#87. The Sill reimagines how younger generations can interact with plants, buy plants and keep plants alive. We talk with founder Eliza Blank about growing a modern-day gardening center both online and offline. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 87th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis and insights that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest analysis of the consumer economy from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:35] Joining me today is Eliza Blank, the founder of The Sill, a company that’s reimagining how younger generations interact with plants, buy plants and keep plants alive. Eliza started the company after being inspired by her mom’s gardening while she was growing up and realizing that no one had yet figured out how to sell plants to young people on the Internet.

Eliza: [00:00:53] Before five years ago, other than The Sill, it was Home Depot or it was the few plants that you can maybe find on 1-800-Flowers.

Richie: [00:01:02] While starting with humble roots, the business has grown rapidly in the last few years as it’s expanded offline and grew its assortment to that of a modern gardening center. Here’s my talk with Eliza Blank.

Richie: [00:01:15] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this company existing.

Eliza: [00:01:20] I’m from North Hampton, Massachusetts which is a college town on the western side of the state. Very green, almost rural. I definitely passed a lot of cows on my way to high school. So in a sense, that, I think was somewhat of an underlying factor in me ending up where I am today with this business. But really I can attribute it mostly to my mother who not only was an avid gardener, but also had a ton of house plants indoors. She’s from the Philippines so quite literally grew up in the tropics and my guess is she probably felt like bringing the outdoors in was a way for her to reconnect with her home environment. Who knows? I was from a very hippie town and so most people had a lot of house plants. I took all of that for granted, obviously. I didn’t pick up a watering can or a gardening hose or do any such gardening for the 18 years that I lived in Northampton, but I certainly was impacted by it. It didn’t really occur to me that it had a positive impact on my life until I left.

Eliza: [00:02:23] So I actually came here to New York for school. I attended NYU and I studied communications. I graduated in 2007 and went directly to work for an agency and brand strategy. I had the luck of working in brand strategy for a fantastic firm here in the city called Wolff Olins and I was put on an account just about maybe a year into my career for a startup called Living Proof. It’s a haircare company in the beauty space and, at the time, they were in stealth mode. So they came to the agency for a full brand identity—visual, positioning, the whole works. They didn’t even have a name yet. I, again, was lucky enough to be put on that account and then ended up actually going, as they say, “client-side.” So I ended up joining their team as pretty much the first non C-Suite employee. I was on the marketing team. I was a brand manager. And so, ultimately, after four years of this, it wasn’t so much the beauty industry that I was in love with. It was the entrepreneurial, scrappy startup, high-growth-opportunity business model that was really super attractive to me and I felt, after being there for four years, I actually had the tools in my toolbox to then venture out on my own.

Eliza: [00:03:39] So now we’re talking 2012. I move back to the city and specifically did so to start The Sill. I didn’t know it was going to be called The Sill. I didn’t really know what The Sill was going to be quite like yet but it was an idea that I’d been harboring for, at that point, probably five years. The real, true inspiration came when I was working in brand strategy and moving into my very first apartment on my own in the city and just had a terrible experience myself trying to shop for plants. So here I am now, self-identifying as a New Yorker, which young New Yorkers do because you’re there for one year and you’re like, “I totally get this.” But what that meant was I was living in a 200-square foot apartment on a sixth floor walk up with a window that faced a brick wall. My experience of trying to buy houseplants was me going to 23rd Street, the basement of Home Depot, bringing everything back on the subway, carrying everything up the six flights of stairs and then, ultimately, just making a huge mess everywhere because your apartment is your bedrooms, your kitchens, your bathroom. It’s all just one room. And then I killed everything because what do I know about plants? And that was the first time it occurred to me that nobody had really, truly created a consumer brand for plants and that was really interesting to me. I felt like even at the time, before having the operational experience, even just having the brand experience, I felt like, “I think I found the last standing commodity. I think this is it.”

Eliza: [00:05:08] Anyhow, so I had sat on the idea for about five years because I knew that it was interesting, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. It wasn’t until after my time at Living Proof where I felt like, “Okay, I actually know what it’s going to take to bring this to market.” Or at least I thought I knew. Right? Because you’re always a little naive when you start a business. Still am. But that was kind of enough to get me started. I sat down. I literally wrote a business plan and I actually compelled a co-worker of mine from Living Proof to co-found with me and we launched with a Kickstarter I think in April of 2012. The co-founding relationship didn’t last more than six months, but what started as The Sill is still very much a huge part of what you see today. Even just those first foundational tenets of who we were going to be and what we wanted to achieve.

Richie: [00:05:58] What was the goal with the Kickstarter and how did that end up going?

