Happy Houseplants recently partnered with Clarissa Hulse who grew up in a house full of houseplants. As the child of a diplomat, Clarissa moved countries every couple of years, and her mother would put great effort into making the rental houses and flats feel homely. The way she did this was to cover the house with textiles and fill it from top to bottom with plants – an insane jungle level amounts of plants. Since then, her houseplants have been a continual source of inspiration. From cushions, to wallpaper, to bed linen – you will find many of her houseplants play starring roles in her beautiful designs.
Emily, owner of Happy Houseplants and Clarissa had a lot to chat about!
As a small business owner, I'm always fascinated by how and why people start their own business. Can you tell me a little bit more about your business story?
I have a degree in fabric design, and for a short period I was designing textiles straight out of University, before eventually moving into buying and selling homewares and fashion for large retailers. We then decided to start a family but a few days before my first child was born I lost my mum and life changed, you're dealing with small children and grief. I eventually had three small children under five but technology had moved on and I felt left behind so I had to think about what I wanted to do next. I wanted to be a mum and work, but you lose confidence and skills.
When I started Happy Houseplants in 2018, not many people were selling houseplants online, and it was well before the houseplant lockdown and work-from-home boom when everyone went crazy for online shopping. Garden centres don't cater for young people or those without a car, so I saw a gap in the market and went for it. I am not a serial entrepreneur. Happy Houseplants is the only company I have started, so it was a steep learning curve.
I had a clear vision from the beginning and worked hard to make the online shopping experience as close to browsing a physical houseplant shop as possible. Our website broke all the rules; we were told we had to use white backgrounds to rank on google and keep product shots simple, but we ignored all that, and luckily it worked for us. People said they enjoyed looking at the website on a Sunday afternoon; browsing the plants helped them relax, which was great feedback early on. We strongly focus on interior design from the beginning; we want to show plants as they would look in your home and still do all our photography and product styling ourselves. The team at Anthropologie noticed us very early on, and we partnered on several projects which really helped give us the confidence we were doing the right thing.
We also avoided investors and crowdfunding, growing slowly and self-funding so we can keep doing things in our own way, putting our customers, employees and the environment first without the pressure of investors and shareholders looking for quick financial returns. It's not the usual online story where people borrow as much as possible and go for growth, but it's helped us keep our identity and buy time to understand our customers and what they want.
How did "Happy" end up in your business's name?
Oh, that's simple, plants bring happiness and wellness to people. They bring us joy that connects to something deep in all of us that wants to be surrounded by nature. Selling house plants is tough; they are perishable, seasonal, hard to ship and highly variable; no two plants are the same. But I love plants and the industry and I am passionate about the happiness they bring.
It's well established that public spaces with houseplants attract more people. The data also tells us that shops, restaurants, and hotels make more money, and clients and customers feel happier and spend longer in spaces filled with plants. We also know employees are more productive and content in offices filled with plants. Plants affect our behaviour and mood every day in a positive way. We know this is true from studies, but we dont yet know why; it's still a mystery why plants make people happy.
Plants outside can also be used to insulate and warm up spaces in winter, insulating roofs or protecting against cold winds and helping provide shade and humidity to cool rooms in summer, so they can be used to save energy. It's a mission of mine to green as much space as possible.
Another thing we have in common is Liberty's! I know you used to work for them, and it was thanks to my scarves being spotted by a Liberty buyer early on that I was able to get my business off the ground. My mother used to take me there as a child and I would sit in the fabrics department bored out of my mind... but I think some influence must have actually seeped in! Which department did you work in and what did you learn from working for Liberty's?
My first job was at Liberty; it has a special place in my heart. I worked in the Fabrics department right through my university days as a student at the London School of printing and beyond and learned so much about textile design.
The customers at Liberty travel from all around the world; it's quintessentially English but always at the cutting edge of global design trends. You learn about good design from your colleagues and customers and by being surrounded by the classics like Tana Lawn.
Being respectful of the past but being open to change and innovation was probably my most significant learning at Liberty, which might surprise some of your readers. Liberty can be perceived as old-fashioned, but the opposite is true. Liberty is bursting with ambition and innovation, and almost every staff member is a budding film director, dancer, designer, actor or singer. It's a creative hub for so many industries.
I also learned about good customer service, and that the experience matters in retail. Shopping should be theatre and fun. I adored my time at Liberty and the people I met (including my husband!)
We're all OBSESSED with houseplants. My studio and house are full of them. And many of them have even ended up in our designs. How do you explain the massive increase of interest in houseplants over the last couple of years?
The Pharaohs in Egypt kept houseplants over five thousand years ago, so it is not a new fad, but I agree it has become even more popular recently. Social media has had a significant influence; the ability to share our plant collections and knowledge have helped people understand how to keep plants indoors. More innovation through mobile apps that send us reminders to water and help us care for plants means more people than ever can successfully keep houseplants.
Through the covid lockdown, we noticed that customers started calling themselves plant parents and introduced us to their 'plant pets'. The connections grew more profound, and their houseplants got them through some tough times.
People also increasingly lack space or the time for traditional pets in urban areas and move around more, as they rent later in life. Having a plant collection can quickly help make a space a home. And the variety of plants means you can easily choose something online that's good for shade or will grow along a shelf. Selecting the right plants, with online shops offering filters and sorting options, is easy, and the choice is vast compared to traditional plant shops or garden centres.
