Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Arden Nering's small-business strategy could almost be summarized in the e.e. cummings line "… and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." The strategy is that idyllic.
Ms. Nering spends the warmer seasons picking flower and grass seeds, often exotic varieties, from the wilds of the Alberta foothills.
Her nursery and mail-order business, Wild About Flowers, is part of a movement among nurseries specializing in indigenous plants, which are heartier and more suited to growing conditions in Alberta. Unlike imported species, they rarely need fertilizers or extra watering. The trend is meant to counter the destruction of native habitats.
From her rustic acreage, which lies 35 minutes southwest of Calgary, she and her husband Troy sell seeds and seed mixes, as well as flower and grass plugs that they grow themselves.
"We go out into natural spaces, backcountry roads, Crown land, private property by invitation, and we collect seed from these natural spaces," she said. "We've got quite a selection now of different species because there's so many to choose from.
"The idea is that these are really hearty landscape plants in a harsh environment," she said.
What keeps this kind of business small, however, is that picking and cultivating wildflower seeds and grasses is highly time-consuming. The bigger nurseries are more about satisfying the demand of retail customers and landscaping contracts.
Yet despite her business's small size, Ms. Nering serves a variety of customers. "We've sold to municipalities. We sell to the City of Calgary, the City of Edmonton. We sell to architects for green roofs," she says. "We sell to landscapers for big acreage projects or city lots."
They sell to plant collectors, too. "We carry over 100 species of wildflowers. I kind of have to rein myself in a little bit sometimes and think, you have enough."
The challenge for Ms. Nering, who has been in the business for a decade, is how to expand her nursery enough so that she can propagate more wildflowers and grasses herself. She would then spend less time searching the wilds, and she would be able to reduce her prices.
The risk, however, is that expanding the business may take it into a less specialized direction or make it more of a retail operation like other nurseries.
"It's not a simple thing. There's no book I can go to and tell me how to do this," she says.
"The opportunity is endless. We do a lot of plant hunting. That's the most fun, but that's not probably the bread and butter, right?"
The Challenge: How can Wild About Flowers expand without losing its focus?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Ken Wright, Wright Nurseries, which specializes in shrubs and tree seedlings, north of Calgary
Mr. Wright has a complementary, environmentally conscious business. Instead of wildflowers and grasses, he specializes in tree and shrub seeds and seedlings, which he sells wholesale to other nurseries.
He was once in the same position as Ms. Nering, growing his previous business, Bow Point Nursery in Calgary, which he has since sold. The difficulty with that nursery was that it grew and became a success. But its business – large landscape and reclamation projects built by cities, provincial highway departments and oil and gas companies – could be unpredictable.
Major contracts "sort of come and go," Mr. Wright said. "Governments change. Budgets change. They are hard to predict." Also, the bigger the corporation, the longer it takes them to pay, he says. "I don't know why. It's just their nature."
In response, Mr. Wright expanded Bow Point's retail side, which provided steadier revenue. But he resisted pushing the retail operation to the fullest potential because his true love was in the kind of specialized work Ms. Nering does – seed collecting and plant propagation. "We knew we could do better," he said.
So there's a risk, he said, in expanding a small business, which can take it away from its specialty and the owner's true business calling.
Ray Shaw, Knutson & Shaw Growers Ltd., Vulcan, Alta.
Mr. Shaw's operation is of the same environmental ilk as Wild About Flowers and Wright Nurseries, but his specialty is in native wetland plants. (All three nursery owners know each other and recommend the others to clients.)
Just as Ms. Nering is doing on her website, educating customers and selling the philosophy is as important as selling the plants and seeds. The bigger the business, the larger that extra effort becomes – but also the more that message will be heard.
The other major challenge in growing businesses like theirs, Mr. Shaw said, is the sheer unpredictability of nature.
When reclaiming a landscape naturally, without chemicals, there is no cookie-cutter conformity. Developers, city planners and landscape architects have to be open to different options. Sometimes certain plants simply won't grow under certain conditions, or at least not quite as planned.
"It's a matter of education," he said. "You talk to your client and say, 'Well, I can't supply this plant this year, because the seed set last year just wasn't there. But we have an option. We can do this or that.'"
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Look for big contracts
Major contracts with public-work departments and large corporations are enticing and can expand the business. Yet big organizations can also be slow to pay, making life difficult for a small business.
Study retail possibilities
Emphasizing retail operations can bring in steadier income. Yet doing so runs the risk of diverting the business toward the garden-variety tastes of retail customers, rather than more specialized products and niche markets.
Educate, educate, educate
Marketing highly specialized products can be as much about selling a philosophy as the product.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.