Shop Talk with Botanique Flowers
with Kelly Sullivan of Botanique
In case you missed our last Shop Talk...
Kelly Sullivan of Botanique and I sat down to chat about the recurring theme of defining your own success and the unique challenges of how one goes about pricing and tracking flowers when you grow them yourself. Kelly also touches on how her experience in dance has influenced her floral design technique!
Emily Anderson: I was hoping you could talk a little about what your values are that you want yourself in your life, what you want your business to reflect. What kind of boundaries you have to set up and guard in the process?
Kelly Sullivan: One of my big point with my business is working for my life. I don’t have ambitions to have a really luxurious life, but I want to have a comfortable life. Specifically, I want to be around my family and spend time with them and not have my business completely taking over.
So I have to set really strong boundaries around communications because that’s the area where I know I have an Achilles heel. I’ll be on email day or night or posting on Instagram and it's not healthy for me, it doesn’t give me time away. On a more personal level, what I want for my business to be able to be successful in the regard that I can have my life, without it being my entire life.
EA: It sounds like that also involves saying no sometimes. I imagine you get inquires that you have to turn down, what does that look like?
KS: I definitely have to! It was actually the year I was pregnant that I had to establish stronger boundaries, and that included changing the structure in how I take on clients and being clear on what a good fit is for me and what is not. I still make exceptions to the rule, which mainly involve minimums and different levels of service, but at least I know I’m making an exception now rather than everything being an exception.
EA: I feel like your business is kind of a loose, organic, seasonal look. Do you ever get clients that are outside of that who you have to say no to?
KS: I do actually, I don’t always say no to them. That's definitely my brand so most of my clients want that and that’s why they come to me, but sometimes they want something different. So as long as it sustains my business and the boundaries that I have set, I'll do it.
I have this whole other value system that has to do with the earth essentially. Like making business choices that reflect taking care of the planet, not using floral foam, and using very local flowers with sourcing.
Also, I have to like the person and I feel like it’s a good vibe, I actually really love doing that. It's fun to do something different, it keeps it fresh and interesting! Sometimes those events can actually be easier because I’m not obsessing over things in the same way as when I’m really in my wheel house. Sometimes the aesthetic choices are completely different, so it's actually nice to have them on the docket too!
EA: We get a lot of corporate clients that just don’t know about the sustainability aspect or waste aspect and we have to have a conversation around, “Yes, we can build that but then we are going to have this thing that we will have to bring to the dump.” It’s a constant process of researching sustainable materials we can use. Do you ever have to have those sustainability conversations?
KS: So I basically I don’t use floral foam, I never have. I do and don’t address this with my clients, I’ve just sort of over the years become comfortable with my skill set and am happy to execute whatever the design is without foam.
I pitch that to my clients because that’s in my value system and the business that I have, but I try not to get to preachy with my clients about this. I find a lot of them really do care. But I don’t think that’s what they’re really coming to me for.
I kind of land in the place where I know that this is what I need to do to feel good in the world with my business, whether or not my clients knows or cares. As long as they are getting what they need from me, and I am doing what I think is important and sustainable, then it's ok. They’re still supporting local growers and they are still supporting not using foam, they are still supporting recycling and composting and all these other things. They just don’t need to know. It's more information than they need to know or care about, I leave it out if I don’t feel it’s the right thing and I address it, if I do. It just depends on the person!
EA: I feel like people come to you, not just because of the beautiful things you’re making, but you have a calming presence, you’re very grounded. I love seeing posts of your family on your Instagram. I feel like people are loving YOU and your life style and I feel like that’s why people go with you. Is that something that you’re aware of or work into your marketing?
KS: I wouldn’t say I intentionally work it into my marketing, no. I actually really struggle with social media as a thing that exists, in that I have this thing that I have to be engaged with.
We are away from technology as much as we feel possible and I really don’t want our family to be the cover story for my business. My husband and my child are totally involved, my son is around my studio and playing in the garden all the time and I think he is adorable so if he’s doing something, I might want to share it. But I also try to limit that in a certain way.
I do feel like sharing who I am and some underlying values of my business, so it’s important to me that some of that is out there somewhere so that if people are looking for that, or are curious about that, there is a place for them to find that information. I don’t really try to sell that.
EA: Maybe that’s what people are attracted to! That is a marketing strategy!
