How would you introduce The ZEN Succulent?
The ZEN Succulent is a women-owned and minority owned neighbourhood plant and gift shop, with two locations housed in the heart of downtown Durham, North Carolina, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Our mission has always been to provide life, joy and inspiration with plants and thoughtfully made gifts from local and regional makers throughout the United States. We source and craft all our products with care, ensuring that any treasures you find at The ZEN Succulent are special.
What’s the story behind the name?
Long before having a retail space and our own website, I thought the best low risk option to launch my budding idea of shipping terrariums was to sign up for an e-commerce website that already had a large audience and handmade focus. That was Etsy! I soon discovered that Etsy would not let you create a shop on its site without having a business name that could not be changed. I thought hard and quick – “succulent” because that I was the plant I’d be selling to my customers and “Zen” because I wanted people to feel at peace when looking into the terrarium’s little landscape, so the name “The ZEN Succulent” was typed in and I couldn’t be happier.
How did you first discover your love for what you do?
I have always had a passion for plants from a very early age. At the age of nine it was my responsibility to water all of the 50-plus plants in my parents’ home, who are still plant lovers to this day and their collection has grown to over 80 plants – even more in the 20-plus years since, including a 20 foot palm tree.
Back then I hated it. I had to water them and remove their brown leaves and fluff the soil, and I just wanted to be outdoors playing with friends instead of caring for plants. But over time, little by little, I enjoyed the feeling of seeing each plant grow because of the attention and care I’d shown it, and it became one of the many things I looked forward to doing – it was also my time to relax and destress from the day. I was in my teens by then. Looking back, by having me care for the plants, my parents were teaching me more than their knowledge of plants, they were also teaching me how to care for something other than myself, which is such an important lesson for a child to learn in this ever-changing world. As a new mother myself (to a baby boy named Hudson), I can’t wait to teach him the lesson of caring for others through plants.
I knew that this was the direction I wanted to take when I longed for a creative outlet after being dissatisfied in my nine-to-five job because plants provided me with so much joy – I am glad I did.
What did you do before setting up The ZEN Succulent?
I started The ZEN Succulent as a side hustle in 2012 when I was between jobs – I previously worked for the State of North Carolina as admissions counsellor for my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and when I received my first order for The ZEN Succulent, I’d just started a position working for the North Carolina Education Lottery as a retail sales specialist.
What inspired your business, and how did you develop the idea?
The ZEN Succulent started online on Etsy in 2012 as a passion project for me. I was in a dead-end job in sales with a fresh marketing degree under my belt, but no experience in the marketing field in the real world. My only way out and into a better job within the company was to prove that I could create marketing plans, and I thought the best way, while working full time, was to create my own business online, specialising in something I was passionate about – plants.
By creating my business online through the Etsy platform, I was able to explore making DIY succulent terrarium kits for customers and shipping them throughout the USA. Even though at the start I had little sales, I was able to hone in on customers’ interests, developing a brand story, look, and marketing to my niche audience. Within nine months of starting I began to gain traction, selling over 100 succulent terrariums a month from my parents’ garage, and within three years, I’d developed a line of over 55 different terrarium and plant craft options. The income from the business inked a book deal for my book, Modern Terrarium Studio, and I was able to leave my job to focus on growing The ZEN Succulent full time.
That lead to opening our first storefront in 2016, built as a neighbourhood plant and gift shop with our DIY terrarium bar for customers to use anytime we are open in downtown Durham. Our location thrives on customers coming in to learn about easy to care for plants, and us providing them with the knowledge and confidence to do this effortlessly. Our second location in downtown Raleigh opened in 2018. Since opening in downtown Durham, we have moved into a larger space in the centre of the city.
What are the values behind your business?
When starting our retail space, we really wanted to focus on the same values that made our online presences so special – creating a community where plant people can come and talk plants, learn, connect and purchase from fellow plant lovers. That is what sets us apart – the person behind the counter is genuinely here to help and guide you in learning about greenery. That’s our only focus!
Where do you find creative inspiration?
I find inspiration in my surroundings, in North Carolina. Going on hikes throughout the year, outdoor gardening, and visiting the botanical gardens are just a few examples that bring me joy and peace – being active in nature flows into our storefront’s aesthetic and is a cornerstone of our retail experience.
How do you source items for The Zen Succulent?
We focus on sourcing easy to care for but unique plants and emerging maker-focused goods. On the plant side, we source from growers that we have developed relationships with for years, becoming partners of sorts, all with the goal of providing the best greenery. For our gift products, we thrive in find emerging artists locally, regionally and throughout the US based on our customers’ requests.
Tell us about the design of your space…
Our latest storefront has just been renovated in downtown Durham, NC, and it has truly embodied our brand message of life, joy and inspiration. You can see plant-inspired artwork from local emerging artists on our walls in our rotating featured artist series. This is surrounded by the greenery that helped inspire the pieces. Plants cascade from the bookshelves and cacti live in the windows – it’s an in-store jungle! The 14-foot ceiling and white walls highlight the plants, making the space filled with greenery seem cosy and warm. Hanging from the ceiling you’ll find our Rising Sunset collaboration with Claire Daniels, a local artist and set designer. A large birch wood counter doubles as a space for making terrariums alongside our DIY terrarium bar, and we also have an eye-catching six-foot living wall of brightly coloured succulents and cacti.
What’s your neighborhood and community like?
The communities are each their own, with Durham being rooted in creativity and entrepreneurship, and Raleigh being a haven for young professionals. Both communities strongly support local small businesses and celebrate what they bring to make our cities unique.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
Our online community is what keeps our business growing and we enjoy constantly adding to our online list of plant tips and gardening resources, so our customers to have fresh content and conversations. That means weekly plant related information on our blog, From The Potting Shed, based on our customers current questions or what we are excited to share.
As an independent store owner – what do you find are the joys, and the challenges?
The joys: customers that become friends to the shop, sharing our plant knowledge and seeing a person nervously come in for their first plant and leave confident and excited with their new plant buddy.
The challenges: being that we only purchase wholesale from makers and have a limited space, we do have to have tough conversations with emerging artists that we can’t house quite yet, or do not have a product that blends into our aesthetic.
How do you approach marketing and PR?
Grassroots for sure, conveying one message directly to our audience – our business is a niche market and our customers love to share their positive experiences on social media, which naturally grows our brand and our customer base.
What have been your business highlights so far?
Being seen as a community leader and a guide for other small business owners, especially black owned businesses. As a black business owner myself, when I started my business, I did not know any other people that looked like me who could give for guidance or just to talk with about challenges. I hope to be that for those looking to take their first step, and to share my knowledge so we can all continue to create a unique community.
Any advice for aspiring store owners?
Find something you are truly passionate about and see if there is a need for it currently in your community. If there is, look to those that need it for guidance in how you frame your business offering to create a solid foundation for your space. If there is not a need for it quite yet, build your audience and brand awareness to sharpen your skills and protect your idea. In all, start small and don’t be afraid to leap, just look before you do.
Find The Zen Succulent at Downtown Durham Flagship Storefront, 123 Market Street, B, Durham, NC 27701 and Downtown Raleigh Storefront, 208 S Wilmington Street, Raleigh, NC 27601, and online: www.theZenSucculent.com and @thezensucculent.
Photography: Allie Mullin Photography