Hitting The Mark
Conversations with founders about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success.
EP027 – Christina Stembel, Founder & CEO, Farmgirl Flowers
You may know my next guest from the Capital One credit card ads that she is featured in, or you may be a customer and tribe-member who loves her brand as much as you love her products. Christina Stembel is the widely admired founder and CEO of the quickly growing Farmgirl Flowers brand, an integrity-driven direct to consumer flower shop that is changing an archaic industry by infusing heart and soul. Farmgirl is on track to bring in $32 million this year. On this episode, Christina shares in her outgoing and transparent style how she crafted a beloved brand while being 100% bootstrapped, and not for the lack of trying. You will be surprised that the flower industry is far from being green and that it is yet another business that is run by ‘the boys club.’ Christina disrupted the industry, and she did so with a brand-first mindset. An episode not to be missed.
F Geyrhalter: Welcome to the show, Christina.
C Stembel: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here, Fabian.
F Geyrhalter: Oh likewise, likewise. So last night, after I put together my first draft of questions for this podcast with you. I usually end up diving deeper and do much more research once I get home. But I have to admit last night I had a really long day in LA traffic, and I just decided to pour myself a glass of wine and recline into the bathtub instead of doing more research. But then I grabbed the first magazine, which happens to be the November edition of Inc. And what greets me? A two-page ad for Capital One and you are the star in it, so.
C Stembel: Can’t get away from me, even when you tried.
F Geyrhalter: It was hilarious. So I got both. I got more research time and I got relaxation time and that’s how it works in life, right?
C Stembel: Exactly, that’s amazing. Best of both worlds.
F Geyrhalter: I know. So how did you get into the business of selling flowers direct to consumer? How did that idea come up and when did you actually take the leap into full-on entrepreneurship?
C Stembel: Yeah. It came up back in 2010. I should mention, though, before this idea I had probably 4,000 other ideas, none of them about flowers though. I like to kind of dispel the belief system that we tend to have, especially about women in creative businesses, that it must be their passion in life. I must have grown up frolicking in my grandmother’s garden. Because that wasn’t the case. I wanted to start a business, though, and I wanted it to be able to be big. I wanted to do something good. I wanted to solve a real problem, and I want to be able to actually change an industry, to actually innovate in a space and not just do something the same way that it’s been done over and over again. I live in Silicon Valley, so I saw so many people doing really innovative, cool things. So that kind of opened up the floodgates of my brain, thinking, “I could do that in an industry, too.” And so I came up with the idea for Farmgirl and for flowers in particular because I was working at Stanford University and one of the departments I oversaw did events for the law school, and I saw how much money we were spending on flowers. So first I just started researching the space from that perspective of why do flowers cost so much. And I very quickly went down several other rabbit holes, research when I found out the eCommerce space was really comprised of three companies that dominated. And it would bring me back to an actual problem I had in my life, which was when I would send my mom flowers in Indiana, I was forced to use one of those companies because she lived too far from a local florist. And I hated the whole process. So I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I started researching that and I was like, “Oh, it looks like so many people hate that whole process.” They don’t think that the value prop is good for what they’re spending. They’re not getting a bouquet that represents them as a consumer. What they see isn’t what they get anyway. When they order something, they think it’s going to be this and it’s that when it comes. It ends up costing $80 and it looks like it came from the grocery store for $10. And they weren’t happy with the customer experience of, if they weren’t happy then they had to go offshore to a customer service department somewhere that would try to rectify it but just send an equally lackluster bouquet again. So there was just a lot of similarities in what I was finding in researching that other people’s experiences aligned with mine. And I thought, “Well this looks like it’s an actual space in an industry that needs some change, and nobody’s done anything since the mid nineties.” Now, with nine years of experience under my belt, I kind of understand why… people probably had very similar ideas before me and didn’t do them because perishability is really, really hard. But with my naiveté back then, I thought, “I’m the first one to think of something to transform this industry, and let me try it.” So I laid out all the problems as I saw it and came up with a solution, which was the Farmgirl model where we limit the choice for consumers, and that allows us to reduce our waste by about 40% which allows us to use higher-quality stems that don’t look like they came from the grocery store and create beautifully designed bouquets in house. So even if you’re sending then to Bremen, Indiana or to Dubuque, Iowa, or somewhere really remote, you can get a designer quality bouquet shipped anywhere in the United States. So I looked at In-N-Out Burger as my inspiration because back in 2010, yeah. Nobody was doing less is more. Everybody was doing more is more back then. So they were the only one that I could find that was really limiting choice to consumers but they were doing it really well and they had created a really great brand. And so I thought, “I’m going to be the In-N-Out Burger for flowers.” So that’s what I did.
