“There are plenty of opportunities but little encouragement from the government”, says Laxmi Lobo
Laxmi Lobo the founder of Spring Blossoms, a popular Mumbai-based flower retailer with an online presence that gives her a national footprint says, one has to take many risks to grow the business and succeed. In her case, the risks seem to have paid off well in her journey from Air India to the wholesale flower business to a well-established retail enterprise
After a long stint in Air India, Laxmi Lobo has had an eventful transition to the wholesale flower business and later to Spring Blossoms, a retailer, with a national footprint and strong corporate clientele. Spring Blossoms is able to deliver flowers to all major towns and cities and her corporate clients include HDFC Bank, Cox & Kings and ITC. She works with a small team of 10 and is determined to retain the personal touch, which ensures each floral bouquet or arrangement is unique and perfectly delivered. Laxmi, who has previously trained under Sogetsu school of Ikebana (School of Flower Arrangement in Tokyo) and apprenticed with a florist in Singapore acquired the skills to turn this shop into a full-fledged business with an annual turnover of Rs70-80 lakh.
Excerpts from an interview with Moneylife:
Moneylife (ML): Tell us about your journey to become an entrepreneur?
Laxmi Lobo (LL): I worked in the in-flight services of Air India and enjoyed it. But there were multiple reasons for leaving the aviation industry at the end of 1996. My daughter was five years old and I was keen on spending more time with her. Marriage was not life-changing for me, but having a baby was – I wanted to have flexi-time to be able to be around her. I thought of switching to a ground job in Air India so that I was not out town for 10 days at a stretch. Then an opportunity came along, which allowed me to start my wholesale business of selling export-rejected fresh roses in the local markets.
I weighed my options, Air India had started faltering badly by then, and there were talks of a merger with Indian Airlines, which even I knew would sound the death knell for us. I may have had to resign anyway, since Air India had a retirement age of 35 for women cabin crew in those days. Women cabin crew were discriminated against for a long time those days, so all in all I had made a good decision when I left.
ML: How and when did you transition from wholesale business in flowers to Spring Blossoms?
LL: The wholesaling of roses, in an unorganised flower market, was an eye-opener for a newbie like me, but I survived it and then went on to export too until that opportunity got stymied by horrible bureaucratic regulations. The timing of wholesale flower business was not feasible for a young mother and women entrepreneur. Mornings started at 3.30am and then again in the evening, flowers from various growers would arrive between 7:30pm to 10pm. It was really hard managing the time.
This gave me the idea to shift to a retail business as it had creative appeal and no time constraints. Initially I did weddings and events for corporates and also did two years of full time floral consultation for JW Marriott. But I wanted a steady business so started dreaming of a retail shop, especially after I had helped set up the floral shop at the Marriott.
I believed that good service and getting on to e-commerce in a booming economy of 2004 was a good opportunity. That is when I set up Spring Blossoms and I have never looked back or regretted it. But I do have doubts for the first time this year as our economy has hit a pause button!
ML: What were the main challenges while starting the business? How did you overcome them?
LL: The main challenge was staff training, customer service standards and capital costs.
I started training the ‘karigars’ myself after having learnt how to arrange and care for flowers in Singapore. Similarly, I would train my staff to accommodate customers’ needs and preferences and give proper service. I used to prepare pamphlets in regional languages and would make them read it and do mock selling sessions with them. Delivering fresh and unique floral arrangements is key to the business. There were also issues like not having a cold-chain in India for flowers, which exists all over the world.
ML: The online platform that you created -- I think that helped you to go national, didn’t it? When and how did you decide to set up the website and build a network of affiliates?
LL: I set up the website by the end of 2004, initially just for Mumbai deliveries. The affiliations came, when I travelled and met other flower shop-owners, especially those run by women. Telecommunication was improving and I thought I would be able to reach out to many more customers through the internet. It was an interesting journey and a very interesting learning curve. I still manage most of my online campaigns myself.
ML: I am sure there must be some nail-biting times that were a learning experience and some really satisfying ones too. Would you tell us about those?
