How We Expanded Our Local Plant Nursery To An Online Business

Published: September 8th, 2019
Debbie Odom
Founder, CamelliaShop
from Georgia
started June 2007
market size
avg revenue (monthly)
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
210 days
growth channels
Email marketing
business model
best tools
Google Drive, Affiliatly, Airtable
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
42 Pros & Cons
4 Tips
Discover what tools Debbie recommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Debbie recommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Debbie Odom and I am a horticulturist and the co-founder of

We are proud to be one of the twenty-seven million small businesses in the United States. Camelliashop specializes in Ornamental Flowering Camellias and Camellia sinensis Tea Plants and we ship our plants throughout the USA. We average $5000 a month in revenue.




What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 1991, I had the life-changing opportunity to become a part of Gene’s Nursery, one of the oldest nurseries in Savannah Georgia.

When I had the opportunity to leave my office job and get my hands into soil, I was happy and I was hooked.

Gene’s Nursery has its roots firmly planted in our quaint historic coastal city and it’s passion was the Camellia. Camellias are ornamental shrubs that produce brilliant blossoms during the fall and winter. They are the most unique flowering shrub species found today and are considered the Queen of Ornamental shrubs.

One camellia species in particular, Camellia Sinensis, is responsible for the beverage we all love to drink - Tea! Camellias thrive in the south, and in Savannah Georgia they are treasured beauties that are the essence of our gardens, our tables and our hearts.

I immediately fell in love with the nursery and the Camellia, but gardening is not a new hobby for me. I have always had a love of blooming things as my maternal grandmother, Dora Lee, had my hands in the dirt from the time I was able to walk. We grew all sorts of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees.

Being in the garden and one with nature was the most enjoyable time in my life and created not only lasting memories with my Grandmother, but the inspiration I needed to become a horticulturist. So when I had the opportunity to leave my office job and get my hands into soil, I was happy and I was hooked.



Describe the process of launching the business.

Since 1957, Gene’s Nursery has sold to customers in our local region. We would occasionally get out of town folks to visit, but for the most part, our customers were all local.

Prior to the internet, nurseries who wanted to ship plants had to produce paper catalogs and customers who wished to buy had to send in a paper order with a check and the only communication was by telephone or mail. When I joined Gene’s Nursery in 1992, one of the first purchases we made was to buy a Hewlett Packard Computer that came with Windows 3.1 installed and it was fully loaded with a 256MB harddrive! We thought we had purchased the moon.

Soon after, we had the ability to have our products on the internet but didn’t really have a payment source, customers had to call in to place orders. It was very modest, but this was in the early days of websites and most homes didn’t even have computers. We kept up with the website and it’s limitations until we discovered an all in one ecommerce solution from Volusion.

We launched our new website,, in November 2007 and with that our customer interaction and online sales shot up 200% within one month of launch and has steadily grown ever since. This took our business from a local hometown sales shop to a national plant source.

We are unique in that we have never used bank funding or any other loan process to fund our business or our websites. We completely funded everything we have done in both the retail and the online business from money we made selling plants and putting some aside to pay for expansion. If we don’t have the money, we don’t make the purchase. A friend asked me one time who funded our business and I was, and still am, proud to say, ‘‘We do!”

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

With the launch of email and social media, finding and keeping customers is easier than it once was with a paper mail system.

We currently use Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for our main social media efforts.

We use Constant Contact to manage our email subscribers. It’s a great app and integrates with Shopify, our e-commerce provider. It saves us a lot of time by adding our customers directly into the email program. We have an email newsletter that sends blog articles to subscribers along with product and sale info.

We have a blog on that we try to post interesting and informative growing information about our products. It’s built into Shopify which makes it super easy to manage from one app. Our articles include monthly gardening advice and some really great how-to’s. One of the most popular blog posts we have is about Waxing Camellias. This is a great how-to article on preserving camellia blossoms that features complete instructions and full color photos. It is written and shared from my personal experience with this fun craft instead of a being a boring technical article. It always performs well every time we share it on social media or through our email newsletter because it is something that appeals to both gardening and non-gardening people!

Check out the link here.


When marketing, I try to use the rule of 3rds. One third of my marketing is teaching, one third is sharing with them on a personal-professional level, and one third is actually trying to sell my product.

