Hearts and Flowers
Reinventing the flower industry from the topsoil up. How Christina Stembel landed in a bed of (sustainable) roses--despite encountering a few thorns along the way.
This past Thanksgiving, Farmgirl Flowers’ founder and CEO Christina Stembel didn’t answer phone calls or emails—she was too busy “slinging flowers” alongside her 82 employees as they worked shoulder-to-shoulder to meet the holiday rush. This Christmas, her favorite holiday, she’ll be doing the same. But this fresh-faced farm girl (she grew up in rural Indiana) doesn’t mind putting in 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift on her company’s design floor, because this place is her life’s work, and her family. Ask Christina about the possibility of children (she’s happily married) and she just laughs. “I have 82 children,” she says.
Farmgirl Flowers’ business model is refreshingly simple: the company sells flowers online, featuring one stylish arrangement per day, delivered charmingly by bicycle if you live in San Francisco; by FedEx if you live anywhere else in the country.
Christina is an unlikely entrepreneur. “I never knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur until I moved to Silicon Valley,” she says. “You know how in LA everyone has a head shot in their back pocket? In Silicon Valley everyone has a business plan in their back pocket. There’s a contagious energy here.”
She was working at Stanford Law School as director of alumni relations when the entrepreneurial bug bit. “I drove all my friends nuts, because I’d have a different business idea every week,” she says wryly. “I’d turn girl’s night out into a focus group.”
The idea for Farmgirl came about when Christina was organizing an event for the school, and the price of flowers sent her reeling. “So I started researching the whole industry,” she says. What struck her as most backward about the business model she found was the high degree of waste. “40 percent to 80 percent of flowers harvested are never even sold!’ she says. Instead, she looked to In ‘n Out Burger for inspiration in the fast food chain’s simple, stripped-down menu and emphasis on quality.
“So we have one arrangement per day,” Christina says. “We don’t give consumers a choice in what the flowers are, which means we use every stem we buy. We’ve reduced waste to 1%, and we can use higher quality flowers that cost a lot more than what our competitors use because we don’t throw anything away.”
She quit her day job in 2010 with $49,000 in savings, and for the first two years, she ran the company out of her dining room and did everything herself—including all the flower slinging.
Today Farmgirl has its own warehouse in San Francisco’s Potrero district. The company rolled out nationwide shipping in 2015, and Christina is no longer tying burlap sacks around arrangements. Instead she’s travelling around the country, trying to convince farmers to give up their eco-unfriendly corn and soybean harvests to grow sustainable flowers for her.
But the road from solo entrepreneurship to 14th fastest-growing private company in San Francisco hasn’t been a bed of roses. It never occurred to Christina to seek outside capital until a flurry of copycat companies hit the market in 2013 with uncannily similar business models to hers—and venture backing running to the millions. “I got scared because I thought well I’m going to be the Friendster to their Facebook, with my idea, and that’s going to stink!” she says. Efforts to raise backing came to naught, however, despite her company’s success and growth, something she attributes to several factors, not least of which would be the “Girl” in Farmgirl.
“It’s just purely numbers,” she says, sounding surprisingly over it and not the least bit bitter. “Under four percent of funding goes to female-led companies.” Maybe the reason she feels so sanguine about failing to raise the money is that she believes she really dodged a bullet—remaining self-funded has allowed her to retain total control over how she runs her business.
And she runs it like a family. Her employees are full-time workers with benefits, unusual in the start up arena. “Whatever decisions I make I want to make for ethical reasons and not financial reasons,” she says. “My biggest goal for Farmgirl is to create a company that I would want to buy from, sell to and work at.”
Farmgirl is on track to gross over $10 million in 2016. And the farm girl behind Farmgirl, who has accomplished all this on the strength of a high school diploma and a midwestern can-do upbringing, is nowhere near ready to rest on her sustainably-sourced laurels. “I would like to grow into a billion-dollar company,” she says, “and I think I can do it. Think of how many great jobs I can create—I’m really excited about that!”
Keep doing things differently, Christina. Your company and the world are better for it.