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Farmgirl Flowers CEO Christina Stembel normally sleeps just 4 hours per night

She explains how she tackles the Valentine’s Day rush, preps for live TV, and how she gets away with sleeping so little.

Farmgirl Flowers CEO Christina Stembel normally sleeps just 4 hours per night
[Photo: courtesy of Farmgirl Flowers]
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Since starting Farmgirl Flowers in 2010, Christina Stembel has sustained a seemingly superhuman work ethic. “You could set a clock by my schedule,” she says of the early days. Stembel would wake up at 3:30 a.m. every day to get to the flower market, then spend the rest of the day making arrangements, setting up deliveries, and fielding customer service inquiries; in the evenings, she made the rounds at networking events. “I was asleep [between] 12 and 1 a.m.,” she says, “only to be up again and back at it early the next morning.”

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A decade later, Stembel is supported by a team of more than 180 people, but her schedule is no less demanding. On most nights, she still only gets about four hours of shut-eye. As the CEO of a bootstrapped business—one she started with $49,000 in savings—Stembel has her hand in every department, from finance to marketing to operations. “We don’t have a C-suite at all,” she says. “I do seven or eight jobs—all the things that usually have a C-suite position.”

We got a closer look at Stembel’s ability to burn the midnight oil as part of Fast Company’s “Day On, Day Off” series, in which we ask inspiring founders, creatives, and business leaders to share the details of a day on the job and a day off the clock—if there is such a thing. We caught up with Stembel after a particularly hectic week, when her team was shipping out Valentine’s Day orders and gearing up for an appearance on the Today Show.

Day on:

2:11 a.m. I [send] my last email before falling asleep. Flowers don’t sleep, and as the CEO of a floral delivery company, neither do I. Or at least I don’t sleep the amount that most people would consider essential to function properly. When I do sleep more, I’m like, “Oh, that feels good. I should do that more often.” But I definitely believe in the power of habit. I’ve kind of honed the habit of not sleeping much, so my body can respond accordingly. It’s very normal for me now, but it’s not ideal. I probably sleep about 4.5 hours a night during the week, and then I try to get one weekend night where I can sleep seven or eight hours.

5:30 a.m. I wake up and make coffee. I usually have some beans on hand from Philz Coffee when I’m splurging, or Seattle’s Best Coffee when I’m running a tighter budget. I always, always add a little Coffee-Mate peppermint-flavored creamer.

Normally I only spend about 15 minutes getting ready. The first thing I do is turn on my hot rollers. Driving wherever I’m going with rollers in is a life hack I started back in high school. My team is very used to seeing me out in my car, taking my hot rollers out before I come in for the day; I’ll even stop and get gas with rollers in. Sometimes I’ll put makeup on. [But] with a spray tan and fake eyelashes, you never have to wear makeup and you still look good, unless you’re on TV.

6 a.m. I was on the no-email-in-the-morning train for a while, to help carve out a little space for myself. But lately that’s been next to impossible. So I’m in my inbox this morning, and I’m also checking in with my team. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are the two biggest holidays at Farmgirl. We like to call them our Superbowls. I’m texting my operations managers—who are at our San Francisco headquarters and have been there since 12 a.m.—and also part of my content and product team, who are in New York prepping for a live segment I’m doing tomorrow on the Today Show.

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I’m also trying to wrap up one of my least favorite things: packing. I was up late last night working through my own to-do list and inbox—and prepping last-minute things for the trip, like getting a stain out of the Brandon Maxwell dress that I’m planning to wear on air and didn’t have time to take the dry cleaners. That means I still have a fair bit of packing to do this morning.

At the top of my list? Remembering to pack a hair dryer. When we travel for work, my team and I usually stay at Airbnbs, mostly because hotels will look at you a little sideways when you roll up to the check-in desk with 20 boxes of flowers. Since I’ll be getting myself ready for the live segment tomorrow morning, I’m not taking any chances with the beauty tools at the Airbnb we booked in Brooklyn.

