This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Cameron Hardesty started in the flower industry as a side hustle while she was working in communications at The White House during the Obama administration. After being so impressed with the flowers in the Christmas decor at the home of the First Family while giving her parents a tour in 2012, Hardesty worked up the nerve to email Laura Dowling, the chief floral designer of the White House.
“She couldn’t have been kinder or more welcoming to me, and invited me to volunteer in the shop,” recalls Hardesty. Her first volunteer experience was setting up for First Lady Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party. For the next few years, she spent nights and weekends learning from Dowling and traveled to Germany to learn from master florist, Gregor Lersch. Back at her day job, Hardesty’s colleague’s husband and college friend started UrbanStems, a floral delivery e-commerce, and she started helping them out from the time they first launched their website in 2014. That evolved into a full-time role a year later, when she became head of products.
“That’s when I started to complement my floral design skills with supply chain and business expertise,” Hardesty explains. “I built UrbanStems’ international supply chain, adding farms from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Holland to our vendor list, and met a ton of key industry leaders along the way.”
Not long after she designed the flowers for her own wedding (which was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings), Hardesty launched Poppy in 2019 in Washington D.C., catering specifically to weddings and other significant events.
Fortune recently spoke with Hardesty to learn more about her first year in business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and her plans for the next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: The floral industry, especially catering to weddings, is big but busy. What inspired the launch of Poppy, and how does it stand out from the bunch?
Before I joined UrbanStems, I did a lot of research on the flower industry and found that wedding and event florals was almost double the market opportunity of floral gifting, comprising nearly half of the $10 billion flower market in the U.S. So I urged our team at UrbanStems to pursue that market segment, but it didn’t really work out.
When I managed the flowers for my own wedding in 2017—buying flowers by the pallet, hiring five designers, and coordinating design and execution—I realized why UrbanStems wasn’t set up to succeed in the weddings space. Even though at a commodities level, the product—flowers—is the same, wedding florists operate very differently from retail florists. UrbanStems’ business model centers around on-demand delivery and standardized products. Wedding customers are the opposite of on-demand (time generally isn’t a constraint for them) and they want lots of customization.
I thought that was a really interesting problem to solve at scale, and because it’s a $4 billion to $5 billion market opportunity, it seemed like one worth solving.
Poppy stands out in three ways. We’re leveraging technology to provide highly customized client proposals—meaning our speed of service is higher than a traditional florist, freeing up our designers to spend time with the customer, not on paperwork.
We source directly from the best farms in the world, giving us access to the highest quality product at very competitive prices—savings we pass on to our clients. And we are your flower friend for any occasion. Because we’re able to ship individual orders nationwide, we’ve had wedding clients of ours send our Poppy At Home kits to their bridesmaids, moms, friends, and even to themselves.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the last year? What surprised you the most?
We only started marketing ourselves online in early February, and we were getting up to 25 customer inquiries per day. We were overwhelmed with interest, to be honest, and had to staff up our customer care team significantly—and fast. I was looking to hire a full time customer care team member when COVID-19 hit, and the week after the national emergency was announced, site traffic fell off a cliff. I think everyone was scared and trying to get their bearings. Wedding planning was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Within two weeks, we pivoted to selling Poppy At Home, DIY floral kits shipped directly from our farm partners to anywhere in the U.S. I thought we would sell 10 boxes in the first week, but we sold 150, without advertising. The farm we’re working with told me it was the best start to a client engagement they’d ever seen. It was clear we had hit on something. Sales have stayed steady since then and are now increasing in advance of Mother’s Day. That has been the biggest surprise—in this time of economic uncertainty, flowers are still a priority for people. It’s been incredible to see.
What kind of feedback have you received from your customers, and have you (or will you) apply that feedback to how you sell your products in the future?
The feedback we’ve gotten has been so positive, but I actually love the constructive feedback more. That’s what makes us better. The biggest thing customers, investors, and friends wanted from us was to be able to send multiple Poppy At Home kits in one transaction, so we threw all of our engineering resources at that and this week announced Poppy Party, just in time for Mother’s Day orders.
Obviously, amid the coronavirus pandemic, events—including weddings—have been postponed for months or outright canceled. How has this affected your business, and how are you maintaining your business through the shutdown?
