In 2013, Ajay Kori was living in Washington, D.C., and smitten with a woman in Philadelphia. But he didn't love the long-distance flower-buying experience, so he turned that frustration into an opportunity. The Harvard Business School grad left Quidsi, a 2010 Inc. 5000 honoree, and teamed up with his college buddy, Jeff Sheely. They launched UrbanStems, a direct-to-consumer flower delivery company that bypasses the traditional model, in which consumers buy bouquets via national aggregators who then use local florists for delivery.
The D.C.-based startup has had some growing pains--including a disastrous 2017 Valentine's Day-- but it's blossomed into a flower powerhouse, landing at No. 385 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private U.S. companies.
At UrbanStem's D.C.-area warehouse, shown above, bouquets get a final trimming, packaged, and then handed to couriers for same-day local delivery. Prior to delivery, quality control workers remove any unhealthy flowers, but leave damaged outer-layer petals in place on buds that are otherwise in good shape. This helps protect healthy petals during transportation, and the customer can remove the damaged petals upon delivery.
UrbanStems tries to make its customers feel like a community by engaging throughout the year. "In October, we did something for breast cancer awareness," says CEO Seth Goldman. "My wife was diagnosed in July, and I sent out a very personal letter. The response we got from people was amazing. We have the kind of product that allows us to have authentic, emotional conversations with our customers."
Valentine's Day is an intense time for any flower company, but February 13, 2018, is a day that Goldman will always remember vividly. Having recovered from the disastrous Valentine's Day the year before, the company decided to partner with FedEx to ensure delivery demands could be met. The company was expanding quickly, and production had just barely caught up with Valentine's Day demand when UrbanStems' head of logistics called. FedEx wasn't going to be able to make its V-day deliveries until February 15th. "We called up FedEx, they said what is your concern, and we said well, our concern is that we're not going to have a company tomorrow," says Goldman. The crisis was eventually averted by moving all of the bouquets three hours north to a facility that guaranteed next-day delivery.
"Every day is a curve ball," says Goldman. "From crazy launch sprints, to quick redesigns, to figuring out different challenges, there are great days and horrible days. There are no plain days."
UrbanStems wants to simplify modern gift-giving. That's the principle that Goldman believes sets his company apart from its competitors. From the website design to the customer-service department: "Every part of this has to feel easy," says Goldman, "easier than everyone else."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of UrbanStems's co-founders. Ajay Kori teamed up with Jeff Sheely to found UrbanStems.