I’m also getting ready for one of the monthly chapter meetings with Young Presidents’ Organization. I almost didn’t join this group because even a one day commitment every month is a huge time commitment. And [this month’s meeting] always falls on the week of Valentine’s Day. It is incredibly difficult timing for me, but this group has been an invaluable resource for me as I’ve grown Farmgirl, so it’s worth the inconvenience.

[Photo: courtesy of Farmgirl Flowers]
7:15 a.m. I quickly pack my car and leave for Farmgirl headquarters. I lived [in the city] when I started the company, [but] I’ve since moved to El Granada, a small town right by Half Moon Bay. Being by the ocean recharges me, so I don’t mind the 45-minute commute each way every day. Usually I’ll listen to an audiobook or podcast. But today I’m driving in silence, prepping for the YPO forum and thinking about what else I need to do before getting on a plane.

8 a.m. I arrive at the Farmgirl office and check in with my ops team, after taking my hair rollers out in the parking lot. The YPO meeting is downtown, so I grab a Lyft. I also get a quick check-in from the team in New York. They’re on their way to NBC to drop off the flowers for the segment tomorrow.

9 a.m. YPO is a closed group, and all members uphold confidentiality, so while I can’t share what we talked about, I will say that, per the usual, it was a very productive forum. I [skip] the chapter meeting and lunch so I can get to the airport.

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1 p.m. There was more traffic than I was planning for, and I ended up having to take a call with my lawyers from the short-term parking lot at SFO. With the help of CLEAR, I’m through security quickly.

2 p.m. I do a quick check-in on Instagram and Facebook and scroll through some of the photos our recipients are posting to see how arrangements [look] when they arrive. Social is kind of a slippery slope on holidays; it’s easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole. Valentine’s Day, in particular, is hard for me. Most of the year, the majority of our customers are women buying for other women. For Valentine’s Day, this flips on its head, and for most men, the stakes feel really high. So if anything goes wrong, it can get hairy in the comments section. Flowers sitting on frozen porches all day is one of the biggest culprits this time of year. I have some incredible team members who handle the majority of this now, but I can’t help but look and address some of it myself during these busy times.

[Photo: courtesy of Farmgirl Flowers]
2:45 p.m. I board my plane. I’ve been flying a lot this year since we opened our new [distribution center] in Ecuador and am usually grateful to get an upgrade to at least Economy Plus or, if I’m really lucky, first class. But today I’m in economy. As a rule, I generally don’t buy the Wi-Fi on airplanes. I find it can be inconsistent and expensive, and I prefer to use the time to work on projects that usually get interrupted. So since I know I’m about to be offline for around five hours, I’m checking in with all the managers via text and working on emails.

I’m ready to run off the plane when it becomes apparent that I seem to be traveling with a few middle school’s worth of teenagers. My expected productivity starts to implode in front of me. I almost have a panic attack. I rely so heavily on that time to work [because] I rarely get five hours of uninterrupted time unless it’s a night or weekend. For the first few hours, I try and focus on the Farmgirl financial model for 2020. I’m incredibly late finishing this up, but with opening the new distribution center, I haven’t had the time to get it done. But I’m distracted by the rambunctious kids on the plane, and I finally call it quits three hours in and put Harriet on instead. It’s an incredible film.

11:15 p.m. ET I land at Newark and make my way to get my bags. I also realize I don’t have the Airbnb address for where we’re staying, and my team isn’t answering their cellphones. I have a few minutes of panic where [I picture] preparing myself for a live TV performance in a bathroom at Newark, when I get a text from one of my team members with the address.

12:30 a.m. My Lyft arrives at the Airbnb. We’re staying in a brownstone that we have to ourselves, but like most places in New York, it comes with a lot of stairs. I get my luggage up to the door and am greeted by the three members of my team who have been here preparing since last night. They’ve filled the kitchen with flowers and are ready to review the live segment I’ll be running tomorrow morning with Carson Daly and Craig Melvin on how to DIY Valentine’s Day arrangements using flowers from your local grocery store or floral shop. I only have four minutes to do three different types of bouquets, which is really stressful, and [I’m practicing] for the first time.

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After we go over the segment, we spend about an hour confirming outfits and chatting about how Valentine’s Day shipping is going and how terrible my flight was.