F Geyrhalter: And it’s interesting because when we chatted just a little bit before the podcast, you said that you liked that my podcast has this hyper focus instead of being everything for everyone. And I kind of created my entire consultancy around that too, that more focused, and I think it’s fair to say better options, fewer options, is a holy grail. There’s a lot in there because you can actually hyper focus on what you give your clients. But one thing that I think is extremely interesting about what you ended up doing is that everyone comes to think that the flower industry would be, no pun intended, but a green industry, right? But it is totally not the case. It’s actually exactly the opposite, right? There are huge problems.
C Stembel: Huge, I mean it’s, like you said, I would have thought that, and I thought, “Well, they’re flowers, and they decompose,” and all that. But all of the things that go with the flowers are not compostable and many states they weren’t even recyclable, like all of the plastic wrap and all those things, which is why we came up with alternatives to as much as we possibly could to make it greener and better for the environment. Everything we do is how we can make it better for the environment and better in all ways.
F Geyrhalter: So it kind of is farm to table part two. So now it’s not only the food on your table but it’s also the flowers on your table.
C Stembel: Absolutely, absolutely. And knowing the ripple effect of knowing… even the food, like the packaging the food comes in. It’s things that I had never thought about before starting this and now I think about, I’m very, very focused on.
F Geyrhalter: Let’s dig a little deeper into that because you actually wrap your hand-tied bouquets with reused burlap coffee bags, right? From local roasters. Because they all have them. How did that idea take shape? And I also wonder, are there enough cool burlap bags as you start taking over the world?
C Stembel: Yeah, we are actually running into that problem right now, so we’re having to expand our thinking on that as well. We’re on a hunt for more burlap sacks, so if you’re a roaster in the area and hear this, please let me know. So it actually started with wanting to create a brand, actually. So I think this is… the burlap sacks were to be better for the environment. But also, the second part of that was when I was thinking about how I was going to present my product. Even when I was creating this flower company, I never wanted it to be just a flower company. I wanted to create a brand around it. I wanted it to look very different than everyone else. If someone saw one of our bouquets, I wanted them to know it was one of our bouquets without seeing our name on it. And so I put a lot of thinking into how can I do that? How can I create a Nike swoosh on our flowers, because flowers are flowers. So how do I do that? And so the packaging was where… my first foray into creating a brand was through our packaging. And the burlap was the start of that. I came up with 14 different ideas of ways to wrap our product, thinking of what looks the best and also what’s best for the environment and then I just polled a few of my friends to see which ones they like the best. And it was almost unanimous, everyone like the burlap the best. I came up with that idea because of potato sacks, actually, not coffee bags. Because I’m from Indiana and we don’t have coffee there. So I thought, “Potato sacks.” But then when I researched California, where I’m at now, I was like, “Oh, nobody grows potatoes in California.” But what we did have was coffee roasters, and so I thought, “Let me just reach out to them and see if I could buy their bags.” And what was really fortunate that a few of them donated them to us to start and have continued. Some big ones, even Peet’s Coffee donates their coffee bags to us now.
F Geyrhalter: Oh, wow.
C Stembel: Yeah, it’s been great because we can also help them. They don’t have to put them on a container to go back to South America. So it helps the environment even more, helps them cost wise, and we can upcycle them. People love to upcycle them again after we send it to them too and send us pictures of that. But it was really to create a brand and it worked. One of my first moments where I felt like the company was going to make it was about a year and a half in, and I had take a… it was still in my apartment, the first two years I did it in my apartment. And I was walking into my car with three bouquets because someone had called, 7:00 at night and asked for three bouquets. And you’ll take whatever order, even if it’s a midnight when you’re starting out because you need the money.
F Geyrhalter: Oh absolutely, exactly.
