We caught up with Christina Stembel CEO and Founder of Farmgirl Flowers about the importance of perseverance when starting a company and why leaving her work at the office helps her keep a clear mind and a more restful sleep.
What led you to start Farmgirl Flowers and where did you see a void in the market that you aimed to fill?
I think I caught the “business bug” when I moved to San Francisco (and this is going to date me) in the fall of 2000. It was the height of the dot com bubble and everywhere you looked there were success stories of self starters. I’d always dreamed of doing something big, I just didn’t know “big” looked like my own business until then.
Fast forward a few years and I was feeling closer to ready, if there is such a thing, to take the leap. I was using every girls’ night to host impromptu focus groups to get feedback on my business ideas - iron on suit pockets for women was/is my favorite. I was committed to starting a business that checked a few boxes:
- My business had to solve a problem.
- My business had to have the capability to scale - I didn’t want to work incredibly hard to hit a market cap of $1M.
- I wanted my business to do some good in the world.
- I needed a business I could bootstrap. I was a high school graduate with no pedigree to speak of. I knew I couldn’t waltz into any office on Sand Hill Road and get funding.
After many, many girls nights and research, I landed on flowers. I’d first gotten the idea at my last role - working as the director in the law school for alumni events. When budgets got slashed in the recession every director was asked to review their budgets and find places we could cut back. I saw how much we were spending on centerpieces, only for the servers to take them home at the end of the night, and that was where this idea started.
I quickly pivoted from event flowers to the gifting space - the online e-comm floral delivery business was doing $3B a year with only a few major players. And strangely enough, in 2010, when every other online business was growing, the e-comm floral gifting space was shrinking. Looking at the competitors, in my opinion it was easy to see why. Too many options, too much risk that what you ordered wouldn’t be delivered looking as it was promised online, too many hidden costs. I wanted to create a better model for buying flowers online. And so Farmgirl was born.
What were the biggest challenges in claiming your space in the flower industry?
There’s been a lot of challenges in claiming Farmgirl’s space in the industry. But, in my opinion, one of the most persistent has been sourcing. It’s always been about getting the right number of stems for the right price, but as we’ve gotten bigger so has the problem.
As they say, it takes a village and this is also true of Farmgirl sourcing. I started Farmgirl with the intention to buy exclusively from domestic farmers and, as of 2017, that just hasn’t been possible. We’ve had to reconfigure our supply chain to include international suppliers to ensure we have enough of every flower, bit and green. My small team works incredibly hard with our network of growers to make sure this happens, but with the volume of stems we’re buying and the rate at which they need to land to our HQ and be shipped out to the customer, this is hard work that must happen at the drop of a hat.
What are your favorite things about running a business in San Francisco and has the tech boom affected Farmgirl Flowers in any particular way?
San Francisco has been an incredible home base for Farmgirl for the past nine years. In a way, I think scaling in San Francisco during the tech boom has been great for our business. Our first customers were city dwellers living among some of the most giant of tech giants. In a lot of ways they’re accustomed, and even gravitate towards, startups. There’s a definite culture that causes people to gravitate towards what’s new and innovative. I think that attitude helped us to endear Farmgirl to residents here - they were not only willing but excited to give the new, flower startup a try. That might be my favorite part of running a business in the city - the people have been, and are, truly incredible.
What is your nightly routine? How many hours do you try to get a night?
I won’t have the popular answer here. As the sole founder of a bootstrapped company, sleep is something I don’t get enough of. That said, it’s a choice, and one I make intentionally. My time is my most precious resource and while we’re financing our own rapid growth at Farmgirl there are a lot of things that need my attention.
For most nights, I try to get between three and five hours of sleep. My one exception is Friday. I generally try to get into bed around 10p and skip setting an alarm. I let myself sleep in until I wake up naturally. This helps me to catch up from my less than restful nights during the week.
My nightly routine, at least for the most part, still revolves around work. During the day, most of my time is devoted to meetings. I’m meeting with members of my team about product development, labor, marketing, partnerships - you name it. When I get home I start in on my own work - projects, spreadsheets and long term strategic planning. I’ve been calendar blocking my time lately so that I can focus my after hours time a bit more and I’ve been scheduling consistently until 12:00a to 2:00a.
I won’t lie - it’s a grind but it’s one I find personally rewarding. I get asked all the time about work/life balance, and I get that. For a lot of people it’s not about living to work. But for me, growing Farmgirl Flowers into the biggest business that I possibly can is something I want enough to make some pretty serious sacrifices to make happen. Sleep feels like an easy one to make.
How does sleep affect your work day and your mind?
All that said, sleep does affect my work day and mind. By the end of the week, I can feel the physical effects of multiple nights in a row of less rest. That’s how my weekly Friday night/Saturday morning sleep ins began - to help make up for the rest of the week. If I’m carrying any problems into the weekend I find a good night’s rest on Friday can help to give me some clarity and, if not clarity, then patience to deal with any problems at hand.
What do you do right when you wake up that sets you up for the day?
This is a newer one for me but I don’t check my email. I have about an hour commute into the office and I found that if I started checking my email when I was in bed or before I left for the office I was getting stressed before my day even started. By taking the morning off, or even just a sliver of it, I can start my day with a clear head at the office when I arrive.
How do you hope to grow Farmgirl Flowers in the future?
I’ve always wanted to grow Farmgirl Flowers into the biggest business possible. With the industry making billions of dollars, I’ve not so quietly hoped that Farmgirl could snag at least one of these billions. I don’t know what the exact number looks like, but I do know “big” continues to be the goal. We want to expand into new distribution centers to help meet the consumer closer to where they live and, in turn, reduce shipping costs. And we want to continue to grow the Farmgirl brand, not only through beautiful arrangements but beyond the bouquet.
What personal lessons have you learned from being a business owner and what do you know now that you didn’t before?
Personally, I’ve learned a lot about grit. I think I had a lot of this to begin with - my parents are some of the most resilient people I know. Growing up on a farm in Indiana your work ethic is developed from a young age. Watching my parents work so hard it was impossible not to give at least that much effort when they asked me to pitch in. I think my childhood has been instrumental in me being able to work the hours I do now.
That said, I think I’ve learned new depths to my grit since starting Farmgirl. I guess I’ve always kind of thought there’d be some corner in business, some better place I’d find around the bend. But the bigger we get, the bigger our challenges (and bills!) get. Being able to get knocked down by these near constant obstacles and keep getting up has shown me just how deep this relentlessness goes.
What do I know now that I didn’t before? How much time do you have? I’ve learned an incredible amount since starting Farmgirl. I think the most important thing goes back to grit though - keep getting back up. You’re going to be knocked down in ways you never saw coming or anticipated. Give yourself five minutes to think about how much it kind of all sucks right now and then get back up. If you want it, there’s no other way to get there than to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And you can’t do that when you’re on the ground.
What is your favorite Brooklinen product?
The Lightweight Quilt! I have them on two of my beds up in Bandon, OR and love how warm they keep me and my guests!