A funny thing happened during the pandemic: sales of gardening supplies from dirt, plants, even watering cans, spiked nearly 9% in 2020, according to a report by the Freedonia Group. “With stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and other public-health measures, many consumers, bored at home, picked up gardening as a hobby,” the report states. As someone affected by travel restrictions, I too, took to plants during lockdown, turning to Instagram for ideas. A slew of plant-parent communities trade snaps of pin-striped Calatheas and showy Monsteras, many of them sourced from The Sill.
Clearly The Sill had tapped into something primal. The website calls out the term: biophilia, the innate tendency to seek connections with nature. Or as Blank’s slogan simplifies it, “plants make people happy.”
I reached out to Eliza Blank, Founder & CEO of The Sill, to find out why and how she grew her plant-based empire. For example, the company’s IG account boasts 858k enthusiastic followers and growing. From millennial-friendly branding, online ordering, to simple colorful pots and packaging, here’s how Eliza Blank left a career as a brand strategist to become a pink-and-green Aglaonema entrepreneur.
What was your life like in your previous career?
I started my career as a Brand Strategist at the agency Wolff Olins following a year as an Intern in Project Management. It was a dream. I was surrounded by smart, creative, young professionals in this big, sexy office, working with brands I loved as a consumer. I was energized by late nights working until 2 or 3am to get the deliverable to our clients on time. Following this, I worked as a Brand Manager for former client Living Proof – the CPG haircare company – when it just got off the ground. I found myself collaborating in a small, plain Cambridge, MA-based office with Chemists. This transition… going “client side” in agency speak allowed me to see the operating side of creative businesses.
How long did you consider leaving your first job before making the switch?
I came up with the idea for a houseplant brand while still at Wolff Olins. I even hold on to a few of the presentation decks I made back then – but they were all around brand positioning (no surprise there). I didn’t have a business plan. I wasn’t yet equipped to create one. So I stuck the idea in my back pocket and learned the start-up ropes at Living Proof. It was probably 5 years between idea inception and quitting my job at Living Proof to found The Sill.
Why did you decide on a plant business?
I was enamored by the power of brands – which I witnessed first-hand transform dull, boring categories into something smart, aspirational, and most importantly, of value to its customers. I wanted to apply the principles of branding to a category I was personally passionate about. One I felt was overlooked.
Describe your business from the initial idea, how it has grown, and where you see it in the next 5-10 years.
After living in the city as a transplant from Western Massachusetts for 5+ years (combining both my time in NYC and in Boston) I was craving more greenery in my life. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to get plants. I didn’t have a station wagon or a garden center within reach. I was buying plants at the bodega or local grocery store and they usually died soon after. So, the initial idea for The Sill was to make houseplants easy for the young, urban, professional – but layer on aspects of brand, like design, content and community.
Since launch in 2012, the business which started primarily as a website and local delivery service has transformed into nationwide brand that ships to 48 states with brick-and-mortar retail stores in NYC, LA, SF, Chicago and soon Boston. We’ve also expanded our assortment beyond plants, to include our own line of planters and plant care accessories, fresh cut botanicals, and curated home goods and apothecary.
How did you handle the financial aspects of the business, especially being young and on a shoestring budget when you committed to the business idea?
The business was started by combining my personal savings with a small Kickstarter campaign ($12K) and being very handy with a credit card. Personally, I had made a concerted effort to save up before leaving my role at Living Proof – and I supplemented my savings with some independent consulting. I was also lucky enough at that point in my life to be partnered with my now husband. We became domestic partners first which allowed me to go on his health insurance. In 2017, I raised venture capital to support our scale and continue to grow. At this point, I would say I enjoy the financial aspects of the business as much as the creative ones.
What are your day-to-day and big picture concerns?
In my role today, my focus is primarily on long term vision and strategy; people, organization and company culture; as well as fundraising, board management and team alignment.
Lately, big picture concerns mostly relate to the impact of COVID and changes to the consumer landscape – everything from supply chain to competitors and rising costs of online advertising.
Did your family and friends think you were crazy or were they supportive? Or envious?
They all thought I was crazy but were still super supportive. I was very lucky to have a supportive network and I can attribute a lot of my success to having this advantage.
What has been the biggest, unforeseen challenge?
Certainly COVID-19 has been the biggest, unforeseen challenge – and we’re still navigating all the ripple effects it has across our operations, our team, and our customers. Aside from COVID, I would have said standing out in what seems to be an ever growing number of consumer brands across all categories. There’s just a lot of noise right now as a consumer so it’s hard to both get and maintain anyone’s attention.
Have you questioned if you made the right decision?
Well, I’m 10 years in so I think it’s really too late to ask that question. I enjoy my role, even more as it evolves, and I’m super proud of my company – so I can say with absolute conviction that I made the right decision. I also know The Sill has made a lot of people happy – I’m glad for that reason alone.
What benefits have you enjoyed owning a business as well as moving to the Catskills?
Flexibility for sure. I’ve always worked hard – but in my career as an entrepreneur I’m far more in control of my life. And because I love my work, and it provides me the opportunity to constantly learn and grow, I’m never too concerned about work-life balance. What is that anyways!? I never wanted a 9 to 5.
What tips can you offer someone considering following your lead?
Don’t talk yourself out of it. There’s a million reasons not to go for it. There’s never a “good time”. No one “knows what they’re doing”. The hardest part is having an idea you’re passionate about – so if you have that, go all in. Other than that – my real tip is this: make sure what you do aligns with your personal values and check in with yourself at least once a year to ensure you stay the course. Growing a business is hard – but you can do it if you believe in it and can stand behind it.
Anything else you want to add?
I honestly thought you “learned” your career in college. I actually felt pretty ill-equipped based on what I learned in the classroom. It was my internships throughout college that gave me a point of view on what would be expected of me in different types of organizations and in different types of roles. I believe I could have wasted the better part of my 20s figuring that out if I hadn’t started interning right away (in fact, I held 2 internships in high school). Looking back, this absolutely propelled me towards entrepreneurship at a young age – and there is a very critical advantage to starting young: you’re naïve.