We use Google Shopping Ads and Facebook ads which bring us a fair amount of customers. CamelliaShop is a member of many gardening organizations including several facebook groups relating to Camellias and gardening. Because of our long history in the horticultural industry, we have established a presence in the gardening community. Honestly, more of our customers and sales come from our affiliations with these groups than we get through random internet advertising.

When marketing, I try to use the rule of 3rds. ⅓ of my marketing is teaching, ⅓ is sharing with them on a personal-professional level, and ⅓ is actually trying to sell my product.

Keeping customers engaged is always finding something they will find relevant. If all they see are ads, that’s going to get old. We share our experience as a grower, we show them things they have not seen before and we provide products they can purchase. But most importantly, we try to connect with them in their garden - where they want and need our help.



How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our present and our future looks bright! Our breeding program keeps us on the front line of new and rare plant introductions so there’s always something for us and for our customers to look forward to.

All of our sales are through our own retail store and our online shop. Because of the nature of our products and the level of personal connection we want to have with our customers, we do not sell through Amazon and other big box stores like Walmart. I think the one thing that has made our nursery special is the way people feel like they are part of the family and I just don’t feel that we can connect with customers in the same way if we were selling products through the largest retailers. When customers visit our retail store or CamelliaShop online, we want the experience to feel like they’ve been invited to our home instead of meeting them at the corner diner.

We plan to continue finding ways to improve our customer experience, with better product selections and pricing, that will keep them coming back over and over again.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The largest lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to keep up with the changing times and you have to change with them. When we started with Camelliashop in 2007, there was not a lot of competition. We owned the market because we were one of only a few plant nurseries that had an online presence that shipped plants throughout the USA. Today, there are many plant nurseries that are online and sell and ship Camellias and competition is heavy.

We live in a world of copy-cats. Unique ideas are few and far between. The key to being different is singing your own song, not someone else’s. That’s the philosophy that we try to adopt in our own business.

Shipping was super cheap in 2007. We could ship a large sized plant to California from Georgia for under $15. Today, that same plant costs over $40. ‘Free Shipping’ is a deal breaker for most customers who buy consumer goods. Big conglomerates like Amazon are able to offer free shipping to their customers, but small businesses can’t make a profit doing so.

Keeping up with the competition for us is finding ways to offer products that are unique and that will keep customers coming back to see what’s new. Creating new Camellias through our breeding program makes it easy for us to make a difference. Also with today’s “Free Shipping World” We are also trying to find ways that we can offer free or reduced shipping to customers on certain products or by minimum purchases. We are always open to changes that we can make to attract new customers and keep the old ones.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We have used many different ecommerce platforms from Volusion, BigCommerce to Shopify. We are finally with Shopify and are very happy with the platform as a whole. Facebook and Instagram are excellent products because of the ease of use between the two. We have just recently started with Outfy to manage auto marketing to Facebook and Instagram.

We chose to use Shopify’s built in shipping module. It’s so much nicer to be able to just click “create shipment” instead of having to re-enter shipping info in a separate module. Shopify also offers huge discounted shipping rates that save us money.

One of the most beneficial and most used apps is It is a design app we use to create beautiful social media posts and covers, as well as flyers, email headers, book covers, cards and a great deal more digital marketing items. I use Canva because it’s easy to use with predesigned templates that let you plug images and go. They also have a huge digital library that you can use in your promos without having to go take photos or hire a photographer.

We used to use Photoshop to create our marketing items until we found Canva and now it’s the app of choice.

Advice for other entrepreneurs want to get started or are just starting out?

We live in a world of copy-cats. Unique ideas are few and far between. In the music industry, how many people can take a hit song and re-record it and how many will make the same impact that the original artist made? Not many. The key to being different in the music industry is singing your own song, not someone else’s. That’s the philosophy that we try to adopt in our own business.

There are many nurseries that sell some of the same plants that we do and sometimes at a much cheaper price. So how do we compete? The answer for us is to “sing our own song”. By working to offer unique plant introductions we are creating a barrier between the copy-cats and the originals. We are offering our customers a product that they can’t get anywhere else.

My advice to starting entrepreneurs is to sing your own song! Be unique - be different - in everything you do. Find something that no one else is doing, or find something they are doing, but do it better - create a difference.

Where can we go to learn more?

Email: [email protected]

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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