In the beginning, there was…
a little devilish child with too much energy for his own good. Unfortunately, for my parents, there were two of me, and there was no way I would ever let my twin brother beat me at anything… unsurprisingly he believed the same. While our competitiveness as children often landed us in timeout, it’s obvious that this is key to who we are today.
Whether it was conscious or not, I always knew I’d be a “businessman”. While others played video games, my form of fun was “let’s make a business!” Lawn mowing, lemonade stands, and door-to-door car washing lasted me until I was 12, and by 16, I was harboring public parking spots with orange cones from Home Depot to distribute to the highest bidder on crowded nights. After taking a law class or two, I’m not convinced how legal that was at the time, but it’s now past the statute of limitations, and I was simply a young, well-intentioned capitalist. What happened a few years later changed my entire outlook on business… and not as you might expect.
I met The Giver
Did you read The Giver in middle school? It’s a book about a utopian future society where everything seems perfect, black and white until the protagonist realizes there’s more; there’s a better, more complicated but colorful world. If you prefer movies, you can check out the trailer here.
Anyway, I had a Giver experience. Early in college, I thought to be an investment banker or consultant was the bees knees; the key to “success.” When I went on bank visits with the Investment Banking Academy (then called Investment Banking Club), we added one unusual visit. We stopped by JP Morgan’s Personal Wealth Management division where they manage ultra high net-worth individuals’ money ($25M+). I asked them 2 questions:
- How do the majority of your clients make their fortunes? 2% trust fund babies and the rest built 1 or more businesses over time and sold them.
- Will you ever make the money that your clients make doing what you do? Nope.
It was decided. I wanted to build my own businesses. Thankfully, my mind wasn’t solely focused on short-term financial returns for too long, otherwise, I would have quit long ago.
Building relationships with REAL founders & CEO’s
“Don’t worry about getting rich in your 20’s. Go where you’ll learn the most and where you’ll discover your passion; money will follow” – Craig Stern, CEO Rogers & Hollands Jewelers.
Rewinding quickly: I attended the University of Illinois, primarily for a spot in their 35-person Business Honors Program. What sold me was the intimate, in-person access they gave to current Fortune 500 and other C-level founders and executives.
As a 19 year old, I was sitting at the same table as the late Michael Heisley (owner of the Memphis Grizzlies), Sam Skinner (White House Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush), Craig Stern (CEO Rogers & Hollands Jewelers), Matthew Paull (CFO McDonalds), Donald Shannon (Founder & CEO Interior Investments) just to name a few. These were BIG name people, and I was fresh out of high school. I had to pony up, get my s*** together and pretend like I belonged in the room with them. I attended more than 50 of these “Conversations with Leaders” and built personal relationships that continue to this day with a handful of them. The first few conversations were extremely nerve racking and intimidating, but after about 20, 3 life-changing realizations arose:
- These leaders turned from fable-like heroes to real human beings (of which I respected and looked up to immensely nonetheless)
- A trend started to emerge about the “secret” to their combined success
- The infectious thought: they are human and there seems to be a common pattern. If they could do it, why can’t I?
“Figure out what you’re passionate about, start early, put everything you’ve got into it and you’ll be successful” –Warren Buffett (Chairman & CEO Berkshire Hathaway)
The Oracle of Omaha tipped the scale
In October 2010, I was humbled and privileged to have lunch with one of my idols, Warren Buffett. Among various topics of conversation including practical jokes he and Bill Gates played on each other, business of course, and family, he confirmed what all my other mentors had said: use your youth to find what you’re passionate about. If it’s business, then building and owning businesses is the most efficient way to financial success.
