Anemone Paper Florist, founded in 2003 in Spokane, WA, is pioneering a new category of product and business. A paper florist provides flowers that can be used the same way as those from any local florist, with one obvious difference: The flowers are made from paper. So unlike real flowers, customers can keep them as memories of the occasion. And they’re likely to do so, because Anemone’s products are works of art. Yet despite its attractions, this innovative approach to floral decoration has not yet become a mass phenomenon – Anemone aside, there are few genuine paper florists around.
Anemone provides its paper flowers for weddings, parties and sadder occasions. It both sells and rents its creations, and has a corporate program that allows companies to pay by the month to decorate their offices with an ever-changing selection of non-wilting blossoms. It sells from a brightly painted storefront (with real brick walls) in Spokane, Washington, as well as through its website. Its team of 10 includes two sales staff, three production artists and five more people filling in as needed. Mary Eberle, owner of Anemone Paper Florist, recently sat down to talk about her ground-breaking business.
How did you get started in your business?
Paper flowers were popular during the Great Depression, and South American culture uses them to decorate. When we started, we wanted to be musicians, and we just stumbled into paper flowers. I found these old templates from the Depression, and wanted to do something more artistic for my wedding, because real flowers were expensive, even going through my family florist. I thought I could spend that money on food or booze instead. And I wanted an art element, so I started playing around and making these flowers. And I realized there was a niche for this – there’s hundreds of thousands of musicians but there’s no paper florists. So I said "Let’s do this business and use it to fund our music."
We started right away doing bridal shows marketing directly to brides, because they have the budget. We focused on being artists and we had this full-scale florist vision in our heads, but not being quite being able to pursue it. It didn’t exist yet, it has taken me years to develop the product, to develop templates. We have more than 120 templates now. We do weddings all over the country and have wholesale accounts. But mostly we’re local because I’m really trying to do growth within the company, to build a franchisable type business with shops everywhere. We’ve been trying to grow slowly and organically.
I started slowly by building a customer base and working out of my house. But we had people coming to our house, because when grandma got sick they needed the flowers right then. I really like the idea of brick-and-mortar. We do sell online, online is awesome, but we don’t focus on it as much as we do on developing the store model. In the store, we hear lots of stories, love stories, horrific stories, war stories, sad stories, funerals. You almost help counsel the person through their grief in flower ordering.
And happy occasions too. We’re trying to build residual income, so with both businesses and homes we switch out so they can be getting fresh flowers, for restaurants, doctors’ offices, some big corporate displays which we can change out seasonally, monthly or daily. We do big events like stage décor and design, as well as big parties with 100 or more tables. The majority of what we do is custom. but we always have arrangements ready to go. You can get any color and any size flower you want.
We have had to create a niche because there wasn’t a need for paper flowers. You already had cheap [real] flowers and cheap silk flowers, so we had to create the desire that didn’t really exist out there. Then in 2009 Chanel used big oversize paper flowers on their runway for their spring fashion show – covering their walls. And from there, paper flowers sparked interest all over the country. So at this point I think everyone who makes paper flowers follows me, and they look like what we looked like when we first started.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
After being in business for four years out of my living room, I took out a loan from a family member to open the first store. We have a Kickstarter campaign that we’ve just written because we need to purchase a laser cutter, and that’s really exciting. We have a pretty big following, so we’ve offered some really great rewards for backing us.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
Lots and lots of trial and error. I also read plenty of business books – my favorite is "the E-Myth." I also surround myself with business mentors. Also through crisis. I went through a divorce, so I had to replace my husband with other staff, and I ended up overstaffing. We had road construction in front of our store for six months, and our website got hacked by Russians. So I had to get spending and finance and staffing under control.
Then I got hit by a drunk driver. That made me realize I can’t do everything, so we have to get the right staff in place to do all the things I had done. So in a sense it was a good thing. We built better systems, got rid of employees who weren’t quite pulling their weight, pulled in other people who are more excited and more apt for the job. We’ve been doing this for about 12 years, but four of those years were just real hard. Now I feel like a brand-new business.
Who was your first customer?
Anemone’s debut was at a local bridal festival, so we got customers from that.
What was the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Underestimating the cost of running a business. Doing a bridal show costs $1,000. Having a kiosk costs another $1,000. You need to print signs, do advertising, have tags, do product. We didn’t anticipate the spending, so the biggest mistake was not having a plan, not doing much research.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Work exceptionally hard to maintain Anemone’s autonomy and vision. For example, really honing in on making Anemone a brand. Mostly by developing our corporate logo, image, brand so it’s always the same. Keep it really consistent, make sure it’s always there, making sure you tag everything, include it in your corporate newsletters, on top of all your social media posts. The other thing was not give up, to hold true to your plan, and if your plan falls through to rewrite your plan the next year. Having your five-year goal, your fifteen-year goal, and what are we doing the next three months.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
In a mid-size city like Spokane, being a part of a vibrant community is rewarding, especially with how often the design and creative elements are left largely in our hands. The customers’ reactions are still my favorite part. Sometimes people cry with joy when they receive their flowers.
What’s the most difficult or challenging thing about running your own business?
The hardest part is managing growth. Working on the business rather than in the business. Making macro-level decisions that could massively effect Anemone’s future. For example:
Should we stay in our current established location or move to an up-and-coming neighborhood? How much energy should be spent on website sales versus brick-and-mortar sales? But ultimately, being in a position to make these decisions is a positive and exciting challenge.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
How quickly it becomes part of your daily life. All my friends ask how I find the time to run a business with four boys, but when you are committed to your business, you find the time to do what you need to get done. There’s a really thin line between owning a business and owning a job for yourself. I think the majority of people don’t own businesses, they own a job that owns them. They can hardly leave, it won’t operate without them. As a mother of four children, I’ve been working since my divorce four-and-a-half years ago to displace myself, to say to people "This is how my business operates," rather than "This is what I do to operate the business." That’s one thing I think people don’t understand.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
I was a corporate trainer for P.F. Chang’s [Chinese Bistro restaurant chain] in 2001 at their 10th store, trained to open new restaurants. The expectation at P.F. Chang’s at the time was that every employee should be confident enough to order for a customer who might be intimidated by the menu. "Oh, you like noodles, I’m sure you’ll love the noodles inspired by Eastern Chinese cuisine," for example. I love when a guy comes in and tells us his girlfriend’s favorite color and we’re able to surprise his girlfriend with a bouquet she thinks is perfect. In 2001, employees of P.F. Chang’s had legitimate ownership in the company with great stock options.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before you started your business?
To never be so attached to an idea that you are too inflexible to adjust to customers, distributors, and/or the market. It’s really easy to say in your mind "This is the best," but then your customers don’t want that, they want this. So you need to be able to adjust, to say the customers are buying this, and so this is what we need to keep in stock for them.
Or this display isn’t working. I love this display but it isn’t selling. So what if you change it a bit and all of a sudden you’re selling like crazy.
Also, we had production in the store for years, but then I really realized that if the people who are doing production can just do production, they don’t have the distraction of customers coming in and out.
What advice do you have for others who are starting their own businesses?
Make sure you have a unique vision that you are dedicated to and believe in, and find those already in a successful business different from the one you envision to tell you what parts are realistic and what parts aren’t. Then continually seek these types of people out to continue to question, edit, and revise your ideas. You have to put in the hours and do the work, no one else will do it for you. Also, you have to make your plan and work diligently. Understand that you’re probably not going to make any money your first couple of years. Most businesses don’t, and they give up before they cross over that line.
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Robert Poe is a writer and photographer who divides his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington State.