Small Business: City Botanics, the firm specialising in tiny gardens

Martin Steel-Brown, owner and chief designer of City Botanics, talks about urban design, bringing the trend of tiny gardens to New Zealand from Australia and expansion aspirations.

What does your business do?

City Botanics is a garden design studio that focuses primarily on trying to connect our clients to nature and a feeling of being in the outdoors. We do this through clever design and expert planting advice. We specialise in gardens for small spaces – we work with people in urban situations where they might be in medium to high-density living arrangements and transform balconies, small yards, installation of pots and planters on decks – we customise design solutions to meet their lifestyle.

What was the motivation for starting it?

I was looking for a bit of a career change, I’d been gardening all of my life and I was looking for an opportunity to branch out from what I was doing to start a business. I was walking around CBD and city areas and I’d always stop and look up and see new apartments going up and all the balconies were bare. I could see there was a bit of a gardening trend with people wanting to feel more connected to nature was certainly there so I started to do some research and find out if that was a viable business option.

I started the business back in Sydney just before I moved over to Auckland – I’ve been here two and a half years now, so the business was just getting off its feet when we decided to make the move. It started in 2018 but in terms of New Zealand, in Auckland it started in 2019.

How big is your team?

We have two staff members now which is exciting and scary all at the same time. It is myself and two others; I have a part-timer who works with me with garden maintenance and installation – she’s studying landscape design at Unitec, the idea is to grow her into the role and take her on full-time once she has finished studies, and then I have a casual who helps us out with installations and layout.

How was your business funded?

I started City Botanics with my own savings, I started with $100 and grew it from grass roots. We’re now installing one to two gardens a week, it’s starting to increase quite a bit and we’re getting repeat customers wanting more work done and work from referrals.

Our customer demographics are quite varied – people from young 25-year-old professionals through to semi-retired elderly folk living in apartments. The corporate market is an area I’d like to see some growth and focus on a lot more in the future.

Has Covid-19 impacted your business at all?

Twelve months ago was a scary moment having only been in the business about a year when the lockdown took effect. We tried to use that time to reinvent some of the engagement I had with clients by offering virtual consultations and we were able to pick up a little bit of business from there. As soon as we were allowed out of lockdown under level 3, the demand has been pretty high and we’ve noticed more people are interested in doing their spaces up. Last year we doubled our sales, this year we are looking to grow 70 to 80 per cent again.

What are your long-term plans for the business?

I certainly want to keep growing my team. I want to get more designers into the business that can push out the demand and grow operations. At the moment we don’t have a physical premise, I run everything from my home in Hobsonville Point, with my garden set up as a display garden, but ideally I would like to get a showroom space, have a warehouse where I can have some display sets up. We also want to expand nationwide and have hubs in a number of big cities. Long term, internationally as well – there are lots of options to consider, along with our own product ranges to suit small spaces.

What challenges do you face running this type of business?

The biggest challenge as a sole operator is time management and making sure you are focused on delivering, and having a plan does help with that. Financials hold you back on how quickly and how far you want to grow – whether you want to get into debt or find investors or start it yourself is a choice every small business owner has to make.

What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?

If you’ve got drive and motivation and an area of business you’re really passionate about you should most certainly give it a go. Planning and understanding your market is key.

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