C Stembel: And yeah. And I was walking to my car, which in San Francisco if you’re familiar, you usually have to park like a mile away from your house, of course. So I’m walking, hoofing it to my car with these bouquets and three women were coming towards me on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, and one of them exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, is that Farmgirl Flowers?” Just by seeing the burlap wrap on the bouquets. And I was like, “It is.” And she’s like, “Oh, I love Farmgirl Flowers.” And all three of the women start talking about how much they love Farmgirl flowers. And they knew it from the burlap wrap, that that’s who-
F Geyrhalter: That’s amazing. Because you’re like, “I’m the farm girl.”
C Stembel: It was. So I got in my car and I bawled eyes out. Yeah, yeah. I usually am just like, “Oh, I work there.” Because then it makes it sound like it’s way bigger than just me in my apartment. But you know…
F Geyrhalter: That is such a… I mean that’s such an amazing brand moment because it really, like you said, I mean, that’s when you realized it actually is a brand now. It’s not just a start-up, it’s not just flowers you would never notice. And you didn’t have to put a swoosh on it. You didn’t have to actually spell out and put a logo on it. Which sometimes, being branded like that can also backfire. And so what’s interesting to me is it sounds like, and I’m cheating because I read that, but it sounds like you totally bootstrapped your business. You actually were scraping by, running a business-
C Stembel: Literally. Yup.
F Geyrhalter: Literally. And so you had to invent. And so when you basically start to come up with these pieces of brand essence by yourself or maybe with a few friends around the table. When you had to decide, how do we wrap our flowers? And you said you had about 10 different ideas. And you decided on burlap because of it being a natural fit, no pun intended, for your brand. Did you at that point, and maybe even it’s just in your head, did you have certain guiding principles for your brand where you said, “Everything we do with Farmgirl flowers has to be A, B, and C? Has to be natural, has to be sustainable, has to be… whatever.” Did you have any of that?
C Stembel: I think I did, but not in a very formal way. The one guiding light that I have for my company is that I want to create a company that I would want to buy from, sell to, and work at. Those three things. And so it’s kind of like my golden rule for the company. And so any time I have a decision to make that I’m not sure about, I run it through that lens. And I’m like, “Well, would I want to work at a company that doesn’t have benefits? No. So I need to get benefits for my team.” Or, “Would I want to work at a company with this much waste? No.” So all those things that makes it very easy for me to decide what to do from there with that lens. I think for when I was creating the brand around the product and still to this day, it really is just that we’re creating a brand and products and an experience overall that all of us that work at Farmgirl would want to buy from and would want to get at that product. So it’s very much a reflection of when I came up with the aesthetic, even, for what our bouquets would look like, I got all the flower books and I looked all over Google and looked at what all the fancy florists that people were writing about were doing. And I was like, “That’s not reflective of me. I don’t really like the styles of those bouquets.” So I just created one that I would want to receive. And so it’s a very informal but just… I still am very active in product development. Me and one person on our team create almost all of the products that you see on our site. And it’s very much, what do I want to receive? And then when we don’t know, we ask our customers now. So we just did a survey for when we started doing holiday products this summer, and we thought we would get a couple hundred responses from our customers. We were just like, “Hey, tell us what you think, what products did you like? What do you want us to bring back? What new things do you want us to create?” And we had thousands of responses. We were blown away because they weren’t like, A, B, C, D. They were like fill in the blank and tell us. And people spent so much time telling us what they wanted and sending us pictures and things. It was amazing. We actually did not budget enough time to read them all because we were like, “Oh my gosh.” So we all had to get… all the managers, everyone’s taking a couple hundred a day. And that, I think, is a true reflection of… people buy from Farmgirl not just because they love the product, but they love the whole company around it and I feel so grateful for that. We did a survey last year to find out why people bought from us and the number one was just about tied, and it was they like our product and they like our company. Those two reasons. It wasn’t because… and I was like, “What? Our company has to do with why you’re buying from us?” They just really like our brand that we’ve created, which is exciting because that means that we can do other things besides flowers, too.
F Geyrhalter: Right, right. Which you start doing. I see some hints of that on your website.
C Stembel: Absolutely. Yup. Definitely.
F Geyrhalter: So in the end, what do you think you actually ended up creating with your brand that is bigger than your offering?
