Business in Bloom: James Francois-Pijuan on the Art (And Commerce) of Floral Design

When James Francois-Pijuan began designing floral arrangements, it wasn’t to make money — it was to get a girl. Formally trained as a sculptor and painter, James worked as a bellhop at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, where he would reclaim flowers from the ballroom and use them to woo his future wife, Corrine.

After practicing his craft at home, James launched his own floral arrangement company in 1998; his first clients were the catering companies that used to employ him as a waiter. From those humble beginnings, James built his Francois Pijuan Floral Design operation into one of the most sought-after floral design and event décor businesses in a highly competitive city, with prestigious clients ranging from the United Nations and Cipriani to celebrity couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen.

In this exclusive Bootstrapper interview, James Francois-Pijuan shares his secrets for turning an artistic passion into a profitable business.

How long did you study floral design before starting your business?

I didn’t have any schooling in floral design at all. I graduated college with a background in art, and I wound up becoming a waiter for about eight different catering companies. I started noticing the flowers. I eventually took home the arrangements and created a portfolio on my own.

It’s really difficult to get people to show you the ropes in New York, because no one wants any competition. So I took it upon myself, and started showing my portfolio to my catering managers. Eventually, they gave me a shot. From there I did gig after gig, and my clients got bigger and bigger.

Where did your initial startup capital come from?

I didn’t really have capital to start off with. I was running the business from my apartment on the Lower East Side. My wife said, “No, we can’t do this anymore, James,” so I eventually had to rent a space. In order to rent the space, I needed steady clients. Once I started getting big parties and steady clients, I had the income to rent my space and to hire people if I needed to.

The beginning was difficult, because you’re so desperate to get your name out there. You want to say to the world, “Here I am.” So you wind up spending money and going to these bridal or event shows. If you’re not careful, it can sink you into debt.

At first, I spent a portion of my revenue advertising in bridal magazines. After several years of feeling that I was throwing my money to the wind, I realized that the best clients I got were through word of mouth and through relationships with my clients. As you get closer to the top, or closer to the clients who are going to pay you well, they don’t turn to magazines and stuff like that — it’s all word of mouth. Once I understood that, I was able to strategically build my relationships.

How many years did it take for you to get to that point, from having to buy advertising in magazines to having enough clients to generate the word of mouth for you?

It took six to 10 years. I’m serious. Once I realized the importance of word of mouth, I started to speak to other event planners to find out how they did it. One event planner was very successful; he flies all over the world doing events. He told me, “Listen, James, as close as you get to the top, the more spotlights are on you, and you cannot afford to make mistakes.” I took his word. At every event I was doing, I treated it as if it were an Olympic moment. His advice helped me tremendously.

You really have to know who you’re developing a relationship with, especially in New York. People will try to take advantage of you, so you have to be careful. When you build relationships with clients, you have to build a level ground of trust with them — they understand where you’re coming from, and you understand where they’re coming from.

I had to turn down some clients because there was no respect of boundaries, and I didn’t feel that I wanted my label to be jeopardized. There comes a time when you have to make those decisions, and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it will cost you. But in the long run, you’re saving money, you’re saving your sanity and you have peace.

As an artist, did you struggle with the financial aspects of being a business owner? How did you overcome that?

I had to simplify everything for myself. Artists are very lucid in their thinking. I had to be practical and simplistic in my finances, and understand that if I don’t have a party I don’t buy anything. If someone comes with the latest thing that would make it easier, I would wait until I had extra income to pay for it. Whatever I do, I try to make sure that it’s tax-deductible. I try not to go beyond my means.

[The bridal shows] would tell me, you’ve got to come, you’re going to meet lots of rich girls and they’re going to give you weddings, and all these event planners will come and see your work. And all you have to do is spend $5,000 on this table to show your stuff off, blow three grand on business cards and pamphlets and blah blah blah. The reality was, after doing that several times, I never made my money back like I thought I would.

You have to be confident in yourself. You have to stay focused regardless of what’s going around you. You can’t deviate from your mission. Don’t allow fear to rule you.

It sounds like that’s what being a lean and mean business is to you.

That’s right — lean and mean. I’ll give you a small example: Instead of hiring drivers to transport my arrangements, either I drive it myself or I walk it. Ninety percent of the time, I can walk it. I can burn calories and pounds and be fit, and I’m saving money. I still charge my clients for delivery, but I’m not spending. I saved close to $15,000 to $20,000 in deliveries that I would have paid to someone else. That money can go towards something I need instead of going into someone else’s pocket.

People will hire you for what you do, not for what you have. If you’re confident in what you do and people see it, they don’t care if you live in a shoe box. If you need to share space until you can do it on your own, fine, do it. If you don’t need an office and you could get by with a virtual office, do it. As long as you can provide and execute and make clients happy, they will refer you and you will get more business. Their word will go all over the place.

How do you approach negotiating with your suppliers and your vendors?

I approach them very honestly. My vendors who I purchase products from know that some of my clients don’t pay me right away, because they’re in the corporate schedule. Sometimes it’s 60 days, sometimes it even becomes 90 days. Once you build up relationships with your vendors and suppliers, and they all realize that you’re a man of your word and that it’s going to get done, there’s not a big issue there. There has to be mutual respect.

How much does your company grow year over year? What are your plans for the future?

I’m approaching the future very cautiously, and my plan is to grow slowly. I try to make sure that I’m not being greedy with what I earn, and that my company is able to sustain itself. I’m trying to invest my income where if I need to liquidate my money I can do that without worrying about sinking all over the place like in stocks and mutual funds. Since I work with floral, I’ll take the money that my company makes and invest it into something like a floral farm, which will be a separate company.

Do you have financial advice for other floral design entrepreneurs like yourself?

Don’t rely on fantasy. It doesn’t work. Be really practical with your business. Care for it like an infant. Look after it. Take care of it. You wouldn’t want to jeopardize what you have for the sake of your dream. When I started in 1998 I had big dreams and visions. Along the way, it changed. Eventually, I got to where I wanted to be, but it took time. Right now, I don’t have any debt. I think that if you can remain debt free, you should. There’s a freedom to being debt free. You can go to sleep and wake up happy. If you have debt because of mistakes you made or bad investments, it’s going to haunt you. It can affect your relationships. It can affect you personally.

For example, a lot of [event] designers will see these cool vases and think, “Oh, I’ve got to get these vases. Maybe I can use them for the next event.” No, no, no, no, no. Until you get the cash to pay for something, don’t get it. If you have a lot of stuff in storage, that’s a problem. I sold 50% of all the stock I had because I realized it was just sitting there collecting dust. I was able to sell it to other designers through a website I created, UsedEventStuff. A lot of designers accumulate stuff like squirrels and they have giant storage facilities full of things they hope they’re going to use again, and they’re paying maybe $3,000 or $4,000 a month to keep stuff they don’t need. So don’t bite off more than you can chew, and don’t think that the more stuff you have, the better your events will be. It’s not true.

Follow James Francois-Pijuan on Twitter and Facebook, and visit his official website francois-pijuan.com to see more of his floral design work.