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Berlin Based Founder Turned Her Love For Plants Into a Plant Care and Delivery Business

Deborah Choi is the founder of horticure, a Berlin based plant care business that connects consumers and “plant parents” experts and products that keep houseplants alive and thriving.

We caught up with Deborah to learn more about her and her business.

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Deborah Choi, founder of HORTICURE

What inspired you to start your business?

I first started horticure back in late 2018, though later merged that business with Bosque in early 2021. My entry into this space really started with a direct understanding of the customer pain point: having greenery indoors felt great, but figuring out what your plants needed — less so.

I was really a ‘serial plant killer’, frequently going through the offline hassle of buying plants and bringing them home, only to watch them quickly die and repeat the process. 

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Credit: Stefan Wieland

It turned out I wasn’t alone — nearly 6 million Americans took up gardening in 2016 (with the more recent pandemic chapter likely increasing the figure), and I reckoned I likely wasn’t alone in muddling through lots of Google searches to figure out what my plants needed.

The light bulb turned on with that, and I first built a plant-care first venture with horticure, a kind of Uber-like on-demand link between plant consumers and vetted horticulturists in several European and US cities. 

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Deborah Choi, for Google For Startups Program, Credit: Stefan Wieland

What has your experience been living and running a business in Germany?

Berlin is arguably the startup capital of Europe, and very much so the hub for entrepreneurship in Germany, with nearly 16% of all startups in the country headquartered here. All that said, many of my close friends here are also founders, and anyone can tell you that the journey of a founder can be incredibly isolating and lonely. Building my own venture in such a dense hub for entrepreneurship has made this experience feel much more like a community effort.

horticulture

Please describe how the pandemic brought about a pivot in your business model?

The first wave of the pandemic directly impacted horticure. With stay at home orders, empty offices, and the shared, logical desire to limit physical contact as much as possible, our business of bringing vetted horticulturists into homes and offices needed a pivot to keep afloat.

Horticure quickly switched to a direct-to-consumer model in April 2020, delivering high quality plants to customers across Berlin. With the knowledge of our staff of horticulturists, we found a niche in presenting customers with easy-care plants they weren’t typically presented with: plants such as the low-key crocodile fern, different varieties of snake plants, and less common string plants. Sales were high, and we quickly tested expanding to other European cities (London), as well as nationwide delivery across Germany.

Our switch from a plant care service, to a growing e-commerce company, got the attention of various other brands in our space, including my now co-founders at Bosque. To make a long story short, I was approached about merging businesses, and after many long conversations and operational tests, decided to do so at the close of 2020. In a nutshell, the pandemic brought not only a pivot, but also a new founding team to my business model – a lot more than I’d anticipated!

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What do you feel is behind the passionate plant owners’ deep connection to their plants?

First, I think plants are ‘big’ and have been big for a while, because of other macro trends, namely how much time we spend indoors as a society, and disconnected from nature. The average person in the US or Europe spends 90% of their time indoors, and that was a figure already in place before the pandemic!

The move to bring nature inside is definitely in relation to this reality, but the passion that consumers have for their plants is a lot more about the day to day experience. There’s a lot of joy in bringing a plant ‘back to life’, learning how to propagate, seeing a new leaf unfurl as the seasons change outdoors. 

Which plants are the easiest and the hardest to care for and why?

The hardest plants are the ones that really struggle the most to adapt to the micro climates we have indoors. Many popular houseplants are actually tropical plants. Their ‘home’ climates are often very humid (80%+), dense with other foliage, sun drenched and contain nutrient rich earth.

When given the right environment, all plants will thrive. But the challenge lies in how well one can consistently provide the right (or close enough) environment for their plants. That’s when a plant can become ‘challenging’.

What are your top plant care tips?

I’d say the first point is to understand where your plant originates from, which will tell you a lot about what kind of climate best suits it. For example, if it’s a plant that comes from arid land where rain happens infrequently, such as the sanseveria family of plants, then that’s a plant you should likely only water once a month.

