Through the glass with Emma of London Terrariums.
How did the business get going?
I started it more as a hobby than a business. Just me and some friends after work and at the weekends being like "Let's make terrariums". We were constantly swapping houseplants and wotnot. None of us had a garden so we were just reading about these terrariums and thought it was a cool thing.
That was probably about 6 or 7 years ago. Then me and a friend of mine, Tom were like “Hey, this could be a business maybe”. We were just trying to do something alongside our jobs. I was working in commerce at the time and thought I could forge a career out of this but didn’t really know if it was my main passion.
A friend of mine opened a cafe in Peckham and she suggested I should come and teach workshops. We did the first with friends and family and got loads more interest. It was at that point that I thought this might actually be able to be something. I’ve never really had a business plan or anything like that - that was probably the really wrong way to go about doing a business but for us I think it kind of worked.
I had started off with my friend and then about a year into it he left, so I had to do it by myself which was a really scary thing. But then it gave me the freedom to cut my hours down at work (because finally just one person taking some money made it work). Then it just escalated from there.
I got a studio in Bermondsey about five years ago, so I didn’t have to keep doing it from the kitchen table and annoy all my housemates - and then it just went from there.
From a young age I was making gardens out of seed trays with my nan and grandad. There was no one else making terrariums when I started, hardly anyone even knew what they were.
I enjoyed telling people about their history, which harks back to Victorian times. They were a British invention and people latch onto that nice idea.
I went to university in London and have always been around Peckham and New Cross, even 10-12 years ago friends were swapping plants and sharing cuttings. There was just always a keen interest in horticulture. I did a design degree, everyone who works with me has come from a design background so we have an eye for nice things rather than purely approaching this from a horticulture angle.
There's a historical element, and the horticultural one, and the millennial reconnecting with nature. People in their seventies love it because they remember when they were kids. They connect with a lot of people.
What challenges have there been along the way?
There were a few challenges. Namely when Tom left, so going from two of us to then just being myself. Tom was definitely in charge of the business side of it - he was also the graphic designer - I didn’t get involved with that I was just making the terrariums really.
When he left I had to make the decision on how I do both of those when I’m not very good at that and I can’t afford to get anyone on board to do it. So that was definitely a challenge.
Also, knowing the right time to take it from (I hate this word) a 'side-hussle', to a full time job. Knowing when to do that was quite tough.
When did you first know that it could become a business?
It’s quite a nice story how I knew. There’s a design agency and shop called YCN on Rivington Street in East London, and they were our first ever corporate workshop. We did these powerpoint presentations, it was the funniest thing looking back at it. That was our first workshop.
I remember chatting to Jenny from YCN and she told us about her being an illustrator and wanting to pursue that full-time. Over the years I just kept bumping into her in various different ways. She started a wildlife drawing workshop where you go along and they teach you about conservation of the animals and she brings these amazing animals in, like baby wolves.
She started that part-time as well. I was talking to her one day and she had reduced her working hours down at YCN, which led me to doing the same with my job. The next time I saw here she told me she had quit her job and I asked how she knew and she said you will get a gut instinct.
About a week or two later I was in a meeting at work and they were talking about this six month plan and I remember thinking "OMG, there’s the gut instinct" - and I literally handed my notice in the next day. They were really supportive, I had obviously cut down my hours and they knew what I was doing with London Terrariums. I would smuggle in trays of moss under my desk to drive to a workshop in the evening so I think they knew it was coming. They gave me the option of doing freelance work on the side which was a nice little cushion, but luckily I’ve never had to do any.
What's the plan for the future?
I’ve never really had a massive plan for London Terrariums, I’ve just been kind of going with the flow.
The idea of combining both shops in to one would be ideal. Neither is perfect - the one in New Cross is a great location, but it’s not big enough. The one on Tottenham Court Road is a great location, but we don’t have anywhere to make the terrariums. The ideal would be to get somewhere more central that had an amazing studio where we could make them and hold workshops.
COVID has really pushed us into getting the online side of the business in to gear too. I’ve been talking for years about doing home terrarium kits, but everything gets in the way and it gets pushed to the side. This period has given us the opportunity to do them.
What advice would you give to others who are starting their own business?
Sort out your cushion around you. Network with people who are in your field, just go and chat to as many people as you can and get as much advice as possible. Make friends with these people, don’t try to make them your enemy or a competitor.
One thing I found from the gardening and horticulture field that I’m in is that you can learn so much from people doing similar things. Everybody has got each others back which is really lovely.
Also, get an accountant and someone to do your books. I’ve only just got a proper one in the last few months after having help from friends. It’s really hard work going back on all of that, so if you can get an accountant sorted from the outset that will really help you out.