I’m really fascinated in your background in dance. Dance is one of those things that when I need some inspiration I will go see a dance performance. I’m wondering what that transition was like for you and how does that background play into your design?
KS: When I sort of transitioned to enter floral design, I was still working full-time as a dancer. I was working in Seattle performing and I also did some of my own work but I was kind of feeling like it was time for a change.
I had been feeling that for a while, really the primary reason being that it's impossible to make a living as a professional dancer unless you're doing a lot of teaching. Ironically, I love teaching floral design and I didn't like teaching dance.
I had other jobs because I couldn't make ends meet if I just was dancing. I was also a gardener for private residences around the north end of Capitol Hill in Seattle. There are nice older houses with beautiful established gardens so I was maintaining those gardens for people- and I started to realize that I was constantly trying to make my clients plant for flowers. When things would get kind of trashed by weather I would just kind of make arrangements with those materials.
I started to put the pieces together that this is what I liked to do. So I was in the plant world and I realized that I needed to make this transition from dance for what I wanted in my life-- I knew that I wanted to have a child. I wasn’t married yet, but I was dating my (now) husband and we knew we wanted to have kids.
So basically, that's where I was and people started to get married around me, my friends were getting married and I started offering to do their flowers and it just felt like an immediate fit! I then fairly dramatically quit a project I was working on. I realized I couldn't do this anymore, it wasn't working for me, I had to stop and so I did!
After that I had this huge gaping hole in myself and I wanted to fill it and so naturally I obsessed over another thing-- starting this business and jumped in head first and had no boundaries at all. But I also learned a ton and gained a lot of experience and practice in those first few years when I didn't have the same kind of responsibilities that I do now.
I didn't make a transition from dancer to floral design thinking that my dance skills will translate to floral design, that thought never crossed my mind, but it started to be clear the way that I approach design. I realized that I was thinking about movement because that is the lens that I have and have trained in, so that's how I see and I see movement in interactions as well as floral design. So that kind of became an important facet in my certain style and now it's involved in to my branding.
EA: That reminds me of a workshop that you do that incorporates your movement! I am so interested in that course, what are people saying after they work with you?
KS: I do teach all sorts of things but I did a movement study workshop a year-and-a-half ago and that particular workshop was focused on the idea of movement. I keep my workshop small so they usually max out at like 10 people. There's sort of a combination of group style teaching and a lot of individual time, so people tend to give a lot of feedback about how nice it is that they get so much personal time in the workshop. I always have at least a professional photographer there so people get a really good portfolio piece and images of them working.
For the workshops that I teach here at my studio there's always a cutting room component or some kind of time when we go into the garden more or less, it depends on what topic we're covering. It's a really special thing for people to be able to go and cut flowers and immediately put them into the design.
EA: So you grow your own flowers! I really wanted to talk to you about that because we're building a financial strategy tool for floral designers. We're trying to make it so that it is really useful for all different types of floral designers. The main component of our program is understanding the cost of doing business.
In your industry, it's really interesting for me because there's this whole chunk of costs that are expensive and time-consuming, i.e., to grow your own garden. Can you tell us about the things you have to think about for growing and designing and what are those costs?
KS: I do track my costs, like seeds or plants. But there are a lot of costs like water! In this city you have to water your plants, especially if you want them to thrive. So we use a lot of water. Our water isn’t broken down between our cutting garden or showers, like studio and home. My garden is at my house but it's high in the summer. That alone is a big cost. Water and the time are the biggest costs. It takes a long time, there’s a lot of time going in to planning, planting, and maintaining the garden, but also harvesting the garden.
I spend hours harvesting flowers. I have yet to do a scientific breakdown of things but I do know my cutting garden is making money. In recent years I've started to sell my flowers to other designers and that's where it's gone from breaking even-ish to making real money, although it's still not a huge part of my income every year.
So I just want to make sure that I'm covering my costs and I try to keep track of all of the input that I put into the garden and all of the money that I'm making from the garden from selling to other people, it's a lot harder for me to track what I'm using in my own work.
EA: Do your grow flowers because you grow flowers, not because you have events coming up?
KS: In an ideal world, the most profitable situation is that I'm using flowers from my garden. On minimum that saves me time going to the market, whatever communications involved, and ordering stuff, and no stress!
