Christina Stembel bootstrapping Farmgirl Flowers rom a $49k investment into 60+ million revenue

Joining me in today’s episode is Christina Stembel, the Founder of Farmgirl Flowers.

Farmgirl Flowers reimagined the way people shop for flowers, plants and non-perishable gifts by offering fewer, better options and a best-in-class unboxing and customer experience. Christina started this business in 2010 and is the only sole female founder & CEO of a large scale e-commerce floral company, who bootstrapped the business into $60+ million in annual revenue.

In this episode we’re covering how Christina went in pursuit of disrupting an industry she had experienced a problem in, how she bootstrapped her brand from a $49k investment into a business that will do more than 60 million in revenue this year, the strategies that she used to acquire customers without a marketing budget and why this year has been her biggest year of growth.

I so enjoyed this episode and came away feeling so invigorated in my own pursuit to build Female Startup Club - and I hope you get that same energy too. As always, please do subscribe, rate and review the podcast if you’re loving these founder stories.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Christina: Yeah, absolutely. So I am the founder and CEO of E Commerce Flower Company called Farmgirl Flowers. We are similar to what you think of when you think of online flowers. The better we like to think than the traditional the traditional guys. So we do all of our business online and we are we do it a little different.

Christina: So instead of having hundreds of options like our competitors, do, we have fewer better options. And this is very commonplace now. But back when I started in 2010, that was not the case. Also, something this is really special and different is that we're bootstrapped. So we've never taken any outside capital, the only large scale e-commerce company in the United States that can say that. And we've just built it the old school way of reinvesting the little amounts of profit we have and spending less than we make, which is just a very novel concept, it seems like anymore. And we've grown it to about 250 people. We are located in two countries now and a revenue about sixty four million this year.

Doone: Oh, my goodness, what an achievement. Holy moly, that's incredible. I want to go back to life before you started Farm Girl Flowers to find out what you were up to and why you were thinking about starting a business in the first place. What was getting you interested in entrepreneurship?

Christina: Yes, so I've been interested in entrepreneurship for at least a decade before I actually started, I was that person that would carry a notebook around with them a hundred percent of the time. And I would put so many ideas. I still do. I still have probably two to three new ideas a week, which is down from probably 10 to 20 that I had before. But my goal wasn't to start. I think as women, I get really passionate about this, this part of the discussion, too. I think any time that a woman goes into a creative business, there's this natural assumption, which I think is just years and years of conditioning where we think that that must have been her passion in life. And like, you know, I must have grown up in my grandmother's garden and loving flowers and flower crowns and flowing flower dresses. And that was not the case at all. I just wanted to start a business that would take off a few boxes. And this was the first idea I had in the first industry. I found that didn't have any recent disruption in the boxes I wanted to check off or I wanted to do something really different. I didn't want to just take somebody else's idea, tweak it one percent and then basically copy it. I wanted to actually disrupt an entire category. And so a lot of the ideas I had weren't able to be big enough to do that. Even if I could get only a small amount of market share, I wanted to be able to grow really big. And flowers was an industry that I found that was a huge industry. And the most recent innovation was years ago in the mid nineties. And it wasn't great innovation. It actually made it a more generic industry. And so in I live in Silicon Valley and so I was seeing everybody around me like disrupting everything, like toothbrushes to potato chips and everything in between.

Christina: And I was like, well, if they can do that with toothbrushes, I can do this with flowers and I can make a better mousetrap, basically. And then I wanted to be able to do something good in the world and being able to build it. I think you could do this. And if you're selling toilet paper or anything, you can do good in the world. You can definitely right now. Good you can. Just building a really good company is what my mission is now, one that I would want to buy from and sell to and work at. And so that's something I could have done in any industry. I didn't know it at the time, though. But looking back, that was not a big check box. That was hard to do.

And then the last thing was I knew it was going to need to be bootstrapped.

I don't have a pedigree like most people, especially where I live, everybody that started business, most people that are getting it, getting investment capital, you know, they went to one of the Ivy League schools are a very significant school. I didn't go to college at all. They worked at one of the big tech companies. I definitely didn't do that. So I just knew it was going to be possible. And a lot of my ideas, like software based or something, was going to need millions of dollars of investment capital.

So to go back to your original question, sorry, I go off on tangents, but the tangent I usually can remember to loop it around.

So but I, I just wanted to start a business and I wanted it to take these boxes and the flowers allowed me to do that. And I just think that's really important because everything in entrepreneurship has a female before it, but it doesn't have a male before it. And so like nobody calls the male entrepreneurs, but I get called female entrepreneur all the time.

And so nobody's questioning whether all of our competitive set are all one hundred percent owned by men, mostly tech guys that stop working at a tech company and then start a company look strikingly similar to us. They all are able to go get or get investment capital pre revenue before they've even sold a single book. And I've gotten one hundred and four no's not been able to raise capital at all. And the story line with them if they say I started a flower company, is it. Oh that's cute. You started a flower shop, which was always the narrative with me and that's not the case, which is why I'm really adamant about making that point.

We need to stop. We need to actually just check ourselves and understand that it's coming from conditioning. There's nothing wrong with it. It's just we've seen all these images. We've heard them for so long. But we need to start a new narrative now, I think.

Yeah, that's so true. Goodness. So I'm wondering about the light bulb moment that you actually stumbled along. Flowers' Like, what was it that got you interested in that particular category? I mean, aside from the fact that they hadn't been the innovation. But were you, like, going through a list, being like, all right, pens, cups, flowers?

That's a great measure. That would have been really smart if I did do that. I want to make a list, but I have a really good idea.

No, I worked at a university, actually, which is really ironic that I didn't go to university, but I worked at Stanford University and one of the departments that I oversaw did the events for the law school and during the economic downturn, about eight, seven or eight.

So nine, we everybody's budgets were cut. And so I was taking a deep dive into our panel and saw how much money we were spending on flowers. And why in the world are we spending between one hundred and twenty dollars per percent or fees for these events where we're having.

Tables and just like, why do they cost that much and it doesn't seem like a good use of money, and then that quickly, like I started researching the event space in the floral industry and I quickly moved to e-commerce because all of my research showed no one. That's where all the money is.

There were three companies that made up three quarters of the entire three billion dollar market just in those those companies, all that almost a billion dollars a year, as little as four billion at that time just in e-commerce. And all of them I used before when I would send my mom flowers in Indiana or I grew up.

There's not a flower shop nearby. And I hated the whole experience. So when I was researching, I found that like every other young consumer hated the experience, too. They created hash tag, fail or fail and stuff like that. Yeah, I was getting really worked like that happens to me. I spent an hour going through two hundred options to find the least ugly option I check out.

I think it's going to be fifty dollars. It ends up being one hundred dollars. But I'm like OK, my mom's worth it, she's worth more than that. And then it gets delivered to her. And before there weren't nobody had phones that have cameras on them and now everybody does, including my mom who still finds all of her text messages left mom.

So she doesn't quite get the hang of this, but she does have the hang of it enough to take a picture of what I sent to her and send it to me. And I would always get really upset because if that looks nothing like what I thought I was sending true story, the last thing I sent or was supposed to be an all white OK. And I set her guide, Kelly Green Daisies. And I'm like, that's not even close to an all white, OK? And I spent one hundred dollars. I felt ripped off. And so I feel that way. And I was thirty one or thirty two at the time. Thirty one. When I started the research on it, I was like every other consumer that's relatively my age probably feels that same way because we're smarter than more tech savvy than previous generations, that we believe that if we're going to put our money into something, it's not the thought that counts. You want it to actually have that hundred dollars of worth for what you just spent. So it's not just, like I said, a card or picked up the phone and had the thought that counts. So I just thought, let me just test it out and try it. Let's see if consumers feel the same way. I did one focus group before I started the company or I just asked friends to bring their friends and even I asked one of my frenemies that I didn't even like some friends. So I figured I didn't want to be in a bubble and only get my friends that might do things like me. And in that group.

Eighty six percent of people there had the same experience as me. And when they were shown a prettier bouquet for the same amount of money, they all went for that bouquet, of course. And so I thought, let's try it. So I quit my job when everybody thought I was crazy. In early 2010, the economy had rebounded yet here and to start with, everybody cleaned a flower shop, even though I would just constantly try to be like, no, it's a flower company at a flower shop.

Now, there's nothing wrong with flower shop, but they do an average three hundred fifty thousand dollars a year in revenue. I was trying to build a billion dollar company.

And when you quit your job, so you were bootstrapping it, you were like, hey, I haven't gone to college, I don't have any training in flowers, what happens next? How do you actually start the flower company?

