Christina Stembel CEO of Farmgirl Flowers On Bootstrapping Your Way to Success
June 7, 2023
Christina Stembel is the CEO of Farmgirl Flowers, Inc., the only large-scale, female-founded (and 80% female run!), direct to consumer e-commerce floral delivery company in the US.

What have you learned as a CEO that you think would be most valuable to share with other CEOs, like those of us at the WIE Suite?

Oprah has said several times, and in several iterations, that every good decision she’s ever made in life was from trusting her instincts. She gathers information, listens to others, and then goes with her gut. That’s what I try to do, because if it’s good enough for Oprah, it’s most definitely good enough for me. I’ve always found that my gut is usually right, and the times I make the biggest mistakes is when I’m not listening to my intuition, which I regret later. I’ve also learned that after 13 years in business, trusting your gut is actually trusting your experience, we often just don’t have the confidence to communicate it that way for fear of seeming overconfident or arrogant.

One of the things I get asked most often since I started Farmgirl is what advice I’d give to entrepreneurs starting out. While there’s a lot of practical knowledge I’d like to pass on, I think the single most important thing is to stay hungry. There is no substitute for drive when you’re burning the candle at both ends. Know that there is always going to be at least one obstacle in your way to achieving your next goal - the difference between those who move it out of the way and those who give up often doesn’t come down to smarts, but instead perseverance and grit.

I’ve always applied this dogged determination to solving problems at Farmgirl as well. New sales tax legislation? I’m a weekend and an internet deep dive away from being an expert on new regulations. And no, I don’t have a deep and abiding love for reading every nook and cranny on the Board of Equalization’s state run website. But I do have a deep and abiding love for growing Farmgirl as big as humanly possible, so if hours of dry paragraph after dry paragraph on tax reform get me there, you can bet your bottom dollar that’s how I’m going to be spending my weekend.

The take home? If you want it badly enough, you will find a way to do it and then go do it.

And lastly, a mantra I still tell myself daily is to care about people, but not what they think of me. I have my Woman in the Arena print right next to my desk for a reason and am finally over caring what others – who are usually not even in the arena themselves - think about my decisions in how I run my business. It took a lot of frustration and I hate to admit it, tears, to grow the thick skin I have now, so if I could fast track that learning for even one entrepreneur who happens to be female out there, it’ll bring me so much joy.

You have grown a business without outside investment into a large and notable name brand company. Why did you decide not to take the VC route?

I wish I could say it was a choice to stay on the bootstrapped route, but it wasn’t. I’ve been pretty vocal about the literal years of cumulative time I’ve spent trying to raise outside capital, and with that came a lot frustration, anger, sadness, self doubt and insecurity due to being turned down 104 times while every single one of our male-owned (not to mention newer) competitors were able to secure investment at or even before launching their companies (gotta love that word pre-revenue). I always knew I wouldn’t be able to get capital out of the gate because of my lack of pedigree, but I genuinely thought that once I proved the concept successfully with (super) high growth numbers, that it would be possible. But I was wrong.

And of all the no’s, the one that sticks out the most is the 100th. I’d agreed to fly across the country to meet with these potential investors, and on the eve before filming a major commercial campaign you all might have seen on TV, no less. We’d spoken on the phone and exchanged multiple emails, and I’d felt good about how things had gone so far. These investors were also in a mutually beneficial industry and it looked like going with them could be a “strategic partnership” as they like to call it, so I was feeling somewhat confident. So, in spite of needing to be on for the commercial and having just gotten really (and I mean, really) sick, I got on a plane. And I reworked reports 27 different ways to chop up the data to just how they wanted it (even though the first version had what they needed already). I also scrambled and made hard copies of the pitch (their request), even though I’d arrived to my hotel super late and doing so meant I had to be up super early the next morning so I’d have time to find a printer, bind the copies, get ready and get to the pitch on time. And all this while feeling like death and swigging DayQuil in the elevator on the way up to the meeting.

And that’s where things went really wrong. As soon as I sat down, after the prerequisite niceties, the partners introduced me to a consultant that advised them with their investment deals. They asked me a few basic questions about my growth goals, and then - without even opening the pitch I had spent the last few hours racing around the city trying to find a place to print, proceeded to tell me that they thought my goals were too big and that I should really stay a regional company. AFTER multiple initial phone calls and document reviews (including financial models showing those very same growth goals) and flying across the country while I was sick and really needed to be preparing for this huge commercial I was filming the next day. Only to tell me in person in the first 15 minutes - without even opening the deck - no.

Sitting in that conference room, I did something that I’m embarrassed about - I literally cried. Not a lot, but my eyes welled up. But not because I was sad, but because I was madder than I’ve probably ever been. While I can’t presume to say what those potential investors actually felt, I can say that what they did made me feel like they respected me so little, and they thought themselves so superior, that they literally wasted my time, energy, health, and money when they already knew Farmgirl wasn’t going to be a good fit for investment. And in that moment, I was done.

I was done thinking investors were the smartest people in the room. I was done spending so much time putting decks together. I was done getting on planes and otherwise bending over backwards to make a pitch meeting happen. And most importantly I was just done trying to raise capital. And it turned out to be one of the most freeing moments of the past 10+ years. I was, and still am, embarrassed that I cried in a business meeting. But I am grateful for that experience because it changed my entire perspective on VC and PE firms and confirmed that bootstrapping has been and will be the way forward for Farmgirl. Because, and I’ll say this loudly for the seats in the back, funding does not equal success.

