“If we can’t do that, what can we do?” says Cheryl Dawn Smith, HortyGirl founder and CEO. It’s a question she’s asked of her team, herself and her business, many times. It’s her way of pivoting, like she has done throughout her career, creating new ideas when her team is stuck and coming up with solutions when the road seems blocked.
HortyGirl is a horticultural design company that offers everyday and seasonal distinctive and elegant plant decor for the indoors. 35 years ago, Cheryl and her husband bought some property in Langley, British Columbia and she began gardening. Although she wasn’t in the horticulture industry at this point, this wasn’t the first time she had picked up a shovel and dug through soil.
“I was influenced in the garden area from both my grandmothers and my father. I would always rather be outside working in the garden with my dad than inside doing anything at all,” says Cheryl.
The irony that she now owns a successful company that is focused on the “indoors” and indoor décor is not lost on Cheryl. “HortyGirl is about bringing the best of the outdoors in,” she says with a laugh and a smile, “Being surrounded by beautiful plants rejuvenates and inspires us,” she adds.
Back to her home property; whenever Cheryl wasn’t working, she was gardening. Cheryl recalls it became apparent early on that “Everything we planted in the yard got eaten by rabbits, so it’s like oh okay, we’ve got to change this game.”
Out of necessity, she began putting her plants in pots and containers and found that those little plants that would have normally gotten lost in her garden, actually stood out much more in a pot. Cheryl also loved how the colours in her plants and flowers picked up on the colours in the pots and in doing so created something unique and beautiful. That’s how she became an avid container gardener and pretty soon she was surrounded by 50 plants in containers all around her home.
When Cheryl’s office manager job of 20 years at a car dealership began “sucking her soul” she decided to quit and grow in another direction. She visualized herself semi-retiring and working in a garden centre for the next phase of her life. And then she saw a sign – literally. While reading through a local paper, she saw that Kwantlen Polytechnic University was starting a Horticulture program and knew it was what she wanted to do.
In that program, her marketing teacher told her she had amazing ideas and the industry needed her. Upon graduating at the age of 40, Cheryl had arrived in the horticulture industry, exactly where she needed to be. However, working for other people, and trying to infuse new ideas and thinking; was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Cheryl decided, with the amazing support of her husband, to jump in and take the risks herself. This was the start of her entrepreneurial journey. She kicked off her start up in their garage, surrounded by her husband’s tools and her step-daughter’s furniture and using a mechanic’s workbench, Cheryl began creating her own potted plant designs to sell to floral outlets. Cheryl’s father kindly pitched in a few hours a day, and a recently retired friend also lent his hands. The family cat, Koner, kept Cheryl company into the wee hours as she worked alone to finish orders for delivery the next day. Cheryl recalls how she often talked to Koner saying “if only you had opposable thumbs. Koner would plant himself between me and the product I was making and I learned to work with long arms.”
Cheryl owes a big thank you to her first ever buyer, Christine, who was then working in the Floral Dept of a high end Vancouver grocer. Many of the original and unique HG concepts were inspired through this relationship.
Sometime later, Cheryl took a big leap of faith and invited the buyer from ‘The Bay’ to her hotel in Toronto during a gift show. The buyer loved her products and put them into local BC Bay stores; then eventually introduced her to the buyer at Home Outfitters; who put HortyGirl in all of the Mainland stores. The product performed very well and very soon the Home Outfitter buyers insisted that she expand to their 64 stores across Canada, all the way to Ontario. For the first time ever, Cheryl was shipping outside of her local region. “It was a really crazy time. We were then working out of a 1,400 sq ft new garage space with real employees. HortyGirl had squeezed out the normal things you would find in a garage and replaced that space with pallets of glass, plants, boxes, and people (some of which are still part of the HG team). We soon after shipped a large order to a US retail grocer and had to learn all the ins and outs of exporting. From the start it has always been about stretching yourself and inspiring others to follow you. We’ve now grown into a tight knit team working out of a commercial facility; shipping truckloads across Canada and the US servicing large and small grocery retail outlets.”
“You really can’t predict how big it’s going to get and how quickly,” says Cheryl. After the waiting, the buyers, the tradeshows, eventually, Cheryl reached 1 million dollars in sales – one of the most satisfying moments in her business. This was another catalyst for her. She had wanted to be in this business and now she knew she belonged here. When creating something from scratch, “there’s going to be self doubt, but you have to be super brave and move forward anyway.”
It wasn’t easy. The early growth spurts of her business were scary and intimidating, but Cheryl felt the fear and did it anyway. “What’s the worst that could happen?”, another question she often asks of herself, the business and her team.
You’re supposed to have bumps in the road, she explains. You’re supposed to launch your business before it’s ready and figure out what worked and what didn’t work and then relaunch again and again, she says, referring to one of her favourite books: The Art of The Start by Guy Kawasaki. “What was so important for me is that he said if your first launch goes smoothly, you’ve waited too long,” That’s why Cheryl wants to inspire people to feel the fear and do it anyway.
When she is asked about legacy Cheryl pauses and reflects. She thinks about the 89-year-old living in a care home, who has mobility issues calling the HortyGirl office to get advice on how best to keep her plant alive because it means so much to her. She thinks about the employees who tell her HortyGirl is the best place they’ve ever worked. She thinks about how she asks for help when she is unfamiliar with something and the relationships she’s cultivated as a result of that.
As HortyGirl founder, how Cheryl leads her employees with their personal development is to encourage them to stretch themselves and to make decisions without her, and to support them with a flexible benefit plan that allows them to invest in their own well being. How she separates all of the hats she wears as a leader to ensure she can lead to the best of her ability; all make up the different pieces of that legacy.
“When you talk about what my ideals are, it’s being in a positive environment while doing purposeful work, and believing in yourself ” Cheryl says. “If I inspired one person to believe in themselves more, that feels satisfying enough,”