From Investment Banker To Starting A $350K/Year Plants Store
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Udit from Mumbai. I’m 30 years old and started Root Bridges 5 years back. Root Bridges is an online plants store that delivers plants direct to plant lovers across India. We’re focused on indoor plants and exotic species that are hard to find, easy to grow, and don’t need too much sunlight.
Our customers are first-time buyers, seasoned plant parents, and anyone who wants to get something beautiful for their home from across India. We currently clock sales of USD 350,000 per year, with our website doing particularly well in the pandemic (grown 200% YoY).
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I come from an Economics background having done my CFA and a Master's in Economics from Boston University. After working as an investment banker for 3 years, I realized that I wanted to do something radically different with my life. 5 years back, eCommerce was something that was just taking off in India. Nature and greenery are something I’m deeply passionate about so plants were a natural choice.
Outsource as much as you can. If you don’t have the in-house capability to do SEO, communication, or PPC, don’t try to learn it. Just review metrics every 1-3 months.
India is rapidly urbanizing with hardly any greenspaces available for most people in cities. I wanted to bring greenery into every person’s life, and that was all I needed to make the jump.
This turned out to be much easier said than done. I had no background in both eCommerce and horticulture. We’ve learned everything from scratch starting with putting up pop-up stores across the city and getting actual feedback from people looking for plants.
Take us through the process of designing your business.
India has no fragile or dedicated cold chain shipping infrastructure, so delivering perishable plants was extremely challenging. We work with growers to use lightweight water-retentive potting media, and only dispatch the healthiest saplings to ensure that the plants reach a healthy condition even after a week in transit.
Packaging is another nightmare and we’ve gone through a lot of iterations to reach a low cost as well as a sturdy model. These constraints made us only choose plants that don’t need constant watering. We started with about 5 species and have over 100 now and growing. We’ve learned what’s hardy through continuous feedback and trial and error.
Running a large nursery is also a significant operational challenge. We’re probably the only garden center within city limits in Mumbai that uses a fogger for temperature control. Continuous surveillance for water, fungi, pests, and feed is needed. I’m fortunate enough to have a motivated young team that stays on its toes.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We began by renting a garage and using its roof to keep our plants. We started with exhibitions, pop-ups, or any kind of event to figure out what people want and to stay afloat. In the first 6 months, more plants were damaged by us than we sold. The only way to learn was to do it yourself.
Another major challenge for us has been real estate. Mumbai real estate is a nightmare, and it was really hard to just find an affordable spot where we could get direct sunlight for our plants within city limits. We’re completely bootstrapped having invested only about $45,000 in the beginning. We’ve moved our nursery 5 times in these 5 years, and are still chugging along.
Our online journey started about a year into the process through Amazon. It's been a great platform for us. We’ve added more online sales channels since and our brick and mortar sales have fallen from 90% to 10%.
The biggest lesson from the launch - even if you don’t have a lot of capital, don’t skimp on your website if you want to build a consumer brand. From our launch website to its current version, I’ve made everything myself.
What our current website looks like vs what it looked like 2.5 years ago;
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
SEO has been crucial for us, or in other words not doing too much. We kept adding unique plants and accessories to our website and that kept people engaged. It sounds like obvious advice, but it is about keeping things simple. A lot of customers who bought products from us through Amazon or Flipkart came back for more plants directly from our website. We offer them free plant feed on all orders on our website, better prices than the market places, free shipping above Rs 500 (~ $7), and free replacements for any in-transit damage.
If you try to solve more than 2 or 3 problems at a time, you’ll end up solving none of them. Focus on very few things, and keep doing them again and again till you get them right.
Customer acquisition - We’re growing traffic through all channels - email, SEO, social and Google ads, social media, and good old word of mouth. Unboxings on Youtube have been a big bonus (and free!).
Amazon/Flipkart has been a bit of a mixed bag for us. India’s a real price-sensitive market and it's super hard to have a top-quality product at a great price. One of the biggest online plant stores in India today had their account suspended on Amazon due to ratings, so I feel pretty great about where we’ve gotten. A couple of suggestions I’ll give to anyone who wants to Amazon - get to FBA as soon as you have a few ratings, and know what’s selling in your category. Niche products aren’t going to take off no matter how good your catalog is.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We've been profitable and tax-paying for over 2 years now. We get about 90% of sales online equally from Amazon, Flipkart, and our own website, and the rest through brick and mortar. We’re a team of 13 in-house (largely operational) and close to the same number of external individuals who consult us. Depending on the channel we make between 20-40% of gross margins which covers all costs except salaries and rent.
Our conversions are still pretty low (~1%) so in the short term (1-2 years), that’s a fix that can get us to at least 2x of where we are. In the long term (4-5 years), we’re hoping to grow our topline 4-6x, most of the growth coming through our website.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve become great at being ready for the unknown. Over the last years, I’ve had to deal with disappointed customers, dispatching orders during the pandemic, and a cyclone, and other such things that are bound to happen. Most such unpredictables can’t faze me now.
Another learning is to outsource as much as you can. If you don’t have the in-house capability to do SEO, communication, or PPC, don’t try to learn it. Just review metrics every 1-3 months.
Also, learn to recognize your patterns that aren’t helping you. I for one tend to always pick the cheapest solution. That’s not a great idea in the long run.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Shopify because it simplifies life for those who don’t want to hire a developer for every task on their website
- Marsello for building customer loyalty, rewards, and email campaigns
- Messagebird for centralizing all customer interactions
- Twik for automating session personalization
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- Manjhi The Mountain Man - True story about a man who spent decades cutting a path through a mountain with only his hands
- Jadav Payeng, Forester - The man who planted a forest on a barren Island
- The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, India
- Quiet by Susan Cain
Joe Rogan’s podcasts with Elon Musk
- Jeff Bezos’ TED talk about Electricity & the Internet
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I’ve had a lot of moments of self-doubt. I’ve wondered whether I was wasting my time, whether I had the resilience for the long haul, whether I was falling behind my friends and peers, and a hundred other doubts. Every entrepreneur has them. I’d only suggest it to those who have a decent appetite for uncertainty.
Starting up is about continuous firefighting. If you try to solve more than 2 or 3 problems at a time, you’ll end up solving none of them. Focus on very few things, and keep doing them again and again till you get them right.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re currently hiring a full-time/part-time Ecommerce Specialist
- 2-4 years of experience in D2C eCommerce preferably with Shopify, Google/FB Ads, Analytics
- Competent design skills
- Customer obsession
- Fast learning and adaptable to any kind of work
- Fluent in English
Send in your resume and a short note about why you want to work with us at [email protected]
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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