Flower Muse founders forsake funding, find a field of dreams

Courtesy of Flower Muse

For decades, Teleflora, 1-800-Flowers (FLWS), and FTD/Interflora (FTD) have grown like weeds and consolidated the North American flower delivery space. The result has been a mass dying off of local flower stands and shops, and that’s caused some ambivalent customers to question the service and selection the major conglomerates offer. Do you love your florist? Or do you love it not?

Ben Creighton and Ellie Hsu think customers are getting the short end of the stem.

Creighton and Hsu are the couple behind Flower Muse, a high-end, farm-direct flower delivery service specializing in exotic, out-of-season, harder-to-find flowers and offering a bouquet of unique options all year round. The typical Flower Muse customer is a recurrent buyer who accents her home with a gorgeous array of everyday flowers. She’ll also splurge not just on special occasions like weddings, but also for Mother’s and Valentine’s Days, when sending flowers is sometimes a default option.

“We would love to play more in the more standard gift market with regular roses, but we’re focused on peonies, garden roses, and ranunculuses,” says Creighton. The industry’s average per-order value, he notes, is close to $65. The average Flower Muse order blossoms upwards of $200.

It hasn’t been difficult for the twosome to bloom where they’re planted. “For us,” Creighton explains, “It was very simple: let’s be the Zappos of flowers. Let’s have great customer service. Even if we have to lose money on an order to make sure a customer is happy, even if a FedEx driver drives over box—and that’s happened.” Hsu adds, “This is a perishable product. Things go wrong. If we were the customers, what would we want to have happen? That’s our abiding principle.”

After working in international marketing at Warner Bros., Hsu knew how to grow a global brand. Creighton mastered corporate development and strategy while working at the likes of Bain and Company, and happened to make a few flower industry connections. But cultivating a global supply chain wasn’t a bed of roses. Traditionally, farmers sell to importers, and importers work directly with wholesalers, which distribute flowers to retailers. Flower Muse partner farms skip all the middlemen, snipping and shipping direct to the customers.

Creighton notes that typically, farmers sell the best flowers to Europe and Russia. The Russian market demands a higher quality product. In Europe, where buyers are typically more open to weird varieties and colors, it’s far more common to purchase everyday flowers. (It’s also expected that the flowers will last longer than a few days.) Many overseas flower farms specializing in unusual varietals ignore the U.S. market altogether. The Flower Muse founders might not make it their mission to change that, but their offerings demonstrate a dedication to offering something truly special.

Shortsighted supply and demand isn’t just because consumers have low expectations or little knowledge of the industry. Flower sellers are skeptical of the changing business climate. Creighton notes that particularly in the U.S., the landscape and language around how the flower delivery business has moved from storefronts to e-commerce is comparable to how Amazon is often blamed for running independent bookstores out of business. “Retailers see colleagues go out of business, so they stop stocking interesting stuff for bouquets,” he says. The risk seems too great, and that further limits the options presented to window- (or refrigerator-)case-shopping customers.

All of this insecurity in an older established industry means suddenly there’s a lot of competition in the startup flower delivery space. A handful of competitors—H. Bloom, BloomNation, Urban Stems, The Bouqs, and BloomThat, to name a few—have pulled in tens of millions in funding. While working at Bain, Creighton watched VCs tirelessly chase trends; most recently, he says, it was fashion startups and a long tail of pet-related companies. “Now it’s flowers,” he explains. The reason for the blooming interest is simple. “There hasn’t been investment [in the flower space] for long time. It’s really controlled. There are four big companies that dominate the consumer mindset, and they’ve been happy there’s no one else.”

While there’s a lot of money being thrown at flowers, Creighton and Hsu aren’t interested in seeding their modest plot of land into a whole forest. “We think [Flower Muse is] something that can grow. But funding is not something we pursued and are not interested in,” Creighton says. “We don’t want to be a billion-dollar company.” They’d happily settle for $20 million, and the company is on track to reach that goal. Since launching in 2012 and experiencing quadruple digital growth, it has enjoyed triple digit growth each year. Closing 2014, Creighton says the company pulled in “several million” for the year.

Hsu notes another concern about explosive growth. “With funding, you give up control,” she says. She’s much more in answering a basic question for her customers, one she says too few flower companies ask or answer. “What makes a good product?” she asks. “When it comes to flowers, people don’t really know.”

But Flower Muse customers are learning, one box of peonies at a time.

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