CHILDHOOD FRIENDSHIP GROWS INTO A BUSINESS PARTNERSHIP by Ellen Donker
deVINE Plantery opens to share the love of plants photography by Julia Maloof Verderosa
Kelly Brown and Maya Haynie remember exactly when they decided to go into business with each other. It was mid-April when, in a series of text messages to her close group of five friends, Brown laid out an idea she had gotten from her sister Devina. “Who’s in?” she asked. Haynie was the one to raise her hand, “with the enthusiasm I was looking for,” Brown says.
Friends since second grade at Clinton School, these newly-minted college graduates have spent a lot of time together. Even when they went off to college, they stayed close, as Brown attended Temple University and Haynie was just a few blocks north at La Salle University.
Their latest interest – plants – began during college. Now the two friends have turned it into a business they most appropriately named deVINE Plantery. They are also capitalizing on a huge boom in houseplants that has only gotten stronger since the pandemic began. Trend watchers attribute it to a convergence of interior design style, urbanization and a desire to nurture a living thing, especially among young people.
Brown laughs when she describes how Haynie got her into plant collecting. “She dragged me to IKEA,” Brown says, “and then she was like, ‘Oh, why don’t you take a plant home.’” That was all it took to start filling every surface of their apartments with plants. Haynie says, “We started going to brunch and then going to the cute locally owned plant shops around the city, and finding new things…and it was a really nice community too. That’s kind of what I think fostered our interest in plants.”
When the women graduated in December 2019 – Haynie with a degree in marketing and Brown with a degree in engineering – they came home to Maplewood and immediately found jobs in their fields. Brown works as a test engineer technician at Becton, Dickinson, one of the top medical device companies. Haynie, a digital marketing professional, is an associate with Nanit, a baby monitor startup.
Full-time careers did not dampen their enthusiasm for plants. In fact, Brown and Haynie were hoping to join an active plant community like the one to which they had belonged in Philadelphia, but found nothing. As Haynie explains, “There’s not really anything small that’s focused on the customer and what their needs are. And that was part of the reason we loved going to those plant shops because it was just a nice experience walking in. They know who you are. They’re like, ‘Hey, how’s your ZZ plant that you bought a month ago doing?’ They would have events…. So I think that was our initial vision – bringing that vibe.” It makes sense, then, that deVINE Plantery’s slogan is “Turning plant care into a lifestyle.”
Initially, the women envisioned a brick-and-mortar store. But when the pandemic hit, they shifted their focus to an online shop. This meant designing a website that could feature their products and process online orders. They also had to curate a selection of houseplants, line up plant suppliers, come up with a plant delivery model (they personally deliver the plants), and find a place to store their inventory. To accommodate the latter, they built a six by eight-foot greenhouse in Haynie’s backyard.
As the women put their processes in place this past spring, Haynie used her social media experience to build their Instagram following, posting teasers about their online store launching in the summer.
Borrowing Haynie’s dad’s truck for their inaugural run to haul plants from their supplier, their first break came on the return trip. Ethel’s Club, a Black-woman-owned co-working space in Brooklyn that describes itself as a “digital membership club designed for people of color to thrive,” sent them an invitation to set up a pop-up shop on the Fourth of July. It was just a few days away but the women agreed – and subsequently sold out all of their plants.
Haynie says, “I think that was really what launched us.” Brown concurs: “It really brought us into the Brooklyn market,” noting that 99 percent of the orders they get from New York City are from Brooklyn.
It’s clear that Haynie and Brown complement one another with their skills. Says Haynie, “The way our personalities and work schedules mesh, [they are] actually really perfect for the business.” True to her engineering background, Brown is all about schedules and systems. And Haynie’s digital marketing expertise enables her to project the business's personality – to show that it’s not about transactions, but relationships.
They admit that the pandemic has given them the flexibility they needed to start the business, and that their family and friends have enabled it to flourish, surpassing their expectations. But it isn’t without risk or trepidation.
Although Haynie’s parents were on board from the start, Brown recalls her father prodding her to focus on her career rather than on a new business. When they were building the greenhouse, though, he was by their side helping them put it together. Apparently, their passion fueled his support and it certainly helps that financially they’ve been self-sustaining. Brown says, “The confidence that we have from the support from our families [has] been super, super helpful.”
The women appreciate that their business has developed at the right pace, perhaps by serendipity. Browns says, “It usually turns out [that] we’ll talk about something one day or one week, and then no more than a week later it kind of just falls into our lap.”
Soon after they participated in the pop-up shop at Ethel’s Club, Amy Hughes of Maplewood Mercantile, a collective of women-owned-and-operated businesses, took notice and invited them to set up space at her store for a weekend. It proved so successful that deVINE Plantery has joined the Merc for a presence every weekend, enabling them to offer a larger selection of plants and pots and in-store pickup. They also get to connect with their customers in person and chat about plant care.
Reflecting on their few months of entrepreneurship, Brown says, “When we started this, every day I’d be like, ‘This is crazy. I’m scared’ – but I’d be smiling while I’m doing it.”
Ellen Donker looks forward to expanding her already ridiculous plant collection with the help of deVINE Plantery.