Business, Flower Farm, Lessons Learned, Reflection

10 Lessons Learned From My First Year in Business

As I prepare to close the books on my first year of being a flower farmer, I’ve been reflecting a LOT about what I’ve learned, what needs to change, and what my plans are for next year. While I’ve done side hustles before — including doing part-time photography work for years — I’ve never thrown myself this much into one business venture, and because I poured myself into it 100% from the get-go, I packed a LOT of learning and growth into this first year.

While I learned a crazy number of things specific to flower farming (some of which I hope to eventually write about on my other blog), I wanted to share some more general things I learned here in this post. The majority of people will never become flower farmers, but as starting a business is a dream for many, I’m hoping that these hard-earned lessons might be useful if you’re in a similar position with starting up your own side hustle down the road.

1. Treat the business as a business from the get-go.

One of the biggest things I did differently with the flower farm than I did with other business side hustles I’d done was that I took it seriously and treated it as a business from the very beginning. That meant that every decision I made considered the question, “How would an established business do this?”

With my photography and even with blogging, I just kind of “fell in” to the business side of things over the years–I didn’t plan or think about what I really wanted from it, I didn’t invest in the business from the beginning, and I didn’t even do the little housekeeping things (like keeping track of receipts for taxes) until I kept getting burned from NOT doing them (like spending way more time than I needed to come tax season trying to track everything down).

From the very beginning with this venture, I tried to be as professional as I possibly could, which included choosing a name and establishing a presence online via social media right away, asking my (very talented) father to design a professional logo (which I LOVE), ordering things like business stickers and gift certificates with that logo, registering the business as an LLC, and so much more.

Throughout the season, I had some situations that could have been tricky to handle if I hadn’t been looking at things from purely a business perspective, but I didn’t struggle with them because I’d already decided to treat every situation from a professional standpoint. Sure, it sometimes felt like I was “pretending” to be an established business because I really didn’t know what I was doing all the time, but just coming from that mindset really helped me to be more confident in ALL of my decisions.

2. Being self-employed means you’re in charge of your own schedule, but it also means that it’s harder to take a break.

Many people dream of being self-employed because they dream of being totally in charge of their own schedule, but what many people (including me) often don’t take into consideration is that it’s also much, much harder to really ever feel like you can take a “break” from work.

Especially in the case of flower farming, which is season-oriented, it didn’t matter how I felt or what things I’d rather be doing — if I wanted to succeed, I had to take advantage of certain windows of time to get everything done that I needed to, which meant that in spring and later in the busy harvest season, I was putting in way more than full-time hours to get everything completed. Sometimes it got stressful because it’s not like I could call in sick, and the constant nature of the job has made me very much appreciate that flower farming IS only seasonal — I am definitely going to need the full winter to recuperate!!

Knowing how constant this whole thing would be this first year from the beginning maybe wouldn’t have changed how I did things, but it would have helped me to be a little more prepared mentally for those times when I felt on the edge of burnout.

3. While it’s smart to cut costs where you can and look for a deal, sometimes you just need to be willing to pay for results.

Something I started to learn with my other side hustles (photography, blogging) was that while it’s nice to have your business grow organically by word of mouth, you need to be willing to pay for some advertising and sponsored posts in order to start getting the word out and allowing your business to actually gain some traction.

I did several different sponsored posts via Facebook this year, some of which focused on getting more people to like the flower farm’s page, and some of which were more focused on advertising certain things we had available, such as CSA bouquet subscriptions and weekly bouquet offerings.

All told, I spent around $105 in Facebook ads this first growing season, which definitely paid off. Case in point: one of the first $20 ads I ran, I made a $200 CSA sale in the first hour or so of the ad going live. That’s a 10X return! I will definitely continue to utilize this in the future.

(The same goes for education — while it’s great to take advantage of the many free resources out there, sometimes the better/quicker route is to be willing to pay for an online course or a book in order to get the maximum benefit you can.)

4. Be prepared for your business plan to change (and be open to unexpected opportunities!).

When I was starting out, I thought my ideal business plan was to pre-sell a certain number of CSA bouquet subscriptions and then see if I could sell the rest of what I had to florists. Turns out, selling to florists is NOT my ideal business plan anymore, mostly because 1) it takes a whole lot of extra time to count up what I have every week and communicate it to someone who may or may not be interested in purchasing it, 2) florists expect stems to be packaged a certain kind of way and usually in quantities of 10, which creates extra work for me and means I need to grow things in a certain way, and 3) often florists want a ton of the exact same thing in the exact same color, and since I tried so much to diversify colors and flowers as much as I could, I really wasn’t a good fit for them. I also wasn’t a great fit because we don’t use any kind of pesticides or anything on our flowers, which means that we did often have at least some minor bug damage on most things, which wouldn’t work for most florists. I’m not totally ruling out that particular avenue of business, but for the time being, I’m not going to put in a ton of energy that way.

