.
EF: Starting your own business is really challenging and can be overwhelming. What is the biggest thing that you have struggled with?
When you have your own business, you are the CEO, CFO, head of marketing, social media manager, janitor. You get pulled in a million different directions. And people LOVE to give advice to entrepreneurs. It’s unreal. I know usually it comes from a good place, but a lot of times it just becomes very overwhelming because you’ll have one person say, “You have to do it this way!” and then the next conversation is, “You should never do it that way!” At some point you’re wearing all these different hats, you’re doing all these tasks and jobs and then you’re getting information overload. I think the most challenging part is silencing the noise. Filtering data while being in a very overwhelming environment is very challenging. Luckily I have a business partner that I can sit down and ask, “What do we want to do?” Because the bottom line is if she and I aren’t comfortable with it, it isn’t going to work.
EF: With information overload, where do you find that comfort? Talking to your business partner can make things more clear, but is there ever a moment where you go, “I don’t know where to look” or “what compass I should be following?”
Yeah, I think that’s usually when I step away from something for a little bit. If I really am feeling torn, I find usually that if I step away and either go to the gym or take a long shower, read a book or play the piano. I’ll usually wake up in the morning and know the direction that I want to go in.
EF: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about entrepreneurs?
There is nothing glamorous about being an entrepreneur. It’s a struggle. I think when people think of an entrepreneur they think of Marc Zuckerberg or the creator of Snapchat, where you have this idea, you built it and you became a billionaire.
“The bottom line is, you’re a one-woman show.”
Every decision is on your shoulders and you also care about the company so much because it’s yours. It’s not like you’re working for someone else and if you finish the project you get a pat on the back. You want this to succeed so badly, and there are all these people to turn to, but there’s no one to turn to that day. In that moment, it’s Kristen and I.
EF: What motivates you to get up every morning and do the work that you do? How do you acknowledge that some things may go right and maybe some things will go wrong and maybe a client won’t like what you’ll do?
I get to wake up everyday and do my dream job. This is a job I created for myself. I think people idolize the entrepreneur lifestyle, like “Oh, you can work from home” or “Oh, you can sleep in” and really, that’s the difficult part.
“You have to wake up and get your mind focused and hustle out the door and do the job that you made for yourself.”
Whenever I feel unmotivated, (because everyone goes through those moments,) I have to ask myself, “What’s the other option?” I created this job because I picked my biggest strengths, what I wanted to wake up and do it everyday. That’s all I’m supposed to do, and so there’s no excuse for not doing it. There’s no alternative. Once you go down this path and you start this business, it’s like you’re so laser focused on making it as big as you can. I hated being an executive assistant. I hated every day of that job. I did it for 6 years. I did it for very famous people. I was very good at it, but I was miserable. I wanted to create a company where I could hire women that could be empowered and be boss bitches, and not get trapped in a role where there’s no room for growth.
EF: How do you manage the stress of it all?
You have to have some kind of a balance. If I’m trying to make magic for people, I can’t be a worn down stressball all the time. There are certain things that I just don’t sacrifice. I work out, I play and coach volleyball, and I play the piano. Those are things that I do, no matter how busy I am. Sometimes on the craziest of days when I’m feeling so much pressure, those are the days that I do a 3 o’clock workout. When I’m working out, maybe the first 10 minutes I’m thinking about work, but by the end I really have gotten some of the nerves and adrenaline out, and I can go back and sit down and feel a little bit more grounded. I think you have to recognize that the work is never going to be done – it never ends.
“This is not the kind of lifestyle where you can say, “I finished my work today.” That sentence has never happened.”
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Magic Bank platform? It would give you access to wherever you want to work and you could do that remotely?
Essentially, the technology will be for event planners to make their lives easier. Right now, the trend in event planning is towards this highly curated events. The planners just don’t have the time and resources to give the people what they’re looking for. For example, if you and your partner and me and my partner go to a hotel and we want to get married there, we are all given the same preferred vendor sheet – the same florist, the same calligrapher, the same band, the same DJ. So, it used to be good. People wanted this traditional, cookie-cutter ceremony, but the trend has gone towards this highly curated level. So, the event planners are left scrambling. Essentially, the technology platform is going to house all the data that we have collected over the past four years of gifts, experiences, vendors and venues so that event planners can curate an event specifically for each client.
When collecting data about venues and vendors, is there a list of cities that you anticipate adding to Magic Bank?
Our first launch will be in New Orleans and New York, simply because we have the most access. But we have a list of our top 10 cities that have the most corporate and personal events (like weddings). We see ourselves in Dallas, San Francisco, Miami, and L.A. within the next two years.
*Editor’s Note: Magic Bank will be competing in the Big Idea a crowd-driven pitch competition taking place Friday, March 24 during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, an annual festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation in the city.