With the pandemic forcing many businesses to close their in-person operations, many small businesses have been moving online. In fact, a recent study found that 72 percent of small business owners say that selling online is now necessary, and 69 percent said selling online has made them more successful. Over the past year, it has been encouraging to see so many of the more than 29 million businesses we work with at PayPal embrace this pivot.
Melanie Harrington of Dahlia May Flower Farm
One of the businesses we are fortunate to work with, Dahlia May Flower Farm, located in Ontario, Canada, skyrocketed into a seven-figure business by shifting to online operations. Owner Melanie Harrington opened the farm in 2014, after watching her father give up his dreams so that she could pursue her own. Before the pandemic, the farm’s core business was as a destination for visitors, so once in-person visits were no longer possible, Melanie re-focused her strategy to sell flowers online and connect with customers and prospects on social media.
We recently caught up with Melanie to hear more about how she grew her business, how she leveraged her advantage as a small business to form deep connections with customers, and why she would rather move 180 degrees in the wrong direction than stand still.
Jim Magats: Can you share a bit about yourself and how you started your business?
Melanie Harrington: Flowers have been a family passion from the time I was a baby. The name of the business, Dahlia May Flower Farm, pays homage to my family’s history and our love of flowers. The farm was once two separate pieces of land, one belonging to my parents and the other to my grandmother. My dad’s favorite flower was the Dahlia, and that was the name he used to call my mom, while May was my grandmother’s middle name. That’s where the name for our farm came from.
JM: I love how intertwined your business is with your family’s history. Did their influence play any role in how you navigated the pandemic?
MH: My mom was permanently under care in a hospital from the time I was a toddler, so my dad took a job at a paper mill to help support our family. It wasn’t what he envisioned for himself, but he worked hard and saved what he could to give me a chance at a different future. My parents always told me I was smart, capable and could do hard things. At the height of the pandemic, I kept reminding myself of that over and over again in order to push through all the challenges. I knew my dad didn’t want me to have the same experience as he did, and after he passed away, I wanted to use the money he saved in a way that would make him proud. It also made my mom incredibly happy because it was a second chance for her as well – an opportunity for her to see her daughter do something special before she passed away.
JM: How has the pandemic impacted or changed your business?
MH: Our business had previously revolved around being a destination farm for visitors, so when we were forced to lock our doors, we had to figure out a new way to get our flowers to the public. We had a website, but we weren’t offering delivery. We mainly used our website as a way for customers to pay for their orders via a purchase form before picking up in person, so we had to learn a lot very quickly or we were dead in the water.
Many businesses were forced to cut back on staff, but we remained committed to keeping our team working, albeit in new and safe ways. We realized that many jobs that we previously felt had to be done on the farm could actually be done from home. Starting the seeds for our crops now all happens from our employees’ homes, as does answering social media messages, emails and much of our office work.
I made strategic decisions to expand my staff and invest in ecommerce. It was tough and we made a lot of mistakes, but it paid off. I would rather move 180 degrees in the wrong direction than stand still. By April of last year, we were delivering 200 orders a day, four days per week. As restrictions began to lift and we were able to open our shop doors again, our delivery service shifted to operating three days a week with an average of 100 deliveries per day. However, with new restrictions just put into place in the province of Ontario, we anticipate our delivery service looking more similar to what it did a year ago.
JM: While many businesses had to cut back on staff and shutter retail locations as a result of the pandemic, you’ve done the opposite. Can you share what the key to your success has been?
MH: Being online and on Instagram was critical in growing our customer base. When I first opened the business, I wasn’t on social media and I didn’t even have a home computer or smartphone, so I had to learn how to use all of those things very quickly. Six years later, I’ve been fortunate to have built an online following and established my own personal brand on the right channels.
Embracing technology and being nimble and quick to adapt in changing times has certainly been one of the keys to our success. I’ve been very intentional in connecting with customers on social media, and particularly Instagram, in a personal way by showing the ups and downs of the business and what farm life looks like – this has been a focus for our business since our business started. During the pandemic, we learned just how valuable building those relationships online was. Our Instagram audience feels deeply connected to not only keeping our farm afloat in challenging times, but to helping us grow and achieve the big dreams that we have been honest enough to share with them.
But of course, no success comes without some challenges, and our success has led to some growing pains. There’s been a lot of leveling up as a business owner at this time. Because demand has increased, we’ve had to triple the size of our staff and purchase more delivery vehicles. Becoming the CEO of a larger company in just under a year has been challenging, but I’m excited about the momentum we’re seeing. There has been a huge learning curve. But not being afraid to ask for help, and being open to learning new things, has kept us all working and has been critical in expanding our business in the middle of a pandemic.
JM: As you’ve grown, has PayPal helped you evolve your business at all?
MH: Offering delivery was a huge part of our pivot strategy, as well as rebuilding our site so that it was optimized for mobile shopping and included PayPal as a payment option. A lot of my customers were most comfortable using PayPal. In September, Ontario unexpectedly went into a deep freeze and a lot of farmers in the area, myself included, lost a significant amount of crop. I had to take a deep breath and focus on what’s next and look for opportunities. We looked at our PayPal account and realized we had enough to build an extra greenhouse in order to hopefully avoid another surprise deep freeze in the future. We farmers are eternal optimists.
JM: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or people looking to start their own business?
MH: Get uncomfortable, get curious and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and not know what you’re doing. I have spent the last six years feeling that way and I still managed to build a seven-figure business.
We’ll be publishing another interview with an inspiring PayPal small business owner next month, so be sure to check back in. And feel free to leave a comment with your takeaways or questions about operating a small business.