How knowledge sharing helped The Plant Runner grow its customer base by 140% in 12 months
Indoor plants have made somewhat of a comeback in Australia over the past five years, and Melbourne-based The Plant Runner has created a foothold in the market for products that help aficionados keep their plants alive.
As founders Dominic Hooghuis and Duncan Hilder have discovered, regardless of whether you sell physical products or your time and expertise, sharing knowledge with your customers can have lasting payoffs.
It’s one of the key tenets of using content marketing to build relationships and a sense of community among the people who might be interested in what you sell.
For best mates Hooghuis and Hilder, both qualified horticulturalists, sharing their passion for plant care makes perfect sense and their images of vibrant and luscious plants are well-suited to visual platforms like Instagram.
It’s also allowed them to transform the business they started with a solitary truck filled with indoor plants to one that makes its own sustainably sourced plant care products. The products are now sold by over 350 wholesale stockists across Australia and New Zealand, and are also distributed in Kuwait and India.
The feedback loop The Plant Runner has created with customers has meant a steady increase in sales, while also playing an important role in new product development as the founders constantly learn more about what products would best help customers.
Since launching in 2017, The Plant Runner has sold more than 250,000 bottles of its Indoor Plant Food. The business achieved 130% year-on-year growth in sales between 2019 and the end of 2021, and grew its customer base by 140% between 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Similar growth is projected for 2022, as The Plant Runner’s product range continues to grow — it launched its natural fertiliser product, the Soil & Microbe Booster, last year.
The Plant Runner’s team is growing too, with the business in the process of recruiting for a full-time warehouse manager to join Hooghuis and Hilder and two casual employees when SmartCompany Plus spoke to Hilder at the end of 2021.
The next step? Looking beyond the local region and taking their products to the world, Hilder says.
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From a mobile greenhouse to making plant food
The Plant Runner was founded at the end of 2017 and made its first sales in early 2018.
From day one, the business captured the imagination of Instagrammers, thanks to The Plant Runner Truck, a 1968 International Harvester truck that Hooghuis and Hilder spent six months renovating into Australia’s first mobile greenhouse, called ‘Fern’.
The pair would fill the truck with indoor plants and sell them at markets. Hilder says word quickly got out and photos of the nostalgic-looking truck began popping up online.
“We’re both gardeners, we don’t have a business background or a social media background, and so at the time we didn’t realise how much of a big deal Instagram was,” he recalls.
“We thought we would just create an account and put some photos up, and I think having the truck was such good content and people love seeing that. We were able to build up a following quite quickly, at least within Melbourne.”
While the truck only makes the occasional appearance at a market these days, those early interactions with customers sowed the seed (pardon the pun) for the brand’s ongoing relationship with passionate plant growers, which over time led to the creation of The Plant Runner’s plant care products.
There are now eight products in The Plant Runner range, from its top selling plant food and oil, to potting mixes, the new soil booster and combination packs.
The ideas for these products have come from the customers who bought from the founders at markets, and Hilder says educating customers personally about plant care remains a key way of finding new customers.
“We’ve always put ourselves as part of the brand; we’re the ones engaging, our names are there on the emails and we try to put our face out there so people know who they are talking to, even if it’s virtually,” says Hilder.
“I think people respond to that a bit more, they know us.”
Hilder says the brand hasn’t spent any money on Instagram and the founders still manage the content for their more than 40,000 followers themselves; customers message the duo on Instagram asking questions about caring for their plants, and the small team creates videos and other content to help answer common questions.
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Stockists regularly share images of the products too, and an appearance on popular home renovation show The Block last year also helped introduce the business to a new audience.
But while that sounds impressive, Hilder does admit it is a time consuming endeavor and one they may look to hire someone to manage, as Hooghuis is still operating his other gardening businesses three days a week.
“We’re flat out all the time and just to do one post on Instagram takes so long, talking about the content and writing the blurb,” he says.
But, he says, maintaining high standards is worth it.
“There’s a lot of people out there with really quality products that maybe don’t have quality content,” he says.
“That sounds really cynical but that’s what people really respond to.”
The pandemic and the indoor plant trend
Like many businesses selling consumer products, The Plant Runner saw a sales increase through the early days of the pandemic as Australians were spending more time than ever at home.
It was somewhat unexpected, explains Hilder, but the experience has shown the team the importance of planning for external influences on demand — and of seeking new distribution channels for its growing product range.
Hilder says The Plant Runner gets enquiries from new stockists each week, and while the trends around indoor plants may change — the founder believes the current “indoor jungle” trend of rooms full of plants may not be sustainable for every household — there will still be demand.
“I think it’s going to be more about designing spaces with plants in mind and more of a stripped back approach, with more feature plants and greenery in the room, but not overwhelmingly green,” he says.
Hilder predicts we’ll see more people bringing plants inside that aren’t conventionally indoor plants and experimenting with atriums and other specially designed spaces.
It makes standing out from the crowd harder, but it is the stockists that really know their plants that are finding the most success.
“I think a lot of it is having a really good community and being able to engage with that community,” he adds.
The Plant Runner prides itself on its products being produced with carbon neutral ingredients that have been made in Australia and sourced sustainability. The business also uses minimal packaging, avoids single-use plastics where possible, and has been a member of 1% For The Planet since February 2021.
Demand for sustainable businesses is not going anywhere either, says Hilder, who believes it would be “very hard for a new business not to be socially conscious”.
In some ways, maintaining this commitment to sustainability becomes easier the bigger the company gets, says Hilder, as newer businesses tend to be more price conscious when they first start out.
“It’s always been at the forefront, but as we’ve grown, we’ve been able to actually say, ‘okay, we can do those things now, we can make it happen”, he says.
The business has also recently moved all of its banking to Bendigo Bank, a provider that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels.
As for what’s next, there’s at least four new products to be launched this year, a new warehouse and showroom to make use of, and Hilder says the team is focused on finding ways to reach new markets.
The Plant Runner is looking for distributors in Mexico, Latin America and Hong Kong, and would ultimately like to get products into the US, although Hilder says the rules and regulations across different countries makes getting products like theirs stateside “a minefield”.