It's 6:30 a.m. at the American Airlines cargo bay, on the periphery of Reagan National Airport, and Toby Murdock is obsessing about the runway in Quito, Ecuador. It's under construction, so the flowers Murdock is expecting got shipped out of a nearby military base instead.
"I can't be sure they didn't sit in the hot sun somewhere," he says, tapping his finger on the counter while the clerk looks for his paperwork. She slips the yellow sheet in front of him, addressed to "Toby Blossom Flares."
That would be Blossom Flowers, Murdock's tiny company, which delivers flowers from farms in Ecuador to hotels, law offices, lobbies and a few houses in the Washington area. Despite the typo, the flowers are fine, so Murdock, 25, starts sorting bouquets and loading them into his weathered Volkswagen Jetta.
Murdock's business model is fairly simple.
Typically, it takes 10 days for flowers to get from where they're cut to where they'll be sold, after passing through a network of wholesalers and distributors. Murdock's plan was to sell bouquets by subscription, delivering regularly, so he ordered only what he needed. No wasted flowers meant no wasted profit. Doing this, he could get flowers that were cut on Sunday into a customer's vase on Thursday, for half what it would cost from a florist. Murdock got the idea after he spent some time cutting flowers on a farm in Ecuador.
To the casual observer, this seems like a great deal -- a steal even. "If a law firm spends $9,000 a year on flowers, I can do it for $4,500," he boasts. But the irony is that Murdock is targeting a market that doesn't seem to care much about either price or quality, so he has to find the few customers who do. "The bottom line for me is that most of my clients don't care about the flowers," he says. "And the money they spend on them is like a drop in the bucket for most of these firms."
But the life of a small business owner is so manic that despite having a great idea, Murdock made a call just last month that he hoped would end the hassles and the heartache. He tried to sell his little flower business to a bigger flower business in Boston.
In the end, the talks fell apart and there was no buyout.
"[That] week was so tough," he says. Murdock had agonized about whether to sell the business he'd been struggling so hard to build. Now, sorting flowers, he has to try to get his confidence back.
"I really don't like doing all this myself," he explains. Trying to figure everything out yourself, he says, is like talking into a mirror. "I love teams, and playing on teams."
An Overly Ambitious Start
The trip to Boston was not the first time Murdock thought he couldn't go on. He started out, like so many other hopeful entrepreneurs, with an overly ambitious business plan. Projected sales: $330,000. Actual sales: $30,000. Loss: $17,000.
Last fall, after six months in business, Murdock scaled back his plan to give the business one last shot. He borrowed $10,000 from his parents and friends and began selling almost exclusively to corporate clients, delivering bouquets every week or two.
"I didn't want to give up on flowers because there was so much opportunity, because the business was so screwed up," he explains, clipping flower stems in a tiny kitchenette at the Association of American Railroads, where he is making the first delivery of his day. "I kept thinking I would never have the chance to do this again."
Business is growing, bit by bit, and to cover the 60 customers he has on Mondays, Murdock hired a high school friend a month ago to help make deliveries for $12 an hour. Despite the setbacks, Murdock is not without confidence, seeing himself one day with a fleet of drivers: the Domino's Pizza of the flower world.
On non-delivery days, Murdock works out of his parents' basement, because there's no room in his apartment. On the floor are dozens of plastic flower boxes he'll eventually ship back to Ecuador to be reused. On the bookshelf are autobiographies of Michael Dell of Dell Computers and Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks. It is here that Murdock brainstorms -- alone -- and does paperwork.
With the Boston disappointment a week behind him, he's feeling upbeat again. A few of his clients have hired him for banquets, and he has a couple of weddings lined up. He's pursuing a contract with an office plant company, and this week he starts five new corporate accounts worth a total of $12,000 a year.
"I'm back to believing," he says, and pounds his chest. "Yeah!"
With an audience, Murdock turns this into a one-man pep rally. But he has reviewed his position and, well, it looks pretty good. This year, sales should be about $150,000. The profit picture is a little brighter, too. Murdock was in the black for the first time in March -- by $9. That grew to $1,000 in April, and $1,200 in May, and now he can pay himself a salary: $18,000 a year.
Still, growing from here presents new hurdles. He needs to invest more in his business than his tiny profits will allow. He wants to grow fast, before bigger, better-financed flower companies come here and try to do the same thing. And they will come, he says. It's the future of the flower business.
"I'm really confident of my capabilities on the one hand, but I look at all the experience these other guys have and . . ." He doesn't finish the sentence.
"It's a dream of widespread success that keeps you going," he says. "Isn't it?"
Editor's note: Today marks the debut of inBusiness, a new column exploring the challenges, risks and excitement of starting and building a small business. Every other week in Washington Business, we'll explore this burgeoning segment of the economy by profiling a business or entrepreneur with a great story. E-mail your suggestions to Presslerm@Washpost.com
CAPTION: Toby Murdock, owner of Blossom Flowers, picks up a load of flowers Thursday from Ecuador at Reagan National Airport for delivery to homes and businesses later in the day.