Nothing says it like flowers.
"We got a visit from the FBI one time," Jim McCann, the founder and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com, told "Off the Cuff." "We'd sent a funeral piece to someone who wasn't yet dead—with a special message on the card. We learned that, some things, you should turn down."
They can afford to. With 30 million customers worldwide, the online florist and gift empire brought in more than $716 million in revenue in 2012.
In 1976, McCann was the night counselor at a group home for young men in New York. He did odd jobs to supplement the low pay. "Being an Irish Catholic kid from South Queens, it's a genetic requirement that I work in a bar," he said. One day, a man came into the bar (true story). He told McCann that he was selling the flower shop he owned. McCann bought it.
"I went into it with the idea that it was a fun business, in the sense that you work with people around nice occasions. It was inexpensive to get into," he recalled.
"Nobody had McDonald-ized the flower business. Nobody had grown a big company. I thought, 'Well, maybe there's a chance.'"
He bought more flower shops and in 1986 changed the company's name to the distinctive "1-800-Flowers." It was one of the first ventures to sell flowers over the phone and to adopt a mnemonic device as its name.
"A friend of mine told me many years ago that the best business ideas you've ever seen, the first time you heard about them, you almost laughed," McCann said. "Everyone told us it was a ridiculous idea. So that scared us. But it also gave us the push to go on."
The company took off. "Sounds laughable now, an 800 number," McCann said. "(But) we'd now disrupted and changed an industry by embracing a new technology."
His brother, Chris McCann, who's now the president of the company, encouraged him to stay ahead of the curve. "We always had our antenna up, looking for what was the next technology that was going to come along."
"We kept investing in the online world. But I will tell you, with our first website in 1992—it was a lonely place. No one knew you had a website, or cared," he said.
1-800-FLOWERS has been quick to embrace social media. McCann claims it helps the company retain the "intimacy" it had with its early clientele.
"We probably had 30 customers who really made our business. We would see them for a lot more reasons than they were coming in to buy flowers. They'd stop in and ask if someone could drop their dry cleaning off with us, they'd pick it up later. They'd stop by to make themselves a mocha coffee," McCann said. "All we're trying to do today by embracing Facebook and Twitter and any of the other social tools, we're just trying to mimic that relationship we had 30-plus years ago with the 30 customers that made all our business. Now, it's 30 million customers. But it's the same thing," he said.
Watch the "Off the Cuff" interview with Jim McCann for his thoughts on leadership, surviving the recession, and engaging the next generation of customers.