C Stembel: I think what we created, and hesitate to use this word because, you know what I’m going to say, because it’s so overused, but we actually created an authentic brand. Authentic circa 2000, or 1995 before everybody started using it and not really knowing what it means. We are never going to be that polished company where it’s really a couple white male founders sitting in an office in the financial district that’s outsourcing everything to other people to make, to 3PLs. That’s not us. We have so much heart into what we do, and we show the behind the scenes every day on our Instagram stories. We talk about our failures with our community. We fail all the time. I make bad decisions, we learn from it. Our most opened email was last New Year’s Day where everybody was sending out their emails about, oh, what an amazing year, thank you for everything. And I sent an email that’s like, “Wow, this last year sucked. It was so bad. All these things went wrong. And you know what? We’re going to make this year so much better.” And telling how we’re going to make this year better. And people loved that. We got people writing in in droves to just thank us for just keeping it real. Because I think we just see shininess around us all the time now, and it’s not real. So we like to show shiny moments when they’re real and when they’re happening. And we like to show all the unshiny moments so people know that they’re not alone. This happens to us all. We had a peony debacle. We call it peony-ageddon here. This year at Mother’s Day that almost floored us with hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses and stuff. We tell the stories so people know that we are truly approachable and we have a heart behind making their bouquets. And when people want to choose where to place their dollars and their support, they want to choose companies that they want to support with their dollars. And we’re really fortunate that that tends to be us because we keep it real with them.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. And that’s going to happen more and more with the next generation. And it’s a wonderful shift in the world that otherwise sees so many problems with transparency and authenticity. I think there’s a huge shift right now, and it’s great to see you be a part of that. And what I actually really enjoyed is somewhere in your many, many interviews, I read that you called mission-driven, you called it actually integrity-driven in a recent interview. And I really like that. I hadn’t really heard integrity-driven being used as a phrase too often, but it feels much more approachable and human than mission-driven actually to me.
C Stembel: Yeah. I think mission-driven, anybody can pick a mission, right? And I actually found that I was having problems as we were growing and scaling because we had a mission. We had a lot of missions when we started out that aren’t our missions now. Because I found out I was wrong about things. One example of that is, when I started Farmgirl with a very clear goal of helping support American flower farms, and we only sourced domestic grown flowers. And I found that I was completely wrong. It was horrible- not even just from supply wasn’t there, but a lot of the American farmers still to this day will not sell to me. And the only reason they won’t sell to me that I can come up with is because I’m a woman. Because they sell to all my male counterparts, even younger businesses that are male-owned. But it’s a good old boys network. And so I was fighting so hard and begging people to take my money, and it was horrible. Horrible. We were going to have to close down because I couldn’t get enough supply. And even of the orders that they guaranteed us, we were getting 26% of our guaranteed orders. So I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. So I was wrong. And so saying I’m a mission-driven business and my mission is to support American flower farms and then to find out that that’s a, not possible, two, not wanted, made me feel like I was failing in a big way. I don’t need to be mission-driven on this one mission that anybody can pull out of a hat and say, this is our mission. I want to be integrity-driven. And every step of the way, I want to use really good integrity to make the best decision for our company and our consumers and our vendors and our environment, and all of the things I really care about.
F Geyrhalter: So that’s a fascinating example that you just gave and it’s also mind blowing and it’s also wrong in so many ways. How-
C Stembel: Yeah. Amen.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, amen. So if this is the way that you decided to go, and obviously especially in the beginning in the first years of your business, I am sure that you very loudly talked about your mission, right? So that people say, “Yes, I want to support a female-founded company that supports only American farms.” It just makes so much sense. And then suddenly you had to pivot and say, “Oh actually it ain’t so.” A, how was that being perceived and was that the beginning of the transparency and integrity-driven where you just say as it is. And B, where do you now source your flowers and how does that still fit in to your integrity-driven business?
C Stembel: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Yes. That was absolutely… it was the scariest moment of my life was when I hit send on the email where I sent a letter out to all of our customers and I put it on our social media to over a million people at that point, was really nerve-wracking. I was sitting in a hotel room in Las Vegas at a show when I had to send it out. And it was November 2016 when I realized that we were not going to make it through another Valentine’s Day if I didn’t change something, which is only three months away, right? So I had three months to completely change our supply chain sourcing model, which was hard. So I went down to South America, I had really great friends in the industry that connected me, when I would go to and say, “Tell me the most value-aligned farms that I can work with.” And they gave me great names and I went and met with those farms and started sourcing internationally and sent that letter on January 25, 2017. And the fact that I can remember these dates when I have so much in my head shows how-
F Geyrhalter: It’s ingrained.