So that would be ideal but I do really large weddings for the most part and I don't have enough product in my garden, even if somebody said you can use any color of the rainbow--which nobody ever says, but I do grow flowers for me, because I have to and I love doing it. I just love it. I love being in the garden, it's totally my happy place so it's going to happen either way for me personally.
That said I do make a conscience effort to grow things that is likely I will use. Sometimes I know I have a wedding year out and I can put the flowers I want to use into my garden, but I don't know what's really going to happen maybe it's a hot spring and it blooms way before I want it to, or the June rains come and they take out all the garden roses. It's hard to rely on that, especially with such a small skill operation!
I'm basically trying to grow things that, first of all things I love and will use, and then the secondary thought is that if I'm not going to use this, is it likely that somebody will want to buy this from me? Over time I've honed in what those flowers are that are really valuable to my work, generally when I don't use them and there's a lot of other local floral designers that would want these flowers.
EA: How do you ensure that your arrangements are priced so that you aren't undervaluing your flowers? Is it just comparing to what is grown in the markets or what’s your strategy?
KS: I do try to price my flowers in my arrangements at the same price point that I would buy from the market. I'm not trying charging any less for it then what I would be buying it from.
It's just the fact that they're right there and they're so fresh I've been hand tending them, so to me they're like the most beautiful flowers! I know that they shouldn't cost less than what I'm ever getting from anywhere else. If anything they should probably cost more because they're special, they're a very boutique flowers, so I just try to cover my costs.
I literally write myself in as if I was buying them from a wholesaler. So they cost this much each, that's this much of the budget. I'm not spending that part of the budget, I’m essentially paying myself for that.
The truth is I definitely add tons of flowers for my garden to almost everything I do I try to start with at least what is reasonable and if I'm adding extra it's out of my own heart.
EA: Is it always designers choice on what goes in your designs?
KS: My services are like three main umbrella categories. One of those is called From the Garden and essentially that is designers choice and it's really geared towards people who don’t need tons of flowers. They’re eloping and they need a bouquet and a boutonniere, or a few small arrangements.
Because I do have a lot of flowers but I want to make sure everything looks cohesive and fits my brand. Whether or not I can do that on a large scale at any time is questionable. I've created this offering that basically allows me to use whatever I want and I try to be as trustworthy and flexible to my clients for this particular as possible. They can't select certain flowers but they can say I don’t want florescent hot colors or neutrals, so they can’t be like I need to have this certain shade. I don’t have a minimum for that service whereas I do have a minimum for all my other options.
EA: That is a great way to do it! This is the way that you're going to get the best out of me is by doing this. Do you have any advice for people who have just started or wants to start a Cutting Garden or is dreaming about it someday?
So the biggest piece of advice I feel like I give people starting is start small, even if it's just a pot on your porch. It's good to get a handle on what you're jumping into because it's a lot more work than what it seems like from the outside! That gives you a good read on if you like it, do you actually want to do this, or is it just an idea that sounds nice? Do you actually like getting dirty and working in weather that isn't so great? It's less daunting if you can just experiment and see what works and not have your entire yard be dug up!
When you're busy in the wedding season everything needs water, we have a drip irrigation system on everything and we don't have it on the timer but you can put it on timer sometimes it's just easy makes a huge difference in terms of your plants thriving and if they don't I see people get discouraged, so at least set yourself up for success!
For resources, I'm sure most of you have heard of Floret Flower Farms who has tons of resources on her website and has an online courses on growing and cutting flowers, she is a wonderful resource. Another one is Sarah Raven who has a large cutting garden and a ton of books that I used as resources when I was starting out, that was really helpful in terms of growing cut flowers. Also the ASCFG American Specialty Cut Flower Growers is a really good one. You can join that group and there's a bulletin board where you can ask questions, and the annual fee isn't crazy high.
Loading up on these resources is very valuable until you join a community and can just ask people your questions!
EA: Do you have any big wild goals for your business?
KS: We are really close to having the whole property no longer in a transition between junk area and cut flower garden. So I really want to make the studio and garden a place someday for more education, specifically around growing flowers as well as designing.
And not just education but also engagement, we as a culture could use more time with our hands in the soil and being around nature and really engaging and interacting with plants. I think this is my personal belief but I just think it's really good for people! I think it's all thoughts and ideas at this time but I want to move in that direction, and who knows, have a farm someday!
Check out Kelly's work here and follow her on Instagram @botanique_flowers_seattle.
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