Interviewed by Kevin O’Neill
Q&A with Jim McCann
Jim McCann, founder and executive chairman of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc., is a successful entrepreneur, business leader, author, media personality, and philanthropist. His belief in the universal need for social connections led him to found 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc., which today is one of the world’s leading providers of floral and gourmet food gifts.
Jim's career trajectory is absolutely fascinating. He went from fetching bagels and coffee for his father's painting crew to tending bar to running a $1 billion retail powerhouse that he nurtured from a single flower shop. His willingness to embrace new technology — including 800-numbers, the internet, e-commerce, and social media — ahead of his competition has enabled his company to thrive and remain profitable for more than 40 years.
Jim has learned countless lessons about life and entrepreneurship along the way. We leave you with a few of his most valuable takeaways (and incredible stories!) below, and we hope you take them to heart as you set out on your own growth journey.
Hard work is worth it
Jim: I grew up in a blue-collar community in Queens, New York, that was full of hard-working folks. I was the oldest of five children, and my dad ran a painting business. My parents taught me the value of working, and they instilled in me the concept "old enough to walk, old enough to work."
I helped my dad and his painting crew on job sites all over Brooklyn and Queens. I learned that I actually enjoyed working, and I loved being around the crew in the morning when they gathered in the boardroom — our kitchen table — to drink coffee and share stories. The work was brutal, but the rest was fun.
Even though I was paid less than the crew, I learned that I could put in the same work — and be equally valuable. My father was paying me $10 a day instead of paying a typical worker $50 for the same job. It felt noble that I could contribute to the family’s success while saving my dad money.
I remember one morning we were painting a high school in Brooklyn, and I went to the local deli to get coffee and bagels for the crew. As I was walking to the deli, I saw this guy about my age who was working at a men’s clothing store. He was wearing a beautiful shirt, nice slacks, and dress shoes, and I looked like heck. I aspired to someday be the sort of guy who shows up at 9:30 a.m. in his beautiful outfit to get ready for a day of work. Fast forward a few years, and I was working in a clothing store in Queens.
I loved the camaraderie of working in retail. One of my customers worked at St. John’s Home for Boys, which is a group home for teenage boys. I always asked him about it, so he eventually invited me over to visit. When I told him I was interested in his work, he tossed me his keys and told me I was on duty that night. You truly never know when an opportunity might present itself.
I spent 14 years there, and it had a profound impact on me personally and professionally. I loved the challenges of that job — I was admittedly terrible at the start — but I quickly began to figure out the job by observing the people around me. While I came to work reacting to whatever situations unfolded each day, I noticed that the most successful people came into work with a plan. When you have a plan, you have an opportunity to influence what’s going to happen instead of just reacting.
When I got married and started a family, it was hard to make ends meet on a social worker's salary. In addition to working at St. John’s, I always had side jobs: tending bar, covering odd shifts at the clothing store, and flipping houses. I’d buy a building in a tough neighborhood, fix it up using the skills I developed while working for my father, and sell it for a profit.
A customer in the bar one night told me he was thinking about selling his flower shop across the street for $10,000. Coincidentally, I had just sold a building in Brooklyn for a $10,000 profit. I tried working in the shop a few times to see what it was like, and really enjoyed myself. I liked the social aspect of the flower shop, and this pivotal purchase marked the start of my career in the flower industry.
I started to build the business, buying additional locations when I could. Working with kids in the group home taught me how to motivate people and get them to work together, and I was able to use those skills to grow my flower business. It’s all about helping people achieve things and finding ways to keep score. Leaders must celebrate their victories, laugh at their mistakes, and keep it all fun. In truth, I still use that same tool kit today.
Inspiration is all around you
Jim: I always knew I wanted to build my business, and I've always been naturally curious. I looked at other industries for inspiration, which led me to wonder why there wasn't a McDonald's in the flower industry.
We kept opening stores and eventually franchised, borrowing ideas from anywhere and everywhere to create the best flower and gift company possible. For instance, we mimicked the Dunkin' Donuts punch card strategy by offering free flowers after a certain number of purchases. I didn’t need to have brilliant ideas — I could look at other places and figure out ways to adapt the concept to work in our category.
We were also early to embrace new technologies. We were the first company to use a telephone number as our business name. We launched our first website back in 1992, when hardly anyone had internet access. We also were the first company on AOL to conduct any sort of online transaction.
We rode the wave of momentum when the internet exploded, and we've been part of the current wave of social and mobile transactions. To me, the next wave coming is conversational commerce — using voice technology, AI, and digital assistants to make purchases.
Succeeding as an entrepreneur
Jim: Building a business from humble roots isn't easy. As I look back on my career, an obstacle I frequently faced was a lack of knowledge because I had no formal business training.
Entrepreneurs are celebrated in today’s business environment, but that wasn't always the case. Early in my career, I didn’t even know what the word “entrepreneur” meant. I started a business because I didn’t think I was smart enough to get into the best schools or capable enough to get hired by the big brand-name firms.
If you’re thinking about starting a business, get the right education and learn as much as you can about the business world. Working in a business can tell you a lot about an industry, and a job in a small business provides a wealth of experiences. Every experience you have, whether it's at work or school, is part of your education. Once you have that education, you can then lean on your "drive" to execute your vision.
