Why this CEO is leaving “money on the table”

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U.S. small business confidence fell to a six-month low in September, according to a report from the National Federation of Independent Business.

Citing concerns over labor and ongoing supply chain disruptions, the NFIB said its small business optimism index slipped by 1 point, while its uncertainty index rose. 

For another read on how business owners are feeling, “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Christina Stembel, founder and CEO of the direct-to-consumer flower company Farmgirl Flowers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Kai Ryssdal: So how was your spring, summer and early fall?

Christina Stembel: It was interesting. It’s been a challenging year. I think we talked last time right before Valentine’s Day, and like a lot of direct-to-consumer brands, we had almost 50% of our Valentine’s Day packages not delivered on time. It was hard to recover from. We lost about $5.5 million from our shipping partners.

Ryssdal: OK wait, hold on, because it’s one thing for, like, a dishwasher or, like, a bar of soap to not show up. If flowers get delayed, you’ve got to redo the whole thing?

Stembel: Yeah, with perishability it just adds a whole other element to it, which is what led to the $5.5 million lost. So that kind of started the year off on a not-great note, you know? Sales were still really good at the beginning of the year. I think when we talked last year, I said sales were great because we’re in the gifting space, and so we had 100% growth year over year last year, and it was, like, physically hard. You know, we thought that COVID would be over and it’s not, which has been really challenging. So this year has actually been way harder than last year, which is just really surprising to us.

Ryssdal: Do you think that’s because people now can sort of go out and actually spend money on doing things instead of buying things and sending flowers? 

Stembel: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t blame them. People want to spend time with their loved ones now and not send gifts to them. So, you know, as soon as the vaccines were readily available in mid-April, we saw our sales soften, like almost every other company. We’d built an infrastructure for 100% growth numbers from last year, and we then needed to right-size the business for where the sales were and —

Ryssdal: Sorry to interrupt. “Right-size” means smaller, it never means bigger, right?

Stembel: Yeah, we had to make it smaller. No company wants to say no to growth, but there is another side to that, and 100% growth is really hard to support. When that goes away, how do you support the infrastructure that you just built for that? So we actually had to lay off a significant portion of our company this year or we would have gone out of business and not made it.

Ryssdal: All right. So let me go sideways a little bit here. You kind of sound like you’re going a million miles an hour, like in this interview right now. And I can’t decide whether that’s because you’ve had a crazy morning or because that’s the way you have to be to keep this business going right now.

Stembel: Yeah, I probably am always like that a little bit. The only thing I’m certain of is that there’s gonna be a lot more uncertainty. And that’s hard, you know, when you can’t plan for things that could essentially take you out of business, that’s very daunting, right? And probably makes me sound a little crazed. You know, I’m actually really optimistic for the future now, but also cautious because a lot of what happened this year, I couldn’t control. 

“The only thing I’m certain of is that there’s gonna be a lot more uncertainty,” said Farmgirl Flowers CEO Christina Stembel. (Courtesy Farmgirl Flowers)

Ryssdal: Well, all right. So if you’re optimistic, I’m going to imagine you’re past the “We’re going to go out of business, and we’re actually going to make it” thing. So in a year, how are you going to be doing? Or do you just not know? Is that a ridiculous question?

Stembel: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m hoping that next time we talk, I’m like, “Things are great, finally.” Right now, I am very proud of my team, though, because we made the changes very quickly this year. And if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. I’d be here talking to you about how I lost my business. You know, Valentine’s Day next year, we’re taking less risks. We’re like — it’s on a Monday, which is the worst day of the week. Like, can we take a $10 million risk? No, we learned that from last February. It almost took us out of business. So, we’re just gonna leave money on the table this year to lessen our risk so we can make sure that we’re here. 

Ryssdal: It’s the smart thing to do, to leave that money on the table, but does it kind of kill you a little?

Stembel: Absolutely! It kills my soul to know that we could do it, especially when sales are soft right now, and know that the times of the year that we can get it, we can’t. It kills my soul.