Karli Heineman, the founder of Encinitas startup Plant Vault, has always been interested in plants, but that love for flora grew exponentially during COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling limited on taking part in activities that felt safe, wanting a hobby to focus on during the health emergency and looking to beautify her own surroundings, Heineman turned to plants to fill those needs.
“During the pandemic, really the only stores you could go into were outdoor gardening centers, farmers markets and big box garden stores,” she said.
During the rekindling of her relationship with plants, she noticed that she was seeing the same selection of plants at every store she visited. “That was telling,” Heineman said, and so she began to research plants on her own.
As she dug around, she found a whole new world of plants that were different than all the usual suspects – and thus the genesis of her business began to take root.
“I became immediately obsessed with finding them online,” she said. “Mainly I was seeing them on Etsy, but they were expensive and there was some big risk involved. Do I pay a lot for a rare plant that I’ve never seen before where the picture the seller showed could be deceiving?”
Heineman said the first rare plant she bought was a pink princess philodendron, one of the more popular rare plants. She’s still growing it, and about 80 more at her store.
Earlier this year, Heineman traveled to Florida to see her father for his 90th birthday and while there, she said she was introduced to a huge variety of rare plants. “I bought everything I fell in love with in Florida,” she said. “I bought an extra-large suitcase and put about five or six of the in the suitcase to bring back.”
She then launched Plant Vault in June.
“When I brought the plants back, I was curious if people would buy them,” Heineman said. “Immediately I was sold out.”
She said she knew she was on the right path when her research showed the search term “houseplant” had a 2,000% increase in Google searches during the pandemic.
Heineman hired Andre Caminite to be director of operations, to work on the company’s social media presence and help spread the word to the community. With a background in digital marketing, Caminite concentrates on Instagram posts and Tik Tok reels.
Caminite said he appreciates Plant Vault “bridging the gap and trying to fill the rare plant void,” but was concerned about what would work. His worries were short lived.
“On my first day, we sold over $2,000 worth of rare plants,” he said.
Heineman started Plant Vault with a $500 investment and has set up her business in a showroom that has a private entryway at the back of her Encinitas home.
She uses the capital from sales to continue to purchase new rare plants from places like Indonesia, Ecuador and China. There is also an on-site “Grow Room” to continue the lifespan of certain plants.
Prospective Plant Vault customers need to make appointments to lock in a time to visit the business but recently the company branched out to sell some plants at Sedera in The Forum Carlsbad and His Men’s Store in Solana Beach.
In a market where plants cost hundreds of dollars, Heineman said she offers some of the lowest prices for exotic plants. She also said she is available for customers who have questions or need help after a sale.
“Unlike other goods, a price of a rare plant can vary greatly and our commitment to selling the best rare plants at the best prices is the reason behind our success,” she said. “A plant is an emotional investment and it’s important to us that our customers know that we are there for them long after the sale has taken place.”
She is proud that Plant Vault is able to consistently “have people come in and find the plant of their dreams,” she said, noting that its repeat business is about 80 percent.
Next for Heineman is combining rare plants with fashion. She wants to host “an avant garde fashion show so people know plants don’t have to be boring. They are an attainable luxury that can transform your space.”
A planned runway show will use plants as clothing and growing from clothing and will working with other fashion-forward companies.
“This will be a fashion show in San Diego that no one has ever seen before,” Heineman said. “I so want to create something new and exciting and fresh. I want to turn everyone on to houseplants and them know how different and exciting they are.”
FOUNDER: Karli Heineman
BUSINESS: Luxury rare plants and curated accessories
SOCIAL IMPACT: Heineman plans to start a garden program at retirement community Seacrest Village teaching seniors how to make succulent arrangements and creating a sense of community that includes plants.
NOTABLE: Plant Vault has 80 different species of rare plants at any given time.