Sills Operations Research and Financial Engineering
Jonathan Sills ’96
Senior Vice President, ProFlowers.com
A broad foundation
I went to Princeton because I wanted to study engineering but didn’t want to be an engineer. While I did well in science and math in high school, my interests were broader than that. I didn’t want to feel pigeon-holed, or exposed only to faculty who thought about the application of their disciplines within the discipline itself.
After a fantastic introductory statistics class I decided to focus on operations research. The engineering and management systems program in the Department of Civil Engineering and Operations Research (now called ORFE) taught quantitative methods that could be applied to problems outside of science and engineering. Most of my technical course work centered around statistics and how to think about and model complex systems.
I also enrolled for a certificate in the Woodrow Wilson School, which to me seemed analogous to what I was doing within engineering but inside the realm of social sciences. I used regression models to examine attitudes toward immigration. A partner and I wrote a business plan focused on using satellite technology to improve the transmission of auto traffic information. My thesis explored the implications of and attitudes toward manipulating images and other media. All these projects included close personal interaction with professors. I still had a chance to enroll in other classes that interested me, like art history.
Engaging the new economy
After graduation, I went to Oxford and earned a master’s degree in the history of science, which allowed me to explore technology from yet another perspective. I was very excited about Internet technologies and the new business models they enabled. In San Francisco I did a tour of duty in management consulting and wrote an article on mathematics and sports for ESPN.com over the weekends.
Today I work in San Diego at ProFlowers, an e-commerce company. ProFlowers ships flowers direct from the grower so they are fresher and less expensive than the flowers you’d traditionally get from a florist. We use the Internet not just to sell online but to connect buyers directly with flower growers around the world. When I joined the company in 1999 we had about 10 employees, 50,000 customers, and $3 million in annual revenues. Today we have about 300 employees, over 6 million customers, and nearly $300 million in annual revenues.
My job continues to reflect my diverse interests. In addition to various strategy and growth initiatives, I’m responsible for our website, our creative services group, merchandising, and brand marketing—a team of about 35 people.
Employing a diverse skill set
The company is filled with individuals from all backgrounds, most of whom never envisioned working for a flower company. Since we take the vast majority of our orders online, we capture a wealth of information about our transactions, which provides a fertile ground for applying the techniques I learned at Princeton. For example, one of the projects I did at school involved multivariate testing—the simultaneous variation and testing of variables to optimize their values. In direct marketing the traditional paradigm is called “A/B testing,” which involves only two variables, and multivariate testing is like A/B testing on steroids. We use this technique to optimize the percentage of home page visitors who move on to complete a transaction, based on factors such as the placement of buttons, the size of images, the text we display, etc. My education taught me not only how to construct these tests but more importantly how to think about problems like this in a structured, analytical way.
When I interview candidates for jobs at ProFlowers, I am not concerned about their major. I want to learn what they’re passionate about, what they’ve accomplished, and how they think about solving problems. A lot of the best ideas in any discipline come from presenting familiar concepts in novel ways, or using traditional frameworks to solve new problems. My Princeton education provided the foundation for that.