There’s something more he added to the puzzle, though. I asked him, “What’s the most important decision you’ve ever made?” Most would expect a business related answer, but no. Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “The person you marry.” He went on to explain that the person you marry can support your passions and dreams despite setbacks to make your life incredible, or he/she will doubt and put you down, making your life miserable. First, this helped me define my notion of success as something more than just financial and professional… I could have an entire other blog on this subject alone. Second, note that his explanation implies a thread that ties the success trend together: Regardless of skills and talent, when you shoot for the stars, there will always be
Behind every single success story I’ve heard, there is always failure. The key is minimizing the downside to failure, getting as many “at-bats” as possible, and becoming better each time. Keep the failure short-term, so you have long-term success. With this in mind, here is the map that I learned from the pros to avoid long-term failure. It has guided my journey thus far, professionally and personally.
- Throw yourself into experiences that will reveal your passions.
- Identify people who are successful at these desired exploits (notice, this isn’t just professional).
- Leverage their experience to leap ahead in the learning curve and learn what you need to learn.
- Build a tangible niche skill set associated with your passions (can be simultaneous with #5).
- Step up to bat, knowing you’ll fail somewhere but constantly trying to minimize mistakes.
- Correct course.
- Reassess passions.
- Rinse and repeat.
The Flower Guy
A mixture of taking Spanish classes for years, traveling the globe and having a latin ex-girlfriend all led to a passion for latin culture. So, in January 2011, I went to go live and study in Ecuador.
There, I lived with an incredible family whose grown-up son owned a rose farm as well as conducted agricultural quality audits for organizations such as Fair Trade. I came to learn that flowers are Ecuador’s largest export and are a multi-billion dollar business internationally. Soon, I dug more into the industry and learned about the challenges he faced. It became clear the industry’s processes, logistics, marketing was very dated and needed an upgrade. I attribute this fact (speculation) to a few aspects:
- While flowers are a symbol of love and care, the industry itself isn’t exactly “sexy.” In turn, not much new blood was entering to make improvements.
- The average age in the industry was between 40-70 years old.
- Much of the industry is tech averse, so it serves as a major challenge for any young person desiring to implement new tactics.
Consequently, most perceptions of “technology” were negative because the flower market’s introduction to “technology” was in the late 80s and early 90s. At that time, the internet was complicated, confusing, and clunky. Little faith was left over after that debacle.
No one at the time was taking an effective stab at streamlining the archaic buying processes or marketing niche products into new international markets. I knew if I built a talented team, with an Apple mentality – if your grandma can’t intuitively figure it out, it’s not technology – we’d have a shot.
Up to bat and bootstrapped
For anyone who’s ever started a business for the first time, you’ll identify this as one of the many “hardest decisions” you’ll have to make.
“Should I do it or not?”
I’d argue that 90% of people end up choosing the latter because of various reasons or insecurities. Sometimes that’s the right decision and sometimes it isn’t. For me, here were some considerations that led to my decision:
- Is it something you want to do? Well, I know I wanted to do international business and make a big impact somewhere. If I joined another company, it’d probably take me a while to get into a role like this. Yes, I want to do it.
- Do you have the resources to do it? I already had an “in” within the industry that could be leveraged as a competitive advantage. Also, funds from my Apple stock bought in 2009 along with next summer’s internship income could get us up and running.
- What are the alternatives? Save my money to buy an apartment right after school, put all my efforts and attention on a corporate job, use my time for an extra degree… blah blah blah – all sound boring.
- What’s the worst that could happen? I fail and go get a “normal job” after school…
Let’s do it!
The next day, I called, Parth Kapadia, my long-time fellow entrepreneurial-minded friend and said, “Drop whatever you’re doing; we’re starting an international flower business.” Thankfully he accepted, and we incorporated a few weeks later.
First, failure….that didn’t take long
$9,000 business cards
Should I contract out my website or try to find someone for in-house development? There’re various pros and cons to either side of this common question, but at the end of the day, there’s really only one best answer.
IN HOUSE PROGRAMMER ALL THE WAY (better yet, teach yourself).
We lost approximately $9,000 on unnecessary legal contracts, negotiations, deal-breakers, and wasted time with various contractors/developers. The whole waste wasn’t just money, it was about 8 months of time. If I were to do it all over again, I would have been patient and waited until we found an all-star coder (easier said than done), or better yet, I would have taught myself how to make a beta site. I’m now teaching myself to code because I see the immense value of being able to program. If only I had this motivation earlier… anyway… that’s water under the bridge, or should I say money down the drain. It could have been worse. At least we got usable business cards out of one of the contractors we used.
