How a houseplant startup plans to disrupt customer fulfillment, support local businesses, and reduce carbon emissions.

December 19, 2023
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For most of 2020 and 2021 in New York City, there were lockdowns, quarantines, and a general propensity to stay at home. Like millions of others, I spent an inordinate amount of time online. And one evening, across my Instagram feed, came an ad for an online houseplant app. I was hooked.

Over the course of the pandemic, I acquired over 30 houseplants. At the time, I was living in a 500-square foot studio apartment in Manhattan. There were plants everywhere. Blessed with huge windows facing south, to my delight, they grew like crazy.

Sales of houseplants increased by 15%-20% in the U.S. during the pandemic. Market research by Data Bridge and professional garden center organizations attribute a large percentage of that growth to Gen Z and Millennials. According to the National Gardening Association, 28% of Americans ages 18–44 participated in indoor plant gardening in 2021. The indoor plants market was US $18.80 billion in 2022, will reach US $27.51 billion by 2030, and is expected to undergo a compound annual growth rate of 4.87% during the forecast period.

Enter HubOn.

Based in San Jose, and serving the Bay Area, for now, HubOn is the brainchild of Gent and Liony Dirga. Liony has long loved indoor and outdoor gardening but was frustrated by the arduous process of shopping for and shipping plants. And the idea of an online gardening community had appeal. So with Gent’s passion for fixing things and his experience with start-ups, and Liony’s knowledge of plants, they launched, an online plant marketplace. “We wanted more and more people to be gardeners. Liony said, “We knew that variety and accessibility are important. So we wanted to connect buyers and sellers. And by solving those problems, we discovered the need for a more efficient, cheaper, plant-friendly, and climate-friendly shipping solution.”

According to U.S. Census data for 2020, e-commerce sales increased by $244.2 billion — 43% — in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, rising from $571 billion in 2019 to $815 billion in 2020. And 12 million new digital buyers came online in the U.S. during 2020–2021. But Morning Consult found that shipping cost is almost 3 times more important than speed in consumers’ e-commerce delivery decisions.

Gent and Liony set out to solve two problems: The cost of shipping, and the climate impact of local delivery. “We saw an opportunity to reimagine the local courier and delivery services, to be more sustainable, less impactful, and more focused on delivery of delicate objects, like plants and arts and craft pieces. And as part of the Bay Area small business community, we wanted to provide a service that would benefit all of us.”

HubOn launched in 2022, collaborating with two local businesses to serve as hubs for customers to drop off and pick up plants purchased through their community. “Our team handles the rest by aggregating transports between hubs, creating a greener, safer, and cheaper alternative to conventional door-to-door transports while bringing additional foot traffic to our hub partners.” The cost to the customer for delivery is a flat $6.99.

HubOn first collaborated with two local businesses to get started. Partners now number more than 45. Liony and Gent could not be happier. “Our customers are saving on delivery costs, their plants are being carefully packed, and they’re helping reduce carbon emissions. And they’re discovering our hub partners — restaurants, coffee shops, arts and crafts galleries — that they were not aware of. Our hubs are acquiring new customers as a result. It’s a win-win for everyone in the process.”

For now, the service is available only in the Bay Area. Plans are afoot to expand to larger markets, and to service other delicate products from local makers.

Gent at Newlab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Gent says that “this is where URBAN-X provides essential guidance. They’re helping us focus the structure and strategy of our growth. At the same time, we’re being mentored on marketing, design, and storytelling. URBAN-X has been an amazing opportunity for us.” Liony says that “Sometimes all we need is structure. We want to do everything at once. The wisdom available to us at URBAN-X helps us temper that enthusiasm.”

Written by
Thomas Falconer
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