One of our favorite things all year round but especially in the spring and summer are flowers. You can never go wrong with a beautiful bouquet. When we discovered Flowers for Dreams we were instantly inspired by their unique and modern combinations. Curated daily with local fresh flowers the bouquets have a distinct quality that can be spotted from far away. We sat down with CEO and co-founder Steven Dyme to learn more about his quickly growing flower business that also happens to donate to local charities with every purchase. His passion and stories were extremely motivating to us so we are very excited to share them with you. If you didn’t know about Flowers for Dreams before we hope that you take a deeper look and begin to follow along.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
Our story is a bit unique. I certainly didn't grow up with a passion for flowers. In fact, I didn't even have a passion for business per se. When I was nineteen I met someone in college who came from a long lineage of florists and floral wholesalers. When he was in high school him and his brother would go to their dad's shop, their dad was a wholesale florist, and they would take his excess stems, the stuff he no longer had any use for. They would bundle them up and go hawk through these bouquets outside of college graduation ceremonies. This is what they did during their summers. They would work at their dad's shop during the day, bundle up the extra bouquets and sell them for forty bucks. When I heard about this my capitalist instincts kicked in. I was 19 and not looking for a career, but I certainly did want some extra cash to spend in college. So, I was like, “How can I do this?” Even if I had to pay something nominal for these bouquets, they were selling them for thirty/forty dollars outside of graduations–seemed like a pretty easy gig.
I can spend a lot of time going into each step, but essentially I bought a flower cart at Home Depot in 2009 and got a legion of my buddies together (one of which being Joe who would become one of my co-founders of Flower for Dreams). We set up shop in my parent’s garage. I asked for half of it for the summer, tarped it up, and put two air conditioner units in the window. I blew them both out because they can't sustain at 50/55 degrees, but I basically tried to create a makeshift cooler. I will always remember that first shipment, a big ass semi-truck coming into our ally in the suburbs and dropping off all these flowers. That first weekend we were hawking bouquets outside graduation and it went terribly. We didn't sell any. A lot of them spoiled and I had just taken on a lot of debt. My friend's father sent all these bouquets on credit and good faith. Thousands of dollars’ worth. I didn't have thousands of dollars. Maybe I was a little bit too ambitious and I didn't really think about it straight. I was forced to keep getting shipments because we now had to pay back how bad that first ambitious run went.
That was my first foray and I kept falling backwards into more flowers. When I started flower peddling it was just an evening and weekend thing. I already had an internship by day, but I decided to create a seasonal business and committed to it full time in between my summers and school. In my world there weren't a lot of other people in flowers so I became the flower guy. When Valentine's Day would come around my parents and friends would ask, “Hey, can you get me flowers?” We didn't do that because we were seasonal event florists but I became the go between. I was connecting them with local florists and wholesalers, I was finding the best online options, and became the flower Guru. I was really entrenched in the industry at that point and began thinking, was all of this for nothing? Am I going to pursue what I was studying in school (which was economics and political science)? I was also studying abroad and thinking of moving to a different country–then I realized I had an interesting opportunity. I have constantly been the go between and have always spent time thinking about how badly the flower shopping experience is. Connecting to an online florist can be a very 1990s experience–stale designs and very deceptive prices. The flowers arrive in a box and they're not even created by real florists. Then you have your local florists that are really a dying breed and they are very expensive even if they are doing awesome things. All of these options were just not very accessible to my friends at the time. You can't really purchase flowers for your girlfriend when you are 20 and don't have an income, it's just not affordable. The supermarket is a newer phenomenon and it is actually really good for the industry but it destroyed walk-in florist businesses. They made flowers more accessible but grocery stores can't send or deliver flowers so the gift giving component is lost. There wasn't really a good option. I felt that I was just as well suited to solve it and figured I had nothing to lose. So I started a company called Flowers for Dreams.
At the time, the anchor of our business was still the events that we had been doing during the summers. We focused on universities and were doing a lot of different types of floral for schools. The grand ambition, even though we didn't start out this way, was to rethink delivery and develop a better way to send beautiful flowers. About a year into Flowers for Dreams we were barely sustaining on the income that we would get from bigger events and contracts. We were starting a new business inside of our own but we were so busy with our existing event based work that we didn't have time, or maybe, we didn't have the guts to really re-conceptualize how we wanted Flowers for Dreams to be.
A year or two into the business we decided this is not what we wanted. We were a small event florist based in Evanston that didn't really have a consumer facing program and didn’t even have flower delivery. It was a very muddled vision and I found myself asking, “Why did I start this?” I felt like I was just being lazy, doing what we've already been doing well and not innovating. That was the point where we stopped everything and started over. This is when the Flowers for Dreams you know today was born.
