Mary Beth Buchholz was a lobbyist in downtown Washington and secretly pining for a career working with flowers, a love she shared with her mother while growing up in the plains of North Dakota.
“I couldn’t quite see how to do it without putting my family in some sort of financial risk,” said Buchholz, who was juggling between mothering two preteen daughters and a profession she enjoyed.
In September 2010, her mom passed away. And, she said: “That is what made me think, ‘What am I doing?’ ”
When her mom’s estate was settled in February 2011, Buchholz said, “it became apparent to me she had once again given me a gift. It was in the form of financial security.”
So she decided that she would get out of the corporate grind, leaving behind a six-figure income for the uncertain life of the entrepreneur.
“It was a 180,” she said, “a complete change of industry and network and even schedule.”
Five years on, she runs Free Spirit Floral out of her garage on a cul-de-sac in Alexandria.
She expects to gross $200,000 this year, and to keep less than half of that for herself.
“I have not replaced a paycheck, but the difference is I am not paying a nanny, I am not paying commuting costs or parking costs downtown, which was $100 a week with tip,” she said. “No lunches. No professional clothes to maintain. I just roll out of bed, drive to the gym and am in the garage at 5:30 a.m.”
Buchholz did not go about this lightly. She spent all of 2011 mapping out her business while holding down her lobbying responsibilities.
Then, she and her husband consulted two financial planners “to hear it from every angle to ensure that what we were taking on made sense if it went well and if things didn’t go well.”
With peace of mind, she went about turning her passion into a moneymaker.
First was the administrative function of setting up a limited liability corporation and learning how to pay sales tax, pay employees and deciding on what credit cards to accept.
Because Buchholz runs the company out of her garage in a residential neighborhood, customers cannot come to her. So it’s all delivery.
She picked the name Free Spirit Floral because it was easy to spell and captured the feeling of energy. She hired a South Carolina company to build and administer the new brand’s website.
She found her creative team of flower designers out of “dumb luck.” One designer had lived across the street from her. She found another woman through a mutual friend.
“She looked at me like I was crazy,” Buchholz recalls of their meeting.
Buchholz called on another friend to handle assorted assignments such as maintaining her Facebook page, building show pedestals and helping set up a delivery system.
Most crucial was figuring out what to charge. She consulted friends on how to mark up the price of flowers obtained from wholesalers, where to find flower suppliers (all over the world) and how to understand the ebb and flow of the floral business cycle.
Case in point: Roses are more labor-intensive, because every stem must be stripped of its leaves. Orchids, on the other hand, are expensive to purchase but do not require much preparation.
The industry norm is a markup rate of three to four times the cost of wholesale flowers; some floral designers mark up five times the wholesale cost. She expects to pay about $40,000 to $45,000 to purchase flowers this year, which probably will eat up about a quarter of her revenue.
She had a network of potential customers from her two decades in Washington, including several years as a staffer on Capitol Hill. By the time her website went up, she had a list of 700 potential customers who received the email that day.
Buchholz snagged a big client, the Baker & McKenzie law firm, before she smelled her first rose. It contracted to get weekly arrangements for the common space in its office in downtown Washington.
When the website launched on a Thursday afternoon in late January 2012, it crashed from the heavy traffic.
That was a good omen.
By the third quarter of 2012, Buchholz was cash-neutral, having made enough money to recoup her $20,000 investment and cover the labor costs of the four part-timers she employed. The first year brought in $50,000 in revenue, also allowing her to write herself a four-figure paycheck at the end of the year.
By 2013, she was grossing $100,000, thanks to growth in corporate clients, apartment-building lobbies and “lots of weddings.” Three years later, revenue has doubled again.
The shift from the corporate life to entrepreneur took a toll.
“I felt frazzled,” Buchholz said. So she consulted a life coach, Maggie Mistal, author of “Making a Living With Maggie.”
Mistal advised Buchholz that if she was working hard and experiencing demand for her products, which she was, she should reward herself with higher prices. It’s called pricing power.
Buchholz immediately increased the base price of her arrangements from $50 to $65, which boosted 2015 revenue to three times what it was in 2012. Profit doubled compared with the first year.
“More importantly, the checks I was taking home were bigger,” she said. “In 2015 is when we saw the profitability and my monthly paychecks increase.”
By the end of that year, Buchholz also had a three-year sample size that allowed her to track the business more efficiently.
● Recurring revenue, the altar at which all businesses worship, accounted for more than a third of sales. Her smartest move may have been launching a men’s club, which puts flower purchases on automatic pilot for loved ones.
● The first three months of the year are the slowest, even with Valentine’s Day.
● Yelp, the crowdsourced review website, has a broad reach. Free Spirit Floral gets high ratings on Yelp, helping ensure an influx of out-of-town buyers.
Weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations are a quarter of revenue. Nearly 30 percent are one-time orders for anniversaries, birthdays and funerals.
She had grown up in North Dakota, the youngest of seven children of a farmer father and a mother who had a creative flair.
In high school, Buchholz exhibited a passion for flowers, helping relatives and wedding couples with their designs, even decorating churches.
She studied political science and history at North Dakota State University and moved to Washington in 1990 after working on political campaigns.
She worked for former U.S. senator Byron Dorgan before moving downtown to a lobbying and consulting firm, where she specialized in health care.
Her daughters are 10 and 13 now. And her husband, who retired from government after four years as a lawyer for the Energy Department, is in private practice.
It’s a pretty nice life, combining creativity, business, money and freedom all in one package.
Her dad died during Free Spirit’s first year, which put a damper on the success. But he got to see his daughter launch her business.
“My dad had the Midas touch,” Buchholz said. “I hope that has rubbed off on me.”
Her mom sure did.