“What is this? A center for plants?!?”
And indeed, that’s exactly what it is! PlantLife is a social media platform “where people and plants thrive.” It’s built with familiar full-bleed videos and a UI borrowed largely from TikTok. But instead of duets and dances, it’s meant to be filled with plant content for plant lovers.
This is not your run-of-the-mill hobbyist app, like the half dozen plant and gardening apps I’ve tried over the years. The company was founded by a trio of specialists: CEO Leslie Mullins, who spent a career in marketing and design at Nike and Apple; chief product officer Taylor Vignali, who held creative director and UX roles at those same companies; and chief of plants Lana Pappas, a San Francisco-based architectural landscaper and designer.
Its founders are mission driven, having come up with the idea of a plant-centric social network as a salve to the toxicity of social media. However, it so happens that dollar bills are green, too. Given that 70% of millennials claim to be “plant parents,” they imagine that PlantLife could generate $189 million in revenue following five years of growth, taking a bite out of the $1.7 billion houseplant market, while expanding into gardening, wellness, plant-based eating, and every other green-related topic you can imagine.
“We see this [expansion as] endless, because everything we have in our lives is connected to plants in some way!” says Mullins. “But houseplants are the beginning of the journey.”
PlantLife is designed to celebrate your connection to your beloved plants from the get-go. Case in point, when you set up an account, you start by taking a photo not only of yourself, but of your plant babies, too. After each photograph, you’re asked to share the plant’s name, species, age, and a description. Standing outside my garden’s raised beds, I found myself already trying to find the right angle of my banana pepper plant for social media, which, while covered in luxurious fruits, has irrevocably tipped to one side. This is the exact sort of parental pressure that I don’t put on my own kids. But sorry plants, you’re different!
The app doesn’t have automatic-photo identification, like Plant.id, but it hopes to incorporate such technology in the future. For now, you can manually search for your plant in the limited database. When you do find a match, your plant is paired with a rich sheet of care instructions. The possibilities of having all of these care instructions in one place on my phone is probably enough to keep my attention. Add to it that people can actually trade plants with others in their communities, bringing these longstanding traditions of seed sharing and propagation into the digital era, and I’m sold.
Because, of course, the draw is supposed to be in the posting alongside other people. It’s easy to imagine uploading glamour shots of my plants onto my feed. It’s also just as easy to imagine posting pictures of my plants gone wrong. It can be hard for plant growers to understand just what is happening when leaves suddenly start withering and dying on a plant. It’s a tragedy that ultimately takes you deep into the extension sites of college agricultural programs, staring at jpegs uploaded in 2005 to decipher exactly which fungus has killed your cucumbers. Just posting on PlantLife, and knowing you’re surrounded by other plant lovers, means you’re more likely to get help in the comments during those moments.
However, Mullins shared a much richer growth strategy, most of which comes down to influencers. The company has been cultivating relationships with “plantfluencers” across Instagram and TikTok (a handful of whom will be on the service at launch), who can set up e-commerce shops of their own, or even lead clubs on specific topics (one such club currently in the works is around mushroom foraging). The idea is that every user can find their plant niche, whatever it is. Meanwhile, the team also wants to bring more small businesses onto the platform, to set up turnkey shops, because most of the plant industry is dominated by big box hardware stores. As it happens, experts in growing plants don’t tend to be experts in digital platforms, which is a big reason it’s so hard to shop for plants online outside of a few mega corporations.
“There are a lot of these small nurseries out there that don’t have e-commerce,” says Mullins. “So we want to make sure we’re also using [PlantLife] as a component to reduce the digital divide within this industry.”
I, myself, don’t doubt that there is a big, and largely positive, business opportunity in PlantLife, assuming the company can woo users to such a highly specific app (which is by no means a given—with every season comes a new social media darling that disappears after a press release). What I’m more skeptical about is whether PlantLife is leveraging too many existing social media norms for it to be a salve from the modern digital world. Standing in your garden will measurably lower your cortisol levels, making you seemingly healthier in minutes. At the same time, PlantLife is banking on the influencer economy and social feeds—the very comparison culture that social media stokes by nature—which science has proven can drive depression and anxiety.
“I would say we want to attract everyone in a very honest and transparent way,” says Mullins. “The culture we’re trying to create is indicative to plant people . . . fostering a positivity that we hope spreads through this community.”
Which is why PlantLife is such an interesting startup to follow. It’s stress-testing the very premise of social media by filling it with some of the most pure and genuine content online, and pruning it to grow into a flourishing ecosystem.