After surviving its first Valentine’s Day, UrbanStems went on to turn the flower-delivery industry upside down

By Alyssa Hurst

Ajay Kori

Ajay Kori

Valentine’s Day might seem like the perfect time to introduce your flower-delivery business to the world. But for a startup with not-yet-optimized processes, shorter time windows than any other florist and an incredible volume of orders, “it was just a killer,” says Ajay Kori, co-founder of Washington, DC-based UrbanStems.

The company launched officially on Valentine’s Day 2014, and by the end of the day, the team couldn’t believe it had made it through. “It was 11 or 11:30, and the last deliveries had finally gone out — way late, obviously,” Kori recalls. “It was an exhausting day and I remember lying on this bed of flowers in a tiny closet with my co-founders, just being like ‘How are we going to scale this?’”

Today, a floral Valentine’s Day massacre has become somewhat of a tradition for UrbanStems. “Now we take this holiday as a huge opportunity for us to break things and figure out how we can continuously scale this to operate on a daily basis,” says Kori.

It all started with an angry girlfriend

When Kori first moved from New York to Washington, DC, he found himself having to rely on the flower industry. His girlfriend at the time was living in Philadelphia, and flowers were an important part of their relationship.

Though online flower delivery had ended in bad experiences for Kori before, there was one particular incident that led to the creation of UrbanStems. “I sent her a birthday bouquet, and I didn’t call — which was a mistake, I now realize in hindsight. But, the flowers never showed up and I ended up with a pretty angry significant other,” says Kori. “I called up my former college classmate, Jeff [Sheely], and implored him to look at the industry, and there seemed to be something wrong.”

What Kori and Sheely found was that out of all the e-commerce industries, the floral industry ranked dead last in customer satisfaction. When you order flowers from one of the major online order centers, your order is passed on to a floral wire service that then passes it on to a local florist. From the florist’s perspective, online orders often aren’t a top priority.

Urban Stems team

Kori (second from left) and the Urban Stems team

“These online orders … are fully branded as one of these large brands. So for [the florist], they are going to take care of their customers first and online orders last,” says Kori. Usually, technology is supposed to create the best possible experience for customers, he adds, “but with flowers, it was actually doing the opposite: It was creating a worse experience at a higher price.”

‘How did we get away with that?’

From day one of UrbanStems, Kori and Sheely committed fully to the operation, taking on full-time work, and filling roles they never thought they would inhabit. “Jeff and I got in his car, picked up flowers from Costco [and] emailed all of our friends,” says Kori.

The pair did each delivery themselves, and even put together the bouquets. “Some of the stuff we did, we look back at pictures and we are like, how did we get away with that? They were so ugly,” says Kori. “But when you’re small, you have to do everything yourself.”

Now, Kori looks back on these pre-launch days as a necessary crash course that would inform all UrbanStem’s future moves. “That’s how we got the inner workings and the nuances of flower delivery and what customers want, what the sender wants, what the recipient wants, how the actual physical delivery can happen,” says Kori. “As we started to see a bigger and bigger demand from our friends, we started to put more and more infrastructure down.”

Building a better experience

Today, UrbanStems orders start much the same as any other online flower delivery. Customers can use the company’s website or app to browse through options, write a sweet note and schedule a delivery. Three different time windows are available, and same-day delivery accommodates the needs of spontaneous customers. Kori says deliveries usually arrive within the next hour or so.

delivery confirmation

When Urban Stems couriers show up at a recipient’s door, they snap a picture to email to the sender.

Each arrangement is highly curated, and when UrbanStems couriers show up at a recipient’s door, they snap a picture to email to the sender “so you know that those flowers look like exactly what you ordered, and you know exactly when the delivery is happening,” says Kori. “The flowers last for two weeks, all starting at $35 with free delivery and no fees.”

So, given the constraints of the industry, how does UrbanStems accomplish all this?

It all starts with the company’s florist, who formerly served on the White House staff. She creates recipes for bouquets well in advance, and then sends those recipes to the farms who supply the flowers directly to UrbanStems. “Typically, flowers will go from the farm to an importer to a wholesaler to the florist, where they are arranged,” says Kori. “With us, flowers are off the stem not more than a day or two, so that cuts out some costs, but it also creates much fresher flowers.”

For UrbanStems, maintaining a tight and controlled ship when it comes to supply chain is the key to its business model’s success. For example, instead of hiring couriers as 1099 contractors as many in the industry do, UrbanStems couriers are W-2 employees with benefits. “They are part of our family, and they make that experience great when they do deliveries,” says Kori. “Everything from the technology, to the entire supply chain, to the final delivery is owned by us.”

Testing a hypothesis

Though Kori has developed a passion for the floral industry, the seeds of UrbanStems were actually based in a certain scientific curiosity. “We were kind of obsessed with this idea that such a large percentage of the population really doesn’t like [the work] they are doing,” says Kori. “We really wanted to prove out this hypothesis that we can create an environment where people love what they are doing. That’s not only really great for the world, but it creates a better customer experience too, which creates more customers, which creates more resources to invest back in the team.”

While Kori and Sheely aren’t the first in the business world to consider the need for such a paradigm shift, this simple hypothesis has been key to driving growth at the startup, creating a cohesive culture, and bringing in both talent and investments. “Our guiding light is trying to prove this hypothesis,” says Kori. “The heart of that is that the types of people we bring in are really talented and passionate people, and the thing we can do best for them is give them opportunities to learn and grow.”

flowersThis approach to business brought in UrbanStem’s three additional co-founders, and some heavy-hitting partners, like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, whose venture capital firm Sagamore Ventures invested in the company.

A new generation’s Hallmark

Though it only has a few years under its belt, UrbanStems is already looking to change the way younger generations gift. “If you think about our grandparents’ generation, if they went to a dinner party or if they had a good interaction with a client or someone was having a bad day, they would drop a Hallmark card in the mail — no questions asked,” says Kori. “Our customers, if their friends are having a bad day or just went through a breakup or it’s raining outside, will pull out their phones, hit a couple of buttons and have a gift over there at a very affordable price.”

Kori’s vision extends beyond flowers, to what he hopes will become the “ultimate gifting platform.” Already, UrbanStems has ventured outside of the flower industry to flower-adjacent options. During the Thanksgiving season, the company offered glitter pumpkins, which sold out, and, Kori adds, “one of our most popular products is a succulent in a dinosaur.”

Getting Started tells the stories of companies with less than five years in business. To be considered for Getting Started, email ahurst@smartceo.com.