C Stembel: Yes, it’s ingrained in me. So January 25, 2017 was one of the scariest days of my life. Because you’re right, we had gotten almost ten minutes on The Today Show talking about our local mission. We had New York Times. We had all of these amazing publications that had written stories on us based on this mission of supporting local. And to change that entire story was so scary.
F Geyrhalter: Oh yeah, unbelievable. Yeah.
C Stembel: Yeah. So I just decided after thinking about, how am I going to do this, and researching what other brands do and what other companies do when they need to make a huge pivot like this. And really didn’t find a whole lot. So then I just thought, “Okay, what seems right to me is to be honest and transparent and just tell them the why.” And I didn’t tell them the full why because still at that point I had a lot of shame, which I’m embarrassed to even admit right now. That I thought the reason I couldn’t make it work was somehow my fault a bit. And now I don’t have any of that looking back on it. I have a lot more wisdom now to know, hey, you can’t stop a train as one person if they don’t want to stop. They’re just going to run over you. So I told everybody, I sent out that letter, and then I waited with bated breath. And it was amazing. We got hundreds and hundreds of emails back from people saying, “thank you for taking the time,” because it was obviously a very long letter because I don’t do anything super short.
F Geyrhalter: And that’s a wrap for today.
C Stembel: Totally. So I talk a lot. So I explained where cannabis has been legalized, we can’t get enough flowers. And people don’t want to sell to us and I’ve been told that I just need to slow down our growth in order to let farms keep up and that’s just not a solution for us and all of these things and just shared that. And our amazing customers and fans, they were so supportive, and they were just so thankful that we told them the why [inaudible 00:22:49]. We didn’t just pull the wool over their heads or start doing it. And that was so amazing to see and that I think that made me even double down, like you said, on the transparency and honesty with our consumers because for them to come along with us on this journey, they want to feel a part of it and that they can trust you. And if we’re explaining why before we’re making a major decision and that it’s not like we’re selling out to save a dollar. We’re doing this because we need to in order to stay around. Then they were very understanding and amazing and so supportive and wonderful. So it was a great experience that could have been a horrible experience, but it worked out well. And now where we’re sourcing is we’re sourcing a lot more internationally with, like I mentioned, cannabis has really changed the landscape, especially in California, where 80% of the flowers are grown. People don’t like to talk about that story but it’s really real. And also I just have to say that the international- we have some really great domestic farms, a few really amazing domestic farms that we work with. And we will always work with them as long as they want to work with us and keep growing flowers. However, the international farms, what I have found is that they just treat us with the respect that we didn’t get here as mostly females. And it’s really refreshing to have farm partners that are values-aligned and they do amazing things for their teams. Amazing things. And also want to grow with us. And that I don’t have to beg them to treat me with respect and take our money. And so I have no qualms because I think I also vote with my dollars just like our consumers do. And as a company, we still buy from some of the farms… one of them I had to threaten a gender discrimination lawsuit to get them to even sell to us. And I hate that I have to give them money. I need their flowers, but the fact that… if you have to threaten to sue somebody to get them to sell to you? And then you have to give them money? That’s not voting with your dollar.
F Geyrhalter: Unbelievable. Well, and actually, to interrupt you here for a second, I heard you say on CNN, nonetheless, that you feel it is a tremendous benefit being a female-founded company. So this is interesting in context of what you just told us. So something must have flipped around and even though you had to go through this horrible hardship, which, quite frankly, was threatening to your livelihood at that point. I mean, people who are not entrepreneurs, they might not understand why you say it was the worst day of your life because people say, “Well, it was was when you got cancer or when something horrible happened.” No, this is about existence. This is existential fear, right? So you still feel like it’s a tremendous benefit being a female-founded company, which I hope that is true and I love it because I had back-to-back female founders now for the last couple of episodes. And I think it is more and more the future, hopefully. But can you expand on that a little bit?