We are really cohesive now–who we are and who we want to be. We better described our social conscience, the role that became consumer-facing, so now we say they are locally crafted flowers for fair and honest prices. Our bouquets are $35 all in, that includes free delivery often by bicycle. It’s actually how a lot of people know us and how we got a lot of our recognition. Every single bouquet also benefits an amazing local charity. We are creating a more inspiring bouquet. It's a different aesthetic that reflects a more modern, Millennial preference–you don't like carnation cupcakes and graduation teddy bears. We also wanted a business that reflected our values, maybe it’s cliché to say at this point but Millennials care of a lot about giving. We have incorporated giving since we have been 19 years old. For every bouquet we would sell on the street we would donate a backpack filled with school supplies. Now it's a new iteration were each month we team up with a different charity. We're empowering various causes and being a spokesperson for a wide variety of nonprofits. That's become a very sustaining part of our business. We do more than write these charities checks, which is really valuable, but we also have a very immersive partnership. For 30 days they are all over our website, we are telling their story on our social networks, and are doing interactive activities with them.
That's a pretty long answer but that's how it's.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Steven.
I will use the term cliché again because it is. I really don't have a typical day and it's probably disingenuous to try and describe one. What I try to do with my calendar is… I will have days like this where it is all external interviews, clients and meetings. On those days I'm not really getting things done in the same way. I’m building relationships, getting the word out and I'm doing very useful things for the business. I've often excelled best when I have long uninterrupted periods of flow, which is something I really believe in. I have a lot of disruptions in the day so what I try to do is, have days where I deal with external things and have days where I focus on the internal. I'm on the product and marketing side, my co-founder runs our operations. We now have about 25 people–18 are full time, about 7 or 8 are part time, and we have a lot of independent contractors that run our deliveries. One of our unique things is that we do everything in-house: resource, design, deliver–all by Flowers for Dreams peeps.
I wear a lot of hats, so I think it is important to have both internal and external days. I try to set up my time where I can work off site and have uninterrupted periods of flow, especially when I am working on a marketing campaign or I'm running billing. On the uninterrupted days I will come in the early morning and work when no one is here or sometimes I will work remotely and I'll have internal meetings. I really don't love meetings. They are necessary if you can't eliminate them entirely, but they often don't accomplish as much as you would with just Gchat–establish it and go. Honestly, it's a new and crazy thing every day. On my side, I mostly try to focus on the product, marketing and branding but often I'm still spending a day sending out all of our invoices and managing our billing. I was never a finance guy. It's not something I'm passionate about but I know it's a necessary part of the business, so I make sure people are paid and paying on time.
Where do you find inspiration?
Other companies, other products. People ask me how we've done so well with growing our community on social media. I thought about that a lot and I think the best answer is we really like it. I don't think it's specific towards our generation, it's about passion. I spend my time on Instagram discovering and I love Snapchat. Snapchat is a good balance to Instagram because it gives you a raw and candid visualization while Instagram is meant to be refined and perfect. I think we have used them well just because we are passionate about it. I like using them and people on our team like using them–we all understand the value. I get my inspiration from seeing what other brands are really doing awesome. I follow them and constantly say, “Oh that's a great idea! We should do something like that.” So I guess I'm really using social media as a vehicle to find inspiration.
Our community and my team have been very inspirational as well. When you start a business you're all alone and you feel alone a lot. You really begin to appreciate when you find out that someone who doesn't know you (or one of your friends) uses your product and loves it. It’s way better than being featured in Crain’s or in Time Magazine–when 150 people come to our public workshops over the weekend, it's insane to think about! It never ceases to amaze me and that's inspiring. It's inspiring to see my team believe in it as much or even more. Everyone is pushing towards the same goal. I have to keep reminding myself and not take anything for granted. It's always cool. I feel the same feeling I felt when we were two guys in a garage or in the back of a church, where our actual first space was. We had a cooler and one office, the cooler would admit heat right into our space in the summer– it was crazy! I never take for granted hearing positive stories face to face, either on social media or a in person conversation. One thing that's always amazing is when it is someone's birthday and their one post on social media is that they received a Flowers for Dreams bouquet. It’s their birthday and they're spending time talking about us! That's when I really realize that our product is resonating and it makes people happy.
How do you make time for creativity and collaboration?
I’m helping plan Chicago Ideas Week. Last year they chose me as the poster boy for their campaign. I was on billboards! It was the coolest thing. Talk about not taking things for granted–I think I peaked when I saw myself on a bus stop stop sign. Now I am helping them plan and literally the topic is creativity at work. It really got me thinking that you need physical space to inspire your creativity, disconnect and have that uninterrupted flow. It is really busy in here, it could be crowded and it's hard to get that additional physical space/off site. We are very a hands on business so it's a challenge to find more and more creative space but for me personally, I go back to flow. It’s not that new of a concept but there's nothing more fulfilling then trying to be like Michael Jordan. Jordan has the ultimate flow. He didn't play basketball because of a paycheck and super stardom, maybe those things were great consequences, he was in it because there's no better feeling then the moment of getting a bunch of shots in a row. It’s that feeling that athletes or musicians have. The connection with your audience. I can't pinpoint it exactly, I don't have anything that's concrete, but physical space to keep that flow is important. As for collaboration, personally it is hard right now because I have to try taking every meeting. It's tough, but I think there's always amazing different things that come from it.
What tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started?
This is for an entrepreneur that is already proven some concept and started something. Maybe they already have a few employees and are starting to build a team. At first you normally don't think anything about team. My objective in the beginning wasn't to make jobs for people or support them and now it's such a good, fulfilling thing. We almost have 30 people that are sustained by this business and concept. We’re giving them jobs and meaningful mobility in their careers. That's awesome but that was not the objective in the beginning. The objective was “let's sell an awesome product.” It's so narrow, it's funny to think about day by day. So once you get to that point, when you're working with a team, what I have learned, is that it's the best place to realize your own personal weaknesses and failures. I didn't know I was bad at certain stuff until I started building out a team.
Another thing I've learned, is that the adage everyone knows, “treat people the way you want to be treated” is wrong. You need to treat people how they want to be treated and that's hard as shit. You don't know what people want. You have to constantly ask them, be open and listen. It's really, really tough. I've since thrown out the old way of thinking. It is so wrong, the worst advice I've ever gotten. You need to treat people how they want to be treated and everyone has the most nuanced way. The way you want to be treated is not necessarily how they want to be treated. It can be insulting to them. A great example is an athlete and a coach. All athletes talk about their favorite or best coach and it tends to be the coaches coach, not the player’s coach. The player's coach is the kind that is generally looked at as friendly to the players, someone they really respect. Perhaps a former player, someone that's close to the game and is more interested in what the player wants. Then there's the coaches coach. Typically, that person is associated more with the owner, representing management, and the team. They are the hard-driving person that doesn't necessarily get along with the teammates but they try to get the best out of them. Reading so much about successful athletes and their coaches, I would venture to say (I don't have this has a hard number) that 99% are the coaches coach. It is the hard-driving, mean, brutal coach who told them their going to fail–that they suck. I could name a bunch of these coaches, for example for MJ it was Dean Smith. He always talks about Smith not Phil Jackson. I think sports are very interesting but it's so different in business and so different in life. I can't be a coaches coach, people don't respond to a dick. You can't just be mean and berate people, you can't tell them they suck. Maybe athletes can handle it because they are a different breed. They are all excellent at what they do and just want to continue being pushed to their best. In real life, relationships and in business you need to be empathetic and you need to listen.
How important is it for you to give back to the community?
When I first got into the business at 19 and started with the flower cart, not very but soon after that. We initially incorporated giving because we thought it would be good for business. We wanted to approach schools that we were getting kicked out of for hawking flowers and say, “Hey, why don't we do this in tandem instead of disrupting your ceremony and get kicked out.” So we had to come up with a value proposition that made sense to them to invite us in, do it in tandem and get a contract. Conveniently, one of my best friends from high school had started a non-profit called Supplies for Dreams. They would furnish backpacks with school supplies and go to CPS students in low-income schools. It was a very small group and he was constantly talking about giving it up. Unfortunately, he didn't have donor connections and couldn’t keep sustaining. We wanted to rescue and support his organization while also help grow our own. We incorporated into our business model that for every bouquet we would sell at your school we would donate a backpack of school supplies. This was right about the time when Toms started but we didn't really look at this as a one for one structure. It was just a good way to do business and it made sense. We helped build a program with Supplies for Dreams where all of our clients would come with others and package backpacks that would then be donated by their school. All of the supplies would come from flower sales. When we would deliver the backpacks to students on the first day of school, that's when we were affected by the impact. I really felt that this helped me get up in the morning. It was motivating to me and I liked doing it because I was doing something for someone. It wasn’t just upgrading my diet in college from frozen pizza to take out. I was giving these kids something valuable in that backpack, something that they would have for the next few years in school. This was the point when we started integrating giving and it is not only good for business, which was validated right out of the gate, but it is motivating and awesome. When we wanted to start our business after school we make sure to make giving a fundamental part of our DNA and that is why it's in our name, Flowers for Dreams.
If you weren’t doing this what else would you do?
I really like this space of social enterprise and entrepreneurship. That wasn't a term that was widely understood when we started but I really like the community and how we've been embraced by it. I think that even if Flowers for Dreams wasn't my business I would have been attracted to that concept. Perhaps not from a business perspective but the idea that you can use a product and/or service for good. You can make money and do good. I really am fascinated and really like learning more and more about social enterprise. I‘m constantly encouraging more people to incorporate charity into their business model or process.
I'm also fascinated by micro-finance. I think it’s really cool that they give these really small time entrepreneurs in third world countries loans in American dollars to just buy products for their knitting or whatever they do. I'm really interested in the concept as a way to help the third world develop. In my opinion, small businesses are really a foundation for building an economy. I think there are huge awesome case studies, like in India for example, of these micro-financing opportunities being very uplifting for small communities. If you give everyone at the market just a little bit more capital to do a little bit more, what you end up doing is making more money. There's more money in their pockets so they can spend more money and that might just be enough to start something.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I've gotten so much good advice and mentors have been so important in our process. I guess I would say: don't be afraid to ask questions, don't be afraid to take chances and embrace Snapchat!
Photography by Mike Killion