Can you learn everything yourself so, you know, what I was building had never been done before, so it wasn't like I could just go. There was there's one public treated by our company, large scale e-commerce flower company, so I could go through their reports, quarterly reports, earnings reports and things like that that were public. But they don't give you a lot of detail. They don't show you how to make a flower arrangement. They don't. I had to figure out where am I going to get flowers and how am I going to make a buck and what do I want it to look like? And then I would read some flower arranging books and I'd be like, you process the flowers and process the flowers. It's just like a machine I put it through, like, what is that? So then I'm like Googling what is process? So I say now, you know, there's no excuse not to learn anything because you don't have to the library. You don't have to go look at books written 20 years ago. You just go to Google and it's the best research tool out there. So I spent hours and hours and hours on Google and then just practicing. I go the firemen, I get flowers, I come home, I practice and I very quickly throw all those flower books because I realize I'm trying to build something different and better. Why am I like copying someone else's designs? I don't like. So I just threw them all away and said, OK, what would I want to receive? And started building a book that looked like that.

And when I started there was a lot of hate in the industry. There's still a lot of, you know, armchair quarterbacks. And, you know, when you're doing something different, there's taxicab companies don't love Uber and Lyft. I had to think of it that way. So in the industry were not well liked. And that's OK. It's totally OK. But at the beginning, it really got to me because I there are all kinds of people in industry talking about how I didn't study this and I didn't go to school to get certified.

There's like certification programs, floral design and stuff. But I'm like, that is ridiculous. I'm not cutting someone's school open and doing surgery on them. I don't need to, like, go to school to learn how to, like, take greenery off the stem of a flower. I can do that myself from Google. I have recently changed my story a little bit because I used to say that you can learn anything from Google or YouTube. I did a lot of YouTube, but I recently tried to to do the plumbing and electrical in my house myself.

And I've learned that you can learn everything, but if you Google, leave some things to the professionals. So I don't say that anymore. The flower arranging, you can learn everything that you need to do.

Oh my gosh. Next minute you'll like representing yourself in the court of law being like, I Googled how to be a lawyer and I'm here to represent myself.

I wouldn't ask me, oh my goodness. I read that you launched the business with forty nine thousand dollars in savings. What did you use that money towards building the company?

You're asking really good questions. Some of the thank notes, so, yeah, when I started, I had saved forty nine thousand dollars, which I thought was a ton of money back then. I have always worked before, Standring. I work in hospitality and I worked at a lot of coffee shops and restaurants and a lot of wage level jobs all at the same time. So forty eight thousand dollars was a lot for me. I don't come from money. I grew up on a farm.

I've never had that kind of money. And so I was I'm just saying that because I hear people like I don't have enough money to start it and stuff like forty eight thousand isn't a lot and it goes very quickly.

But if you're really scrappy and frugal, you can make it go like that was for me to live on for two years too. So I gave myself a two year window. I did a little spreadsheet, really embarrassing to look at and it's like seven lines long rent. And I literally have like, you know, I remember when I started getting press, my publicist was like, can you go buy some clothes that don't have holes in them? Because literally, like, I was so frugal, like all of my clothes that holes and I was eating ramen, I switched from coffee to tea because it was cheaper.

The tea bags are super frugal, but that money goes really quick and I made some mistakes with it. So if I'm giving advice to what I would say if everyone told me early, I'd go get a lawyer. So don't represent yourself. But I did think to your point, like, I was like, I can Google that and figure out what I need to do. You can't you don't have the expertise. And if you have any idea at all anything that will protect what you're doing, you need to get a lawyer early on because there are people that will copy what you're doing in about a microsecond and then you'll have nothing that will defend it. And so I didn't because that would have probably taken half of my forty nine thousand dollars. And I was like, I'm not going to go spend. I should have probably went and get a small loan to see if I could do that because we didn't have much. But we had the burlap wrap that I created and now you see that world wide. You probably see where you're at. Everybody is using burlap wrap around the flowers. That was my invention. Fourteen different ideas.

I tested them all I the pictures to all my friends to see what fun they like the best. And it really became a brand trademark. It became like our swoosh, our Nike swoosh. And that was important because I really wanted people, especially social media, started to take off even more. I wanted people without able to see the tag to note with ours. So it gives a lot of brand equity and that's worth a lot of money. And so I should have gone and done that. I didn't if I could go back, I would spend twenty five thousand dollars probably of that forty nine thousand on legal fees. But I didn't. And instead I used it for practicing the flowers and taking flowers that had to do all that, building a website, doing all of those things and living, paying my rent every month as well.

And it just it goes quick. But I probably would have made different choices had I known then what I know about.

Yeah, absolutely, and I think as well, like when it's your your own money, not money that you've had from an investor or friends and family around or that kind of thing, you are much more personally attached to that money and how how it's being spent and how long it can last for.