C Stembel: Yeah. I think that there’s certain things that I feel very… I feel that it is a tremendous asset in the flower space or in a creative space because I know what consumers want. So 80% of people that buy flowers are women buying for women, which is crazy to me because I’m the only larger scale female-founded eCommerce B2C flower company out there. They’re all male-owned. And I think that’s a huge asset to me because the things that they don’t take inspiration from our company on is making the bouquets in house and really making the bouquets special. They’re amazing at marketing and technology and things like that. But they’re not fixing the real problem, which was ugly flowers, in my opinion. So I think as a woman who understands what women want, that’s a huge asset. And the fact that my team is over 60% female run as well, we know what our consumers are going to want and that helps us. Where our male-owned competitors I don’t think understand that they have to actually make beautiful flowers to get customers to come back at 62% rate like we have and to be able to spend less than $10 on customer acquisition cost because you don’t need to keep re-acquiring customers because your last ones are always ticked off that they didn’t get a good deal and they didn’t get a great bouquet. So there’s things like that that I think are a tremendous asset to being a woman in this space. I think almost everything else, it’s harder. I just want to be really honest. It’s harder. We’ve been bootstrapped the whole time, not because we didn’t want to raise capital, but because I couldn’t raise capital. I’ve gotten over 100 no’s. I have spent 30% of my time for over three years trying to raise capital and finally got to the point where I’m like, I’m not even taking a meeting anymore. I’m so tired of spending so much of my time when I have less than a two percent chance of raising capital as a female.
F Geyrhalter: And to be-
C Stembel: Statistically speaking, you know?
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, and to be fair, this was going in two ways against you. One, most likely because of all of the clout that goes against being a female founder for sure. But on the other hand because you also had that integrity where you said, “No, I’m not going to go for the bottom line. No, I’m not going to go A, B, C, D, E. And after that there’s the door. Thank you for your time.”
C Stembel: Absolutely. My team are all full time with benefits, 401K. We’re not going to do things just to improve the bottom line and make everybody independent contractors or… we’re not going to do things like that. And so that definitely negatively impacts our bottom line, which is not what investors… because they’re looking for a very quick return. We’re also always going to think at the longer term plan. I make decisions that on this quarterly report would look horrible because it’s going to help us next year or the year after. And so I’m not going to play this game of fudging your numbers just to look good for investors. I’m looking for the longterm plan to build a really viable, sustainable, longterm really great company that creates really good jobs, nontech jobs, as well. And that’s not that attractive to investors that need a really quick turnaround with a 10x return, you know? So there’s lots of reasons that we don’t fit the model and the patterns of what they’re looking for. But also as a female, un-pedigreed female. I don’t have any college degree, I didn’t work at any of the big tech start-ups before. So I also need to be really realistic about what my outcomes and options are. And it’s just better to get my 30% time back and keep growing at 50-80% growth year over year like we are every year and keep doing that by investing our profits back into the company, so.
F Geyrhalter: And I think it is the right thing and the only thing to do today. And I gave a keynote last week in Vegas and it was a group of healthcare staffing CEOs. And I basically told them what you just preached, right? That there’s a new way of doing business, and it’s about transparency and it’s about solidarity, etc. etc. And afterwards there was a big Q&A and one person said, “This is all fine and good and you’re talking about a lot of start-ups that do that, but how could mid-sized companies start to do some of that? How can we suddenly turn into a transparent company? And I think it was a really interesting question, right? Because if you from the ground up create a company that has that at its roots, it’s so much easier. Obviously Fortune 500s, good luck. But the small ones, the small to mid-sized companies that say, “Hey, I believe in what you say and I would like to do that, but how can I do that?” What would your thoughts be? How could a company that is not built on those values, how could they slower start to inject those and actually make them actionable? Putting you on the spot totally here, because you know what? I was put on the spot?
C Stembel: That’s a really good- no, that’s a great question. No, you totally, no…
F Geyrhalter: Karma, I forward it on.
C Stembel: And good job to the person that asked that question because I think it’s a great question. I mean, I’ve always said that there’s not may moats that we have here at Farmgirl. Our competitors all order our bouquets, reverse engineer… they can do whatever they want and they can see all of our packaging that creates this amazing brand and unboxing experience and they can replicate it. And they all do. But the thing that they can’t replicate is the heart that we put behind it, and that really shows. And so that’s a great question because I’ve said that the moat that we have is that it’s really hard to make a pair of low-riders into Mom jeans. Once you’re a thing, it’s really hard, especially if you have people that have been there a long time that this is the way they do things. I used to work at Stanford University before this, and it was basically a government job is what it felt like where just people had been there forever doing the same thing over and over and over again. And one of the negative responses I got from a superior, one of the bad feedback I got for my performance was that I forged ahead too quickly and didn’t wait for everybody to catch up. And that was a negative on my performance review. And I looked at her-
F Geyrhalter: Congratulations on your negative.
