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ChooseYourPlant and Victor Ribero
Launching a “How to” on houseplants and a houseplant community during shelter in place
This week, I spoke with Victor Ribero, the founder of ChooseYourPlant. Victor launched on Product Hunt at the end of March 2020 with the goal of helping people find houseplants, teaching them how to keep plants happy with robust plant guides, and creating a worldwide community for houseplant lovers. While the pandemic (and the resulting shelter in place orders) certainly accelerated his product’s growth and the popularity of house plants, Victor has struggled to build the community side of his product.
In our conversation Victor talks about:
The importance of being decisive and making decisions as a solo founder even when faced with fear
His method for holding himself accountable to reach goals
How he leveraged Instagram users to build out large galleries for each plant
And, how he’s deciding between the various potential paths to revenue
Here is my conversation with Victor Ribero, founder of ChooseYourPlant:
I want to start with the timing of your initial launch. You launched on Product Hunt a couple of weeks after the pandemic really hit in March of 2020. Had you originally been planning to launch then or did you adjust based on the pandemic and the increasing popularity of houseplants?
Victor Ribero: No, not really. I started to work on the project more than a year before. It took me a while to ship. One reason was that I broke my wrist in the summer of 2019. Also, I did what a lot of people do that aren’t used to shipping things. I fell into details that really didn’t matter. Thinking, this part of the design is not good enough or maybe I should add this other thing to make it better. Finally I decided, I should ship this because once I ship that, then I will be able to see which direction I should go and what's the most interesting part of my product. I didn’t change my plan based on the pandemic. The pandemic did make house plants more trendy. That happened, but I think that even if the pandemic didn’t happen, plants would still be popular. It’s something that was already going on. Millennials like plants. We think that they are cool and they reduce stress. I think that in big cities, plants make us forget that we are in a big city, and that’s a reason why many people want to have plants in their home.
You mentioned that you spent a lot of time pre-launch and that in retrospect maybe you should have launched sooner. Was there anything in particular that you spent a lot of time on pre-launch that you now realize was a mistake?
VR: One of the things that I struggle with being a solo founder is that my time is spread across so many different things, doing market research, SEO research, SEO strategy, coding, and design. Before launch I wanted to have a rich gallery of images for each plant so that people can get an idea of how each plant is going to grow depending on the scenario. Plants usually grow differently if they are in a bright place or not, or depending on how much they are watered, things like that, and I wanted to have lots of images of each plant. So I reached out to hundreds of people, maybe a thousand even, on Instagram to ask for permission to use their images. I wanted to be really careful with copyright. I've always been like that because my dad is a lawyer, so I'm quite mindful of that. I even had a spreadsheet with their usernames, the plant name, if I’d asked for permission, and if they’d given permission. Only once I had permission for enough images of a certain plant then I would publish it. I spent a lot of time asking people. I struggled with that because it's a process I had to do manually. I spent tons of hours...months and I haven't found a solution for that.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of your time was getting image permissions. Do you think in hindsight you spent too much time on this before launch and that maybe you could have only had two images per plant instead?
VR: That's one of the things that because I did not have an agile mindset that kind of delayed me. But the thing is, I’m a plant lover, and if I find a website that has a plant guide with plant characteristics, a video description, etc, but it only has two images, I don't know. Plants are visual and I think that it is important to have rich media content. Especially for SEO purposes. Most people focus on the text when they think SEO, but most of the traffic I got was from the media. That's why it's really important to focus on media SEO strategies.
Going back to being a solo founder. What else do you find challenging about it, beyond having limited time to do everything?
VR: Something else that I find really difficult, and I didn’t understand this when I was just working at startups, is that it’s important to make a decision and move forward. When deciding to go one way or the other, you might be mistaken, everyone makes mistakes, but if you don’t choose you will never go forward. That's something I have to get better at. I guess the reason we do not choose is because we are scared.
That’s a really good point about the need to make decisions and commit, even if it’s wrong, because otherwise you will never make progress towards a goal. Do you have a method for holding yourself accountable to making decisions and sticking to them?
VR: That's a great question. I have this board with my daily, weekly and monthly goals. So every Sunday I think about what I want to do with my life, not just ChooseYourPlant, but what do I want, what makes me happy. Then I think about okay, to accomplish this, what do I need? Do I need money, friends...what do I need? Then I think about how I can achieve this and in how much time. Can I do it faster? So anyways I keep track of the steps I need to do each day, week and month to achieve those goals. Something I've noticed that helps is that, and it sounds stupid, but it helps is, is that it’s better to cross off the task instead of erasing it. Seeing the things I’ve accomplished gives me momentum and I stick with it.
