GC Talks E-Commerce, Amish Flowers, and More with UrbanStems Co-Founder Jeff Sheely
When you order flowers online, more often than not an underwhelming, wilted bouquet arrives at the receiver’s doorstep. UrbanStems— a new eco-friendly, on-demand flower delivery service– is working to change this reality by focusing on customer happiness and well-designed, full-bodied arrangements in the New York City and Washington, DC areas.
Garden Collage recently spoke with Jeff Sheely, co-founder of the startup, about their beautiful bouquets and how they go about sourcing their flowers from a range of impressive suppliers– including Rainforest Alliance-certified farms in South America to more local, unexpected locales like multi-generational farms in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. Below, we talk start-ups, e-commerce, and the shifting role that the Internet plays in flower distribution as we know it.
GC: What gave you the idea to start an on-demand flowery delivery service? It seems like a competitive business to be in right now.
JS: A couple of years ago, my co-founder Ajay was in a long distance relationship and ended up sending a lot of flowers. Unfortunately, he had one terrible flower-sending experience after another, and it came to a crescendo on her birthday when his gift never showed up at all. That led to a massive fight.
If you look at the customer satisfaction ratings of all the categories in e-commerce, flower companies are about half that of every other category.
Stunned that you could pay all this money–upwards of $70-80 for a very basic bouquet–and then it ends up being an awful experience every single time, Ajay and I decided to look into the industry and see how we might be able to deliver a better online flower-sending experience.
If you look at the customer satisfaction ratings of all the categories in e-commerce, flower companies are about half that of every other category. That’s kind of shocking if you think about how the Internet has made everything cheaper and better, but this is the one area where the product is lower quality and you actually end up paying more online than if you just walked into a local florist. It doesn’t have to be that way, which is why we’ve created UrbanStems.
GC: Where did the co-founders meet and what’s your guys’ backgrounds?
JS: Ajay’s background is in business and mine’s in marketing. We met during undergrad at Duke University and remained close after graduation, always planning to one day work on a startup together. We met our designer, Scott, and Chetan, our tech person, through a DC Tech event in late 2013, and they began hanging out and working together on a few small projects. After a while, it became apparent that the idea for UrbanStems had potential, so we joined forces along with our operations guy Jereme–a long-time friend who moved down from New York to set up and run our operations–set out to create a good gift-giving service.
GC: Can you tell me about where you source your flowers from? I’ve heard some of your supply comes from Amish Country–that seems pretty unique.
JS: We mostly source from South American farms in Colombia and Ecuador, because they have the ideal flower-growing climate. It’s often described as the “Eternal Spring”… I know, sounds great, right? But we also work with local farms during their growing season. Last month we featured a local bouquet, The Sadie, that was sourced from multi-generational Amish farms in Pennsylvania, which our customers really loved.
GC: So, are the Amish doing something differently than most flower growers in the US? Are they more sustainable? Do they take better care of their soil?
JS: The biggest difference between the Amish growers and others is that everything they grow is super seasonal and local to the East Coast. Since they only use local varieties and don’t use pesticides or other chemicals, they’re the closest thing you can get to going out and picking a bouquet from the hillside yourself. They grow flowers in open fields, mostly because they can’t use manufactured glass or plastic.
GC: Have you ever visited any of the farms to scout the flowers or do you just take what’s available? Do ask your suppliers there to plant certain varieties?
JS: Cameron, our Director of Products, works directly with the farms to design our bouquets. We always try to work with what’s in season, and we do ask our farms to plant certain varieties if we know they’re something our customers will want.
GC: Can you explain how your company is vertically integrated and how you consider sustainability in each part of your company, from sourcing to delivery?
JS: We are able to offer bouquets at such an affordable price point, because we work directly with our farms. The traditional florist supply chain involves the flowers going from the farm to an importer, then to a wholesaler and then to a florist. UrbanStems flowers are cut at the farm and then immediately delivered to our distribution locations in New York City and Washington, D.C., with fresh shipments coming in every day. Cutting out the middlemen allows us to pass on the savings to the consumer. This also means the flowers spend less time in transit and are fresher when the consumer receives them.
The biggest difference between the Amish growers and others is that everything they grow is super seasonal and local to the East Coast. They only use local varieties and don’t use pesticides, so they’re the closest thing you can get to going out and picking a bouquet yourself…
Rather than stocking every type of flower like a traditional florist, we only offer four- to five- seasonal bouquets at a time, which reduces waste and helps us keep our prices low. The average local florist has a 50% spoilage rate, meaning that for every stem they sell, they throw one away. We’re able to reduce our waste by only having a few seasonal bouquet options each month, so we only order the stems we know we’ll need.
Finally, we are the only company to offer free one-hour delivery for all of our products thanks to our team of fast and eco-friendly bike couriers.
GC: What’s your most popular bouquet this season?
JS: We rotate our bouquets monthly, but right now our most popular one is definitely The Sienna, which has gorgeous fall roses, mums, rose hips and even some dried oak leaves.
GC: And, how do you pick the names for all the bouquets? They don’t happen to all be ex-girlfriends, do they?
JS: [Laughs] Great question! We try to name our bouquets based on people that inspire us, which can be famous people or our own friends, and sometimes we just go with what fits the style of the bouquet. The Audrey was named after the actress Audrey Hepburn and The Elizabeth, of course, after the Queen of England.
GC: What’s next for UrbanStems? Where would you like to expand the company?
JS: We have plans to expand outside of DC and NYC in the near future, and of course we eventually plan to be nationwide. Our ultimate goal is for anyone to be able to pull out their phone in any city, and within a couple taps, have an awesome gift being sent to anyone they want in under an hour. Just like how you pull out your phone and call a car when you need to go somewhere, we think it’s just as important to make someone else’s day, and we aim to make that experience as easy and fun as possible.