Monday Morning Flower and Balloon Company today is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week business with locations in Princeton and Yardley. But when Georgianne Vinicombe started the business more than 25 years ago, the name “Monday Morning Flower Company” was an exact description of the business. She got it from a book about how to work from home.

“I found a listing for a business that was a ‘Monday Flower Delivery,’” she says in an E-mail exchange. “Flowers by subscription delivered each Monday. Being the creative person I was (not) I just called my business Monday Morning Flower Co. I delivered flowers on Mondays only to small offices that wanted them for their lobbies — the business that full-service florists really might not have wanted because they were small bud vases and inexpensive.”

The Monday morning delivery was the thin end of a wedge that Vinicombe used to pry open the larger flower delivery business. Over her career, Vinicombe has excelled at finding such under-served niches and making them profitable.

Before founding Monday Morning Flower Company (www.sendingsmiles.com), she was the owner of Mrs. V’s Cleaning Service. Newly married and looking for a job she could do while going to college, Vinicombe again found business where the big players ignored it. “I specialized in small apartments that larger services did not want to handle,” she wrote. “I had 65 accounts and had one full-time and one part-time employee. I had caught the small business bug. I also got a kick out of people expecting ‘Mrs. V’ to be an older woman when they met me. I was 23 at the time.”

If Vinicombe has a knack for drumming up customers, it’s because her true passion isn’t for flower arrangement; it’s for business, and the lessons she has learned over the last 25 years apply to any enterprise.

Vinicombe, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s business Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012, will share her secrets with the the Princeton LEEEP Entrepreneurial Roundtable, the chamber’s young professionals group, on Monday, April 8, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at McCarter Theater. A $25 fee for the event includes a box lunch. For information call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Vinicombe grew up in Howell. Her father was the manager of a cookie factory, and her mother set up tables at flea markets. Neither particularly steered her toward a career as a business owner; that was a passion she discovered for herself.

After high school she began studying for her associate’s degrees in management and small business management and cleaned houses on the side for money. Despite her success in that field, she didn’t want to make it her career.

“I knew that I could not clean houses for long. It’s exhausting, hard work and hard to find employees. It also did not take much marketing skills (my passion) because we always had more customers than we could handle. I realized that I might want to do something a bit more mentally demanding,” she wrote.

With all her education being in business, Vinicombe had to teach herself how to arrange flowers. “Early on, I learned floral design and balloon decorating by using videos,” she wrote. “I was in business almost 10 years before I took my first floral design class. Needless to say, this was not a smart way to start.”

She hired a professional florist as soon as she could afford it. Fortunately for Vinicombe, Monday Morning Flower Company was also a hit. She rented a shop on Nassau Street in Princeton and in 1999 moved to her current location at 111 Main Street in Forrestal Village. She also opened a second location in Yardley in 1998. Today the business delivers flowers, balloons, fruit, gift baskets, and even teddy bears to customers throughout the region.

Vinicombe runs the business together with her husband, Kevin, who is the general manager. She says Kevin, who has an MBA from Rider University, is also the “most overqualified accountant of any florist around.” She and Kevin have been able to “get away from the business together a couple times a year” but even then there could be a business item on the intinerary. “We often visit florists and flower farms. For example this past August, we spent eight days in Southern California where we had private tours of a Gerbera Daisy Greenhouse operation and two other flower farms.”

Vinicombe says that if she could give one piece of advice to people just starting out in business, it would be not to give up easily. But also, not to start off thinking it will be easy.

“Don’t expect to make a lot of money and expect to work a lot,” she says. “If you go into business and those things don’t apply consider yourself the exception to the rule. Go into business because you can’t imagine not doing it.”

#b#Consistency: Vinicombe is Lovin’ It#/b#

A few years ago a friend overheard one of my new competitors call my shop the “McDonald’s of the floral industry.” Now I love my Mickey D’s as much as the next guy (probably more), but the epithet hurt. My reaction was defensive: How dare they? They don’t know me — or my shop. I stewed for months. I could barely spot the Golden Arches without getting upset. Anyone who’s met me knows how passionate I am about this industry and would understand why the comparison made me feel cheap.

My McDonald’s moment, however, took on a new shine recently. During a local floral association meeting, the president lectured about the good, the bad and the ugly. He talked about the damage florists inflict on our own industry. He said we often don’t treat our flower shops like businesses and, consequently, fail our customers. In fact, we treat them so poorly that we lose their trust.

Our major shortcoming? Not being consistent, that’s what. We slack at replicating the same quality day in and day out.

As I was sitting there, nodding my head in agreement, his next statement almost knocked me to the floor. He said that when consumers go to McDonald’s, they expect to get the same quality product each and every time. Say what you want about the caliber of McDonald’s food, but one thing is for certain: A bleary-eyed traveler can pull off the interstate in Texas, order a Big Mac and devour the same sandwich he’d get at his local McDonald’s. But when a customer orders from a florist, even one she’s used before, she can’t be sure what she’ll get. That uncertainty breeds mistrust. And who would let someone they don’t trust design an expression for an important occasion?

I know how hard it is to create a culture of consistency. I had an employee who fought my decision to put our dish gardens in a signature cellophane wrap, affixed with our gold label. Sometimes she wrapped them, sometimes she didn’t. When I reminded her to wrap, she thought I was being rigid and didn’t hesitate to tell me as much! I explained that it creates a look our customers rely upon. If they ordered an arrangement once for their aunt and she loved it, they could trust our shop to send something similar that gets the same reaction.

Now, I can already hear the anti-cookie cutter cries. I value the art of creativity, but when creativity confuses the customer, it ceases to be an asset. I understand that, as designers, we hate following recipes. We long for that “designer’s choice” order to give us our stage, our canvas, our chance to show the art in our craft. But the truth is, people want to know what they are getting. When people complain about a bad experience with flowers, their most frequent gripe is: I didn’t get what I asked for.

Look, customers no longer assume you’ll get it right. They’ve watched their retirement savings vanish, their cars get recalled and their in-flight snacks disappear. Every single return on investment counts. If they spend $49.95 on a get-well arrangement, you’d better not attach a birthday balloon to it. It’s like ordering fish and getting the beef — and then having the waiter say, “Well, it’s of equal or greater value, so what’s the problem?”

Now, I take that McDonald’s comparison as a compliment. It means my customers rely on me. Customers crave consistency and we need to deliver. Look at it this way, after a few steadily good experiences with our shops, they just might say, “You did such a nice job on my last order, I trust your judgment.” But you must earn that free reign first — even if it means following a recipe in the footsteps of Ronald McDonald.

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