Back to your product strategy, in your launch post you mentioned that you wanted to build a community of plant lovers, how has that gone?
VR: I haven't really done much to build a community, to be honest. One of the benefits when you're building a community is that the content is community driven and you crowdsource all of the information that you don't have. I haven't focused on that because I wanted to have a standard or minimum quality for each plant. When you go the community route you have to adopt new processes to review all of the data and I didn't want to deal with that.
Also, I wanted to ship fast, even though I didn't end up shipping that fast, but I thought, OK, what could be a good way to start a community within the website? It was Discord, Slack or building my own community functionality. I think I failed on this point because I ended up choosing Slack. That was the wrong decision because most plant lovers are older and less technical. I've noticed that Slack is for younger people or who work in tech companies, that kind of profile. So for example my mom doesn't know how to use Slack, she’s on ChooseYourPlan and sees a button to “join the community”, she clicks it and then sees that she has to download another app that she doesn’t know. There’s a friction there that I didn’t solve. I chose Slack because I knew it would be a lot of work to develop my own inhouse community product, maybe four months or more.
It's been a year since you launched. What's the direction that you are going to take ChooseYourPlant?
VR: That's complicated. One of the things I spend most of my time on is thinking about which direction I should go. I see a lot of market gaps that ChooseYourPlant could fill, but plant commerce is a traditional industry. It’s evolving, but for example, one of the things I could do is look for plant sellers in the United States and do some kind of an affiliate program selling plants. I think this approach would be low risk, low time investment and have the most gains. What's the problem with this approach? Plant providers are not technical companies so they are not able to be an affiliate program. Another thought I had was maybe I should go B2B. Since most of the traditional plant stores or shops don't have a high quality website maybe I could create an e-commerce template. I create an e-commerce store for them, fully free, and I get a commission for plant sales. It would give them a landing page shop with all the plant information, a lot of seo pages and rich content that would give them traffic. Another way to monetize could be to do an in-house advertisement. Plant stores could pay to be listed on my plant articles. And I’ve also been thinking about Amazon affiliate to add links to my pages for general plant related equipment, all of the accessories.
But I don't really know which is the best thing to do. I haven't spent enough time focused on this to be honest, and that's something I wanted to do now that I’ve moved from Spain to Mexico. Even though I'm kind of late, because a lot of e-commerce businesses have emerged during COVID, I still believe that there's a layer on the top that can be built and monetized.
So when you're trying to make this decision on how the product is going to evolve what are the criteria you have in mind that the next iteration has to satisfy?
VR: So the most important thing for me right now is that the next iteration has to make money. Right now it's totally free. I don't invest a lot of time. Even though I haven't done any feature or any maintenance on the platform, I have around 10k visitors per month. So with this passive traffic what is the best way to monetize.
You’ve mentioned SEO a few times, has that been the most effective way to acquire users.
VR: Yes,almost 80% of traffic is organic. Then I think around 10% or so is referral from other websites, and there’s some direct. The key things that bring me all of the organic traffic is good performance and a well curated long tail of plant related keywords.
What I mean by performance is the speed index, that pages load fast, images are optimized and load quickly. Also I’ve noticed that even the name of the image file is important. The images that Google crawls and indexes have semantic names, such as the plant name in the file rather than just a generic “file one.” These technical aspects are important. I’ve found that there are pages that are ranking below me that have more rich content like longer plant guides. I believe that the key is basically that my website is fast and mobile friendly.
Is there anything else that you want to share about ChooseYourPlant and your experience over the past year?
VR: I struggled with figuring out where my audience was. Deciding where you want to have a presence and to focus on the target audience is important. For most makers and tech people there is a huge community on Twitter, but I'm not sure that being active on Twitter, which I did at first, was the right choice. I invested tons of hours and it didn’t give me any benefits. I also spent tons of hours on Instagram. That did bring me traffic, I could spread the word, and I got some followers, but I’m not sure it was worth the time investment. I found that Pinterest was the best place for me to post. There's a lot of opportunities on that platform. The only problem is that Pinterest cannibalizes your URLs, so sometimes they’ll show up above you in Google searches, but it’s still good because you get more traffic in the long run.
Thanks for speaking with me today, final question, where can people go to learn more about you?
VR: The best place I would say is Twitter, @devictoribero, I post content related to tech, building in public, and motivation.