By Sharmila Ganapathy
Brenda James freely admits that her foray into entrepreneurism wasn’t by choice but by accident. “I’m an accidental entrepreneur. For the better part of a decade I was in the branding and communications line. I got to a point where I wanted a better quality of life. So when I left I resigned without a job and subsequently got a lot of calls for ‘comfortable’ jobs and I kept going for interviews and coming back from them not feeling happy,” she says.
While this was going on, a location opened up in her neighbourhood, catching her attention. “I thought I’d go see it. I was leaning towards flowers but I like a natural look in floristry and unfortunately the look and feel at the time here was always big bouquets but full off paper and plastic. So it was just not something that I enjoyed. So then I couldn’t help thinking that if I liked this, there should be a lot of other people out there who would share the same taste. So I thought why not give it a shot?” she explains.
Why flowers? “Most of my adult life was spent in PR [public relations]; I joined as an associate and, by the time I left, I was a recognised consultant. I really didn’t know much about the industry outside that. It’s just that when I left I didn’t feel drawn to stay back in the PR field. My journey in that industry was finished. I’ve always been creatively inclined and like working with my hands; as for flowers, it’s something I did for fun and for free, for friends. I was taught from an early age by my mother to work with arts and crafts.”
She adds: “There was no other florist in the neighbourhood and it was a growing neighbourhood, so a florist seemed timely. I made the decision then did it. I said yes first and then figured it out. Once an opportunity passes it’s never going to come by again so you need to seize that. I think it’s something any entrepreneur will tell you.”
That was five years ago. Today, the effervescent 37-year old is the founder and principal florista of Nook Flowers, a successful boutique floral and event design firm based in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur. Among Nook’s clients are a local airline, a hotel, financial service providers, institutions, property developers and event management companies.
“We have retail premises for people to walk in and buy flowers. I also work closely with event companies where I create thematic floral arrangements for their clients. As a floral designer you’re constantly coming up with different designs as part of event floristry,” she says, adding that she spends about 60% of her time on event floristry and 40% on the retail business depending on the time of the year. For example, during Christmas and Valentine’s, Nook hardly does any events because of the huge demand for flowers.
According to Brenda, the most enjoyable part of the business is the people—the customers. “I like to think that when you’re working with flowers, it’s softens people. Until now I ask the drivers how are the customers when they receive the flowers? I still want to know (their reactions).”
Even events, tiring and laborious as they are, are rewarding. “When you’re working with fresh flowers the stress factor is there, there could be various reasons you may not be able to land your hands on what you want—it could be the weather, could be problems importing flowers but at the end of the day the satisfaction is there, it’s very nice—then after that all you want to do is to just go home and sleep for a while!” she laughs.
She recalls her early days as an entrepreneur. “I started from zero and I had never owned a business before. Other than an inherent talent in the early days maybe I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. A month into the business I was ready to tear and toss my business plan—my idealism had gotten the better of me. Subsequently when I spoke to friends, they said it was the same thing. The thing is you get so excited about it, you don’t temper it with reality,” says Brenda.
What’s more, she opened her shop in 2008 when the financial crisis was going on. “Flowers were expendable, not a must-have. So in the early days, working with perishable stock that is not moving as fast as you wanted to move; stock is money. These were all challenges in the early days. You learn how to market yourself better. That’s when I drew on my PR background. You learn how to create better awareness of yourself and your business.”
During the early days of her business, the plucky Brenda used to bring flowers out of her shop in buckets and wave at people walking by. “I just continued to wave, people started waving back and slowly people started coming into the shop.” She also leveraged on her network of event management specialists. “When you’re a new business especially in a creative line such as this, people are not that sure so it was important to us that for every job we did, we exceeded expectations. And when that happened it gave clients confidence to want to use you. I was constantly pushing the bar on doing creative things. And social media was free, so there was nothing to stop me from putting up pictures because people notice your work through pictures,” she explains.
“We’ve never bought an ad,” Brenda says with a hint of pride in her voice. “I’m a through and through PR girl because word-of-mouth business is what works in my industry. About 80% of my business is through word of mouth. Every wedding I do is a referral from one bride to another. The fact that they go on to recommend you–I take that to heart.”
Today, a subject close to her heart is locally-grown flowers. “One of the most important propositions for me is pushing the local agenda. Malaysia has a wealth of floral offerings and this is underappreciated. Our first choice is to use local flowers. From day one I made it a point of explaining to customers this is what we offer, so over the last five years education has seeped in nicely. I want to push local flowers appreciation from a design perspective. I may not grow them, but I sure know how to “Zen” them,” she quips.
“I’m also really big on sustainability. One of the weddings I did was for a couple called Tracy and Laurent, I chatted with them about concept of doing a wedding based on zero wastage. They really liked it. I used to go down to the mamak shop at the corner to ask them for condensed milk cans—we presented the flowers in these cans. We used fake moss made from recycled bits of bark. The bride carried a bouquet of all local flowers. Guests had little plants for them to take home and grow. On the backs of the chairs we used old jam jars tied up with ribbon and stuffed with flowers. It is one of the happiest weddings I’ve ever done. The couple started off as customers and became friends—definitely one of the perks of the job,” Brenda enthuses.
She also believes in giving back to the community whenever possible. In the past Brenda has taught floral design to Myanmar refugees at a developmental centre in KL. Nook also supports a local community choir- The Choir of the Philharmonic Society of Selangor, where proceeds from the show go to various charities. “Whenever the choir has shows, I introduce the choir to my customers. Many customers have gone on to watch the shows. It lets me link things I love most—flowers and music.”
Her advice to someone starting out as an entrepreneur? “When we all prepare business plans we’re all very optimistic (laughs). Be prepared to chuck that out within the first few months of starting a business and come up with something a lot more realistic. You make a mistake, fine. Forgive yourself, but don’t make the same mistake again because that means you never learn from it. The hardest part of being an entrepreneur is keeping yourself motivated. That’s where your network of trusted family and friends will come into play. It’s really important, I feel very blessed in that sense. Always have that trusted circle you can fall back on. Things will always happen out of your control. You just have to learn and roll with the punches.”