Eliza Blank – The Sill

Wandering through the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn, a booth with a unique potted plant caught my eye.  The crisp white pot with asymmetrical lines and triangular faces reminded me more of sculpture, and less of something I would expect to find encapsulating a plant.  I stopped and inquired.

Turns out, The Sill, a houseplant company catered towards addressing the challenge of maintaining plants and a New York City lifestyle, had just launched.  Eliza Blank was manning the booth beside her co-founder, Gwen Blevens.  I immediately knew I wanted to learn more about Eliza’s story.

The Sill’s website captures the essence of its vision: “The Sill is a destination for discovering potted plants that enhance both quality of life and the look and feel of your environment. We hunt down houseplants suitable for city dwellings – long life, easy care, adaptable – and hand pot them in an eclectic mix of containers. Most of these are artist made, in order to strike the perfect balance of function and form – what the plant needs, but all its own a work of art.”

And did I mention that they deliver your purchase to your door in Manhattan or Brooklyn?  Perfect.

Sowing the Seeds for The Sill

The idea first popped up in 2008, while Eliza was working as a brand strategist in New York City, just after graduating from NYU.

“I was in this place in my life when I wanted to grow roots to a certain extent.  I finally had my own apartment and I wanted to do something special with it.  But I realized that I didn’t have a resource for plants in New York.”

She further explained how much goes into deciding what plant is right for you.  “Plants are living things and they come in these containers and it’s a very experiential purchase to make.  It goes in your home or your office… a place that you care so much about stylistically.  New Yorkers think about these things.”

Not only is the design important, but there are also care protocols associated with each type of plant, and a commitment that goes along with it.  And you can imagine that having plants in New York City is hard!  An apartment with little to no light.  Too little space.  Having to lug potting soil and pots up the stairs of your walkup apartment in order to get the perfect look, only to realize that it’s going to make a mess because you have no place to put anything outside.

It’s clear that there are many challenges with nurturing plants in New York.  Despite identifying a problem she wanted to tackle, Eliza wasn’t yet ready to start her own business.  She let the idea germinate.

Watering the Seeds for The Sill

For Eliza’s next job, she moved to Boston and worked as a brand manager for a startup.  All of a sudden, things began to crystallize.  The experience solidified her ambition to strike out on her own.

This startup is also where she met Gwen, cofounder of The Sill.  Over dinner one night, Eliza brought up her thoughts about creating a functional and stylishly packaged houseplant, ideal for city living.  Gwen loved it.  “For Gwen it was more about gifts.  She’s always looking for something different, something that’s not just a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers but that has all these unique elements of something special and living.  Something that reflects someone’s personality.”

They bonded over their shared vision and kept brainstorming.  Shortly after that, Eliza and Gwen quit their jobs and moved to New York City together.  On March 1, 2012, The Sill sprouted.

Water and Sun, Water and Sun

“As soon as we had the idea we started building a business plan.  We wanted to define what the problem was, and how we were going to solve that.  We created categories of plants we wanted, artists we wanted, and we created a whole operations plan of how we were going to go from concept through to launch.  So we were very focused from the beginning and we very quickly wanted to operationalize it.  Coming from the startup world we knew how quickly and how much work that would entail.”

Eliza credits two big factors with getting The Sill off the ground.  First, Eliza’s brother owns a branding agency, Bureau Blank, and offered their services to help the Team build their brand.  With the agency, The Sill designed a logo, a website, and even had office space at their disposal.

Second, their Kickstarter campaign raised over $12,000 and gave them the seed (seriously, no pun intended) money for The Sill.

Throughout this time, their focus was on diving into the industry and creating connections.

“Even though we’re both what we call hobbyists in the area, we were by no means industry experts.  Luckily,  we knew who we needed to call.  So we went to trade shows and big expos up and down the coast.  We started really talking to people who were experts in the industry to learn what kind of contacts we needed to make, and how we could build out our supply chain.”  Their goal was also to learn which plants would survive best in the NYC apartment – something that was easy to take care of, self-sustaining, and long-lasting.

To find artists for their pots, they took a bit of a different approach.  They looked on Etsy and reached out to designers they liked.  They went to trade shows for buyers, the international gift fair, and open houses for studios.  The goal was “to pick an eclectic mix of people, from different places with different points of view.  We really just looked for people we enjoyed talking to and who also had great work and were excited about the idea.”

Eliza wanted The Sill’s pots to be unique, appealing to NYC’s young professionals.

The Fruits of their Labor

For now, Eliza and Gwen pot, package, and deliver the plants themselves.  But I predict rapid growth.  The Sill’s website launched on May 22 and is doing extremely well.

Eliza has an eager eye on the future, yet is keeping her focus on the present.

“We don’t want to spend too much of our times asking ‘what if’.  Instead we’re trying to focus on the next six months and the next year ahead to build our market in NYC.  Making sure that we are defining the problem in the right way, and creating a solution that makes sense.  We want our customers to have an amazing experience.”

So spruce up your apartment, and help The Sill reach its goal of a plant on every sill.  There’s nothing sill-y about that.

____________________________________________________________________________

Eliza’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • There’s a moment when you have to stop talking and start acting.
  • Finding the right cofounder is as important as marriage.  Choose wisely.
  • Being an entrepreneur is not right for everybody, even if you already have an idea.  So test it out first by working at a startup in your industry of interest.
  • Tell people about your ideas.  The more people you tell the better, because you’ll get more feedback.
  • Seek out entrepreneurs in your community.  They are a great source of support because they know what you’re going through.
  • All ideas exist somewhere out there, so you can’t be too afraid of competitors.
  • Welcome competition because it drives innovation and it makes you do your best work.

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