On the flip side, I HAD basically ruled out doing farmer’s markets, just because I didn’t want to devote all of my Saturdays throughout the whole summer to doing them, and I thought I’d have to drive a long distance and pay a bunch of money upfront to join one. What I didn’t know was that there is a small local farmer’s market here in town about two blocks away from us, and the weekly fee is only $5. There is no contract or expectation that you need to show up every week, either — the market runs for just 5 or 6 weeks starting in August, and any week you want to come, you just show up. While we did have to shoulder some unexpected costs from deciding to try it out (like a shade canopy, folding tables, etc.), it was a good way to get our name out there to more people and also a decent way to sell off more stuff during those weeks when we had an especially large number of bouquets. While we still didn’t do nearly as well as I would have hoped at the farmer’s market, it made me realize that if I’m willing to put in the hours over the weekend, it can be a good way to sell a lot of bouquets quickly, especially if I end up trying to go to a farmer’s market that is either larger or that serves a different kind of crowd (since the one here in town largely just caters to people wanting to buy food).

5. Thinking about your brand and sticking with a singular vision/aesthetic is kind of annoying advice, but also necessary.

Whenever I heard the term “branding” or “figuring out your brand,” I always kind of rolled my eyes internally. I mean, I could see intellectually why it was important, but I also kind of hated how it felt very limiting, and how it sometimes felt a little inauthentic.

However, choosing a definite mission/brand for my business helped me numerous times when it came time to making business decisions. Rather than hem and haw over every last thing that came my way, I just needed to ask myself if it fit with my brand/vision, and then the question would almost always be answered.

For example, my personal brand/vision for the flower farm is to make unique flowers affordable enough that they don’t just become a “special occasion” thing but rather an everyday pleasure for people to enjoy in their own homes, or for them to be able to spread more love with flowers by giving them away whenever they’d like. Where I live, you literally had two options for flowers before my farm came along: you could go to Walmart–our only “big” store in the county–and choose from their very limited selection, or you could go through one of the few florists in the area and end up dropping at least $50-60+, even just for the small arrangements. Having such limited options has made people in the area treat flowers as something you only buy for really big things like funerals or weddings, or it’s made their expectations for what kinds of flowers you can bring into your home very limited (and not very exciting).

So if I’m marketing my flowers as something more special than you can find at Walmart but not nearly as expensive as you’d be paying a florist, I’ve defined a very specific price point for my flowers, which in my case has translated to $20 hand-tied market bouquets.

However, I still need to actually make money so that I can keep doing what I’m doing, which means that I need to be careful about what I put into my bouquets, as well as how much I put into them. This means I need to go for cost effective options (such as zinnias) rather than more expensive flowers (such as lisianthus, which I would probably need to buy as seedling plugs), use about a 50/50 blend of filler and flowers, and keep my overhead costs as low as possible (so, not renting out a retail space, not paying for hosting and maintenance on a specialized website, etc.). I also learned that in the future, I’ll have to change delivery options and prices/fees so that I’m not basically losing money, which I kind of was this year, at least for my CSA deliveries.

Having a very defined vision and price point majorly streamlined the decisions for sure.

6. The more payment options you can familiarize yourself with, the better. (Don’t forget to watch the fees!)

For the majority of my season, I just told people to pay me via Venmo or cash. While this worked great in the majority of instances, I did have at least 3 or 4 separate times when people wanted to pay with a card and I didn’t think I had a way of accommodating them, mostly because although I had bought a Square card reader, I’d never figured out how to use it.

Well, turns out that I didn’t even need to figure out how to use it — you can manually input credit card information into the Square app and charge it that way for a small fee. Sure, the ideal future situation will be for me to finally figure out how the card reader works (to avoid the fee), but in the meantime, it still kind of rankles that I lost out on around $80 in sales just because I didn’t even look into my options.

I also learned to watch the transaction fees to see which would be the best option for that, which is how I figured out that PayPal is my least preferred option for contactless pay and Venmo is my top choice.

