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November 2022

Why I Built Poppy

Poppy’s founder and CEO, Cameron Hardesty, explains why the wedding industry needed the Poppy model  

If you’re reading this, you’re probably searching for answers about why wedding flowers are so expensive. Or, maybe you’ve seen ads for Poppy and wondered if wedding flowers so lush and luxe are for real. 

Yes, wedding flowers are expensive, and you’re right to ask why. And, yes, Poppy’s flowers are as gorgeous in person as they are in our photos. 

Like anything lovely that looks effortless, there’s a lot of work that has gone into making Poppy’s flowers available to you. I think you’ll be more confident trusting Poppy with your florals if you know the story behind why I started this company. 

For what it’s worth, my knowledge of the floral industry saved me nearly $18,000 on my own wedding flowers. And after that happened, I realized I could put that knowledge to work for other people planning their weddings.

I’ll be honest with you: the floral industry is really, really hard. It’s got a complex supply chain and an exacting customer. You have to be doggedly committed to reinventing the way business is done and truly in love with flowers to break in and gain a foothold. 

I am both. I’m also willing to say that Poppy is one of the few startups in the floral industry founded on a complete and total devotion to celebrating the beauty of flowers. More than $100 million of venture capital has gone into flower companies founded by people who, by their own admission, didn’t really care very much about flowers.

I have always loved flowers. It started with an interest in floral design and grew into an obsessive interest in learning the industry top to bottom. I used to spend my Saturday afternoons  buying an armful of wholesale flowers and practicing putting together arrangements. I never tired of experimenting with new color and texture combinations, learning the tools and tricks of the trade, and the joy a well-composed design brought to my friends and family. I wanted to be around flowers and have my hands in them, constantly. 

Getting to Poppy (it’s a circuitous path; bear with me)

I had passions, but I also had practical concerns like any other woman in her twenties. (Read: rent in an expensive city.) I wasn’t ready to commit myself fully to a floral design job. At least not yet. So, I did what most people in DC do -- I worked for the government.  

This story involves a year in Spain teaching English and some time spent in corporate crisis communications, but what’s really important – what leads me back to the story you came to read – is that I found myself in The White House Drug Policy Office in 2012.  Even more pertinently, I found myself taking my parents on The White House Holiday Tour that same year. 

In the Red Room, I saw floral arrangements so exquisite that they changed the trajectory of my professional path. 

I went home and Googled “The White House florist”, and found a Washington Post profile on Laura Dowling. Then, I spent the next two months wondering how I could – and if I should – contact the woman who’d inspired my epiphany. I’d realized, gazing at photos of those holiday arrangements (a collaboration between Laura and spun sugar artist Maggie Austin), that I was ready to be a part of the floral industry. What’s more, I wanted to join the best of the best of the industry, whatever that took. 

With some gentle urging from my now-husband, I finally found my nerve and emailed Laura. She welcomed me right into The White House flower shop as a volunteer. My first day there, the team was preparing for then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party. I remember placing arrangements in the East Room with Beyonce’s backup dancers practicing in the background. 

Living the dream. Almost. 

While I was learning the art of floral arranging from Laura, a colleague’s husband and friend were in the process of launching a (soon to be major) floral startup, called UrbanStems. As the lone “flower person” in their life, I was on the receiving end of new bouquets they wanted to sell, and all I had to do was give them feedback. When they asked me to help with content marketing, it was a no-brainer. I quickly realized they needed help with a lot more than that, and within six months, I was living my dream: a job in the floral industry with a corporate career trajectory.

The premise powering this company was that flowers were too hard to order and that good tech and fewer options could simplify the process. The founders built the site in a week. They were focused on the user experience, and that left me to prioritize the flowers. 

I designed increasingly sophisticated arrangements and learned about farm-direct buying as an alternative to wholesale buying. In fact, I personally traveled to flower farms in South America, Europe and parts of California to build relationships with farmers and set up our supply chain to reduce costs. 

Where – besides on the receiving end – are the women in the floral industry? 

Then I realized something. It was apparent in the company culture and its workforce. And it was obvious on the farms themselves. 

Men dominated this industry. 

