Elie Seidman used to be the chief executive officer at Tinder. These days, he's digging into a different kind of match-making, pairing eager homeowners with organic fruit trees, evergreens and houseplants of their dreams at Fast Growing Trees. He tells D2C Insider about his plans for the 20-year-old company as it transitions from mail-order nursery to data-driven landscaper.
D2C Insider: You were the CEO of OKCupid, and then Tinder until 2020. Since then, you've been doing angel investing and advising. What drew you to a CEO role in landscaping?
Elie Seidman: That work still takes up a lot of my time. Two private equity funds now own Fast Growing Trees, and I knew Zack Kaplan from Cove Hill Partners. He called me in the fall of 2021, and it intrigued me. I grew up in suburban Chicago in a subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. My mom is a landscape enthusiast, and she's transformed that yard. I've seen how impactful a hobby it was for her and how much emotional attachment she has to it. So I joined the board in early 2022.
D2C Insider: What are your annual sales, and what does the growth look like?
Seidman: We don't give up the exact number, but we're a scaled business, acquired for lots of money by these two private equity funds. We've sold almost 10 million trees since 2008 and advised half a million gardeners. It's been growing year over year. The company started in 2003, and the ecommerce part of gardening has been strong for the past six years. We've been growing at a 30% to 40% annual rate for a long time. It's got a lot of potential. Most of what people buy for their yards, and trees in particular, are still purchased at physical retail locations. It's way behind other categories in ecommerce adoption.
D2C Insider: All consumers? Or landscapers, too?
Seidman: Predominantly consumer. But we look at it through the lens of engagement. To enthusiasts, this is an important hobby. They're invested emotionally and financially. They want to get it right. They're looking for expertise, and we are the best and most consistent source. We're a great resource if you're thinking of buying something and you're not sure if it will work for your climate or your skill level, shade versus sun, or your soil.
D2C Insider: Mostly affluent suburbanites?
Seidman: Yes. They see their yards as part of the experience of their home. People start small, buying some annuals at a garden center. They like how it feels, so they do a little more. And then more. And eventually, they get to where they say, "I want to make big changes. I want a set of privacy trees. I want fruit I can eat from my backyard."
So we're targeting intense enthusiasm with a lot of skill levels. Some people are already experts and very adventurous, while others need much help. They want to trust somebody. We're the experts for them.
D2C Insider: How do they tap your expertise?
Seidman: They reach our plant experts by phone, email or chat.
D2C Insider: This is an older D2C company. If you were setting it up today, what would you do differently?
Seidman: Some people call what we are doing refounding, imagining we have a clean sheet of paper. We have an existing business, loyal customers, brand reputation, and lots of capabilities in plant science and expertise.
But what would we do differently if we were unbound by decisions we made before? One thing is visualization. People want to visualize how many trees they'll need in a location and the difference between planting three-foot trees and seven-foot trees. They want to see what it will look like in the future. So we want to build that kind of software, and you'll see some cool stuff from us in the coming years.
Right now, our expertise is on the phone and in self-service areas. If you try to buy a plant that won't work in your zone, we won't ship it to you. But you'll soon see it in our software, too, which will be delightful to use.
D2C Insider: Who are your main competitors?
Seidman: Local garden centers, Home Depot, Lowe's and Walmart. But we're mainly competing with the lack of awareness for ecommerce as an option at all. It's not exactly analogous to how much better it was to do ecommerce for books than a traditional retailer, but there are some analogies. People can come to us for precise expertise about soil quality, watering, and personal skill levels.
D2C Insider: What's the biggest segment?
Seidman: The majority of our business is in trees and then shrubs. Trees are a complicated customer journey for people who want to buy something special and make a significant investment. It needs to be right. Should I buy a bigger one and get fruit in year one? Or should I buy a more affordable smaller one and be patient?
D2C Insider: What are your best sellers?
Seidman: Meyer Lemon and avocado are popular, and various evergreens, typically for privacy, like Green Giant Thuja. Not surprisingly, it varies a lot by where you live.
D2C Insider: Do you have a favorite?
Seidman: I'm interested in things that smell good or blow in the breeze. I live in Austin, Texas, and love that pink muhly grass. And because I spent a lot of time in southern California, I love the smell of jasmine vines.
D2C Insider: What's your marketing strategy?
Seidman: Word of mouth is the most important one. Because our customers find we make the whole process less stressful, they refer friends who are also gardeners. That's been important from the beginning. This year, we're making a big push into social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, with advertising and educational content. Google's shopping product is important.
D2C Insider: Do you work with an agency?
Seidman: We work with freelancers and some small boutique agencies. But the center of gravity is in-house.
D2C Insider: How many people are on your staff?
Seidman: In customer service, it flexes dramatically depending on the season. Spring and fall are really busy. At our peak, we're about 300 people.