Thankfully, Jack Berg landed in my life through a mutual friend. He’s an absolute rockstar who has never taken a CS class in his life – fully self-taught and paid his way through college with sites made in high school. I sold him on GlobalPetals by revealing the additional grant funding we’d received, our market was validated (kind of), and we had a flight booked the following week going down to Ecuador to show off progress we had made…basically none at that point. He saw the dire situation, but also saw the potential for the business. So, he worked his magic and gave us a working beta site one week later while we were flying across the equator.
The original idea was to create an online marketplace to bring buyers and sellers together. This is a pretty common initial idea for many first-time entrepreneurs I’ve come to learn. As it turns out, you have a chicken and egg problem. It’s very hard to get suppliers’ buy-in without immediate customers. Simultaneously, it’s tough to gain customers without quality suppliers. We needed to get our hands dirty. After making this quick realization, I earned my stripes as the leading Founder. It was my role to:
- Find the best suppliers by implementing a sourcing strategy and executing it. We now have the top producers in the world.
- Navigate international shipping options, set up import licenses and bonds, then negotiate the best rates from logistics companies. We now have the best door-to-door shipping rate anyone’s seen for a company our size.
- Lead sales and marketing to build a customer base around the United States… keep reading.
The first market we started out in was the B2C market, selling to DIY event groups. Because our flowers were sold in bulk, we needed to sell to higher quantity buyers (i.e. events). We started selling to the university crowd (sororities, fraternities, clubs, colleges, etc.). This was actually pretty successful – nice margins and there was a demand. The issue was that these organizations often did not know how to handle bulk, unprepared flowers upon arrival. Therefore, expectations about the amount of work to turn farm flowers into design pieces were very underestimated. Still, there was demand from those willing to put in the effort. Word spread about us pretty fast and soon enough, we were serving organizations on about 5 college campuses. The main issue was that orders were relatively few and far between. Additionally, marketing costs were high to attain customers who’d probably only order once or twice a year. We needed more customers ordering in higher volumes more often. Don’t we always... Furthermore, there are countless competitors in the B2C floral space that had exponentially more resources than we did. Our expertise came through product specialization, quality, technology and logistics.
We made a slow transition into the B2B market, trying to test the waters. Quickly, I found out that florists are much different:
- Flowers aren’t a commodity to them; size and specific breed matter.
- They must last a lot longer for florists because they’re further back in the supply chain.
- Margins are thinner.
- Many were much less tech savvy than a young college student organizing an event.
- They won’t buy from us if we’re selling to their customers – “channel conflicts” in business speak.
- Most importantly: They’re designers first and business people second (KEY insight).
Sacrifice & leap of faith
At this point, I was in my senior year of college. With very generous offer letters sitting in front of me from Deloitte and Accenture Consulting, I had a decision to make. GlobalPetals had seen some marginal success but was by no means able to stand alone just yet. There were another 1-2 years of work before we could make it self-sufficient. I could call it a good run and leverage my start-up experience to get a well-paying consulting job (many thanks again to the wonderful people within those firms who fought for me!), or finish what I started and try to make a sustainable impact on this industry.
If you couldn’t tell already, I chose the latter. Armed with the advice of Warren Buffett, Craig Stern and others to learn as much as I can in my 20s, I couldn’t think of a more challenging experience than running and growing my own business – for the time being at least. Plus, what’s the worst that could happen? I fail and hope that employers see my failure as an interesting experience vs. an unemployable flaw.
Only giving ourselves 2 weeks vacation post graduation, Parth and I hit the street and visited over 100 flower shops in the Chicagoland area. Through this, we:
- Were chased out of some shops.
- Ridiculed by some and loved by others.
- Received a crash course in salesmanship and customer service.