The primary recipients of flowers – not to mention the majority of designers and customers – were women. Yet, men were making choices about what flowers to breed, how to make them last (in effect, engineering out scent and other beautiful characteristics of certain stems), and in what markets to distribute them. 

It felt really incongruous to me. 

How would the industry be different if it were led by women? The kind of women who were drawn to flowers not as commodities to be measured, weighed and boxed, but because of how utterly beautiful and special they are? 

I’d turned my life-long passion for flowers into a viable career, but I’d evolved past the point of simply wanting to be around them. I had a deep knowledge of stems, the supply chain, and how to merchandise and sell them. I also saw the opportunity to serve an altogether different, vastly unrecognized customer: Couples planning their weddings. More specifically, couples who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on their budget. 

Wedding flowers are expensive. Here’s why. 

Most wedding florists in the top 30 US markets have an order minimum of at least $5,000. Couples budgeting for their weddings are often advised to spend about ten percent of their budget on flowers. If you’re hosting a $50,000 wedding, you’re meeting the minimum of most designers. But not even the minimum is enough sometimes. You’re competing for attention with other couples spending $50,000, and a designer’s likelier to commit to the couple spending $75,000. 

Minimums are completely logical for florists, even if they’re frustrating for customers. A floral designer’s fee covers flowers, materials,labor, marketing, sales, customer service, and all other administrative overhead. The week of your wedding, your floral designer does a lot of physical, visible labor -- but in the months leading up to your wedding, they do dozens of hours of invisible labor: writing floral recipes, making tweaks to your proposal, ordering flowers. Customers take a lot of time, and you have to answer a lot of questions to make them feel heard and understood about this big, one-shot-to-get-it-right purchase. 

What’s more, these designers are buying their flowers from wholesalers. Those stems are already expensive, and the designers have to mark up the prices three to four times to make a profit. Factor in the complex pricing of bulk orders, as well as the fact that floral designers have only 52 weekends a year to book business, and you start to understand why the minimum exists. 

How do we serve wedding customers who aren’t meeting minimums?

What happens to the couple with the $10,000 wedding? The $20,000 wedding? The traditional industry model might not serve you. 

I wondered how the model might change if – like in the floral gifting startup I’d been a part of – the wedding industry could leverage farm-direct buying. 

I’d set up that company’s farm-direct supply chain myself, so I knew the requirements and I had relationships with the farmers. 

Testing my Poppy hypothesis

The test case for how this could work was my own wedding. When I got engaged, I knew I wanted to do my own flowers. I did the visioning, recipe writing and ordering. I started to realize just how much I’d taken on around November before my March wedding. Martha Stewart Weddings was going to be profiling my wedding, so I used the editor’s contacts in Austin, Texas, to recruit five floral designers. 

I wrote a design guide for them and delivered it with the recipes in advance of the wedding. All the flowers got delivered to a floral warehouse space I’d rented for the week, and we started a production line. My plan was to clock out by Thursday night and not see any final flowers until I walked into my wedding. 

All in, with flowers and labor, I spent $7,000. I estimate the price through a traditional wedding floral designer would have been $25,0000. 

I’d proven to myself how this model could work. Years later, it would become the Poppy model, right down to the design guide. 

Changing the dream. Almost there!

I left the floral startup because I needed something fresh. I’d run my Poppy experiment with wild success, and I should have been charging toward the dream. 

I wasn’t. I nearly veered off the Poppy path, honestly. Building something is risky. My brain was urging me to pursue a job with a high-paying VC firm because I knew I wanted to start a family. Corporate security was responsible. 

But every other fiber of my being was whispering, “Do Poppy.” Even my mom and best friend were saying, “Do Poppy,” and they weren’t whispering. 

That VC job went to someone else, and I felt even more guided toward Poppy after seeing a shaman (something I never imagined myself doing, but I was too exhausted to think big thoughts for myself anymore). In the winter of 2019, I slowed down, I got thoughtful and I finally did it. I took long walks with my dogs, I cooked delicious food, and I started building Poppy. 

Serving customers, creators and communities

Poppy is a transparent, female-powered and female-empowering company that helps couples get access to fairly priced and artfully arranged wedding flowers. 

I saw how badly this industry needed change. So I changed it. 

FOR THE BIG DAY

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