lower east side
Eliza Blank, founder of the inspirational plant store The Sill, is the perfect example of what giving things a go can accomplish. When you're driven, inspired and curious you can do almost anything.
What initially brought you to New York?
I came to New York to attend NYU. In a sense I followed my older brother here because he also went to NYU. I initially thought I was going to end up in Boston because I grew up in Massachusetts and that’s where a lot of people from there go.
I came to New York for a visit when I was 17, and I was blown away. I remember thinking I could make a life here, I was really excited by it. It was out of my comfort zone, but I think what allowed me to make the decision was the fact that my brother was here. I’d seen him go through living in New York and he was still there. It allowed me to think that I could do this.
What did you study?
Communications, which is a little bit of a catch all. It’s not quite marketing and advertising, but it’s not as broad as an arts degree. I always joke that at college I learned how to read, write and speak, but those are important skills that not everybody has.
Being in New York also allowed me to intern all throughout college, I came out of school with a resume.
How did you get to this point of having your own business? Was it something you always wanted to do?
My brother runs his own business. Again, it was this idea of seeing it happen and seeing it be a success to have your own business. I think that creates a safety net in a way.
My brother started his business in college and has run it since then, he has always been his own boss. He was genuinely entrepreneurial growing up. I wasn’t as big of a risk taker.
After university I worked as a brand strategist for a company in New York, and then I worked in marketing at a hair care start-up in Boston for three years. I got a lot of insight working there on what it was like to start and grow a business. I had the ability to see what all the departments did, and work really collaboratively because we were such a small team.
I had the idea for The Sill in college but I didn’t know what to do with it. After I gained real working experience I was actually ready to do something on my own. I was working really hard for this start-up and I got to the place where I thought, if I work this hard I want it to be something for myself and for my business.
I also found out that I was sort of addicted to work, I knew I could work really hard. That’s not for everybody, but I realized I had the stamina for it.
The hair care start up that I worked for was a very niche market, unlike something like cosmetics or skin care which are giant markets. It gave me a sense of safety in a niche. You’re not competing against a thousand other brands, and you have the opportunity to create something different and stand out.
In my jobs before The Sill I’d always been thinking about the consumer experience, how to make it better, what was missing, how to make products stand out. How do you take something that can seem mundane, but is actually super important, and make it matter to people.
At the time I was moving into an apartment and trying to put plants in my home. I thought, “Why is this category so ignored?”, “Why do people equate owning plants with being a grandma?”
And with owning cats! It’s always a sad old lady who has a home filled with cats and plants. [Laughs]
We always joke but that actually sounds awesome! Why does a house with plants and cats have to be sad? [Laughs]
People were talking about this category wrong. Plants were not being presented in a beautiful way. It was a space that I felt passionate about. I felt like I could create a brand that could own this space. Instead of people going to Home Depot or their local bodega to get plants, they could go to a place dedicated to it. Especially considering that plants aren’t something that are always easy to take care of, you need to know about what you are buying.
I’ve killed so many plants.
Right! It’s usually because people don’t know the basics, or which plants to get for their particular space. What a great thing to be able to share with people. I’ll never feel bad about selling plants, and bring this experience into people’s homes.
How did you actually go about starting The Sill?
I had moved back to New York from Boston and was trying to think about what was next. Could I write a business plan? Could I get this on Kickstarter? Does anybody care? I thought if they do then I would go for it.
So I wrote a business plan, and I felt really excited by it. I launched a Kickstarter and raised a little bit of money. My brother gave me some office space and it was happening.
I was doing a little bit of consulting on the side for my personal cashflow.
It’s always important to mention working other jobs when starting a new business! People don’t talk about it enough. How do people do this?
It was hard in the beginning. You don’t have a ton of direction or confidence in what you’re doing, but I was crazy enough to keep going.
It was a really basic set up in the beginning. It was Erin (our PR and marketing manager) and I sitting in an office together every day. One day we would write a blog post, or a newsletter. We did everything ourselves.
A week would go by and we would get three orders, but there was never a week where we got no orders. They were trickling in and so we just kept going. We slowly built the product line and the business.
Where were you potting these plants back then?
