Dragons’ Den victor on his online marketplace for South African florists

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SA Florist, founded in 2012 by Nicholas Wallander, connects independent florists across South Africa on one e-commerce platform, allowing consumers to easily purchase flowers and bouquets online from their local florists.

Last year the online marketplace secured R3.6m (US$270,000) from Dragons’ Den SA, a TV series where budding entrepreneurs get three minutes to pitch their ideas to five business leaders. It was the largest investment secured during the show’s first series.

According to Wallander, his business helps smaller florists compete with the large brands with national catalogues online.

Distribution is managed by each independent florist, and there is no upfront or monthly fee required to list products on the marketplace. However, SA Florist does charge commission based on sales made through the platform. So far over 200 florists have listed their products on the site.

How we made it in Africa talks to Wallander about his entrepreneurial experience and getting his start-up off the ground.

What was the inspiration behind starting SA Florist?

My mom has been a florist my whole life and she used to work for one of these big, online, florist retailers… They use to operate on a decentralised model where they would actually use independent florists to execute their orders and my mom would do this for southern suburbs in Cape Town. But around 2011 they decided they wanted to centralise their distribution. They put up big warehouses all over the country and with very short notice told my mom that they were no longer going to use her to execute orders and were rather going to use their production line and factories to send out flowers. They left a bunch of independent florists around the country with a big hole in their balance sheet with little notice.

So my initial inspiration was to try find a way to fill that gap for my mom. We built [a platform] for her and then her florist friends approached us and asked if we could do the same for them, and that sort of snowballed from there. We now have just over 200 florists on our platform.

Give us your elevator pitch.

SA Florist brings the heart and soul experience that you would get from shopping at your neighbourhood florist to a world class e-commerce platform and state of the art technology.

How did you finance your start-up?

Totally bootstrapped.

Is this your first entrepreneurial venture?

Sort of. I have been involved in other businesses before, but this is the first one I have been involved in full-time.

I have also worked in the corporate environment for 18 years for MTN and Cell C mainly, and for Visa.

If you were given $1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

It would go into development resources. I mean we obviously have a long list of things that we would love to do and being able to achieve them is directly proportional to the resource capabilities we have. So definitely in resources and marketing. We are at the point now where we’re really comfortable with what we have developed, which is a really cool product and service. But what we really need now is scale. So it is all about getting the name and brand out there, and bringing more and more customers to the site.

What risks does your business face?

That’s a tough one. I suppose it is all about financing and whether you can scale quickly enough to extend your runway. Can the business reach that point of self-sustainability before your runway runs out?

As a start-up you are spending a lot more money than you are generating. You spend money on tech, developing cool things, and at the same time you have to acquire customers because you need to make profit at some point – money doesn’t last forever. So it is all about trying to make yourself a household brand and continue growing at 30% or 40% a month. That’s the trick to keep that growth on the plane that it is on.

So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

The most successful form of marketing is the growth we see in our organic traffic. I think that comes from a combination of word-of-mouth and also from delivering a satisfactory experience. The top level of our review rating is called ‘wow’ and 89% of our customers give us a ‘wow’ rating. And less than 1% of our customers give us a rating that is less than good. So we get a 99% satisfaction rating for the orders we do – and I think that does a lot in spreading the name and generating traffic.

Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

I guess it was receiving that funding on Dragons’ Den SA. It was amazing to see how five South African business icons saw value in what we were doing and gave us the investment they did – and all five of them as well. I think that is definitely something we will remember forever.

Tell us about the biggest mistake you have made and what you learnt from it.

I suppose trying to do everything. We have learnt it is much better to assess opportunities and focus on the ones that are going to deliver results than trying to sort of achieve everything that you have got in your head in a short space of time.

As a tech start-up, especially when you suddenly receive funding, you have got all these ideas in your head and the natural inclination, the human inclination, is to try and do it all; because now you have the funding potentially to do it. But I think it is actually about just being able to sit down and try and prioritise that long list of things that you wanted to achieve for a couple of years, and figuring out which are actually going to provide sustainable revenue streams for the business.