Farmgirl Flowers Plants a Flag for Local Farmers

Jan 13, 2016



I’m not one to jump on every new piece of startup news from the Bay Area, but here’s one I absolutely love. It involves an upstart entrepreneur and a 2016 spin on the idea of “Flower Power” (which by the way was coined in Berkeley, California, as a symbolic action of protest against the Vietnam War).

It’s the story of a woman—Christina Stembel—who was simply trying to solve a problem and serendipitously discovered a significant market opportunity for local farmers in the process.

Stembel was working for Stanford University’s alumni events and found that a goodly part of her job involved securing flower bouquets for gatherings, which led her to…well, you might be able to see where this is going… Stembel wound up forging connections with local flower growers, making bouquets herself, and eventually started a company—Farmgirl Flowers—to sell floral arrangements from these same farmers.

Insta Bike

Did Your Flowers Hitch a Ride from South America?

But before we go with Farmgirl Flowers, here’s a quick hit on the flower market for context:

Most cut flowers—80 percent—come to the United States from international markets. That’s an awful lot of jet fuel consumed for our aesthetic pleasure, as well as a lot of jobs we support elsewhere. Much of these flowers come from South America, where there are also unresolved questions about environmental considerations (pesticides) and human rights (child labor).

With this in mind, here’s how Farmgirl Flowers works:

It offers a daily bunch of flowers by different sizes, grown by local and domestic producers. Not a multitude of choices; you get, in essence, what’s fresh that day. Stembel’s also a self-described design snob, so you get some clean and interesting bouquets shaped by modern design—not the insipid and syrupy arrangements that dominate many offerings (and may have appealed to your great grandmother.)

“Flower arrangements should be beautiful, and it shouldn’t be the thought that counts,” Stembel said in a New York Times article.

And true to the Bay Area’s innovative roots, Farmgirl has even originated (and trademarked) a new way to wrap most of its hand-tied bouquets with reused burlap coffee bags sourced from local roasters.

A Case Where Less Equals More

The one-choice offering reduces Stembel’s inventory costs, so she’s able to carry just what she sells, helping her to compete against foreign producers who are often subsidized. The one-choice option also appeals to consumers like me, who quite frankly are overwhelmed by choices and relish the opportunity to eliminate the flood of floral bouquets offered by other purveyors. Or to have just one fewer choice to make in the course of a busy day.

Farmgirl Flowers are also now available via national shipping, using cut flowers from domestic producers.

So that’s all pretty cool stuff: a serendipitous entrepreneur, local farmers, 100% American grown, and everything wrapped up in sweet design.

Investors Don’t Get It—Yet

Sure, but here’s what I really like, and where the story takes a little twist.

Stembel, who bootstrapped her business, is trying to raise outside capital and having a tough go of it. Prospective investors have urged her to hire contractors and get rid of full-time employees so she can save on benefit costs. But that’s not the Farmgirl way. Every employee (46 in all), from bicycle delivery couriers (again, cool!) to flower arrangers, receives full health insurance benefits.

That’s not the stuff of everyday startups where stock options, long hours, and the promise of a big payout comprise the typical benefit plan.

Investors are also high-centered and sitting on their wallets because of her use of local and domestic flowers; they would like her to incorporate cheaper, overseas flowers into her product mix.

“I won’t use imports. I won’t offer an import line. I won’t test it out and see if people care,” she said in the sameTimes article. “It’s not aligned with what the mission for our company is. Nor do I think it’s the right thing to do business-wise.”

Farmgirl Sizes

Never Underestimate the Power of Purpose

Hmm. Now do I think she’ll turn the global flower market on its head?  Probably not.

But will she find a base of customers who will create the opportunity for her company to be successful? You bloomin’ bet she will.

And here’s where I think those investors may be underestimating her:

As founder of a company that builds brands for purpose-driven companies, I know there are millions of consumers who are looking for options such Stembel’s, aligning their purchasing with companies built around strong-minded values, whether it’s because they’re supporting the local movement, community farms, public benefit, progressive workplace practices, or “Grown in America.”

There are a lot of people like me who will pay for local, who want to ride the rhythm of the seasons, who intentionally look for and purchase products, services and business models that benefit society and the environment.

We’re Betting on—and Buying from Farmgirl Flowers

It will be interesting to follow the Farmgirl Flower story; we’re hoping impact investors will get behind this social entrepreneur and help her prove there’s a significant place for this approach in the cut-flower marketplace.

And as for the flowers? As big fans of local farmers, social entrepreneurs, and fab design at Oliver Russell, we just ordered our first Farmgirl floral arrangement for the reception area in the office.

And as for me personally, I got something big from this blog as well. I just scored a Valentine’s Day idea for my wife. I’m going to give her a (RED) Bouquet, which also benefits (RED) and its cause to create an AIDS-free generation. From farm to table to vase to social impact to—yes, even the thought—I think this gift will hit all the right notes for her. Yes, score!

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