7. If you can bring in help, bring in help!!

While it will be a long while until we’re making enough money to hire someone on to help with the farm, I definitely underutilized my husband’s help for a long time. I mean, don’t get me wrong—he helped out a TON from the get-go (especially with all the big projects like the raised beds, which he did all by himself), but I didn’t usually ask for his help on much of the day to day, other than the watering (which really was like a full-time job on its own, let’s be honest!) for much of the season. It wasn’t until I was getting desperately overwhelmed in the thick of August that I finally started training him on how to harvest and how to put together the bouquets, and it made my life SO MUCH EASIER on those crazy days before the farmer’s markets to have us both working on the bouquet prep.

8. Under-promise and over-deliver.

Okay, this is something I struggle with. I tend to get so excited about all my big ideas (and about how I think that everything is going to work out) that I sometimes go off enthusiastically gushing about something I’m planning on doing (and getting the listener excited about it, too), only to have it not work out for whatever reason. It didn’t happen a ton, but now I’m quickly realizing that I need to only talk to people about my ideas when I have a definite way to deliver what I’m telling them about.

Case in point: As mentioned above, I thought a big part of my business model would be selling to florists. Well, I realized pretty quickly that 1) I hadn’t ordered the right kinds of things in the right kinds of quantities to really cater to florists, and 2) I was wildly off on many of my guesstimates about when I would have certain flowers ready, just because we had a weird growing season and I was such a newbie that I didn’t realize that the “days to maturity” on seed packets are calculated under the ideal conditions and didn’t always take into account unusual weather or drought patterns. I had emailed price and availability lists and talked personally with three local florists–all of whom were interested in buying from us–and then I didn’t end up having what they needed when they asked for it.

I also had told my CSA customers to expect their bouquets about two weeks apart throughout the growing season (until their subscription ran out), but there definitely was a period in June when they all went a lot longer than two weeks, which meant that some of the deliveries later in the season had to be pushed to just one week apart. Everyone was super gracious about it, but I wished that I would have established the expectation from the get-go that I was shooting for every two weeks, but that I was definitely at the mercy of the weather and my plants and might not be able to adhere to that.

Lesson learned.

9. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth (including from YOU).

At the beginning, I felt kind of silly talking to people about what we were doing, mostly just because I was so new to everything (including being new to our town!), and I’ve never been very good at self-promotion. However, I also learned that nobody else is as enthusiastic as I am about what we’re doing (although some customers actually came awfully close!), and that passion and that excitement that I had often translated into enthusiasm on the part of whomever I happened to be speaking with. Now, with a whole season of practice talking to anyone and everyone about our business, I can see that many of my best connections were made simply because I was willing to open my mouth and tell everyone about the farm.

Additionally, I also learned firsthand just how powerful it is to have people who are not only good customers but devoted fans of what you’re doing as well — those are the people who shared multiple posts on their social media accounts, talked to their friends and family, and often purchased many different kinds of things from us throughout the whole season. Because our family is so new to this community, it was invaluable to have established people with many connections here talk about us so positively on social media and in real life to their friends and families. I could never thank those people enough for being our greatest champions!

10. Paying it forward is not only richly rewarding, but it’s also a really good business strategy.

We always wanted service and giving to be a huge part of our business plan, but I didn’t know how to go about it at first. Then, unexpectedly, we ended up getting a generous amount of money given to us by one of Matt’s relatives that she requested be entirely used for pay-it-forward bouquets. At first, we just tried to give bouquets away to the limited people we were aware of with particular need of cheering, but as I said, we’re very new to this town and didn’t know a lot of what was going on still.

So I did a post on our town’s Facebook page that explained how we had all these pay-it-forward bouquets and that we needed the public’s help in knowing who to give them to. We asked for people to privately message us the names of family and friends and neighbors who were lonely, struggling with mental health, or who were going through a particularly tough time.

The community gave us far more names than we were looking for, but we had such an abundance of flowers in August that we were able to deliver a bouquet to every person on the list, as well as several more to people who weren’t.

Not only was this truly an amazing experience for us to have and for us to share with our children, but it somewhat unexpectedly ended up being a really good business strategy. Many of the people who had nominated family and neighbors saw that we followed through on our promise to deliver them flowers, and they wanted to support our business, so they ended up paying for flowers after that to deliver to other people. Additionally, many of the people who received flowers either looked us up on social media and started following us (some of whom even made later purchases!), shared their enthusiasm over the bouquets with people close to them, or publicly thanked us on Facebook, which helped to lend us credibility. Like I said, we didn’t decide to do the pay-it-forward bouquets as a business move, but it ended up being really good for our flower farm anyway.

prepping a market bouquet

There are obviously many more things I learned than just this, but these are some of my biggest takeaways from Year One! I can’t wait to see what kinds of lessons await for us in Year Two πŸ™‚