Educating customers that using seasonal flowers is best for their pocket as well as the environment is a passion for Fernwood Flowers founder Brigid Riley. She talks to ThinkBusiness about the importance of using organic, garden-inspired arrangements that reflect the changing seasons.
What led you to set up Fernwood Flowers?
I lived abroad for almost 20 years, in the US and UK. I worked in events in Washington DC and then a styling company there, for big corporates like American Airlines and Coca Cola. When I moved back to Ireland in 2015, my husband and I bought a house in the country with our two young kids and we wanted to stay in the countryside.
“It had always bugged me that the flower industry is not very sustainable. People have no idea about the seasonality of flowers”
We realised that we weren’t employable in rural Ireland so we started our own business. That’s how Fernwood Flowers came to be and it’s grown steadily since we started in 2016.
What makes Fernwood Flowers stand out?
One of my priorities when founding the business was to create a more sustainable way of doing flowers. It had always bugged me that the flower industry is not very sustainable. People have no idea about the seasonality of flowers, they think they should have roses in December. While we provide the flowers our customers want, I educate them on seasonality and that if you want peonies in September, you can get them, but they’ll be flown from the other side of the world and there’s an environmental cost to that. I educate them on why flowers in season are the most cost effective, freshest and best quality for that time of year.
“I educate customers on why flowers in season are the most cost effective, freshest and best quality for that time of year”
We grow many of our flowers here in our flower farm in Meath. A few years ago I became aware of the slow flower movement in the US and UK. I decided to try growing flowers myself. I was also drawn to the imperfection of flowers from the garden and the wildness they add to an arrangement. The fact that these flowers had a very small carbon footprint and could be grown without the use of heavy chemicals also appealed. We now grow more than 40 varieties of flowers.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
In the beginning, I had an idea but was trying to force it into a business, without ever having run one. I didn’t have a huge amount of knowledge on how to do that. Nailing down our brand identity and figuring out exactly what that was going to be was a challenge in the beginning.
Around the time I started, I was alerted to an organisation called ACORNS, a programme that supports early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland. It’s run by an amazing woman. It’s a peer mentoring, business development organisation. There is a group led by an experienced entrepreneur and you meet once a month to discuss a particular topic like finance or marketing. You brainstorm for each other’s business. It was absolutely pivotal for me. It helped me nail down what I wanted my business to be and develop a critical way of thinking about my business too.
“A few years ago I became aware of the slow flower movement in the US and UK. I decided to try growing flowers myself”
In the beginning, the main challenge was developing a customer base and cash flow. With weddings people book so far in advance that you could have the year ahead booked, but no cash coming in. To counteract that, I did lots of gift bouquets and built a local market while the weddings were getting established.
Did the pandemic impact the business and how did you deal with it?
Brigid Riley of Fernwood.ie at her home outside Oldcastle, County Meath. Photo:Barry Cronin/ www.barrycronin.com
We’ve spent a lot of time moving weddings to different dates, there’s been lots of juggling. We did quite a lot of weddings with just six people and they were lovely for us because they spent their full flower budget.
“Nailing down our brand identity and figuring out exactly what that was going to be was a challenge in the beginning”
During the first lockdown, we did pivot and started offering an online gift bouquet delivery service, where we would send bouquets by courier. It was something I had in the back of my mind for a while that I wanted to try. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to do it. We did come across quite a lot of challenges with that business model. Handing over a perishable product to another business that may not look after it is hard. The challenge was ensuring the couriers got the flowers there safely when they said they would. There’s no room for error there. It’s not something I would pursue.
What lessons have you learned and what would you pass on to other entrepreneurs?
So much in the beginning is about planning and it still is. Everything has to be planned. You really have to know your numbers and what your margins are – to know what that magic number is to be profitable. Otherwise, it just ends up being a hobby that you make a bit of money from, not a business. A lot of creative people aren’t very good with numbers. If you’re not good at it yourself, delegate it to somebody else.
“With weddings people book so far in advance that you could have the year ahead booked, but no cash coming in. To counteract that, I did lots of gift bouquets and built a local market while the weddings were getting established”
It’s vitally important to know your numbers. Be brave and try new things. If they don’t work, don’t be afraid to say so.
What do you think of the culture for entrepreneurs in Ireland and how could it be improved?
There’s quite a lot of support for small businesses in Ireland, if you go and look for it. There’s Enterprise Ireland, the Local Enterprise Offices, even Bank of Ireland has quite a lot of support for small businesses.
“So much in the beginning is about planning and it still is. You really have to know your numbers and what your margins are – to know what that magic number is to be profitable”
In Ireland, the biggest problem is peoples’ mindset about being entrepreneurial. There’s such a tradition of having a pensionable job with PAYE that people are afraid to take a leap. Thankfully, the younger generation is putting an end to that with lots more small businesses emerging.
What are your plans for the future?
Fingers crossed the worst of the pandemic is over. Next year is extremely busy with the weddings postponed over the last 18 months. Next year is going to be very busy and 2023 is starting to book up because of the knock on effect of those postponements. We’re feeling positive again about what’s to come and continuing to grow.