C Stembel: Thank you. That’s what I told her, I was like, “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever told me.” Which is not the response she wanted. So I think it’s really challenging, especially if people have been there forever. The only thing I can think on the spot that I would probably try if I had that situation where I was going into a medium-sized company that wanted to be like a Farmgirl, let’s say. I’m just going to do it in the flower terms because that’s where I’m at. But they’d already been doing this for 20, 30, 40 whatever years the way they had been doing it, is I would probably have to create a whole new department with new people to help influence change instead of dictate change. Because otherwise you’re going to blow up your whole culture, right? And so it would have to be a slower process, which I do not do well with. Actually my team, the people that come here that need to take a long time to analyze and overanalyze everything don’t work out here very well because I’m usually like, “We’re going to try this and we’re starting it in two months.” A whole new process for… we did our whole supply chain in three months, we changed.
F Geyrhalter: You have to, yeah
C Stembel: Yeah. You have to move so fast here. But at big companies that have already been, or medium-sized companies that have already been around for a long time, I don’t think you can move that fast without really disrupting your culture, unless you need to disrupt your culture and then maybe you want to.
F Geyrhalter: Well, and I think it might not even disrupt the culture. It might just positively color the culture in a different way. I think that the idea of maybe even starting with operations and slowly adjust operations to do something better and then have it bubble up to the top so then you can talk about the story. Because everyone just want to talk about the story, right?
C Stembel: Well and talking about the story if it doesn’t actually… that’s I think where a lot of the big companies… that’s great point because where I see that they get called out on their fake authenticity a lot is because they bring in this marketing team or an agency, right? To tell this really cool, hip, new story. But it’s not actually what they’re doing.
F Geyrhalter: Exactly.
C Stembel: So you’re right. Starting with operations and actually changing how they’re doing things, and then tell the story afterwards so it is truly authentic and not just that they’re trying to be cool.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. See? Together we can do this answer really well.
C Stembel: Yeah, it’s great. Totally.
F Geyrhalter: As we’re slowly coming down to the end, one question I really like to ask every entrepreneur, what is one word that can describe your brand? If you have to put your entire brand into one word, I call it your brand DNA. How could you sum it up in a word?
C Stembel: One word would be heart, definitely. And I think it’s on so many different levels. So everything we do, we do with heart. We say that all the time at Farmgirl. We’re never going to do the easy wrong. We’re always going to do the hard right. And we’re always going to make sure that everything we do, we’re putting our whole heart into. And that’s what I think customers relate to. And I know that from their feedback to me. Anytime I’m … I did a speaking things this weekend, and the people that came up to me afterwards were talking about their experiences with Farmgirl. And this happens everywhere I go, if I’m in a crowd of females anyway, not men. But if I’m in a crowd of females, everyone comes up and tells me their personal experience they had with my company and my brand. And it has to do with number one, we’re really fortunate that we’re celebrating people’s life moments. Really important moments in their life, where they be really amazing and wonderful or really sad, too. So we already have that. But then in addition to that, we have the whole experience of when you receive a Farmgirl bouquet, it’s not just the flowers, it’s the whole packaging, it’s all the collateral cards as we put in extra. We put a little enamel pin that has a story with it, usually about my life. We have one that’s a grit pin or a be a work horse in a sea of unicorns, that’s also another one that people love.
F Geyrhalter: And a feminist pin too, right?
C Stembel: Yeah, feminist. We have take the bull by the horns. We have all ones that have a personal story of when you’re having a hard day put this on, it’s going to give you strength. This is about remembering to do the hard things even though they’re not the fun things. Things like that.
F Geyrhalter: So good.
C Stembel: So we do these… it’s a definite holistic story when you get your Farmgirl bouquet. And they tell me every single feeling they had when they opened every single part of the collateral. And they tell me about how the flowers made them feel and feel loved and special. And I think that that heart that we put into it shows and kind of transfers to the person who gets it. And I think that’s really special that we get to do that. We get to show people that they’re loved and that they’re special and make them feel even more so in what we bring to them.
