Bill Strauss wasn’t a great student, and certainly didn’t have an innate knowledge of flowers, but he’s still been able to turn Pro-Flowers, a company he helped found, into a $400 million business.
This, he told students at California State University, San Marcos, is the result of sticking to his core values of hiring smart people, being honest and fair, and making sure all actions are done for the good of the company.
“How we run our company really hasn’t changed through all (the) iterations of who we are,” Strauss, the company's chief executive officer, said.
Those iterations are from a small startup in 1998, to a public company in 2003, to being sold as a subsidiary of Liberty Media in early 2006.
Strauss helped found the company with Jared Polis, who is now a congressman in Colorado. Polis’ family owned the online greeting card company Blue Mountain Arts, and he figured flowers went together with cards.
Strauss admitted he didn’t know anything about flowers, but he was interested in the then-new Internet business model, and teamed up with Polis after a mutual friend introduced them.
Pro-Flowers, now located in Sorrento Valley, survived the initial Internet bubble burst at the start of the decade, and has gone on to thrive ever since.
“We basically generate more profit in this space than both 800-FLOWERS and FTD combined,” he said, referring to his company’s chief competitors.
Strauss said he noticed that while bigger companies like 1-800-FLOWERS had the most name recognition, their customer satisfaction numbers weren’t always high. He decided that would be the No. 1 goal of Pro-Flowers, making sure each order is given every consideration.
This is especially important on the two days that account for 50 percent of Pro-Flowers’ business: Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
“If you’re sending a gift to a lover or to a spouse, you don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, that’s our busiest day, sorry we didn’t do it right,’” he said. “Every single purchase counts.”
Customer service goes back to Strauss’ core values of honesty, fairness and hard work, but those values also apply to hiring. He called hiring the most important thing a company does, and Pro-Flowers has a rigorous screening process to make sure people fit the culture of the company.
Strauss said the culture at Pro-Flowers is one where people are hired for their overall intelligence, not necessarily a skill set. People are overachievers, but management still takes an interest in each person to learn what makes them achieve best, be it a work-life balance, or a focus on a specific area.
Holding onto star employees is also imperitive for Pro-Flowers, Strauss said. He told the story of a great young engineer who didn’t get along with the new chief information officer. The CIO wasn’t fitting in all that well in general, but as soon as the engineer told Strauss he was leaving because of the CIO, the CIO was fired.
Strauss also talked about his experience when Pro-Flowers purchased the online gift company Red Envelope. The Bay Area business never managed to turn a profit, and while Pro-Flowers wanted to keep the original office open, ultimately it just didn’t make business sense.
“There was no bait and switch, there was no not being honest with people. Once we made our mind up, we communicated that decision,” he said. “It was tough and it was hard. But I think every Red Envelope employee who’s no longer with us, I think they would say it couldn’t have been done any more fairly.”
Strauss said the reason he’s stayed on with his company through all its iterations is because he loves the people he works with, and he credits that to creating an environment where everyone values the same culture at the office.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people in my life -- not everybody, but enough -- that when they see that I don’t put myself first, I put the business first, or whatever job I’m given I’ll do the best I can and I never ask what’s in it for me. I think those traits about myself (have made certain other people with those traits) gravitate toward me,” he said.
“Whether its people I’ve worked for, or people who work for me, that’s created just a great network.”
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