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How Christina Stembel Turned Farmgirl Flowers into a $60 Million Empire

Against all odds

written by: Gabby Shacknai | 09-02-2021

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On a foggy day last March, as Covid-19 began its vicious spread across the United States, Christina Stembel found herself in a precarious position. Nearly 10 years after starting Farmgirl Flowers from her San Francisco apartment and growing it into a large-scale, national business against all odds, she was told to shut down operations by 11:59 pm that night. With hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of flowers on their way to her facility and 197 employees hard at work, Stembel had 12 hours to figure out a way to close everything and still keep her company afloat.

 

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We had to throw out $150K in flowers

 

Farmgirl Flowers Story

 

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The once-regional floral delivery service launched sourcing its stems exclusively from local farmers, but she realized that this was not a sustainable approach while expanding to nationwide delivery.

“I really drank the Kool-Aid in the beginning and heard so many people say how their agriculture business had suffered at the hands of the free-trade agreement with South America, so I really went all-in on the local flowers. But working in the agricultural space in North America as a female founder was extremely challenging because of gender, and there are many farms that, to this day, would not sell to me, but sell to many of our male-owned competitors.”

After exhausting all domestic options, she knew that she needed to start sourcing her flowers internationally and in January 2017, Farmgirl began working with farms in South America and informed customers of the change.

 

 

 

New Facility of Farmgirl Flowers

Two years later, in 2019, Stembel was on a buying trip in Ecuador when she discovered the deep need for work among the country’s people. Around the same time, the company was looking to hire 77 new employees in preparation for the busy holiday season and was struggling to find them in California.

Christina:

“I had the idea to open up a facility in Ecuador, which we launched January 5, 2020. And if we had not launched that, I’m not sure we’d be around.”

The expansion enabled Stembel to redirect all of Farmgirl’s orders to the new facility when the San Francisco headquarters were directed to close in two months later, resulting in a few days of minor delays instead of months of cancellations.

“Really that pivot in January saved us in March.”

 

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A Whole Other Set of Problems

By Mother’s Day, the so-called Super Bowl of the flower world, Farmgirl was selling out and seeing 236 percent year-over-year growth—a number that likely would have been even higher if the company had had more supply—but Stembel was soon facing a whole other set of problems.

“We were having huge transportation issues because with everyone ordering everything online and having it come to their door, transportation was up 80 percent. Within one month of Mother’s Day, we had a $1.2 million loss from our shipping carriers because if they can’t fulfill shipping, we still have to pay for that, and we have to reship it because it’s highly perishable.”

 

 

Many Changes for Farmgirl Flowers

In the wake of these losses, Stembel decided it was time to open a Miami facility, and by the end of the summer, it was handling all of the company’s east coast operations. Even with the Bay Area warehouse closed, however, accusations emerged online in June alleging that it was a toxic workplace.

These, were addressed with a rigorous HR investigation when they were originally made.

Many of the changes Farmgirl made in 2020 had occurred to its founder a decade earlier when she began pitching VC firms and trying to raise capital. After several years and 104 no’s, however, Stembel finally gave up on the idea of outside investment in 2019 and decided to bootstrap the business herself.

“I just kept kicking it old school and reinvested the profits back into the company while growing as much as we could.”

But that meant that she didn’t have the financial capacity to enact the changes she knew would help Farmgirl succeed.

 

 

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Farmgirl Flowers Doubles Revenue

It wasn’t until the pandemic arrived and uprooted the industry overnight that she felt she had nothing to lose.

“I always waited to do these things because we didn’t have the capital, but last year, I kind of thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I only gave us like a 10 percent chance of making it after Covid, so the risk just wasn’t there anymore, and I figured, we’re already so endangered right now. So, in a way, the pandemic kind of fast-tracked it because we continued to have such high demand and needed to figure something out.”

By the end of 2020, Farmgirl had hit over $60 million in revenue, up from $32 million the year before.

 

 

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Stembel notes:

“Every year, on January 1, I do a goal list for the year—both personally and professionally—and usually, I accomplish about 50 percent of them,”

One night in November, she took a look at her list for the year, which was made months before the pandemic began and long before its impact on the flower space took effect.

“I realized that we’d hit all but one on the list, which just blows my mind, and we even surpassed a lot of them. In spite of Covid and because of Covid, we’ve been able to get here, which is just amazing to me.”

 

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Author’s Note: This post was updated on 1/29/21 to include allegations made about Famrgirl’s San Francisco facility in June.


Gabby Shacknai

I’m a New York-based journalist who covers beauty and wellness, food and travel, and lifestyle. My work has appeared in Fortune, ELLE, Departures, Air Mail, Travel Leisure, and Women’s Health, among other outlets, and I have a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Edinburgh. I have been lucky enough to travel across the world, meet the changemakers and rulebreakers of various industries, and get an inside look at the trends that define our era, and I aim to share that knowledge with my readers. Confronted by a growing influx of information and content, I know how challenging it can be to find voices you can trust in this day-and-age. I believe it’s more important than ever to produce reliable stories that are backed by my own experience and the expertise of my sources, and, whether writing about a new beauty movement or profiling a fitness-world disruptor, I strive to do just that.

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