F Geyrhalter: The heart that we put into it shows. That’s your perfect Valentine’s Day message.
C Stembel: Yeah, totally. We’re shooting that this week so I’m going to go tell them after this.
F Geyrhalter: That’s right. So after everything you have self-taught yourself about branding, and obviously it works and it comes from within, it’s intrinsic. And of course now you’ve got all kinds of data and there’s so much more to it, I’m sure, at this scale that you’re working at today. But what does branding mean to you today?
C Stembel: We don’t have all the fancy tools that all the big companies have, and I don’t think I want them, honestly a little bit. Because I like just being able to feel things. I like being able to think about things and ask our customers. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I’m just taking industry data and being like, “Well, everyone’s saying this is what consumers are wanting now,” and stuff. I want to be able to keep that connection with our customers that then influence who we become as a brand, too. And I think that branding to me, number one it’s my favorite thing about what I do. Absolute favorite thing about what I do is the brand that we get to create because I feel like it’s kind of like a love letter a little bit. And we get to show our emotions and our heart on our sleeve to people and I think that that’s really amazing and I love doing that. So it’s my favorite part. I also think it’s probably the most important thing about what we do. I don’t ever want to create a company that doesn’t have that, that doesn’t have heart. And I use this a lot, but I never wanted to create a company that sold toilet paper. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, I just didn’t like-
F Geyrhalter: Oh, you never know. There could be toilet paper sold with heart.
C Stembel: It could be, it could be. I’ve seen some recent ones, I’m like, “Wow, that’s a good idea with toilet paper.” But I just wanted something that I personally could create a brand around and create love around and connect with people about. And so I think that that’s what brand is. It’s really showing your heart and showing on your sleeve a bit and connecting with your customers.
F Geyrhalter: That’s beautiful. It’s so true. It’s so true, especially with today’s companies. I do have one last question because I’m sure everyone listening would have that same question. What’s your PR secret? You have been on CNN, you have been on Hitting The Mark, okay maybe that not, but still, you’ve been Fast Company, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and anything in between. Was it hiring the perfect PR agency or just hustling your way in by using your unique story? I mean, both are very difficult.
C Stembel: Yeah. I think it’s that we have a good story and we photograph really well because flowers photograph really well, which is really lucky for that. But it is having a great PR agency, too. We have a phenomenal one in New York, Jennifer Bett Communications, that I can’t say enough about. And they’re wonderful and they work with us on what we want our story to be out there and who we want to be telling it. And so they’ve been wonderful to work with. So it’s definitely not all… people think that we’re just lucky and it’s free and everything but we put a lot into it too.
F Geyrhalter: Oh I’m sure.
C Stembel: Yeah.
F Geyrhalter: And thank you for sharing that. That was great.
C Stembel: Of course.
F Geyrhalter: Listeners-
C Stembel: It is money, so.
F Geyrhalter: That too, of course. Exactly, exactly. Listeners who fell in love with your brand just now, where can they get some Farmgirl flowers for the holidays?
C Stembel: Why thank you for asking, that’s a great question.
F Geyrhalter: Well you didn’t see that coming.
C Stembel: Totally. Farmgirlflowers.com, on our website. And then we also ask that you just follow along with our journey on Instagram and Facebook too, if you want to see more behind the scenes every day. We like to show you how we’re making each bouquet and fun things about our company there as well.
F Geyrhalter: And I think you have 133,000 flowers, is that correct?
C Stembel: I think we’re at-
F Geyrhalter: Or is it 311 now? One or the other.
C Stembel: Yeah, I think we’re three something-
F Geyrhalter: There you go.
C Stembel: On Instagram. And probably about the same on Facebook. I think overall, it’s a little over a million between all the channels.
F Geyrhalter: That’s awesome. That’s really, really amazing. Congratulations on everything. I’m so thrilled that you were able to share your insights and your story with us on the show. I know you have a jam-packed schedule, so we really appreciate your time.
C Stembel: No problem, thanks for having me. I really enjoy talking about this. I don’t often get to talk about brand, so this is really refreshing and wonderful.
F Geyrhalter: Excellent, thank you Christina.
C Stembel: Awesome, thank you Fabian.