If a dog feels like a commitment, and a baby’s out of the question, but you’re still dying to have another living being within arm's reach, consider plants? It seems like a lot of other people have. Plant Parenting is everywhere now, facilitated in large part by the booming array of boutique plant companies catering to a life lived at home while rebranding the humble house plant into a multimillion dollar startup industry.

Armed with targeted advertising, and the power of organic engagement, many plant startups have eschewed traditional advertising in favor of consumer-driven community-building. It helps that they’re jumping on an organic trend, capitalizing on the cultural signifier of being a “Plant Parent” and offering a product uniquely suited for our times, for a generation eager to try a new lifestyle. Filling your home with plants promises air filtration, a reprieve from constant screen fatigue, and an indoor oasis when you can’t go outside. Some experts suggest it is yet another example of the millennial generation’s shifting norms: offering a chance for caretaking when investing in a home and starting a family might be cost-prohibitive.

The millennial affinity for houseplants has also produced a very specific millennial market—one that’s taken advantage of the strategic marketing and organic engagement of other startups. It’s online, it’s instagrammable and it’s direct-to-consumer, curating both a product and a lifestyle. Boutique plant start-ups like The Sill, Bloomscape, Greenery Unlimited and subscription-based, confidence-building Horti dominate a niche market, offering unique adjustments to the traditional plant-buying experience. While these startups haven’t fundamentally reinvented the houseplant, they’ve definitely rebranded it—and they’ve managed the pandemic with a resilient consumer market and an unexpectedly appropriate design: contactless, mail delivery.

In just the last six months, largely anticipating another round of winter lockdowns, people have prepared by nesting. While the service economy has faltered in response to our country’s dismal pandemic response, the goods economy has soared. People are spending more on goods than they did pre-pandemic and this holiday shopping season is shaping up to be the biggest ever, even in the precarity of a global economic downturn. For those with disposable income, shopping has been a natural replacement for what they might have previously spent on experiences, translating to solid sales for plant startups, especially those with a pre-existing advantage of by-mail delivery.

In the last 6 months, page views for The Sill and Bloomscape have gone up 126% and 127% respectively, while page views for what could be considered the largest nationwide nursery in the country, Home Depot, declined by 31%.

In a pandemic economy, these companies have remained stable or expanded their personnel, hiring more people in anticipation of future growth. Bloomscape leads the pack, increasing their headcount by 47%, followed by mild growth from its competitors. 

These next-gen plant companies partner with local nurseries, with whom they might have different arrangements. The Mast family, behind the Bloomscape business, comes from “five generations of greenhouse growers” and says they’ve been able to manage a complicated plant shipping business “by developing a deep understanding of the horticulture supply chain.” Most of their plants come from their in-house nurseries based in Detroit. Their careful attention to shipping, a process that has garnered them pending patents, and targeted marketing has paid off. In October, Bloomscape announced a $15 million Series B investment, bringing their total funding up to $24 million, an announcement made alongside their acquisition of the plant app Vera. 

But in some circumstances, there’s a disconnect between the buyers and growers. For those who don’t grow in-house, they might contract out, which means that traditionally risk-averse nurseries have to cater to the whims of a new market. This burgeoning tension is articulated by The Sill’s founder Eliza Blank interviewed for Greenhouse Magazine, “Growers don’t have a huge appetite for risk, which makes our job more difficult, because we have to wait until enough retailers ask for the same plant.” 

Disrupting the industry has opened space for competition, with traditional nurseries and with each other—and each company has a unique approach to cornering the market. Greenery Unlimited has opted for a brick-and-mortar approach, prioritizing a lush storefront and a curated physical shopping experience. Horti is trying a subscription approach, sending a new plant every month. The Sill organizes their plants around the wellness experience, offering an antidote to modern life for what their CEO calls “Generation Stress.” The Sill’s tagline, “Plants Make People Happy” remains consistent across their messaging. Fast Company’s Katharine Schwab rightfully categorized these companies as “wellness startups.” Meanwhile, Bloomscape and The Sill are competing for market dominance for a plant-delivery industry, specializing in shipping technology.

It’s difficult to predict ever-shifting plant fashion trends, but in general, these boutique companies choose plants that are hardy and adaptable, opting for what The Sill calls “abuse-resistant” plants for “first-time plant parents. After all, accessibility is foundational to the market, offering tailored plant care suggestions, guides, pots, compacted soil, and the plant itself, fully grown and ready-to-go. Some, like Bloomscape, go a step further by providing a matriarchal and jovial Plant Mom who oversees plant care and offers personalized help.

Across the industry, these startups are united by two things: plants, and innovation. Bloomscape has patents pending for their shipping technology. Horti is developing an Augmented Reality app to help buyers find the corner of their apartment best fit for different plant varieties. The Sill has targeted a new generation of consumers and would-be plant parents, wanting a change. Growing plants is nothing new, but these startups have still found room for growth.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.