Yep. This was a big shock to our system because we had reached operational capacity for weddings this spring and summer, and we were gearing up for a huge surge in operations. Then, all of a sudden, that all got wiped out, along with the 75% of the revenue we expected to realize. (We take a 25% deposit from our clients, which is on the low end for our industry.)
The silver lining was that all of a sudden, we had every weekend free in April and May. And they all became working weekends as we pivoted rapidly, like so many other businesses.
First, inspired by one of our couples whose wedding plans were disrupted by COVID, we quickly launched The Courthouse Package: one bouquet and one boutonnière for $152. Then we launched our Poppy At Home flower kit, inspired by how I first got into floral design more than seven years ago. The response has been phenomenal. Poppy At Home has not only made April a banner month in terms of revenue, we’ve also set a record in the most new wedding bookings in one month. I think with the stay-at-home orders and social distancing, wedding planning for those couples getting married later this year or in 2021 has been a welcome and fun distraction, and we’ve had the time to really dig in with those clients, which has been so rewarding.
How many employees do you have on your team? Have you been able to keep your entire workforce?
We’ve got three W-2 employees (two full-time, one part-time), a stellar intern, an incredible customer sales representative, and a communications pro and photographer, whom we work with on a contract basis, but who are really part of the team. I feel incredibly lucky we’ve been able to keep everyone on board—largely thanks to their flexibility, government aid, and our quick pivot.
Beyond sales, what does cash flow look like right now for you, especially with so many events on hold? Are you venture-backed or self-funded? Have you had any luck with the Paycheck Protection Program?
When this all hit, I thought, “This could be lights out for us.” We operate in two industries that have been materially impacted by COVID: the flower industry and the events industry. By the grace of God and FedEx, we were able to pivot quickly to selling DIY floral kits, and the response has exceeded my wildest expectations.
That said, we have priced these kits very affordably for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to move as many flowers off our farms as possible, which meant putting more stems in the box. And second, I wanted these flowers to be as accessible as possible, which meant we weren’t going to launch a $250 luxury product in the middle of a pandemic. Our mission here is to bring people happiness during a dark time.
We raised a small friends and family [round] and an angel round last winter, and I haven’t taken a salary for over a year and have self-funded in addition to the raise. My investors have been incredibly supportive, even during a time that must be scary for them and their families. This whole thing has made me beyond grateful to be surrounded by the team I have.
Looking beyond the post-pandemic era, which could be anywhere from a year to a few years from now, what kind of business do you want Poppy to grow into five years from now?
I have spent a lot of time and headspace scenario planning for Poppy. Our business is set up to serve customers that florists traditionally reprioritize or turn away because they don’t have $10,000+ floral budgets. Before COVID hit, investors were predicting an economic downturn in general, and I believed Poppy would actually thrive in a recession, which is why I pressed ahead.
It’s fundamentally true that people, regardless of the economy, have gotten married and celebrated with weddings for thousands of years. Flowers have been an important part of weddings (and all celebrations) for nearly as long. And in a recession, weddings—and flower budgets—tend to become more modest. Our business is structured to cater to that customer exactly. Tiny weddings, micro weddings, elopements, and even weddings with bigger guest counts but more modest floral budgets.
Our sweet spot are weddings with an average floral spend of $2,500, but our order minimum for weddings goes all the way down to $152, and we love the creativity that we can put into budgets up to $10,000. I set up Poppy with this level of budget flexibility because I saw a lot of floral designers flat out ignoring couples spending less than $5,000 or more on their flowers, and, frankly, I don’t think that’s right. Everyone deserves beauty. But if wedding budgets downshift, that actually is an advantage for us.
Five years from now? I want us to be developing and empowering hundreds of independent floral designers across the country, sending them top-of-market pay and the ability to generate income for themselves and their families. I want to provide them with the best floral training available, like the kind I received from Gregor Lersch, and to give them the pathway to the creative life that I was able to carve out in The White House flower shop with Laura Dowling starting seven years ago. I want to be working with not just the best farms on earth, but the farms with the biggest hearts. My biggest angel investor is a major flower importer in Miami, and he wears a pin everywhere he goes that says “Helping people express feelings with flowers.”
Both of my parents are psychologists, so growing up, I was used to expressing my feelings. I see flowers as a form of therapy, and there’s actually scientific research proving that flowers improve mood. I hope that coming out of this pandemic, we all emerge with a deeper connection to the beauty of nature, and flowers and plants are really emblems of that connection. I want to help awaken that in all of us.
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