Eliza: [00:06:02] Sure. Well, one, money. Because, here we are, living in New York City and we’ve just quit our jobs and wanted to start this business, but certainly needed some funding. But I think, in my mind at least, the Kickstarter was going to be our first proofpoint. It was, if we can reach what we felt like was an attainable goal, that was enough to get us started. I think even from an emotional standpoint, it was like, “Okay, this is a big risk. This is a seemingly large hurdle.” But we thought if we couldn’t get the Kickstarter done, that was a sign that this idea just wasn’t good enough.

Richie: [00:06:38] I assume it went well.

Eliza: [00:06:39] It did. Yeah. We raised $12,000, which was our goal. We didn’t need much. It was very clear that we were going to launch a website because that was the least expensive way to launch any business. And, in fact, it happened that my brother at the time had his own agency as well and was willing to effectively lend us a team to help visualize and build out V1 of a Shopify website. So sort of being off the hook for that expense, at that time meant we could really use the funding simply for inventory and packaging and whatever testing we could afford with $10K. $10K goes quite quickly.

Richie: [00:08:41] Yeah. So what were you actually selling? What was the V1 of the product piece?

Eliza: [00:08:44] Sure. Even from the early days, the hypothesis or the thesis was the same. It was: can we elevate the houseplant into a product such that you can create a little bit more of an experience around it? For us it was, at its core, putting plants online. You were buying hand-potted houseplants and, at that point, artisan-made containers. So we were contracting with maybe half a dozen local ceramicists to make a range of plant pots that we liked and then we were going out and finding tried-and-true plants that we knew people couldn’t really kill and selling them together. It was a little bit of a [more] elevated experience than your typical trip to the nursery or to Home Depot.

Richie: [00:09:19] Was the idea that you would literally just put them in a box and ship them as if they were any other kind of good?

Eliza: [00:09:23] Well, early days, right? So we were actually hand delivering everything. I’ve heard this be explained in the sense that we were sort of a storefront without a storefront. Because we had a website, but you could only shop on our website if you lived near me.

Richie: [00:09:34] Right. Kind of like those ghost Seamless kitchens.

Eliza: [00:09:35] Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I was literally the one driving out to the wholesaler, buying the plant, potting the plant, bagging the plant and then I was coming and knocking on your door and handing it to you. So V1 was definitely basic.

Richie: [00:09:46] So, at this point, you now know there’s something here at least.

Eliza: [00:09:48] Yeah. It’s interesting. By total coincidence, someone random purchased something on day one. And it’s funny because we just had our six-year anniversary and we sent him a plant as a thank you and he still works in the city. He remembered who we were. But I wonder sometimes if that random person hadn’t purchased on day one if that would have changed anything. Because I think that was so validating even though who knows how that happened really? We would get a purchase every couple days. That’s how slow it started. It was truly a trickle. But we were getting the right type of feedback. Editors were willing to write about us. People were telling us that the concept was compelling and that it was something that they, too, had struggled with and so it was motivating enough to keep going. The reality is probably even if we didn’t have that purchase, I was going to still keep going because I felt so drawn to the idea.

Richie: [00:10:30] Did anything diverge from your thoughts right away when you started? In terms of something you’d been planning or feel that you figured out during those five years and the second it went, it just all went?

Eliza: [00:10:36] I think the first few years were really hard. This is a tough product. This isn’t something that you can just fold and put in a box and ship across the country. We still struggle with shipping today. There’s definitely moments in time where I’m like, “How did I pick the hardest category that exists?”

Richie: [00:10:49] Probably only second to beer or just other alcohol or just shipping water. It’s probably right below that in terms of shipping dirt.

Eliza: [00:10:53] Yeah, or ice cream. You talk about perishable product. This is both perishable and delicate.

Richie: [00:10:57] And heavy.

Eliza: [00:10:57] Yeah. So we sort of have a great trifecta there, which at least meant that, for a number of years, we were going to be by ourselves in the market. There really wasn’t a lot of competition.

Richie: [00:11:02] Right. Who else is crazy enough to think do this?

Eliza: [00:11:03] Right. But I was just so compelled to continue because I felt like, especially coming out of the beauty industry, there does come a point in time where you’re like, “I don’t know if I want to sell $30 shampoo to people anymore.” There is nothing in the six years of running the business that would lead me to have negative feelings about selling people plants and, in that way, I think this was just a concept that I felt like I could really dedicate my life to. It definitely started to become more mission-driven than I even anticipated once we did start having those customer interactions.

Richie: [00:11:29] And so, as you finish out 2012, what are the priorities for you? Because you’re still in the proof-of-concept phase.

Eliza: [00:11:33] Priorities were probably convincing my family that I wasn’t insane. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time—we were living together and he was incredibly patient with the whole thing. I think in the first six months of business we pulled in $20,000 dollars which, maybe at the time I felt like, “Wow, that’s something,” but looking back on I was like, “Who let me continue this business? Spending six months of 12 hour days figuring this thing out to make $20,000?” But it was so much fun too. It was so challenging but at the same time, I think I definitely had found, at least, my calling, in a sense. There’s definitely certain types of people who want to be entrepreneurs or want to be founders and I think I just figured out that I fit that mold.

Richie: [00:12:09] So I guess you’re into 2013 now. You have some traction in some sense. Where does it start to go from there?

Eliza: [00:12:14] So, in fact, the woman that I started the business with, our co-founding relationship dissolved before the end of 2012. So 2013 was then challenging because I was all of a sudden now by myself. I had just hired an intern. So it was me and an intern sitting across from each other at a table everyday with our heads down, trying to think, “What are we going to blog about? Can we send out a newsletter this week?” Amazingly enough, that intern is now my brand director six years later. So we really stuck it out.

Eliza: [00:12:37] But 2013 was interesting because, in fact, what ended up happening was we were continuing to get press, we were continuing to build up a reputation in New York and we ended up getting our first calls from businesses and we sort of accidentally fell into a service business. So it was actually never intentional that The Sill was ever going to launch a service business. But, of course, when you’re a cash-strapped startup, a service business is really appealing because it was a low barrier to entry and we got to work with a lot of really fantastic companies which lent us a lot of credibility.

Eliza: [00:13:04] So, in fact, the first client that we had was Vine, the app. Their office manager found us because I think, at that time, DailyCandy had written about us. And she said, “I really love your site and what you stand for and we’ve just moved into this office and we’re called Vine so we want to have plants everywhere.” She’s like, “Do you do offices?” And I was just like, “Sure we do.” We didn’t at all.

Richie: [00:13:29] Yeah.

Eliza: [00:13:29] And then Vine got acquired by Twitter and so then Twitter called us and said, “We really loved what you did with Vine’s office. Can you come to that to Twitter headquarters?” And it sort of snowballed from there. It wasn’t too long after that that WeWork called us and said, “Hey, we have all these offices in the city. We think we want to roll out a plan for having plants everywhere.” And so the next few years of the business, even though we are continuing to build a direct-to-consumer brand, we were also building this B2B brand which I would say was worthwhile for the time that we did it. We probably did it a little bit too long, but it definitely kept us open with the lights on and gave us the opportunity to take our time to figure out what The Sill really wanted to be when we grew up.

Richie: [00:14:14] How would you describe, economically—was it bulk purchases? Was it you renewing or refreshing the plants over time?

Eliza: [00:14:22] It would be one bulk purchase upfront, which would be the installation of all the plants in the office, followed by a maintenance program. So we were hiring horticulturalists, who were either working for us on a contract basis or eventually became employees, who would then be going to the offices and watering the plants and maintaining those plants week over week. So, in a sense, it was kind of like a subscription service, but required a lot of manpower. In my mind, initially, the justification was: We sell plants so we can sell plants to people and individuals and then we can sell plants to businesses and it should be the same pool of resources. What we learned over time was that businesses all wanted something unique to their own space and so we were effectively like interior designers and every single project had its own unique set of challenges. It wasn’t truly scalable in the same way that a consumer business is and that’s, ultimately, why we decided to let it go. There just came a moment in time where we had two distinctly interesting and large businesses and it was: pick a path.

Eliza: [00:15:23] And for me, my background in brand and wanting to build this initially as a consumer brand and a consumer solution—[I] had to turn away from the B2B business. Even though it was lucrative, it was also just, “What kind of business do I want to run?” The B2B business would have ultimately led to an army of horticulturalists to sustain the level of business we are doing and I think that just also didn’t really appeal to me.

Richie: [00:15:47] Did you find that employees from the business you serviced would buy plants from you as individuals or not necessarily?

Eliza: [00:15:53] So that was the hope. So part of the rationalization was we’re servicing these business who ultimately house our customer demo within their four walls. How do we get to them? But the challenge there was that oftentimes we were, to no fault of the business, just another service provider. We may as well be the cleaning service. It was a very difficult service to then brand or to even communicate to the employees that this was coming from a specific place that they could then also shop from. So there would be moments in time where we would come in and do workshops for the employees or do a gifting program. In some cases we would partner with the head of employee experience so that every new employee would be welcomed to their desk with a new plant. But it wasn’t as big of an opportunity [as what] we had hoped it would be.

Richie: [00:16:45] And so around the same time, on the direct-to-consumer side, what are you doing to get demand going?

Eliza: [00:16:53] Sure.

Richie: [00:16:53] I’m curious what the list of different hacks and thoughts and so forth was that you’re like, “This one will do it.”

Eliza: [00:16:59] Yeah. There was no moment in time or one thing that we did that really remarkably impacted the business. It was just continuing to do what we did well which was market the plants. I think it was [that] people were starting to feel compelled to purchase plants which, in some ways, I’d like to say that we can take credit for. We’ve definitely had an impact because The Sill launched at the same time as a lot of new media channels. If it wasn’t for Pinterest and Instagram, I simply don’t think we would be here today and it’s not even because of the reach that we have on those channels, but actually just because intent to purchase was being created inadvertently, by other people, for us. All of a sudden, you see interior designers posting these beautiful spaces that feel really attainable, that’s not just the cover of Architectural Digest. It was those moments that made people rethink what it meant to have plants inside. And then, because nobody else was doing it in a compelling way that actually spoke to this demographic who is then on these channels, we just got the attention for that very reason of just being alone in the market. Before, again, five years ago, other than The Sill, it was Home Depot or it was the few plants that you can maybe find on 1-800-Flowers. But there really [weren’t] any other options.

Richie: [00:18:21] What was the curve or the education curve? In terms of, did you find people knew anything about plants? I feel like a lot of them die soon after purchase and so how crucial was that to the business growing in those first two years? And what were you doing, if anything, to try and improve the knowledge that people had as they went to buy plants?

Eliza: [00:18:40] I think, going back to an earlier question you had, the real insight for us was that this wasn’t a convenience value proposition. This wasn’t just about putting plants online. This was actually about delivering the education that consumers needed to have success. The first purchase success actually determined our lifetime value in many ways and we’re dealing with a population who knows very, very little about plants. Even today, people will walk into our store and ask us if the plants are real. That’s how disconnected our generation has become. But I would also say that, to our credit, we are also a generation of information seekers. We want to learn. We’re really open-minded. Science is cool again, thank god. And so there is a level of engagement, but it was a matter of education as a service and education as the foundation to the brand and that’s really also what was lacking from prior retailers.

Eliza: [00:19:32] We’re coming out of this industry that has largely been family-run. We’re talking about independent garden centers. There’s about 20,000 independent garden centers across the country. I think it’s something like 90% of them have fewer than 20 employees and nearly a third of them are family-run. That’s a difficult place to be in when then Home Depot says, “Oh, we’re going to get into the garden center business and we’re going to put it in our parking lot and now when you come to buy a grill, you can also just pick up a few plants.” So garden centers were already [struggling] and continue to struggle because of big box, but then big box actually didn’t really change the model at all. So you go into a big box retailer like Home Depot and you’re still kind of on your own. In fact, you’re probably more so on your own than you were at a garden center, but at least it’s mildly more convenient.

Eliza: [00:20:17] So for us it was really about how do we actually create a consumer experience that leaves room for education and customer service? Because one of the biggest issues is that you can have even a fantastic conversation with the one person at Home Depot who knows what they’re talking about. By the time you get home, gone. The types of plants that you just purchased aren’t listed on your receipt. You have no idea what that person just told you. And then what? You’re going to Google Image reverse search what you have?

Richie: [00:20:45] That didn’t exist yet.

Eliza: [00:20:46] Right. That didn’t even exist yet. You can’t Google something you don’t know. Another insight was just tell the people what they’ve purchased, send them home with care instructions, send them home with a way to reach back out, keep track of order history. Things that today seem really simple, but [are]is uniquely challenging in this industry. Because you can go into a Gap. You know what a T-shirt is and you know how to put it on. But if you come into our store, you really don’t know what our product is. You can identify that’s a plant, but I don’t know what type of plant it is and I don’t know what to do with it. So that was, again, one of the bigger insights of how do we make this a success? And how do we market it as a service, as something that’s actually not only beneficial to our customers, but part of the experience?

Richie: [00:21:32] From a pricing perspective, how did you think about it before the business started and then how has that evolved if at all? Because it would seem, while maybe the convenience was not the sole goal, there is an accessibility given it is perishable, given that you need many of them. That’s an interesting balance.

Eliza: [00:21:46] I think in the beginning we were sort of beholden to what we could afford. So, in a way, because we had launched with local makers who were making the containers and because we were going to wholesalers to purchase the product, we were pricey. I think, again, at that time, even just me being younger, it didn’t occur to me how big of an impact pricing would have on our ability to scale. Since the launch, we’ve made a lot of progress to reduce our prices and I think it’s become a lot more a part of the brand to suggest that we want to be for everyone. I don’t want to be a fancy plant brand. I don’t think we need a fancy plant brand. I think what we need is a brand that can actually make this category attractive and approachable for anyone. I think, actually, what I love about plants is that socioeconomic background doesn’t impact a desire to have plants in your home and, if anything, they’re one of the lesser expensive ways to decorate your home. I think it actually has a bigger impact on, to my point about my first apartment, if your space is actually not attractive, it can have some of the biggest impact.

Eliza: [00:23:00] All this to say that what we’ve been slowly trying to do and are now actually making the most progress on is reducing our prices. Our goal is really to take on the Home Depots of the world. To suggest that you don’t have to go to Home Depot to buy our plants, then we know that we need to compete with them on price. Maybe it’s not dollar for dollar, but I do think that with the added value that we create, you can certainly justify the price. And I also think that there’s a lot of elasticity at that level because the difference between $4 and $6 actually isn’t too dramatic for people to handle.

Richie: [00:23:32] So I guess we’re in 2013 or 2014? I forgot where we were.

Eliza: [00:23:36] So ’13, ’14‚—it’s kind of all the same.

Richie: [00:23:39] All the same. Work us up to—when does the store come about?

Eliza: [00:23:41] So the store launched at the end of 2015. In fact, the end of 2015 was a big moment in time for the business because we had simultaneously opened the store and actually, truly launched national shipping. So, prior to that, we had been dabbling with the shipping and we were shipping some products to some places. But it was the end of 2015 that we got ourselves together to the point where we had gotten not only the storefront, but then a secondary warehouse, effectively, to start holding product. So I would say 2015 was, in a way, the real start of the business. I think everything up to that was learning. The store was totally done opportunistically and was probably very risky.

Richie: [00:24:27] Talk about that decision. You were online.

Eliza: [00:24:30] Yeah.

Richie: [00:24:30] And when did that first come to light and how did that all happen?

Eliza: [00:24:34] At this point, we’re two and a half years into the business. I’m still squatting in my brother’s office, which is literally where our inventory is kept, and we’re doing all of this work and we ultimately decide that that’s just not practical for scale. So I believe the store actually came first because we thought, “Well, here is a ground level space that we can keep our product in and then we can open it to the public and it can be a store but then we can also just use it for other purposes.” Keep in mind, our store, which we still have today, is 200 square feet.

Richie: [00:25:08] Yeah.

Eliza: [00:25:08] So that was impractical.

Richie: [00:25:10] I’ve been there. You fit a lot of stuff.

Eliza: [00:25:11] Yeah. But to think that that was all the space we needed, that was the mistake. But it was still good in the sense that it got us out of this dependency on having a shared office space. It got us into a storefront that was public-facing. It gave us another moment in time to celebrate a milestone and tell the world what we were doing and so, from that perspective, that was another moment for us to get some attention. And then, ultimately, [it] made me comfortable enough to take another risk which was to get a third space which was going to operate as our greenhouse warehouse facility. And we were still incredibly scrappy. Our storefront is not exactly the most desirable corner in Manhattan.

Richie: [00:25:52] On the Lower East Side.

Eliza: [00:25:53] On the Lower East Side, yeah. Even at the time. Now it’s kind of getting to be quite gentrified, but we opened and we’re between a dollar pizza place and a methadone clinic. That’s our corner. Even to the point where in the early days, I was going to the community board meetings at the local police station being like, “Is this even safe to be here? What do our hours have to be to ensure that I can work here and close comfortably and not feel like I’m in a tough spot at nine o’clock at night?” It ended up being perfectly fine and today, again, as I mentioned it’s quite a lovely neighborhood.

Eliza: [00:26:28] The second space or, rather, our third space, which was the greenhouse warehouse, was 8,000 square feet in the middle of New Jersey. I found it on Craigslist. We did a lot of stuff like that back then. I’ve bought a box truck on eBay. That was still very much the level we were operating on but it was just indicative of the type of progress we were making. It was little by little. It was kind of what you would expect for a relatively successful bootstrapped company. We were able to continuously invest back in the business and make these strides towards what was next.

Eliza: [00:27:01] In 2015, we were able to open the store and launch nationwide shipping and then, going into 2016, we were able to see the impact from that. We had our first really big Valentine’s Day and, at that time, the B2B business was still thriving. We were dabbling with introducing new markets. We tried doing an office, for instance, in Philly. We were starting to do some events out of the store. But it’s not to say that anything was life-changing, but I think it was still enough to keep the wheels turning for everybody. We were getting slowly bigger. I think probably the end of 2016, maybe we were ten people. But that was really meaningful starting from one. And the idea just hadn’t gone away. The passion that I had for the idea hadn’t gone away and, if anything, what the store allowed for was this communication and feedback loop that we didn’t really anticipate. You can send out a million surveys online to your customers but it’s not until you have these 20-minute conversations with people on the floor that you really start to understand what you’re building and why and [whom] you’re building it for. And so I think, inadvertently, opening the store was one of the best things we did for our online business because of that. Because we were able to really start to understand who our customer was, why they were coming to us and what they needed.

Richie: [00:28:20] On that note, what were you finding in terms of why they were showing up and how did it go when you told them, “Oh yeah, you can do this all online also?”

Eliza: [00:28:27] Yeah. It’s clearly a very tangible product. You have to do a lot of extra work to create trust online because there’s just a lot of anxiety or apprehension about purchasing a live good from a website and especially because no two plants are going to look exactly the same. So we’re going to put a photo up of a plant and your plant’s gonna look mostly like that, but it’s not gonna be the exact one. And so some people actually just want to come in so that they can pick out the exact plant they want because maybe they want that funny leaf that leans left. I don’t know. But, mostly, the learnings came down to the level of engagement that our customers wanted from us and just quite literally how intimate those conversations were. People come into our store and oftentimes the first thing they do is they’ll pull out their phone and they’ll show you their apartment. They’ll say, “This is my bedroom and this is my coffee table and this is my windowsill and I think I want to put a plant here.” You don’t do that even when you walk into a West Elm, even when you’re shopping for home for anything else.

Eliza: [00:29:25] I think what we learned was that this was a very emotional category which is to say that, not only did it require an intimacy between our brand and our customers but that also, this was a very personal purchase and that there was a lot of anxiety around it, apprehension. People do come into the store and they’re like, “I kill everything.” So there’s a lot of coaching involved and a lot of that has now been mirrored on our website even just through headlines and copy. We try and make this a very positive, encouraging experience.

Eliza: [00:29:57] I think what the interactions with the customers also taught us was that we are playing at a different emotional level than other products. This is about self care now. This is about wellness. This is about engaging with something that’s not your iPhone. And that’s been quite nice because I think that’s given us an opportunity to really continue to stretch the brand such that people can come to us for not just a home decor item. I think, in the beginning, that was our misconception, was just that. I think about the way in which I tell the story about The Sill’s early days and part of it was: here we are, in a city like New York, where if you want a shower curtain, you have thousands of options. Why don’t you have the same for plants? Which is still true today, but I think, now, a lot more of what we stand for has to do with how do we encourage people to connect with plants in a moment in time [when] we are very disconnected from nature?

Eliza: [00:30:56] We think of it now, today, as a responsibility to reinvent what it means to even be a gardener. I think of gardening and I think of my mom spending six hours on a Sunday in our backyard. The reality is is that, not only do we not have backyards, but we don’t have six hours on a Sunday anymore. So what does that mean for people and nature and how can The Sill help bridge that gap then?

Richie: [00:31:22] How do you think about the perishability piece in terms of how long should these things last or live or so forth?

Eliza: [00:31:29] Success for us is to build a community of people who want to interact with plants, whether they’re interacting with them and killing them or interacting with them and they thrive. In the more literal sense, plants can live for very, very long. Most of the plants that my mother has in our home are older than I am and, in some cases, were actually propagated from plants from other people and, in which case, they span generations, which is meaningful. I think actually some people are now getting into plants just purely for the nostalgia of it. It’s that it reminds them of their mom or it reminds them of their grandmother. But success for us doesn’t mean you have to have your plant for 80 years, but it’s a level of engagement that we hope to encourage and then expand upon.

Richie: [00:32:15] So we’re in 2017 now. Bring us up to the point where you decide to raise money.

Eliza: [00:32:21] So I will say that my ambition for this company has always been big. There was truly no point in time where I just felt like, “Oh, I’m going to open a plant store and call it a day.”

Richie: [00:32:32] And be like a garden center or something.

Eliza: [00:32:33] Yeah. It wasn’t about a one-off thing. I think I always wanted to create something really impactful and nationally recognized and the more I got into the business, the category, the industry, the more I realized that the opportunity to do so was really there. I think that’s when I ultimately decided to raise venture capital because the industry was just not doing its job to keep up. The consumers were clearly reacting in a positive way and, in some ways, it felt like a responsibility to then step in and say, “I think we’ve figured something out. And I think it’s going to have a positive impact on an entire generation and an entire industry. How can I not pursue this at full force?”

Eliza: [00:33:20] It wasn’t an easy raise. This is kind of a scary category for investors. But we did have enough traction, enough insight and I think the very fact that I had bootstrapped for five years was compelling to enough investors because here I am saying, “This isn’t back-of-the-envelope math. This isn’t idea on a napkin. I’ve actually been doing this for five years. So the advantage is I have five years of insights that I can act on the moment you write me a check.” And, in fact, the growth of the business since our seed raise has been just phenomenal and I think it’s because we’ve been sitting on these insights saying, “Oh, if only we had the resources we would do X, Y and Z.” And we almost knew that it was going to work. And now, here we are, and it’s working.

Richie: [00:34:03] So what was the plan in terms of [how] you’re going to spend this money in these places?

Eliza: [00:34:08] One of the first things was actually getting a proper website up and running. I mean, we really had a homegrown site. One of the first things we did after closing our first round of financing was to reimagine the site in all the ways that we wanted it to be. So I think if you go to TheSill.com today, it is very much reflective of the size of our ambition and the level of insights that we’ve gathered to date. I think prior to that, it was just a website. That wasn’t really reflective of the opportunity. So everything that you see on the site today is more about putting all of our learnings into practice and hopefully just means an easier experience for people to convert on.

Eliza: [00:34:50] So that was a big deal for us and [for] part of that, we actually did a visual rebrand. The core of the brand, who we are, our mission, our platform is still very much the same, but the visual identity has been reimagined to be a little bit more sophisticated and trustworthy. It was a very nice moment for the business because we actually re-launched the site the same day that we opened our second store. Those were two initiatives that were really important to us because we wanted to prove out that this was actually an omnichannel opportunity. It wasn’t just a one-off for the sake of marketing. It was actually an opportunity to run a profitable business line that would then also support our online business.

Eliza: [00:35:28] The reason for doing a second store on the Upper West Side was quite deliberate because, in fact, as funny as it sounds, the Upper West Side is actually a little bit more indicative of the rest of the country in some ways. Obviously it’s a very affluent neighborhood, but you have more homeowners, more families. It didn’t make sense to me to put our second store in Brooklyn, which was going to very much mirror the same demographic that we have in the Lower East Side. The second store was really also just to prove out that omnichannel approach. The moment in time for us [of] launching the two brought us to the next level but also re-energized our story and got us back out there.

Richie: [00:36:07] How big do you expect the retail piece to become?

Eliza: [00:36:11] Well, we’re definitely still feeling really good about retail so we have every intention of rolling out more stores outside of New York. We see the stores as a huge opportunity to learn about our customers. I think what’s interesting about this category is that you do have an opportunity to locally merchandise the stores. A store that we would put, hypothetically, in Austin could have different merchandise than a store that we put in Seattle because it’s a different environment and you can learn about different, unique needs of customers in each of those markets. And because, as we continue to grow this business, we realize even more so how much community has to do with our success and building community and evangelism, not only for ourselves, but for the category again. And so the stores also create that community hub for our customers to come, meet us, interact, take classes. Our foundation has always been education. The more we can do on a local front, the more goodwill we generate and [ultimately] evangelism and word-of-mouth.

Richie: [00:37:11] Have you explored anything from a frequency perspective in terms of, if I just said, “Hey, I have a new house,” do you sell bundles? Or how do you think about the individual piece of selling a single plant vs. a room to a house to a brownstone? How does that work?

Eliza: [00:37:26] We took it upon ourselves to re-merchandise our site when we re-launched, which allowed people to purchase our products in a number of different ways. When we first launched, it was strictly potted plants because that was the convenient thing to do, it was the nice thing to do. A lot of people don’t want to pot their own plans or they just simply won’t. We’ve taken a different approach since then and then also, certainly, introduced additional types of products like potting soil. Since that moment in time, we’ve noticed that the purchase behavior has really changed such that people are buying more stuff. The way in which we think about it is we do want people to feel like they can outfit their space with us. I think this actually ties back to your question about pricing—is how do we actually encourage people to engage with this category? One of the ways we can encourage that is to not make it price prohibitive to do so. We are thinking about what it takes to ship larger plants or create collections or think about different areas of the home. So even from a content perspective, you can go on our blog and find best plans for the bathroom, best plans for the living room or pet-friendly plants. So we do try to think about it from a solution perspective.

Eliza: [00:38:36] And then, secondly, strategically we want to be able to make it accessible enough that people can purchase plants not just one at a time.

Richie: [00:38:45] What’s the most amount any customer has purchased?

Eliza: [00:38:49] I mean this is New York. So here in the city, we’ve had people come in and buy 50 items from us. Like, for themselves personally. I mean I’m dying to see some of these people’s apartments. Also if you talk to any of our employees, our employees are oftentimes our best customers. It’s actually quite literally how we staff the store. The last three people we hired for our stores were customers first. Our store staff I think probably, on average has 50 plants at home. So there is no such thing as too much for some people, which is great. Part of the reason why, again, I love plants as a product is that there’s so many use cases for it. It belongs in every room of the household as well as the office. It makes for a great gift that’s sentimental, but not romantic. And then it is something that you can be a collector of. Certainly, as we continue to rollout product categories, it’s not our intent to just remain the houseplant company. So you introduce outdoor plants or growing or herb gardens—things of that nature—and it’s [like] the possibilities are endless.

Richie: [00:39:53] Yeah. How do you see that piece growing over the coming—in terms of the assortment, where does it stand today and then how do you see that growing over the coming years?

Eliza: [00:40:00] Sure. So I think we’ve slowly been introducing more hands-on engagement with the product itself as customers have become more and more accustomed to the category. Certainly there are people who come in who are like, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty. Just give me something pretty to take home and I’ll water it from afar.” But a lot of our customers who started off skeptics or who started off with inhibitions about it have now become avid gardeners and it’s allowed us to get into things like terrarium building. It’s even just that micro-step that has now opened us up to say, “Okay, our customers are ready for this. They’ve gone from the easiest indoor plant that you can have to wanting to pot their own plants to wanting to create a little container garden to, now, asking us for things like seeds and bulbs and outdoor [plants] and herbs.” So, in a way, we’ve let them grow up with us and it’s just now our responsibility to ensure that our product reflects that.

Richie: [00:40:58] Do you see the business changing from the urban customer to more of a suburban one over time? How does that evolve? Because the outdoor piece obviously connotes something changing.

Eliza: [00:41:07] Yeah. We’ve definitely over-indexed to a New York population up until this point. I think this year ahead for us is going to be really about diversity as it relates to the geography that we cover. Interestingly, even the notion of an indoor plant is only unique to parts of the country. You go to L.A. [and] who cares? Indoor is outdoor and vice versa. So we are going to be broadening the way in which we talk about our product and hopefully actually breaking down some of these superficial barriers to what it means to be an indoor plant person vs. a gardener because that just simply doesn’t always exist in different parts of the country. So, for us, we’re really mindful that we want to continue to educate our customers and offer them product that extends off of their windowsill. “Urban” in New York is also something very specific. Urban New York is very different from even urban Chicago or urban L.A. So, here, because we focused and started here in New York, a lot of our product is small. A lot of our product is really hardy and resilient to a wide range of conditions, but we would like to get to a point where our product is more suitable for other markets.

Richie: [00:42:19] Final few questions. What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about the business?

Eliza: [00:42:25] Well, a few things. I do think it still surprises people that we have the ambitions that we have. Our company is probably going to be a head count of 50 by the end of this year and that surprises a lot of people. I think it’s also a tough company or a tough business to even explain to people still. There’s no sound bite that really clearly defines what it is that we’re doing. I’ve gone from a cocktail party where I’ll just say, “I own a plant store” and leave it at that to “We are a direct-to-consumer, digitally native, omnichannel plant brand,” or we simply say “Look, we’re reinventing gardening for a new generation,” or “We’re putting the garden center online.” But none of those things really fully encompass everything we’re doing and that’s tough for me—because I’m obviously so proud of what we do and I think it is so important and compelling—to not really always be able to articulate it super clearly for people.

Richie: [00:43:20] And then, finally, how did you come up with the name?

Eliza: [00:43:22] Well, the URL was $11.99 on GoDaddy.com. The name—no. It was actually standing in my mother’s kitchen. Behind the sink is a little ledge, her windowsill and she just has all these plants on it and I think I was doing dishes or something benign and was looking and admiring her plants and being like, “Oh, The Sill.” And then I quickly ran to the computer and was like, “Is that available?” and it was. That was it.

Richie: [00:43:47] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Eliza: [00:43:48] Thanks so much for having me.

Richie: [00:43:54] Thanks for listening to the LooseThreads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter and LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. Thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Rachel Silver of Love Stories TV, Ellie Burrows of MNDFL and Daniella Yacobovsky of BaubleBar. Thanks For listening and talk to you soon.