What secrets have you embraced to create a profitable business from day one?

Because we’ve always been bootstrapped, we’ve always needed to be profitable, or at least break even, which is essentially how I have run the business until recently to be able to reinvest profits back into the company to fuel our growth. I like to say we kick it old school at Farmgirl, because so few companies are bootstrapped these days (at least in the tech circles we all run in) so they don’t know how to do this, but it’s essentially just spending less than you make. It’s not rocket science, but it is an extremely rare way to run your business these days.

Spend as little as you can. Everyone says double what you think that you're going to spend. It’s that idea of “you have to spend money to make money”. Don't listen to everybody else. It’s really looking at your budget and asking, “What can I cut out of it?” instead of adding to it. And that might mean that you have to work a little bit harder yourself to really spend as little as you can and live below your means. That has been the secret to our success in not running out of money.

I used to think bootstrapping was a weakness, but now I see it as a badge of honor. After all, the longer you can hold on to your equity and your business the better. It gives you far more control and lets you make decisions that are right for your long term goals and not just a quarterly statement. It also means your exit number can be a lot less daunting - and that you can decide if and when you want an exit at all. There are so many benefits of bootstrapping, but it does make your trajectory longer usually, and makes you have to work harder, but I think the reason more don’t do it isn’t because of those things. I think we’ve over-glamorized raising capital in a way that makes people think they need it in order to be successful, and that’s just simply not true.

It’s funny now how out of place I usually felt amongst my peers, usually being the only bootstrapped founder in the lot. But now, bootstrapping is what’s allowing us to navigate in an extremely challenging economic climate where many other companies who have never had to operate profitably are struggling. Money has gotten so much harder to acquire, and investors are now expecting their portfolio companies to at minimum have a viable path to profitability, which is hard to do when you’ve never done it, but not so much when it’s the only way you’ve operated. I used to think being what seemed like the last unfunded company in Silicon Valley was our kryptonite, but now I’m definitely considering it our super power.

How important has networking been in scaling your business?

Networking is extremely important - and also extremely challenging for introverts. I can personally attest to that. But if you think you can build a company without it, you’re probably going to be really disappointed. I’ve had to push myself outside of my comfort zone for 13 years, literally giving myself pep talks in my car and in bathroom stalls to be able to go out into a huge crowd of people, appearing confident even when I don’t feel it, and be the master salesperson I need to be to get the word out about my company. I’ve had to be a joiner when it’s the last thing I want to do with the teeny tiny bit of time I have in my week. But it’s helped so much. I’ve joined CEO groups that have helped our company so incredibly much. And even though I still find it hard to do, I do it because I owe it to myself and my team – because the company needs it to grow.

What is one thing you cannot live without?

The water. It’s my retreat and I just moved to a house on the water in Washington State which is literally filling my soul. The life of a CEO/bootstrapped company doesn’t come with a ton of down time and I spend a lot of my time working so my office location is crucial. I set up my desk right in front of a window facing the water so I get to enjoy the views while I spreadsheet, zoom, white board, and everything in between. That’s my version of balance. The water not only calms me, but when I’m challenged with a problem I’m not sure how to handle, it provides focus and grounds me in reminding me how small and really insignificant I (and my problems) are in the grand scheme of things.

Who is one woman you admire right now?

I have so many people I look up to, but it really starts and ends with my parents. They’re both the most hardworking, humble, and kind people I’ve ever met. If you look up the phrase “salt of the earth” I think you’d find their photo. They have always, always shown me what hard work looks like and instilled in me the ability to dig in and get the job done. And they do everything with integrity and heart – which the world needs more of right now. I’m so grateful for the work ethic and values they gave me early on because, without a doubt, I would not be able to do what I do today without it.

What is one piece of advice that you live by?

This answer is redundant with my answer above, but I’ll go into more detail here about one part

of it.

Care about people but not what they think about you.

So many of us, women especially, spend so much time worrying about how what they say or do might come off to everyone around us. And it makes sense - we are socialized to think about our family, friends and loved ones before ourselves. But worrying about what someone might think about what you say or do is not the same thing as caring, or showing respect, for that person. It took me a long time to learn this one but it’s been so important for myself as a business owner in allowing me to make decisions that are for the benefit of the entirety of Team Farmgirl and the company and to not internalize or take personally the negativity that only grows the more successful you become. I now realize that I will never make everyone happy, and frankly it’s not my job to. My job is to do what I think is best for our team and our customers and to make decisions that align with my values and to treat people with the integrity and respect that I’d hope they’d treat me with (even when they don’t). But my job isn’t to make them happy. That’s their responsibility. I wish my younger self had that insight, but how could she? She hadn’t walked the path and experienced the pain that was required to earn that wisdom - which actually makes me grateful for all those ugly shower cries it took to learn that.

More about Christina Stembel

Christina was born and raised on a farm in a tiny town in northern Indiana (unfortunately corn and soybeans and not flowers!). From early on she always knew she wanted to start a business that would utilize her creativity, solve a real problem, and have the potential to scale to a large size. After annoying all of her friends and family with hundreds of ideas, she came up with the idea for Farmgirl Flowers in 2010, and took the leap to quit her then-job at Stanford University to launch the company from the dining room of her San Francisco apartment. Almost 13 years later, she has bootstrapped the company without a dollar of outside investment to tens of millions in annual revenue, shipping hundreds of thousands of bouquets annually to recipients across the US – and showing them how loved they are.



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