In March of 2018 (10 months ago), Milana and I were sitting around after work and talking about where we wanted to travel next. She had a few plants and was pretty good at keeping them happy. I had had a few plants throughout my life, but never really had any luck with keeping them happy and healthy. We definitely had no ambition of owning of plant shop and ecommerce business. Here's what we learned after deciding to take the plunge.
1. MAKE A COMMITMENT
When we first started working on our idea, we bought some plants, some nursery pots, and some gardening materials and we started planting things on our terrace. Most of those things died, especially the things we tried to propagate. But one of the best decisions we made was to find a retail space and sign a lease for a year. Having tried multiple businesses before, I knew myself and my habits - if I don't have something keeping me engaged, I'm usually off to the next half-baked idea. When we got our shop lease, we knew there was no turning back, despite wanting to turn back a few times. The more we dragged our feet, the more time we wasted, so there was only one direction to move.
2. FIND THE RIGHT PARTNER
Easier said than done, and probably slightly obvious, but having an amazing partner with whom to take on such a huge challenge made all the difference. It's not impossible to do what we did alone, but it would undoubtedly take a lot longer, more capital, and more free time to do it. For the first three months, we kept our full time jobs, which gave us the financial means to pay for everything out of pocket. The shop started to pay for itself shortly thereafter, but having an income from our day jobs those first months allowed us to test a few different ideas and see what worked.
3. FIND A SHARED INTEREST AND TURN IT INTO A PASSION
As I mentioned before, neither one of us would have told you we were born to be plant people. No interest in botany during school, actually I always wanted to be an architect and she wanted to be a therapist. But as we sat there and brainstormed ideas for our hobby (before we opened the shop), plants sort of popped up as something we both enjoyed, and the more we rolled it around, the funner it sounded. It just sounded so innocent and helpful. Like if we sold millions of plants to people, we would only be doing more and more good in the world. Turns out you can find a shared interest with your partner and turn it into a passion.
4. FIND THE RIGHT SPACE
Once we decided to open our shop, we started a mad search in our part of the city to find the perfect space. We needed something bright and small so that our plants would stay alive and we could afford it. We also needed a sink and some other details like that. One day we were walking home from a couple showings, and we just sort of glanced in the window of the ground floor of our apartment building. It was empty, with the second floor ripped out. The whole giant building was empty, but there was one tiny space at the end that had been separated by a brick wall. We reached out to our landlord, and a week later we were painting the walls. Talk about timing.
5. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
When we started, we bought plants from plant shops. We went all over the city of New York looking for the best, cheapest plants. We took bags and armfuls on the subway back to our shop, just to have something green in our shop when we opened it. We learned where the cheapest plants were, and what the market rate was for different kinds of plants. We also learned which plants we didn't see so often (rare plants), and the different types of buyers for each type of plant. We learned how to talk about the plants because we were learning about them in real time. We learned the names of plants by talking about them to our customers, telling them how we took care of them to keep them looking the way they looked in our shop. And of course, as time passed, we learned where the cheapest shops got their plants, and how to order them in bulk.
6. USE THE RIGHT TOOLS
This goes without saying, but it pays to pick the right tools. Having used Shopify in a previous venture, I knew that I wanted to use it again to manage this business. Shopify serves us really well because it not only serves as our point of sale, but it also hosts our ecommerce site. We also use a variety of apps from the Shopify marketplace that help extend it beyond its four walls. We use the Hubspot app to connect to our CRM system, we use the Quickbooks connector to send our orders to our accounting system, we use the MailChimp app to send our customer data to our outbound marketing platform, and we use the SurveyMonkey app to follow up with our customers. We use PixelPop to show a newsletter signup, ShipStation to manage shipments once people place orders, IntuitiveShipping to manage Fedex rates based on package sizes, Order Printer to print orders for deliveries to capture signatures, Snapppt to show our Instagram gallery, Printify to design custom printed merchandise without paying for inventory, Product Reviews to capture customer reviews, Social Testimonial Slider to pull in Google and Yelp reviews, and Photo Gallery to show photos on our Press page. We also use Oberlo to dropship a select few items to our customers without stocking inventory. We use ADP for payroll, and we use GoDaddy to host our Shopify site and our email (which is Microsoft Office 365). We use Google Drive for all of our storage and internal documentation. We currently don't use the Shopify Retail package, we simply use an ipad with the Shopify POS app and write prices manually on labels, but going forward we may upgrade in order to print barcodes and help with inventory. The list seems daunting, but it all started with Shopify, and grew from there. Whenever we found a limitation of Shopify, we found an app on their marketplace that solved that unique problem.
After having the shop open only 2 months, we quickly learned that we needed help in order to take time out of the shop to grow the other non-shop parts of our business. We could either stay a Mom and Pop plant shop in our neighborhood, or we could replace ourselves so that we could go find cheaper plants, build our online presence, and sell plants online. We posted an ad on Instagram about an internship position in our shop to learn about plants, and had two amazing responses that later became our first two employees. Having such a specialized Instagram account and audience helped us reach people that shared our genuine interest in plants quickly. Of course then we had to learn how to hire people, pay them, pay taxes, train them, get insurance, pay unemployment, etc.
8. MAKE MISTAKES
With the money coming in from the plant shop and our day jobs, it felt very safe to take risks and push boundaries. This has been our double-edged sword. For every thousand dollars we made, there was an equally sized opportunity to collaborate with someone, try a new product, buy different inventory, and experiment. Over time we began to learn what did and didn't work, so there were numerous lessons learned and we feel very focused now on our current lines of business, but we'd definitely love to undo a few of those trials and have that capital back in our bank account.
And there you have it, be sure to add your thoughts in the comments below!