Blaine Harris, a lifelong entrepreneur and former commercial real estate developer, says he has positioned his latest venture, Speaking Roses International (www.speakingroses.com), to storm the market for every occasion, from nuptials to corporate promotions to funerals -- and, of course, Valentine's Day.
The technology used by Harris' company, for which he has secured international intellectual property protection, allows text and images to be printed on flower petalsand leaves. The process was developed by his partners, Rollie Walker and Rene Rodriguez, but Harris is the driving force in their 50-employee outfit based in Bountiful, Utah.
Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein recently spoke with Harris about how to recognize a great entrepreneurial opportunity, what roleoutsourcing has played in his success, and why small companies must use speedto beat the competition. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: How didSpeaking Roses get started, and how has the company grown?
A: My two partnerspatented this technologyback in September, 2001, and I came in as an investor and CEO in March, 2003. Since then, I've expanded the patents domestically and sewed up exclusive rights to the technology worldwide.
We've also licensed the technology to major players like Dole Fresh Flowers, which sells 50 million bouquets every year, and FTD. As soon as I saw this concept, I had no question about our ability to sell the product. It's just a matter of getting the right distribution channels.
We've done custom orders for the Kentucky Derby, the opening of the Clinton library, the inaugural Black Tie and Boots ball, and the Academy Awards nominees. Just the other day, we hada customer e-mail us theultrasound picture of her baby. Shehad us put it on a bouquet of roses that we sent to her husband serving in the military in Iraq to let him know he's going to be a daddy.
Q: How did you know this was a winning idea?
A:The way I evaluatea concept is by creating inmy mind a vision of the way it ought to be done in practical terms. Then I try torecruit people to the vision who have an ability to make ithappen. If you have an idea that people passionately grab onto as soon as they see it or hear about it, chances are you can direct it, because it's likely to grow and be successful. On the other hand, if you have to pound out an ideaand forcepeople to get into the concept, very likely it won't work out in the marketplace.
Q: Your business model involves licensing this technology and outsourcing many other functions. Why?
A: That concept dates back to my old days as a scoutmaster. When my three boys were growing up, I agreed to be their Boy Scout master wherever we were living, not only to give back to the community, but also so I could spend more time with my sons.
While I was doing that,I applied a principle: Never do anything myself that I could get one of the scouts to do. Not only did it keep the boys busy and out of my way,it taught them responsibility. I gave them direction and supervised, and then I had them do the taskand report back to me. They loved beingresponsible for a given task.
In business, I do the same thing. The patented technology wekeep in-house, but Ihave farmed out virtually everything else that we do. That meansflower growing, importing, wholesale and retail operations, refrigeration, pre-printing, and marketing. We contract with businesses that are leaders in their field, and our business represents incremental profit for them. They're already doing the job and probably doing it better than we could.
Q: You must have to negotiate a lot of contracts. What tips can you offer?
A: Ido all the negotiating myself, in person, because I like to know who I'm dealing with.If I have any concerns with someone's integrity, or I don't believe they will see things the way we do, I won't do the deal.
That said,everybody I've ever done business with has become a long-term friend of mine. I think that's because I alwaysseek a position of fairness when negotiating. You've got to walk in the moccasins of the other group and see what they have to get out of the deal, rather than trying to squeeze the last nickel out on your side of the table.
Q: How do approach relationships with your employees?
A: Ifind a way to mix my people around. When I make new hires, I move people around just like a football coach does. I want to watch them closely and move them toward jobs that use a greater part of their skill all the time.
Good people are a must, and we make an effort to keep them excitedto be here and motivated to make a contribution to what we're doing.We have a staff luncheon once a month, where we tell a few success stories and recognize the outstanding work they're doing.
That lets everybody see how their part of the pie fits into the total, and it gets them jazzed up whenthey hear their names announced. Another motivator was when we had our initial company valuation, we took about $1 million worth of stock andgave it to the 15 or 20 people we had hired at that time. All of them now have the capacity to become millionaires very quickly through ourstock-participation plans.
Q: You espouse the idea of moving quickly in business. Do you ever worry about moving so fast you'll make a false move?
A: No. My general philosophy is thatyou don't make mistakes in business,you makeadjustments. Sometimes, you make a lot of adjustments. You see, speed is one of the most powerful strategies of all time for a small company. Big companies move slowly, withlong-term staying power.
But a small company must be nimble and respond quickly to the bends and twists ofthe marketplace. Yourobjectshould be to build your business, not to build your business exactly as you've envisioned it. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues