Minding Our Business: A series on what it takes to work for yourself.
Eliza Blank grew up surrounded by plants. Her mother weathered long New England winters by keeping a jungle’s worth of plants in the house, which Blank never really appreciated until she moved to New York for college. Without her mom’s green thumb, she was lost when it came to keeping a houseplant alive, and between treks to Home Depot and too many plant deaths to count, she nearly gave up. That’s how she got the idea for The Sill, which brings plants, pots, other gardening materials, and plant-care guides under one (very well-designed) umbrella.
Blank left her marketing job at the hair-care company Living Proof when she was 26 and got The Sill off the ground with a grassroots Kickstarter campaign. Since then, she’s expanded into ten stores in the U.S., gathered a staff of 70 people, and weathered a pandemic that shuttered hundreds of small businesses. Here’s how she did it all — while only killing a few plants along the way.
On getting into the plant biz:
I grew up in western Massachusetts around a lot of plants. My mother is from the Philippines, and I think part of her coping mechanism for not living where it’s warm and tropical was she always had tons of houseplants. But I took it for granted. I came to New York for college and studied communications. When I started my career in brand strategy, I moved into my first apartment, which was, like, 200 square feet in a six-floor walk-up. My windows faced a brick wall. I was, like, Oh, I’ll get plants! But it was my first experience not just getting into a station wagon and going to the garden center, and it was terrible. I was going to, like, Key Foods or the basement of Home Depot, and I was just killing plants all day long. I didn’t know which ones to get and how to take care of them, and my mother couldn’t help me — she learned by trial and error and doesn’t know the names of all the plants she has.
Entrepreneurship was something I was keen to explore. My brother started his own company, so I’d seen him take a pretty decent-size risk like that, and I opted to try to solve this on my own. I loved the idea of taking a product and making it an experience, and I felt like I had a vision for it right away.
On her first fumble:
I shared my idea with some of my colleagues at Living Proof, and everyone thought I was crazy. One, though, got really excited and ended up joining me. She was a little bit older than me, and the fact that I was able to convince her to join me as a co-founder was the first point of credibility the business got. We’re both from a marketing background, so as soon as we got started it was, like, How are we going to divide and conquer? Our skill sets are very, very close. We both wanted to work on the same things. It quickly became clear that we weren’t creating efficiencies, and we also would stalemate. We didn’t have the career experience to have difficult conversations. So we parted ways.
I’m so glad we started the way that we did, though, because that validation from her gave me the confidence that I was onto something. When we parted ways, it felt even more like I had something to prove. This was my first failure, so all the more reason to prove this business is gonna be something meaningful.
On setting goals:
The Sill was a nights and weekends passion project for a couple months while I was working at Living Proof. I chose an arbitrary date and said, “If I can come up with a business plan that I feel good about by this date, I’m gonna start contemplating how to leave my job.” I wanted to know that if I quit my job, I would wake up the next morning and know what I had to get done. I achieved that goal, and then I left three months afterward. I took on some consulting work at first so I could pay for my life a little bit.
Then I would set arbitrary goals. The first day the website launched, one person purchased something, and I didn’t know who they were. That was the first test: Will some stranger on the internet find this website and buy something? There were periods where it was literally one person buying something, but with the goals I had set for myself, that was enough.
I put in a little bit of my savings to get the company off the ground, and then there was a Kickstarter for $12,000. I realized very quickly that big institutions were not going to give me a small-business loan, so in 2015, my brother tipped me off to a third-party organization that funded businesses for underserved communities, and we got a small-business loan for $80,000. In 2017, I went out to investors, which is what really funded the business. Living Proof was a venture-backed company, so I understood a little bit how it worked, and I knew some of the names of VCs. I got to know other venture-backed founders. LinkedIn is my primary social network.
On raising the stakes:
The novelty of our business model garnered a lot of attention at first. The industry started in catalogues, so shipping houseplants wasn’t crazy. But putting that online and making it for a young audience is what was so new, so our value was a lot more focused on the ease and convenience. Now that the novelty of the business model has worn off and more competitors entered the space, we can communicate more fully this broader idea of connecting people with nature. Of course, it’s gonna ship to you in a box and show up at your doorstep and have a 30-day guarantee. Now we get to talk about all the wonderful benefits of plants.
On defining success:
Everything in the beginning was super-grassroots. For the first five years, I was going to markets, renting a van, and driving out to nurseries and buying plants. We started with a website that served Manhattan and Brooklyn, because if you ordered something, I was literally going to pot the plant, put it in a bag, and then walk to your apartment and hand it to you. People root for you when you’re small and nimble and bootstrapped, but it was hard to flip a small business to a scaled venture-backed company and make that a success story that people could support. There’s a certain group of people who stop rooting for you when you actually become “successful.” Success is so variable, and so subjective.
On reaching milestones:
I never feel like I’m making it, but I’m also getting more okay with that idea. There have been little things that I feel really good about. When we started doing 401(k) matching, to me that was, like, Whoa, we’re official. Or when I actually paid myself and took a real salary. My top salary before I started The Sill was $74,000. That’s as high as I got in the real world. I pay myself more than that, and I did that on a business I built myself. That feels amazing.
On handing over the reigns:
Businesses are living organisms. I always wanted to create a brand that will stand the test of time, but I’m not as attached to being at the helm of it now that I’ve been here for ten years. I think I have another one or two big ideas that I would love to pursue, and I wouldn’t want to shortchange the business by doing that at the same time.
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