RoCo by Erika Raxworthy
RoCo are specialists in indoor tropical plants, from beautiful objects to contain them, to transforming urban spaces with gorgeous greenery – and the authors of House Of Plants – a modern guide to succulents, cacti and air plants.
Co-founder Caro Langton interviewed on the phone, March 2017
My co-founder Rose Ray and I met studying Fashion Design at Nottingham Trent University. We became close friends and housemates and used to joke about one day starting a business together. Having graduated we both moved to London for work – Rose as a set designer and myself in textile design.
Rose happened to go on holiday to San Francisco and noticed all sorts of amazing plants indoors and out, including seeing the hanging air plants for the first time, [tillandsia, the ‘magic’ species of plants that survive without roots, soil or water, just hanging in the air] which gave her the idea to start a project working with plants when she got back to London.
Around the same time, in 2014 my Grandmother passed away and my parents let Rose and I live in her amazing house near Hampstead Heath. It was a great opportunity to start a business as we didn’t have to cover the cost of rent at the time. The house itself was a big inspiration as it was filled with my late Grandmother’s collection of tropical plants, cacti and succulents as well as a trove of gardening books. It’s the ‘House’ from the title of our book, The House of Plants. My grandmother’s generation were more connected to plants then people are today. She had this huge collection but was very matter of fact about it. People back then gardened, grew their own vegetables and it was totally normal to them, not a big deal.
At first it was mainly about making the little things to hold the plants, like copper Himmeli mobiles, concrete pots made by Rose and little found objects like a camera lens to hold tiny plants. Our unique selling point was the magical looking air plants and the Himmeli mobiles to hold them; 3D structures made from thread and copper tubing that are a traditional craft in Sweden. I went along with Rose to Broadway Market to help out. The response to our first stall was amazing – we sold well and there was a huge amount of interest and enthusiasm. People from all walks of life came to us and we also benefited from all the creative people in the area, who were interested in buying something unique. It’s also a base to a number of small, independent businesses who we were able to get to know, like the cafe, Tiosk – who could collaborate with and advise us. I quit my job in textile design a week or two later to help Rose make the stall a regular fixture.
We were among the first people to sell air plants. It didn’t turn out to be hard to get them wholesale, we found a supplier in Hertfordshire who imports the plants from Guatemala where they are cultivated. The stall became the perfect launch pad for our brand, which we named RoCo after a combination of our names. Through interacting with our customers we were able to refine our product and we eventually branched out into running workshops, styling weddings, working on the interiors for shops, like Triangle in Hackney, while the shop at Barbican Centre stocked our Himmeli kits.
Instagram has been very important to our business. It’s the perfect medium for us because people want to look at beautiful images of plants, and seek them out, so it never feels like a hard sell or traditional marketing. We both come from a design background so it’s been an enjoyable part of work, creating and posting the images and we’ve just done it naturally; we’ve never had a ‘posting schedule’ or anything like that.
A book editor at Quarto saw our Instagram feed and asked for a meeting. We were thrilled, although didn’t quite believe it at first – we couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a joke. At first everyone assumed it would be a coffee table book of mainly pictures, but on reflection, we decided to include a bit more information, as customers and people on social are always asking questions about how to look after their plants. We wanted to cover the basics without going into too much detail. We had learned mainly through trial and error and wanted people to also learn through trying. Plus we didn’t want to overwhelm people with too much detail, as that can be a problem with those heavy old 1970’s books about houseplants and gardening; they are so dense and hard to navigate. We researched at the library at Kew Gardens as well as the British Library.
I would describe the process of actually writing and shooting the book as intense! We’re still recovering from it now. Once we’d signed off the plans, our publishers were aware that other people would have the same idea as plants are a trending topic, therefore we needed to get our book out before the competition. We turned it around in six months, though actually creating it was even less than that, about four months. We more or less had to drop everything and go into hiding to meet the deadline. I did most of the writing and Rose was more in charge of styling the shoots. The most enjoyable part of the process was collaborating with our talented friends; photographer Erika Raxworthy, illustrator Alicia Galer and designer and art director Luke Fenech. We’re so happy it’s been such a success, the first print run sold out and it’s being reprinted. We’re also excited about translated editions, we’re about to look at a Japanese version. The reception to the book has definitely been a career high.
Probably our biggest learning curve has been the business side of things and handling the company’s finances. Initially we were clueless about costing things, we’d price things to just cover costs, not factoring in our time or making a profit. We have an accountant to help do our books but that’s just one element, there’s still a lot to learn about how to run a business. One positive step we took towards correcting this was applying to Virgin Start-up for a loan, who appoint a business mentor to help you, which we wanted as much as we wanted the cash. Our Virgin Start-up mentor Henrietta helped us hugely with the areas we were least experienced in, such as managing our sales, doing product costings and generally advising us with our business strategy. She is from a different background – a food writer – but her wealth of experience was invaluable to us. Virgin also offer a follow up program called Virgin Step-Up, which we have just taken part in, and which has been a huge help as we begin to think about expanding our business.
The conservatory at the house in Hampstead Heath
We continued with the Broadway Market stall on and off until the end of last year. We’re now focusing the business on projects like adding greenery to offices and workplaces and styling for other companies wanting a touch of nature. Our corporate clients include WGSN, Bompas & Parr, M&C Saatchi, Folk Clothing and Wardian London. This way of working offers us more flexibility with where we base ourselves, [Rose recently moved out of London] and we are really enjoying working on the large scale plant installations, for example in hotels. In terms of a business model it’s more scalable, which is essential in order to grow the business. We do miss the connection we had with our customers on the market, though and we may continue with one-off pop-ups now and again.
Working with plants suits us as it’s a pretty low waste industry – the plants are living and long lasting – there’s no sell-by date on a houseplant and the species we deal with are pretty low maintenace. We also take care to re-use and recycle everything we can and we don’t stock or deal with much plastic. We make our pots by hand so they are unique and have that special connection to the creative process. Our book and workshops show and encourage people to make things themselves, so the business isn’t purely about selling. The other part of our philosphy is; even in the city or in a small flat, creating your own pocket of green doesn’t have to be complicated. We recommend plants that are easy to find and hard to kill so everyone can benefit from life-enhancing green.