[Photo: TODAY/NateCongleton, courtesy of Farmgirl Flowers]
2:15 a.m. My team heads to bed, and I shower. That means less blow-drying in the morning. We have a car service coming at 6:05 a.m., and I need to [have my] hair and makeup ready. So I need to be up at 4:45 a.m. I tackle a few emails and go to sleep.

3:30 a.m. I get a text message alert that wakes me out of heavy sleep. The website is down. We’ve been working on increasing loads for the Today Show appearance for a few weeks. [A crash] at 3:30 a.m. ET just a few hours before we go live is a special kind of horrifying. I text our dev team. The site goes back online a few minutes later.

Day off:

10:15 a.m. Like I do with any “day off,” I didn’t set an alarm the night before when I got home and fell asleep. I slept about 10 hours and needed every single bit of it. I get up and go downstairs to do my usual coffee routine. I give myself about an hour of “downtime.” This probably looks a little different to me than it does to others. I [handled] a few nagging emails and then mostly returned personal texts that I had received over the week but hadn’t had a chance to reply to.

11:30 a.m. I jump into my inbox. I know there are a few I really need to get to. I plan on an hour or so and end up spending almost four [hours] catching up. I work seven days a week—probably eight to 10 hours a day on weekends. I’m just working on different things, like finance or growth strategy. It’s still work, but it’s different work. During the week, I’m usually in meetings. I call it my second shift on nights and weekends, when I can focus without the interruption of meetings.

Farmgirl pretty much is my life, so it doesn’t really feel like work because there is no separation between Christina Stembel and Farmgirl Flowers—which a lot of people will say is unhealthy. I understand that, but I have a different perspective. I think everybody makes choices about what they want to do in life, and this is the choice I’ve made. I do feel burnout sometimes. I’m human that way. But I don’t feel burnout in the bigger [sense]. I’m really grateful that I get to do what I want to do.

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I don’t expect anybody [on my team] to work the hours that I work, and I don’t want them to. If they’re working too many hours, either we need to hire somebody or become more efficient. I try not to email my team at night and on the weekends. I’ll schedule emails to arrive on Monday morning. I really try to do what I can to make sure they don’t feel an unnecessary obligation.

3:17 p.m. I call one of my most senior Farmgirl managers and do a two-hour download on the past week. This is the first major holiday I’ve ever been away on the busiest day of production, and I’m anxious to hear a full rundown of what went well and what didn’t. I’m definitely my own worst critic, but there were some bumps this holiday that I didn’t anticipate, so I take the phone call to heart. We always joke [at Farmgirl] that one day, we will be able to say we had a perfect holiday. We’re not there yet. This one went really well every day except one.

When we wrap up, I head to the one place I always go when I need to think—the beach. On weekends, I try to get in a long walk on the beach, which is my favorite thing to do. That’s my gift to myself.

5:15 p.m. I make the quick walk down to the beach from my house and spend an hour reflecting on the past week’s operational issues. Anytime you’re scaling up seven or eight times what a normal day is, there are going to be breakdowns. And Valentine’s Day is a quick turn to Mother’s Day—it feels like it’ll be here tomorrow. So it’s super important that we fix anything that happens on Valentine’s Day quickly before going into Mother’s Day, which is even bigger.

6:30 p.m. I make a plan for operations moving forward. I’ve always found that when I need to be more objective, making a list and putting pen to paper is the fastest way I can get there.

8:30 p.m. I hop back into customer service and spend the next four hours there. The team is working through a pretty big backlog, and I want to do my part to help them get through it. Customer service is probably the hardest thing for me after a holiday. There’s no way that you’re perfect on 30,000 orders. And I’m feeling a bit of burnout coming off a really hard week.

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1 a.m. I unplug from work and unwind one of my favorite ways. I have a full-fledged addiction to the designer consignment site The RealReal. They were having a sale, so I took advantage. I found a pair of Chloe boots in my size that I’ve been in love with for what feels like forever and, thanks to the sale, pulled the trigger. After a week like this, it didn’t take much to convince myself that I deserved it. Online shopping is definitely my personal definition of self-care. After some much needed retail therapy, I go to bed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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