There was nothing extraordinary or particularly special about the first email. It arrived on Halloween night in 2015 and was just a simple request to do a 10-foot tall “living wall” for a client. “I answered the email professionally, just as I always would, and after a couple emails back and forth, the person told me they were from HGTV,” says Megan George, founder of The ZEN Succulent, a modern terrarium and plant craft business based in Durham, NC.
Soon, Megan was meeting with Chicago-based interior designer Tiffany Brooks, who was in town to lead design for HGTV’s new Smart Home. The three-bedroom abode was fully loaded with the latest high-tech gadgets and functionality, and it was all up for grabs to the winner of the network’s Smart Home Sweepstakes. Featured on the screened-in porch? Megan’s installation that included faux succulents, air plants and preserved mosses, all set in native North Carolina hardwood. “It’s so lucky that we were able to do that,” she adds. “And they reached out to us because they recognized our name — which was very great to hear — but also because they saw our work on our website and different platforms.”
Amazingly, and despite her incredible talent for making plants beautiful, Megan fell into her business almost by accident. She had grown up with a love of the outdoors and all living things while visiting her grandmother in rural Whiteville, NC. The sprawling cotton fields and farm atmosphere felt like home, and when she returned to her hometown of Raleigh, her parents always made it a point to bring the outside in. “We had lush outdoor greenery with ferns during the summertime, plus trees that my father planted himself, and that’s where my love and appreciation [for plants] came from,” Megan says. Still, though, there was no early sign that this would become the foundation of her career.
Megan graduated with a business degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in 2011, and promptly started a standard 9-to-5 job. She worked first with her alma mater, and later for the state’s Education Lottery, but there was always something missing. Fortunately, as she went back to her roots — both literally and figuratively — she discovered that others were missing what she had to offer. “I always had a maker’s spirit — a creative spirit — and one thing led to another, which ended in me creating a terrarium,” she says. “Someone surprisingly wanted to buy it, so I made more terrariums, along with my mother, and we just continued doing it.”
Megan posted her first terrarium on Etsy in 2012, and while things were certainly slow-going at first, she was determined to leverage her business acumen to make her burgeoning side-hustle a full-time success. With her marketing education (and frustration from not being able to use her skills in her day job), Megan dove headfirst into social media marketing, keyword optimization and aesthetic sensibility. That is, she learned to take great photos. “I’m looking at magazines, seeing how Martha Stewart takes her photographs and reading the Etsy forums and feedback from other people,” Megan says of her early days on the platform. “I figured out that having a clean, white background would help customers see my products easily.”
And, eventually, those products started to sell. “When I first started on Etsy, I was excited to get a sale a month, and that’s how it always starts — with one sale a month,” says Megan. “So I got my first sale, and my second sale was a month after that. And then a month after that, it was two sales, and it just continued to multiply. It wasn’t really until Mother’s Day 2013 when people were like, ‘Oh, I want to give my mother a plant,’ that sales increased dramatically. Instead of getting sales twice or three times a month, we started to do 10 orders a week, which was big at the time.”
Fast forward a few years, and The ZEN Succulent now has a storefront in downtown Durham, in which Megan and her mother, Margaret, sell plants to the local community, while also teaching classes to novice and experienced horticulturists on the ins and outs of succulents and terrarium building. “I didn’t want to just sell things to people; I wanted to become a resource,” Megan explains. “And that resource enables people to feel comfortable with purchasing, and then also feel comfortable, if they have questions in general, to start a conversation. In order for me to keep my business maintaining and growing, I not only have to know about terrariums, I have to educate people.”
With growth comes challenge, and Megan admits to working hard to keep up with demand — her company now produces about 35 orders a week — while maintaining the integrity and quality of her product and remaining a trusted resource for customers. Additionally, Megan has written a book, Modern Terrarium Studio; she’s creating a full product line of plant accessories (a plant stand will be available online in early July); and there’s a too-long waiting list of folks who have seen her work on HGTV, in local museums and elsewhere and want their very own installations.
It’s a lot for the young entrepreneur who also does social media consulting for other small businesses, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all about building the brand, she says. So despite The ZEN Succulent’s brick-and-mortar success, Megan continues to maintain her Etsy shop. “The reason I’m continuously staying on Etsy is that I don’t want to give anybody else another chance,” she says. “If I am off the platform, that leaves another terrarium artist that opportunity, and Etsy is where I’ve built a reputation. It’s hard work gaining that knowledge, building relationships and maintaining that reputation. I can’t afford to let someone else reap those benefits.”
The ZEN Succulent is located at 125 E. Parrish St., Ste. 100 A, Durham, NC, 27701. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Closed Monday and Tuesday. To learn more, call (919) 480-1762 or visit thezensucculent.com.
Special thanks to Alex Boerner for today’s beautiful photos. See more of his work at alexboerner.com.
Keep up with the best of the South — follow us on Instagram, @StyleBlueprint.