Kiana Underwood

When did you discover your passion for flowers?

I have always enjoyed flowers. Growing up in Iran, my grandfather had lovely gardens at his home, and I spent a lot of time with him there. My mother also had a great appreciation for flowers and always kept fresh flowers in the home. While in my younger years I didn’t consider flowers a passion per se, my foundation of appreciation is certainly what led to flowers becoming a passion later in life. My true passion for flowers and floral design didn’t really get started until I was in my 30s, and my initial foray into design was arranging fresh flowers for my home – which was the starting point for Tulipina.

After pursuing your Master’s in International Relations, you worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. How did you decide to take the leap to become an entrepreneur?

To be honest, I wasn’t very fulfilled in my job after graduate school. I had dreams of traveling the world and true foreign diplomacy. Though interesting, working at a conservative think tank didn’t ignite any passion for the issues I was interested in. After becoming pregnant with my first child, I left Hoover and focused on being a mom – which occupied nearly all my waking moments, as my second and third child came along in quick succession. It wasn’t until my youngest child entered kindergarten that I really became aware of needing fulfillment beyond motherhood and, with the encouragement of my husband, Tulipina was born.

What do you believe is the most influential factor in Tulipina’s success?

It sounds rather cliché, but stubborn determination and hard work have been keys to success. Getting involved in and understanding social media early on was also very important, as it allowed me to rapidly reach a global audience – which wouldn’t have been easy in the pre-social media days. I had to make it on my own, as very few people are willing to give you a chance when you are starting out, and most would rather see you fail than succeed.

Speaking of social media, what is your best advice for creating and maintaining a strong presence?

Take great photographs of your work. There is almost nothing more important than this in today’s world of constant visual stimulation online and in social media. Invest in a good camera and a few lenses, and learn how to maximize your equipment to achieve the results that you want.

Photographs courtesy of @tulipinadesign

And best advice for building your personal brand?

I think the key for me has been developing a “signature” style – something that is associated with me, so that when people see an image of my work, they say “Oh, that’s Tulipina.” While my style has continued to evolve, I believe that having that “signature” has allowed me to build a unique brand around my art. The consistency of great floral photography has been key to establishing my brand, and developing a “signature style,” even through the design evolution.

You are based in San Francisco, but offer your services all over the country – and the world. What have you learned in running a business with a global presence?

Well, the logistics of business outside of your home country can be challenging. Most of my work internationally is with my floral design workshops, and coordinating a large-scale event with multiple vendors via email and other online methods is an exercise in both patience and diligence. Everything needs to be completely set and solid by the time I arrive, which is usually only a day or two beforehand, so there is little room for error in the planning process. That said, I have been fortunate to find wonderful people all over the world to assist with local logistics. Having a trusted “go-to” resource in the country you intend upon doing business in is a must.

What are your top 3 tips for entrepreneurs looking to expand their business abroad?

  1. Understand the local market demand. How might your pricing change?
  2. If you can, visit the country or countries you want to do business in. Developing on-the-ground relationships will be a massive benefit to logistics and coordination when you are back home doing the communication and planning online.
  3. Set aside your fear. Don’t get me wrong, much of what I do scares me initially, but I push the fear aside and plunge – as smartly as possible – forward. It is hard to do, and easy to get spun up about why something isn’t possible, but the reward of success makes it worthwhile.

You do a small number of high-end weddings each season. What is your strategy for understanding the customer so you can design uniquely to them?

My favorite clients are those who say, “My colors are xyz. I trust you to make it amazing.” We spend time with each client, mostly in casual conversation to get to truly know them. My husband works with me on the business side to coordinate with the wedding planners and clients on specifics, such as bridal party, guest count, installations, and so on, which leaves me free to focus on the creative side. Every wedding we do is a bespoke experience.

You offer online subscription design tutorials, plus a collection of group workshops. Tell us about those, and why you decided to expand to the educational side of things.

I started doing workshops a little over three years ago in response to people online asking how I did various things in my designs. I didn’t set out to make education a significant portion of the business, but the workshops have been well received and attended, with every class selling out in advance. I really go all out for workshops, with the best photographers in the business shooting editorial quality content at each one.

Last year, we decided to launch a subscription video series – not a typical formal instructional course – but more of a “day in the life of” type series where the viewers get to see me in my element creating real-world designs. We shoot and release two new videos each month. It’s a bit like Tulipina reality TV. I have found that I really enjoy teaching, and it has provided for some amazing experiences (and friendships) all over the world.

And how has the addition of those series impacted your business?

It’s been a solid revenue stream, which is great, but it’s also connected me with an audience that may not have the ability to travel to one of my group workshops. More than 50% of my subscribers are outside of the United States.

Is there a workshop experience you’ll always remember?

Moscow in September of 2015. This was my first international workshop, and Russia is not a country many Americans would choose as an initial foray into a new market. Moscow is a gorgeous city, full of history and beautiful architecture, and I knew it would be an amazing place to hold a class. Like most countries, the attitudes of the government don’t reflect the attitudes of the people, and I had a warm and engaging experience with an amazing group of creative designers – young women pushing the boundaries of traditional floral design from all over Russia. We captured some amazing shots around Moscow on day two of the class – including scenes at Red Square and Saint Basil’s cathedral. Once I came back from Russia, I knew that there was nowhere in the world that I couldn’t go.

Photograph courtesy of @tulipinadesign

How do you stay creative?

I play the piano, and I take breaks. I love to travel as a method of recharging, and spending time with my family. We recently bought a small farm in upstate New York, so we have been working on getting everything in shape there to grow more flowers than I am able to stuff into my small garden in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What are you most excited for in the years to come at Tulipina?

I am really excited about working on my farm in upstate New York, and being able to have space to grow unique varieties of flowers and experiment. I love destination weddings, and that has become a much larger part of my business, which I would love to continue to grow. I also have a book coming out next spring, “Color Me Floral,” which was really fun to create, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of the beautiful images come to life in print.

What does #EmbraceAmbition mean to you?

I consider myself a driven person and have worked hard to make Tulipina what it has become. I believe that there is a spark of creative genius in everyone, and yet many people don’t dig in and push themselves past the fear to get their talent out into the world. I would encourage those out there who are thinking about making a career change or taking up a creative hobby (or business) to set their fears aside and embrace their ambition. The upside is significant, and the downside is often far less onerous than people think.