- But MOST IMPORTANTLY, it gave us an inside perspective that many don’t have. We learned where our product stood quality-wise (essentially in the middle). Also, we learned that the most important benefit a florist cares about is their ability to be unique. They want something to help them stand out from the fierce local competition. At this point, we only partially solved their problem. Fortunately, we also…
- Picked up a few customers along the way who taught us even more about the deep down desires and aspirations of a floral designer and how best we could serve them.
After a few months and an acquired book of business, it was clear that we couldn’t keep playing in the middle market. Margins were too thin and competition was too high. We needed to make a change and attack the top 10% with the most unique roses in the world. After that decision was made, I was on a sourcing trip to Ecuador 3 weeks later.
Utilizing a secret sourcing strategy used to find literally the newest and most unique flowers in the world, GlobalPetals turned into a high-end niche supplier. This made all the difference. No longer were we begging for pennies. We had something that just about everyone wanted, our technology made the process easy, and our customer service was unmatched. It was just a matter of whether the client could afford the product and the farm had the supply. Leveraging our product, we set out to flip the industry on its head.
“For it is in giving that we receive.” – Francis of Assisi
After two years of being in the industry, every piece of “marketing” we had encountered from floral companies basically said, “Hey you! Look at ME – Our products are amazing. Give ME your MONEY.” Obviously, this isn’t what was written, but it’s what was inherently communicated. Acknowledging this had little business effectiveness, I didn’t want to be one of those companies. I wanted to be an aid to our customers – something more than just a supplier. What we did next made all the difference.
We launched a blog with a simple goal: give more to the floral community than we asked for in return. In fact, we tried not to ask anything… just give. What did we give? Exactly what what we learned they wanted from stopping into all those shops: advice and insights on how to become a better DESIGNER and how to STAND APART. Everyone criticizes the floral industry for being “old” and “tech-averse,” but it’s surprising how tech savvy people will become when it’s worth their while!
Within a month and a half, utilizing content marketing best practices, we became the leading industry blog for high-end floral designers. Not only did people share with their designer friends, on social media, and within trade newsletters, but they started realizing that we knew what we were talking about. In turn, those targeted customers seeking high-end flowers reached out to us instead of the other way around. It was great; we were now working with super passionate, high-end designers who specialize in exclusive events. We were no longer the annoying salesmen walking through the doors playing the price game. The blog continues to drive traffic and qualified leads to this day.
I’m currently spending a smaller portion of my daily time on GlobalPetals as we’ve been able to automate a large portion of the day-to-day activities. Also, the inbound marketing strategies that we constantly test and implement reduce our sales cycle time. Therefore, my efforts can be dedicated to contributing to our blog community, which in turn, leads to more business.
My free time is now going toward this website sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned on this journey and by working with hundreds of other entrepreneurs through the years. I like to help out those who are looking to take the leap of faith. It can be easier to make if you see a trampoline on the ground… I wish I had known some of these bootstrapped hacks before starting my journey. But hey, now you can use my bumps and bruises to hopefully leave your fight slightly less gnarled (you WILL still definitely get a few black eyes, but like mentioned before, the goal is to minimize those mistakes).
For my next adventure, I’m interested in the intersection of technology, physical industry, and online commerce. Also, a company with international applications is of particular interest. I’m also intrigued by sales/marketing funnel optimization, wearables, cloud, and SaaS products. What I’ve learned that is most important to me and my self-growth is
Working with extremely talented and accomplished people who have a passion for what they do and for developing those around them.
I’ve now been through the bootstrapped model and would like to apply this lean business experience to a high-growth company to help it develop as efficiently as possible. It’d be preferable to do it with someone who’s “been there done that,” so I can learn even more. In turn, I’ll be able to forward those lessons onto you as well, so you can do it even better than me! We’re young and have plenty of years ahead of us (God willing). Therefore, I’m up for experimentation, geographic moves, and Ramen Noodle dinners if that’s what it takes for the next step. It’s an exciting stage of life!