Another crucial tool for any entrepreneur is relationships. When Ernst & Young named me Entrepreneur of the Year in 1991, it opened up all sorts of business relationships and long-term friendships that have paid dividends over the years. Once I gained access to this network of entrepreneurs, I was able to rub shoulders with these unbelievable business minds and learn from them.
As part of this experience, I learned a particularly valuable lesson about the power of community. Up to this point, I severed ties with people who worked for my company and then left. Working with these leaders helped me realize the power of a large network. People aren’t always going to be with your organization, but it's valuable to stay in touch with these former employees as long as they handle themselves professionally and leave on good terms. Connections matter, and keeping these relationships allowed us to build a thriving alumni network.
Founders must also find ways to take advantage of technology. Staying on top of the latest technology might seem tricky on the surface, but you can often spot trends if you pay attention. People have been talking about artificial intelligence for about five or six years now, so it's not exactly a surprise that it's beginning to impact the business world. To grow a business, be attentive, be brave, and be smart about investing in new developments.
Perhaps most importantly, find ways to learn from your mistakes. You can't let the fear of making a mistake paralyze you. Celebrate your failures, make light of any errors, and get over your mistakes in a hurry. Successful entrepreneurs make plenty of mistakes — probably more than anyone else — but they recover and learn from them quickly.
Unleashing others' potential
Jim: Truly brilliant people at work are mission-driven, hard-working, and fun to be around. They have a lot of integrity, and everyone knows they can trust them to follow through on their promises.
To build a brilliant team, business leaders must look beyond résumés. There have been countless times that we’ve been wowed by an impressive résumé but had reservations about an applicant's personality. Without fail, we realize a few months later that we ignored our instincts and hired a résumé instead of a person. You can't ignore culture fit and gut instinct when recruiting.
I don't know that there's any single quality that all great hires share. Some people are doers, and others are brilliant strategically but unable to get anything done.
It's essential to allow everyone to do the things they are great at — including yourself. You can't personally do everything, so you must focus on the things you are uniquely capable of doing. You should delegate everything else to the rest of your team. When you let other people pitch in to help your team, you are then liberated to focus on growing the business.
After you've assembled the right team, it's time to find ways to inspire people to perform at their best. For example, it was often challenging to motivate the boys when I worked at St. John's. We were watching a Mets game one night, and they asked me whether I enjoyed camping. I told them I loved it — even though I’d never been camping before in my life. They asked me to take them camping upstate some weekend, but I told them they’d have to find a way to pay me for my time because I didn’t usually work on weekends.
I decided they could pay me by recording perfect attendance at school for the next two weeks. Two boys — giant kids who were on the football team — who were particularly interested in this camping trip made a chart and found creative ways to motivate their peers to go to school. And it worked. My lesson? You have to find different kinds of currencies and leverage points to motivate your team members.
Learn from others
Jim: Inspiration can come from anywhere. I have drawn a lot of inspiration from Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, who has led an incredible life. Ken is the son of a plumber and a cafeteria worker, and his family often lived paycheck to paycheck when he grew up. To put himself through college at Bucknell University, Ken dug ditches for the Long Island Expressway.
I've worked with Ken over the past several years, and he's a fascinating guy. We once ended up caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic together for more than two hours. That might sound excruciating, but it was an excellent opportunity for me to see how Ken worked. I was able to listen to him take calls, bark orders, help someone get a specialist doctor that they needed at the hospital, cajole someone to step up to the plate for a big fundraising effort, and so much more. It was an absolute circus, but every minute I spent with him taught me something.
People from all walks of life demonstrate their brilliance daily. For instance, a woman named Faye worked in our service center for more than 30 years. One day, I remember she asked for a metal refrigerator door for an undisclosed reason. We sent a team to the local junkyard to find a door, and she had them hang the door on a wall of the office.
Why did she go through so much trouble for a seemingly odd piece of office decor? She wanted to use the door to highlight the great things our team members did. She hung up their "work" on the refrigerator door just like a parent does with a child's homework. It made things fun, and it had a positive effect on everyone's performance.
Defining brilliance with Jim
|Purpose is…||knowing what you want, knowing what you're interested in, knowing what you can do, and getting it done.|
|Leadership is…||knowing where you want to take an organization, knowing what tools you have, knowing what tools you don't have (and how to get them), and making it happen.|
|Brilliant leaders are…||doers who understand they're not going to get there on their own. They know that they need other people to get where they want to go.|
|Success is…||knowing what you want, knowing that it is going to change all the time, and knowing that you'll never really get there because life is a journey.|
|I perform at my best…||with a group of people I like and trust, who are hard-working and fun to be around.|
Never miss insights
Stay in the know with our thought leadership
How to Foster Epic CEO Performance in a Private Equity Ecosystem – 2021 PEI Operating Partners Forum Recap
Jan 14, 2022
ESG, the Ultimate Purpose Playbook for Private Equity
Aug 30, 2021
Dr. Drew: Caring Makes for Better Leaders and Better Living
Aug 26, 2021