In my brother’s office space. It was crazy because he runs a design agency. It’s not like we were in someone’s garage. We were getting dirt everywhere, we got away with a lot.
We eventually graduated from those 200 square feet, to a 1000 square foot space that we almost immediately grew out of. Now we have a 9000 square foot space for our headquarters in New Jersey.
Was it hard to find what worked for New York? What would stay alive in New York apartments?
We bought a ton of plants, and went from there. If I could keep one alive, then everybody could keep it alive. There are certain plants of course that work for different situations and those that are more tried and true. We found a lot of plants that worked really well but that we hadn’t seen in Home Depot or at the bodegas.
Initially we were working with local artists to create the ceramic pots. It was a great way to get that artisan feel that we were going for, but ultimately we found it difficult to work exclusively with artists because our inventory was highly dependent on them being able to produce one pot at a time. It takes a lot.
We really like the ceramic aspect and having some control over the design. My business partner, Andrew, came on board and helped develop our own range of planters.
The pots are beautiful, that must be a huge aspect of the business …
Yes. You can find beautiful plants at Home Depot if you go the moment the plants get delivered. If they sit there then they won’t work. But The Sill is about the whole package. It’s about being able to hand someone a beautiful potted plant, and they don’t have to do anything. Otherwise you have to go get the plant, and a pot, and potting mix. In New York you can’t store spare potting mix, and you get potting mix everywhere.
I potted some plants at home and it’s the worst, there is dirt everywhere! You solved this issue.
Exactly. It’s too hard to do at home when you live in the city and there is nothing out there that suits your style. Then you get this plant and you don’t know how to take care of it. We solved the three aspects of ease, design and education.
What was one of the major challenges when you started out?
Kickstarter is consuming, it’s a lot of work. Your really have to back into it. You need to look at your network, think about how many people you know, and how much people will realistically donate. You have to build in all these realities.
For me, if I didn’t raise the money on Kickstarter then it probably wasn’t a very good idea to begin with. It was my very first hurdle to overcome, but it was a great way to build supporters. You build a network of people who will be there when your brand actually launches.
It’s been four years since then. The next scariest part was starting to hire people, and to bring other people into the business. This was my mess, did I really want to bring in other people? [Laughs] You want to get people excited about your story, and as passionate about it as you are. It’s scary because you are taking responsibility for them.
If it all goes to shit then you’re responsible.
Exactly. Last year we had eight people, and at the start of this year we are a team of fifteen. It’s really exciting, but the scary part never goes away.
What’s next for the business?
The plan is to grow more outside of New York. We’re looking to expand, we want to be synonymous with plants. If you need a beautiful plant, you immediately think to come to The Sill.
Your store is in the Lower East Side/Chinatown, what does this area mean to you guys?
This area is where the business started because my brother’s office is just around the corner. I do think that our audience, brand, and the core of the company is this sense that we’re a bit of a rag-tag team. Chinatown feels very authentic to that.
It’s crazy watching the neighborhood change in front of our eyes. The area is very entrepreneurial. A lot of businesses are run by first and second generation americans. Being in this community is very inspiring.
What are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?
Dimes is one of our favorite spots. One of our shopkeepers actually splits her time between here and there.
Stanley’s Pharmacy is great. It’s a proper pharmacy where you can get your prescriptions but you can also get juices and teas. Stanley is this trippy guy, he has this new age approach to health. He can cure you just by talking to you!
There’s a pie place around the corner that I always go to called Pete’s Pies. It’s so good.
Irving Farm has great coffee.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Keep going. My brother told me from the beginning if you don’t give up, you will succeed. That sounds so simple but it’s so hard. You want to give up all the time. You hit a wall, and you think you can’t keep going but if you do you will break through it.
It’s also important to remember that in terms of other businesses or people, who could be seen as competitors, ignore what they’re doing. Keep doing what you’re doing. Focus on being here tomorrow, and the next day.
What does New York mean to you?
There is an energy that exists in New York that doesn’t exist anywhere else. People in New York are doing tremendous things every day. They’re doing their own thing, and making it work.
It is a struggle, it’s not an easy place to live, but New York means too much to me, I don’t see myself living anywhere else.
Visit The Sill for your plant fix!
Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©