They created the Uber of flower delivery. Then disaster struck. Could they find redemption?

155
They created the Uber of flower delivery. Then disaster struck. Could they find redemption?

UrbanStems courier Tyler Kelly in downtown Washington on Valentine’s Day. UrbanStems had a near meltdown on Valentine’s Day 2017 and made major operational changes to ensure a better experience this year. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post) It was around 3 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2017, when Ajay Kori and Jeff Sheely knew things were starting to go wrong. Three years earlier, the two college buddies — along with friends Jereme Holiman, Chetan Shenoy and Scott Simpson — had set out to upend the stodgy, low-tech world of flower delivery with a sleek, Silicon Valley-like competitor. They named their start-up UrbanStems and based it in downtown Washington. But that Valentine’s Day, it felt like it could all come crashing down. Hours before deliveries were supposed to begin, Kori, Sheely and several employees were still entombed in their building’s mailroom, clustered around a few tables, assembling bouquets and putting them in boxes. They’d never used such a small space for prep work on a Valentine’s Day before, and this year, the number of orders had nearly tripled compared with the previous year’s. Sheely recalls worrying about whether they would finish in time for deliveries. “At a certain point, it was like, ‘We are not gonna make it,’ ” he says. Hanging on to a sliver of optimism, they worked through the night. At sunrise, bouquets lined shelves in alphabetical order, by recipient. Each of UrbanStems’ bike couriers got a list of names and hunted for the corresponding flowers. But many couldn’t find their bouquets on the crowded shelves. Pickup turned into a slog. Starting so late on the day’s first set of deliveries triggered more delays. “That’s when we realized we’re going to have a cascading problem,” says Kori. Things eventually got so backed up that by the time couriers got to their destinations, offices were closed or recipients had gone home. Even customers in the same building as UrbanStems had late or missing orders. Customer furor came quickly. “How do you botch my order by not delivering on THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY EVER FOR FLOWER DELIVERY!!! How?!” one user tweeted. “Unhappy Wife!!!” said another. UrbanStems employees responded to as many people as possible. But by 7 p.m., the company’s social-media accounts had gone dark as Kori pulled four dozen of his employees from their computers to help the couriers in the loading dock. There, he tried to rally the troops. “We screwed up,” he said. They’d planned poorly, but “that being said, let’s go make every single customer’s day that we possibly can from here on out.” The team delivered bouquets until 1 a.m. “And the next morning, we started up again,” Kori says. They suspended new orders until they delivered the last of the valentine bouquets, with a full refund. Kori sent incensed customers a mea culpa with his cellphone number and an invitation to talk things over. He got more than 300 calls. UrbanStems co-founders Jeff Sheely, left, and Ajay Kori help deliver flowers on the Valentine’s Day […]