Part II : What I wish I'd known before I became a Flower Farmer
Lesson #4 : Who is your market?
This probably should have been the first lesson really. Before you even sow a seed you should have a fairly clear idea of who will buy your product. I have to admit that I had pretty humble aspirations before I began growing. Initially it was to be just for me. I wanted to be able to pick flowers for my house throughout the year. When a friend saw the size of my plot she suggested I might sell the excess from a flower cart at my gate. At that point I don't think I'd even read Georgie Newbury's book How to be a Flower Farmer but she too started by selling sweet peas from her gate. Perhaps I googled it and saw a gate sale set up in America. Anyway I thought I could just pop some flowers out and let people buy them through an honesty box system. It did kind of work too. I attracted quite a lot of repeat customers and generally they all left the correct amount of money - some over paid and some under paid so it all came through in the wash. It was also a great way to trial different types of posy and bouquet. I made up little tin cans wrapped in brown paper and twine and filled them with seasonal flowers for grab and go flowers which proved to be popular. I learnt so much in those early months about the vase life of different varieties. I hadn't really thought about vase life before sowing and the cart obviously had no air con. In the summer the heat was pretty brutal so if a flower survived I knew it was a keeper. I kept a close eye on the flowers, checked on the water, checked the wind hadn't blown them over and regularly emptied the money box. And then the theft began. Mostly they tried to steal the money obviously but sometimes they'd steal the flowers. Friends advised putting up a dummy camera to deter them. They suggested leaving the gate open but I didn't want to put my dog or children at risk. In the end my heart just wasn't in it. At the time I felt pretty upset. This was after all was my business plan (!) However, as with many lessons in life, it turned out to be the best thing that happened to my business. It made me actually sit down and rethink my plan. I looked for other sales avenues and I began approaching florists. The flower world opened up and so did my market.
So have a really good think about your market from the get go. As a newbie grower you will probably want to start small. Maybe approach your local florist although if you are growing garden variety flowers have a quick look in the window first. If it's full of helium balloons, teddy bears and artificial flowers then perhaps try elsewhere. Look for the florists with fresh flowers outside and a fresh flower bar brimming with all kinds of blooms within, fresh, vibrant house plants and pretty dried floral work on the walls. These florists will really value the scent of your sweet peas, the freshness of your achillea (and the multitudes of hues that you grow it in) and they will love the unusual varieties that they can't get from the wholesalers. It can take time to build a relationship with a florist. Don't forget that they know what sells and where they can make their margins so it will pay to listen to them as you will learn a lot. I've been so lucky with the ones who have helped me. Patiently talking through pricing, popular colours, how much they need foliage just as much as flowers. It was such an eye opener and a whole new world.
Point of Sales opportunities
You might also want to sell at a local shop or cafe or even a petrol station. One of my best sales spots is my local BP petrol station of all places. I've seen florists and growers sell from cute, retro caravans, at the local butchers and even from the back of a bike and at the side of a road. In the early days it's worth trying a few places to find your sweet spot. I was so lucky to get my first job with my local cafe. I asked if I could make up flowers for their tables and I've been doing this for five years. They told me very early on how much the customers loved the flowers so I started selling flowers outside the cafe. It became a useful spot for selling off gluts of flowers like tulips, Christmas lilies and dahlias during the growing season and this proved to be a very easy way to create cashflow and also feel part of the community. I got spin off work from selling here too. Consistency is key if you're going to build up a customer base although pop ups for selling gluts of product can work well too.
One of my favourite selling points was at a local market. It was a three hour market on a Saturday morning and promoted a very local, artisanal, boutique vibe. For the first two years I did really well here and sold out most weeks. The market started in November and I used it to sell Christmas wreaths and Christmas table decorations, bags of pine cones aswell as bunches of blooms. It was pretty inspirational and got me to stretch my floristry wings too. I never imagined I'd be doing floristry but people assume that you can make a bouquet when you grow flowers so it seemed like a natural progression. After a good few years of going to workshops and learning from florist friends I ended up taking and passing the NZ Floristry Certificate Level Two. While I don't think this is necessary it definitely gave me confidence in my floristry abilities and was a bit of an eye opener too. I am very much a seasonal and sustainable florist and use the least amount of packaging that can get away with. Learning the traditional floristry skills didn't make me want to change my ways. I think it's really important to stand firm in your beliefs as a small business owner. It's not easy though especially when you're at the beginning of your journey but stick with it. Being authentic is important.
The market also provided me with a lot of spin off work and I could advertise my workshops for free. I said "Yes!" to most opportunities that came my way. This is exhausting but is a great way to realise what you want to do and what you really don't want to do. For me weddings was a path that I didn't want to follow. I did a few and, while they were really successful, I found that the head space they required was way too much! I found that other areas of my business suffered and I was slipping away from my sweet spot. I do the odd special bridal bouquet and that suits me. Anyway, a market will probably put a lot of opportunities your way so well worth the effort. It will give you the chance to put your face to your business which is very important especially if your main customer base is local. Like all good things though I decided to end my market days. The main reason I stopped was the market had got a lot quieter and I wanted to reclaim my Saturday mornings. Like I say. It's all about finding the sweet spot that suits you, your life and what you want to get out of your business. Don't be scared to say no to things that aren't serving you. Businesses are constantly evolving which is how it should be.
Flower Grower Collectives
You may have noticed that lots of Flower Grower Collectives have sprung up all around New Zealand in the last couple of years. The first one based in Auckland was pioneered by my good friend Christy Ralphs of Nourish Gardens. I have to admit when I first heard about it I was quite interested to see how it would work. Fast forward a couple of years and we now have a small one located in Hawke's Bay. We learnt a lot from our first season and are looking forward to developing our Collective and providing more of what the florists want. We've already decided to change the day and time to suit the florists' work schedule. We also decided to open to retail to expand our customer base. We just adjust the price accordingly for the second half of the market when retail customers are allowed in. There are definite benefits for these markets and they would be a great place to start if you can find one in your area. There's also nothing quite like having some fellow flower grower friends. They will have your back and are a great source of support and inspiration.
Of course the power of social media is a wonderful way to kickstart your sales base. My instagram journey was a slow one. It was all pretty new to me. I also find it really annoying to have to record so much of my daily work life. It kind of ruins the moment or the flow for me. I think I'm dating myself here but it's how I feel. But in order to create an online presence I had to get over that and make a stab at showcasing my business. If I have learnt one thing it is this. Be authentic. Don't try and be like someone else who you might admire on social media or who you think is successful.. Be you and unapologetically so. People will relate to you and want to follow you and find out more. I also don't think it's all about the numbers either. Obviously it depends on what you are looking to get out of it. Having huge amounts of followers, likes and comments may get the dopamine hits coming but they may not lead to sales. Having a local base who follow you to see where you sell your flowers and subsequently go out and buy them is what you really want. So don't get hung up on numbers. It goes without saying that Instagram can be the most inspiring place to be and a wonderful way to network but it can also suck the life out of you! Don't let it! Comparison is the thief of joy after all. See it for what it is. A tool to sell your flowers and connect with other growers and your customer base.
Next time : Perennials and shrubs