Treleaf™: The Founding Story
This blog post was originally published on our founder, Zeba's personal blog on Medium in March 2021 titled Treleaf™: A plant accessory business takes root. We would love to share the story of how Treleaf was born with our plant community.
I know it’s been radio silence for the last few months, here’s an update! I started a new plant accessory business in November, Treleaf. I was pleasantly surprised by the growth, and I think I am beginning to understand what product-market fit actually means.
If you know me, you know my love for plants and all things green. I have been a container gardener, with a focus on growing as many types of plants indoors as possible. Once you start living with many indoor plants, you do want them to blend in with your residence. Over time, I began thinking of plants as living art, and tried to come up with clever displays.
At the same time, I have always been passionate about taking manufacturing to the next level, and in particular, “mass customization”. I am fascinated by processes for translating concepts and designs into physical objects. Such as computer-aided additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques.
These two streams of thought came together last fall.
The Quest for a Better Plant Trellis
I got a Monstera Adansonii (a fancier version of a common pothos), a plant that vines and loves to climb. Traditionally, you either use a moss pole or a bamboo stake to support its growth. The engineer in me compelled me to make a moss pole, and it was not at all hard to make it. But once I staked my plant on it, I felt like hiding it in a corner of my sunroom. I fell into the classic engineering pattern of function over form. It was not aesthetic by any means. Another problem, I had to spray the pole everyday, or else it started shredding dust.
So then I started looking for alternative supports, such as trellises. I found some geometric pieces in the marketplace, and they looked better than that moss pole. However, I was not thrilled by what I saw.
One afternoon driving back from my makerspace, a thought crossed my mind — what if a trellis looked natural. Like a leaf. I took a u-turn and drove right back to the makerspace. I spent the afternoon prototyping and experimenting with a laser cutter at the speed of thought. I came up with a design based on a Monstera. When it came off the laser cutter, it was a little sooty, but still looked better than any trellis I had seen.
I added a few pictures on social media, asking for feedback. A few people asked where they could buy it. Honestly, at that time, I had made the trellis as a personal experiment, not initially intending to sell it.
So I thought, let’s test this on Etsy, and see where it takes me.
Back to the Workshop
But I knew I needed some more effort before listing it for sale. My initial effort was mainly based on the design. But then the material scientist and engineer in me realized, I should think about making manufacturing more efficient, and think more about the materials and processes.
I experimented with different substrates, coatings, thicknesses, and processes. It was not just a matter of getting a panel and throwing it into the laser cutting. A lot more went into coming with a product that looked great, and was durable.
I got a quick education on aspects of woodworking from my makerspace buddies. Sawing, sanding, planing, staining, coating, all the good stuff. The product became better. Finally I came up with a product that I would be happy to buy.
Long story short, that time ended up being super crazy with me making hundreds of pieces (read, mistakes) while also developing and perfecting the process.
Treleaf™ takes Baby Steps
In parallel, I refined the design, and went back to the drawing board to come up with a few more designs, and then came up with brandnames for the designs and the line. That’s how the first few Treleaf™ designs were born: Monstrella™, Anthrulla™, Palmella™, and Cactrella™ brand trellises.
My Trealeaf™ store was finally live on Etsy in November.
The orders started coming in. Perhaps it was just in time for the holiday season, but just a few social media posts were enough to prompt site visits, full carts, and checkouts.
Breathing Room and Product-Market Fit
It was a blur, keeping up pace with manufacturing, packaging, and fulfilling orders. After mid-December, as holiday shopping trickled down, I finally got a chance to take a break, reassess, and think about the next steps.
After the break, I decided to run it as a proper business. So in January, I decided to open up an independent ecommerce store (treleaf.shop), and actively structure the business.
That led to onboarding the first employee while also working with many more freelance contractors to keep the business afloat.
Now I know what a product-market fit looks like! I always wondered, and one of my mentors had told me, when you have product-market fit, you will not be asking that question. I finally understood what he meant.
So here I am with lots of adrenaline (and anxiety), running and growing a new business, with everyday bringing a different challenge!
PS: If you are looking to join on the journey of ‘future of manufacturing’ and have the marketing smarts or the mechanical engineering/robotics smarts, please reach out. Always looking to add more people to the mission.
PPS: Help us spread the word. Check out our web storefront at http://treleaf.shop/ or follow our journey on social media — Instagram or Facebook.