From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Accidental Entrepreneur

If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.

Jeff Bezos

I’d like to tell you that I always planned to run my own business. I’d like to say that I knew at an early age that I would go to business school, make some great contacts and head out into the world with my business plan in pristine condition.

I’d like to tell you that, but it would not be true.

I’m what you would call an “accidental entrepreneur.” Not only did I not plan to be an entrepreneur, I don’t think I knew what the word meant when I was a young man. And I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know how to spell it.

My college degree is in psychology. During my school years I drove a cab and tended bar (a requirement of my Irish-American heritage). A friend of mine was working at a home for troubled boys, and he would stop by the bar occasionally on his way home. The more he told me about the group home, the more interested I became. In short order, I began a fourteen-year career in social work at St. John’s Home for Boys in Queens, New York.

I never completed graduate school, but those fourteen years were equal to my earning an MBA, and a lot more. I learned so much about people—and even more about myself—than I would have ever imagined possible.

In my early days as a social worker, I was not good at all. I quickly became so frustrated that I approached Brother Tom, who ran the home, and told him I was leaving. He refused to let me quit and worked with me to develop a plan for my job.

I had to learn how to be more proactive, how to come to the boys with an agenda and goals. Just as important, I had to stop treating them like a group. You can’t build a relationship with a group; you build relationships with people, with individuals.

Slowly I began to grow as a professional. But there was one kid I couldn’t reach, Norman, one of the tougher kids in the home. No matter how hard I tried, there was little I could do to build a relationship with him.

One day I was planting some tomato plants on one side of the group home, a hint of the florist to come. Norman came walking by and began to make fun of me, the tomatoes and anything else he could think of. The same thing happened for several days in a row. I worked, and Norman stopped by to give me a hard time.

Slowly the conversations began to change. We moved, gradually, from talking about how dumb I was for trying to make these tomatoes grow, to what we could do to make them grow.

Every day, Norman stopped by to help me with those tomato plants. We began to talk about sports, girls, school and whatever was going on in Norman’s life. The topics weren’t important, but the conversations sure were.

I had learned how to truly make contact, how to build a relationship. This lesson, this philosophy, is one that I carry with me to this day at 1-800-FLOWERS. Establish a relationship first, then do business.

The relationship is the transaction. You can use technology (and we certainly do) to extend your reach and increase the number of your contacts, but you still have to build the relationship. Without the relationship, you have nothing.

Here are a few other “semi-commandments,” as I called them in my book, Stop and Sell the Roses (Ballantine Books, 1998):

Waste your youth in higher pursuits. You don’t have to live, breathe and eat business from age five to be successful. My fourteen years at the St. John’s Home for Boys taught me a thousand lessons, including how to motivate others, set goals and manage crises. I wouldn’t trade my time as a social worker for anything, and it certainly played (and continues to play) a key role in the success of 1-800-FLOWERS.

Don’t go crazy about not getting an MBA. Although I wish I had attended the finest business schools in our country, I am living proof that other experiences can make you equally successful. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly wish I had gone to the Harvard Business School or any of the top schools. But, given the choice, I’d rather live a case study than read one.

Don’t try to know everything beforehand. If I had known everything about the flower business before I bought the first store, I never would have signed up. Sometimes you need to start down a road before you can see where it leads you. If you have a sense of entrepreneurship, take that first step.

Brand yourself. In an ever-changing world, the only constant you can control is YOU! Treat yourself like a brand, and remember consistency and credibility are your two greatest assets.

SOBs finish last. Given a choice, people will always choose to do business with individuals and companies who value them.

Cheap is cheap. It is said that the smart entrepreneur goes where the labor is cheapest. Wrong. Go where the labor is smartest. Remember, you get what you pay for.

Trust those family ties. We have great associates at all levels of our company. Some have been with us for a very long time, others for just a year or two. In today’s free-agent, deal-based world, though, only family is forever.

High margins aren’t always important. Forget margins. Are you giving customers the goods and services that they want, when they want them? Satisfy those requirements, and the margins will take care of themselves.

Get personal. I have heard it said that people who star in their own commercials have fools for talent. Possibly, but I appear in our ads to let people know that I am a real florist and that this is a family business. It all comes back to relationships. If you can find a way to establish them, you are ahead of the game. If it just so happens that a commercial is the way to do it, then do it.

Remember: the wheel was already invented. I consider myself to be a creative plagiarist. Creativity really is the ability to learn from others and to apply those lessons to new situations. In almost everything new that you attempt, someone has already done it, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Either way, there is a lesson to be learned.

* * *

One of my favorite things in life is to help things grow, from flowers to relationships to businesses. I hope that my story and words of encouragement will inspire you to grow.

Jim McCann

EPILOGUE: Jim McCann—founder, chairman, CEO and television spokesperson of 1-800-FLOWERS—has built an international business from a single Manhattan flower shop. After acquiring the 1-800-FLOWERS telephone number in 1986, McCann focused on creating a reliable brand name and instilling a sense of trust and convenience in an industry that previously had no leader. Today, 1-800-FLOWERS is one of the world’s leading gift retailers. And as his business grew, McCann pioneered its entry into other retail access channels, launching 1-800-FLOWERS. COM in 1995.

You can learn more about Jim McCann by reading one of his many books, available at major bookstores, or by visiting

Dahlynn McKowen

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