Discovering a New Niche (or Two or Three)
Born into a long line of florists, Ryan Freeman was destined for a career in the industry—though he could never had predicted the various hats he wears today. The publisher of Canadian Florist looks back, reflecting on the opportunities that scared him and why it always pays off to branch out of his comfort zone.
KH: What are your first memories from the family shop (Martin’s, The Flower People in Toronto)?
RF: I was the 5th generation and I was there almost from birth. At two years old, I would go to Montessori in the morning then come back to the shop for lunch and would spend the afternoon upstairs with my great-grandmother, often taking an “arrangement” with me.
KH: What were you original roles with the business?
RF: My design career peaked at five years old when I sold my first (and probably only) arrangement. As a kid, my grandfather would pay me a nickel for every box I made, and eventually I moved from general labour into the office. One day the phone was ringing, and no one was answering, so I did.
KH: When did you foresee a career in the industry?
RF: When I was a teenager, I told my Mom to start recruiting cousins to take over, because I had zero interest in the business. Even though I continued working at the shop part time, I didn’t see a future there. It wasn’t until college, when I began to take what I was learning and apply it in the context of the shop, that I got excited. Not long after that, I had some opportunities to do tax and POS consulting for other florists. That’s when I came to love the industry.
KH: When did tech become a passion?
RF: The way Mom tells it, I was always one to take things apart—even if I wasn’t great at putting them back together. I was lucky enough to have access to a Commodore VIC 20 when I was really young, so computers have always been a part of my life. That led to working in IT as a teenager, and getting involved with the Internet in 1994.
KH: Did you have to pitch your family on why you should focus on the Web—and why that would benefit the business?
RF: Not at all. Grandad wasn’t a tech guy, but he knew the importance of being current. We were one of the first shops in the city to use computers for billing. Mom took over from him in the mid-90s and asked for my input selecting a POS system. We went through several iterations of really bad first-generation websites, and I distinctly remember asking Mom if we should bite the bullet and buy our own domain name (well over $100 a year back then). I was amazed when she said yes without hesitation.
KH: When did you launch Strider? Did you have any apprehensions about being a small business owner?
RF: Strider was formed in February 2008. I had been doing freelance work since 1994, but wanted to make it more official and build up a team of experts. I was too young to be apprehensive. It was a “great idea” and everything was going to be fantastic! However, as the company went through the inevitable growing pains (helped out by launching at the start of a recession), I did find comfort in knowing that small businesses can last. Our family shop made it through five generations over 118 years. My grandfather supported a family that included five children, while also managing to be generous and find jobs for friends and relatives who needed work.
KH: How did you find clients when you were first starting out?
RF: Work has always found me through word-of-mouth—the computer shop, telemarketing call centre, jobs with FTD, Teleflora, and MAS, and others by referral. Often the harder I tried to force growth, the more I failed, but networking has been the biggest source of new business.
KH: When did you launch FlowerChat (now Florist 2.0)? What was the impetus?
RF: FlowerChat.com was launched in October 2002. There were other chat boards, but they were text-based and boring. I had been a part of forums in other areas of interest and knew there was a lot of potential to build a community that let florists express their personalities as a part of the discussion.
KH: Any reservations at first?
RF: Huge! It cost around $130 for the forum software and I debated for two days whether or not we could afford to invest that. It was a lot of money for our family at that time.
KH: You’re also a popular speaker at industry events. How did you get into that?
RF: Mark Anderson of FloristWare had asked me to speak at his Floral Summit event a few times. I dreaded public speaking, so I always managed to come up with a convenient scheduling conflict. But Mark’s a charmer, and he finally convinced me to participate in 2008. I was terrified, hadn’t slept in a day or two, and when I nervously went to the front of the room to get started none other than J Schwanke himself walked in and took a seat in the front row! Talk about pressure! Thankfully, J was really encouraging and I made it through three sessions that day. Since then, thanks to Mark’s insistence, I’ve spoken at events for the Society of American Florists, Canadian Florist, and many state associations in the U.S. over the last ten years.
KH: Now the big question: Canadian Florist! How did this position come about and what were your original thoughts?
RF: The Annex staff had been given a mandate to make sure the magazine continued publishing and they needed to find someone willing to invest in the floral industry in Canada. We all know that print is declining. Newspapers are shrinking or closing and many top magazines have converted to digital-only publication. I knew it would be a challenge to make a go of it, especially in Canada where postage is so expensive.
KH: Were you nervous? What pushed you to go for it?
RF: I was very nervous! Who goes from the digital world into the print industry in this decade??? But the alternative was to let the magazine fold. As the only national voice for florists in Canada, especially with the disappearance of Flowers Canada, this magazine was too important to lose.
KH: How has reality lined up to what you were expecting?
RF: It’s been a challenge, to be sure! Thankfully, we have a fantastic editor who is fully committed to elevating the quality and scope of the content, making Canadian Florist ever more valuable to its readers. [Editorial aside: Aw-shucks!]
KH: Looking back on everything, what have you gained by challenging yourself?
RF: Honestly, I can’t think of anything that I have now that I didn’t gain through taking uncomfortable risk. From asking a pretty girl on a date in high school (who is now my wife of 17 years), to helping plant a church in Toronto at a time when churches were abandoning the city, to building a business that serves florists in multiple continents, a personal brand that lets me travel all over, and a magazine that I hope will restore some unity to our industry across Canada, all of it was possible because of risks well outside my comfort zone. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be in my office on a computer comfortably avoiding all human contact.