LL: Indeed. One nail-biting episode was when an entire flower consignment of flowers got rejected by a Japanese buyer because of the lack of a proper cold chain in India. It is still the greatest impediment to the fresh flowers business. I lost out on this one.
Flowers typically need to "sleep" at 4°c so that they remain fresh till they are 'awakened by the florist'. That is the norm world over. Here, our flowers come for sale on the tops of public buses and in tempos with loaders sitting on them! Instead of awakening them, the florist has to "resuscitate" them! But seriously, half the shelf life of the flower is gone by then.
Another nail-biting moment was when I had to convince the bride, who felt that her gorgeous wedding plans were coming undone because of the colour of flowers dispatched by the foreign grower from Thailand. I managed to team those lovely white orchids we received (instead of the yellow that were ordered) with our local "gonda" or marigold into lovely cascading balls of flowers and the bride had her hallowed saffron colour. In the end, she was happier than before I think.
One of my worst moments was when I was quite categorically asked to partner with a local if I wanted to remain a wholesaler in the then specifically monopolised market.
ML: What drives you to work everyday?
LL: The passion of work and growth are my biggest motivations. Also, I love interaction with customers, be it online or offline customers, the corporates and individuals. They are my biggest supporters. Their support encourages me to keep moving ahead. After setting up an online presence to deliver flowers across the country, the challenge was to have affiliates who also ensured good designs, excellent quality and prompt service guarantee.
ML: Why is it important to encourage entrepreneurship in India, especially among women?
LL: Women need to be economically independent and flexi timing jobs are difficult to come by in our economy. So entrepreneurship, where a woman chooses her work hours and how much work she wishes to do, is the real way forward.
ML: What were the biggest challenges you faced as a woman entrepreneur?
LL: As mentioned before, timing was a big challenge in my line of business. Other than that I face the usual army of tax officers that are not specific to women, but to general small entrepreneurs. It is a great cost to maintain so many consultants to resolve tax issues that constantly crop up due to harassment from all government agencies.
ML: What are the best ways to connect in your industry?
LL: My Industry is non-organised, so the best way to meet is through social networking and we organise our own small conferences.
ML: What internet apps and tools do you use to run your business efficiently?
LL: Google apps are really my secret weapon, I adapted to Google for the business as soon as I opened my website. I use Google ad words and manage almost all connections through Google and Android tools.
ML: What plans do you have for the future for your company?
LL: My business is well established, so I look for ways to innovate and increase growth through different additions. My real future plan is to have a training center. I have an optimal run of my business, as I want to maintain the personal and creative touch for the client to have a great experience at Spring Blossoms. I do not want to be a faceless corporate. I am a “Click and mortar Biz” and plan to stay that way. Although my business has always been self-financed, I am happy that the government has now started a women’s bank, which I shall approach for a loan for the expansion.
ML: What are the major opportunities for women to start their businesses?
LL: There are plenty of opportunities but less encouragement from the government. I feel it should give added incentives to women entrepreneurs, as we always manage two businesses, viz. the household and the company.
ML: Who is your role model?
LL: My mother is my role model, she never gave up working and she gave us a warm house.
ML: What are your tips for women entrepreneurs trying to make it in a competitive world?
LL: The three most important things are to have immense passion for what you are doing, have faith in yourself and to remain strong. The path will not always be smooth, but do not give up. Understand or make an effort to study accounting and budgeting before you start any entrepreneurship. One cannot be penny wise and pound foolish to run a business. Proper budgeting is most important for any business to be successful and run with a decent profit margin. I feel most entrepreneurs make a mistake here; they have grand plans, which do not always succeed as the market varies constantly. If you have pulled on too much liability, be sure it will pull you down too.
Most speakers at Moneylife Foundation events love the bright bouquet of fresh yellow flowers and roses that has become a part of our events. The flowers come from Spring Blossoms, founded by Laxmi Lobo in March 2004 at Dadar. She has been donating one bouquet every month to Moneylife Foundation for a long time!