Where Have All The Flowers Gone?


Once upon a time, Michael Gaffney slaved away in a cubicle on Wall Street. Overworked and uninspired, he didn't really know how unsatisfied he was until one day, on a visit to his Milwaukee hometown, he stepped into a flower shop.

"I realized how much flowers can affect a person. They're part of every stage of life – birth, death, weddings, funerals, memories, romance. I saw how good designs make a stronger impact. Suddenly, I wanted to be part of that. I saw floral design as a way to help people renew, recover, express sympathy, fall in love, and share friendship."

When Michael tells this story he gets tears in his eyes. Real ones. Other floral designers, many of whom have been students at his wildly popular American Flower Design Schools, express similar sentiments.

"Flowers are emotional. They bring immediate joy. It's one reason why I left the corporate world to open a flower shop," says Julie Banke, owner of Sonora, California's Mountain Laurel Florist.

Banke is grateful for the opportunity that allowed her to start fresh in this "fun and forever changing" field. "After 25 successful years in my first career, I knew it was time to take a leap into a new one. Even during this busy Valentine week, I'm glad I did."

A blooming billion dollar business

Emotions aside, flowers are also big business. Especially during the major floral holiday coming up this weekend. According to a report in Florists' Review Magazine, Valentine's Day generates around $3 billion in retail flower and plant sales each year in the U.S. An incredible $637.3 million of that revenue goes to the sales of red roses alone.

"I understood that I could actually make a good living, doing something I love, while adding beauty and flair to events that touch people's lives," says Gaffney, whose floral design schools are expanding from nine locations to twelve. Following his bestselling Design Star, a second book, Flower Power, is scheduled for release this year.

But can your neighborhood florist still make a good living? With the industry in the midst of a significant transformation -- one veteran floral researcher called it a "wake-up call" -- can that little shop around the corner survive? Or will the local florist fall victim, like many cherished book stores, to the turbulent changes in the marketplace? Today's increasingly competitive floral market is busily blooming in a myriad of disruptive new directions, many of them digital and funded by venture capital.

Stop and smell the roses

BloomThat is one of the standouts in this growing trend. The San Francisco startup offers web and mobile apps that let customers select, pay, and have flowers or live plants delivered by courier within a "ridiculously fast" 90 minutes to a lucky recipient. Backed to the tune of a $2 million seed round by an eclectic group of investors including Ashton Kutcher and Joe Montana, the company is currently expanding its reach beyond the Bay area. Most recently, the team has taken its hipster-happy designs to Los Angeles where the startup's powerful blend of tech, marketing, and retail savvy is likely to harvest continued success.

Straight from the volcano to your door

Also brilliantly disrupting the industry is farm-to-home innovator, The Bouqs. The thriving startup, co-founded by brand strategy guru, John Tabis, and floral farming expert JP Montúfar, is shaking up the traditional business model by "shrinking the supply chain, going from farm to home, and offering honest, transparent pricing." Unlike some of the big players with their confusing fees and complex ordering systems, Bouqs offers flat pricing of $40 per bouquet shipped anywhere in the U.S. The company also focuses on giving the customer "one less thing to worry about" by scrupulously avoiding hidden fees and sneaky price-pumping extras like bears or chocolate bars. Instead, there's a simple 3-step (instead of 10) checkout.

They've also created a popular subscription service that transforms customers into heroes with "Never Forget" and "Just Because" blooms. Is it any wonder that amidst the female-driven flower marketplace, Bouqs has a significant percentage of (grateful) male customers?

About that volcano ...

Beyond making the online experience trustworthy, predictable, and easier, Bouqs has ignited an increasingly important conversation about the sometimes murky world of growing flowers. Words like sustainable, farm-fresh, responsible, eco-friendly farming, and respect are peppered throughout co-founder John Tabis every (passionate) sentence.

"How do we fix this business for the farmer? How do we keep these family farms and the jobs alive?" asks Tabis, explaining Bouqs' expertise in applying smart economics. ""If we can layer tech on the farm, we can make real changes. We can extend their holiday seasons. Our just-in-time on demand process creates less waste. At the end of the day, if we can create sustainability, our mission is fulfilled."

Tabis continues: "We source only from eco-friendly, sustainable farms that respect the environment and their workers. Our farms provide living wages, childcare, healthcare and adult education."

No wonder Oprah magazine fell hard for these fleurs from the Ecuadorian Andes. The Bouqs site describes them as: "Volcano stems from the equator, 10,000 feet above sea level, which means one thing: sun. More sun means more color. These Bouqs are fed by pure volcanic snow melt and mineral-rich, ph-balanced soil. And our California cut flowers come straight from eco-friendly farms on the coast."

Like all grand stories, the versions may vary. John Tabis' flowery story may revolve around volcanos, sunshine, and sustainability. Julie Banke's around reinvention and community. And Michael Gaffney's around the art and ethereal beauty of flowers.

"I came to see myself as an artist for people's emotions. I made a good living, yes, but my art made other people happy. It was remarkably satisfying. And flowers, of course, grow and bloom, but they don't last forever. They disappear. It's a medium that's both dynamic and ethereal. You're always being called on to create something new, but it won't last either. And that's okay."

What's your story? Have you always wanted to work with flowers? Tell us why in the comments below.
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