Most indoor plants can actually live for generations, but the reality is the average lifespan of a houseplant is around 7 months. For many, the path to becoming an expert on plant care involves quite a few casualties. That said, try to find joy in the process of turning your thumbs green. I have a young daughter, and I’ve also found it really nice to grow my own plant care knowledge right alongside her.

Tony O. Lawson


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ZAAF CEO on Creating a Luxury Brand and Changing the Perception of Africa

ZAAF is a luxury leather goods brand that manufactures its products in Ethiopia. As an African, I love seeing us take our natural resources and create world class brands that can compete with the usual household names that we’ve been trained to desire.

I wanted to know more about this brand and the brain behind it, so I had a chat with ZAAF founder and CEO, Abai Schulze.

SB: What inspired you to start ZAAF?

AS: It all came down to a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions of “physical creation” had always been a driver for me, even as I spent my university years focused on an economics major at George Washington University.

SB: We are all familiar with the stereotypes that exist about African countries. How important is it to you to change these perceptions with your work?

AS: We promote Ethiopia’s, as well as the entire continent’s rich heritage and cultures through exacting top quality products made with indigenous natural resources by our gifted artisans.

Each piece draws its inspiration from a particular region, and is crafted with the finest materials.

Color, texture, and ageless patterns made on a traditional loom, are merged with carefully selected leather to create a discrete statement of elegance and practicality.

I believe our effort at ZAAF accentuates an angle that speaks to the legitimacy of art, the taste of truthful luxury and the beauty of an earnest human endeavor all built around the hope of a nation.

Positioning a luxury brand synonymous with Ethiopia in the global marketplace is an effective way of displacing negative stereotypes about the country.

SB: Ethiopia has one of the leading manufacturing industries in Africa. What do you feel needs to be done in order for the country to capitalize on this?

AS: Yes – Ethiopia is on track to become Africa’s industrial powerhouse, but there are some challenges that need to be addressed in order for the country to really capitalize on its resources.

One issue in particular I want to highlight is that we must develop our labor force’s skills so individuals can become more productive and truly understand quality control.

It is equally vital that companies pay a sustainable wag as the high turnover indicates this has yet to be achieved.

SB: What is the most fulfilling and most challenging aspect of the work you do?

AS: My driving passion and vision for many years were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth.

We are trying to be a part of the solution by making skills and capacity building integral to our operating model. I believe we are having an incremental but certainly positive impact on the job sector.

I also hope we are having a “knock on” effect and inspiring other young entrepreneurs and designers to enter the space and invest in people.

Of course there are difficulties around infrastructure, red tape and elements like logistics – those go without saying. These challenges should be “priced into” any decision to open and operate in any frontier market.

I think a particular challenge, which is also a wonderful opportunity, for my sector is the need to invest continually in human capital.

I’m highly reliant on qualified and specifically skilled labor who can build unique hard and soft skills. Filtering through, selecting and further investing into this human capital is probably my most unique challenge.

SB: How important is it to you to invest in your community and in what ways are you doing that or planning to do that in the future?

AS: I strongly believe that education and job creation play the critical role to provide economic opportunities in any emerging economies.

So at ZAAF, we support educational programs by inviting students to our workshop, inspiring them with our work, or sponsoring programs that support out vision in these issues.

We believe that financial success and mission impact go hand in hand. We must succeed as a business and achieve financial success in order to create a deeper development impact, build local capacity, and generate sustainable markets.

The success of our company rests upon our ability to create new linkages between emerging market producers and discerning developed market customers, and to generate profit, growth, and revenue in the markets for our artisans.

SB: Where you see yourself and your business in 5 years

AS: We will continue to expand our production in line with our growth goals, while also expanding the range of products we offer. We also aim to grow partnerships and distribution channels.

We will be a globally recognized high-end brand that gives discerning consumers new and exciting choices, and in many cases a whole new perception of Ethiopia and the African continent.

SB: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

AS: Quantify your risks. Build up an appropriate tolerance for risk and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.

I would also advise entrepreneurs to double-down on execution. I’ve always said –  execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.

 

-Tony O. Lawson


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