Good design also endures; the popular 1970'S houseplants like the Monstera or cheese plant remain popular in 2022 because they make excellent indoor houseplants, easy to grow in almost any light and look beautiful. Twinned with a designer planter, you can easily add colour and contrast to any space. I can't imagine any indoor space without plants. So like cushions on a sofa, plants are here to stay.
I know you're a keen interior designer as well as a plant fanatic. Are there plants you recommend for specific rooms in a home? Or to fit into specific colour schemes?
I advise anyone to choose the right plants for the space before selecting the colour or anything else. Healthy plants growing well make good design. Dead plants are never a good look.
Think about the light and your lifestyle. Busy people dont want a plant that needs a lot of care and attention. Plants are living things; they deserve a few minutes of research to ensure you can keep them alive. Once you know you can keep your plant alive, the choice is endless.
Start by keeping easy care plants, leaving the exotics for the hobbyist and collectors. Unless you want to add humidifiers and grow lights, choosing something resilient to cope with low light, central heating and missed waterings is best.
Any Philodendron, Pothos, Syngonium or Maranta plants will grow well indoors. Look for those names, and you won't go far wrong. I also recommend shopping at a dedicated plant shop; you won't get great advice or support from eBay or Amazon when things go wrong. The specialists are usually much cheaper anyway, offering real discounts and specials. Plant subscriptions can make nice gifts for those completely new to plants, we send a plant and a pot with care guides, doing all the hard work for you.
Finally, let your plants wild. Wilding plants look gorgeous, so avoid trimming and let your plants grow into a space. Everything looks much better when left alone to grow naturally. We spend a lot of time talking to our subscribers and customers about letting your plants grow naturally. It takes time, but plants left to grow for a year become a focus in the room and something beautifully unique.
I was so impressed to see that you won the Oscars of the houseplant world this year - the RHS Chelsea gold medal. What's the secret to winning? And where do you keep your medal?
Thank you very much! It's something special, and we are very proud of our achievement. Hard work and building a great team is the secret to winning. RHS Chelsea is the biggest flower show in the world, people travel from around the world to attend along with the Royal Family, and the pressure is enormous, so get good people around you.
We decided early on that we did not want to create just a pretty studio at Chelsea. We wanted instead to use the platform to help inform and influence people to care better for houseplants. We pulled together a team, including Sarah, The Plant Rescuer who helps rescue and rehome unwanted plants, Ben at Worcester Terrariums, Amy at Soil Ninja, Ian at Liquid Gold Leaf Plant food and Soltech Solutions. All great people running terrific brand's doing the right thing, helping to inform people how to care for houseplants sustainably.
The Plant Clinic at RHS Chelsea was an interactive space for people to learn how to care better for their plants. While we won and are very grateful, we feel it's only the start of our journey. So watch this space for what we do next!
You dont get a medal from Chelsea; you get a certificate, so it's sitting in a drawer at home. I have yet to frame it, but I want it to go on the wall at some point!
What's been the most surprising thing you've learned from your time with Happy House Plants?
It's easy to make assumptions when you have a passion for your business or product; people lack confidence with plants, and I missed that at the beginning because I love plants. Repotting, staking to a moss pole or simply watering can be very stressful for some people. We now help give advice for experts and those with no experience at all keeping houseplants. If you start a business, don't assume everyone has the same passion or experience you do.
And what are your biggest dreams for the year ahead? Or the next five years? (personal or business)
I want to help change the industry and eliminate all those dead and dying plants at DIY shops; putting all that time and energy into growing something and then throwing it away is not sustainable. We can build a more sustainable industry if we help people choose the right plants for the right space.
On a personal note, my daughter wants an Axolotl (look it up!) and has been asking for ages, so that's going to happen even though I have no idea how we will make more space for plants and pets at home!
What's your star sign?
Cancer, we like cosy spaces full of plants!
Greatest life hack for running a business whilst juggling a family? ( I can relate to this one)
Remember if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Juggling work and family is hard whatever you do for a living, it's never going to be easy being a working mum, the only way i can do this is with a huge amount of help, I have an amazing team at work who I lean on and my husband is hands on at home and helps with the business, so we can be flexible. I'm so grateful that I can pick the kids up occasionally or stay home with them if they are ill and off school or stay late at work when I need to, it's really tough without that flexibility, I simply couldn't do it without the brilliant people doing this with me.
DIY task you ace?
I love painting, When we moved into our house, the 1930's fireplace was dark wood with gold trim, I painted it Farrow and ball anthracite and sprayed all the gold black, its a lovely backdrop for our plant photos.
What is your dream paint colour, and what would you call it?
My mum adored turquoise, actually looking around as a type there isn't enough in my home, that's one for the to do list!!
What's your favourite garden in the UK?
Middleton House in Enfield is a secret gem with a beautiful greenhouse full of houseplants.
What would you save first in a house fire (after family & pets)?
I would grab my mobile; I would be lost without it.
Do you have a favourite cocktail?
White wine for me!
What luxury would you take to a desert island?
My kindle, it's the best invention ever!
Top houseplant tip?
Always remember the saying; drench, then drought to avoid overwatering. It works for my plants every time.