Pictured: Megan Cain, owner of The ZEN Succulent, outside her Durham, NC storefront. Photo credit: Allie Mullin Photography
Megan Cain has worked a variety of jobs since college, but her childhood connection to plants and nature never left her. Megan was born and raised in Raleigh, NC in a house full of exotic plants, and her parents used the plants to instill a sense of responsibility and empathy with living things in Megan and her brother.
"It was normal for me to have a two-story palm tree indoors. My brother and I had to care for them as part of our chores, but we didn't really want to take care of them. Little did I know my parents were teaching me something — to care for something other than myself. I hope to pass this on to my son. This is where my passion for greenery started."
After college, Megan started working as an admissions officer for her alma mater UNC Greensboro and later took a position at the NC State Lottery. She was good at her work, but knew she could be doing more with her skills and talents.
"I went to school for marketing and business, and I always had a knack for it, but I knew that my schooling didn't teach me how to run my own business; it taught me how to be productive for others," she says.
Photo credit: Allie Mullin Photography
Sowing the seeds for a fresh start
In 2011, Megan decided to try her hand at selling her handmade terrariums on Etsy. Needing to choose a name for her online store, she landed on The ZEN Succulent. "The name came from the sense of calm I got from the plants."
At the start, Megan was filling orders in her parents' garage. But when her orders quickly grew from two to 200, she realized that a brick-and-mortar storefront was the next step in growing her business and sharing her passion for plants with others.
The ZEN Succulent’s first physical home was a small storefront in a former barbershop in downtown Durham's historic Black Wall Street. Megan remembers, "It was 400 square feet and was a great way to learn how to use a physical space."
Not long after she had settled in this space, however, Megan was shocked to see her fledgling business fall prey to the changing local dynamic that often hurts small businesses: her lease was terminated without warning. But when Self-Help staffer Malcolm White happened to stop by the store, he offered to put Megan in touch with Self-Help's commercial real estate team in advance of the opening of a multi-unit commercial space just a few blocks away. Self-Help was looking for a tenant, and The ZEN Succulent seemed like a perfect fit.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a challenge for Megan as a new business owner but brought benefits in an increased interest in indoor plants as well as business lessons.
"People in 2020 were inside and thinking to ourselves 'How we can bring the environment inside?' Fortunately, we had a website set up and ready to run, because before we hadn't had as much online shopping traffic, so it was great that we had it set up ahead of time. We also got a PPP loan, which allowed us to keep our employees paid, and it allowed us to grow and maintain great relationships with our landlords. "
Photo credit: Allie Mullin Photography
Branching out and embracing community connections
Megan is now thinking about how to expand sustainably. She's excited about offering more terrariums with updated branding and packaging. She's also expanding her business's social media presence, which has allowed her not only to connect with local and US-based customers, but also with plant enthusiasts all around the world.
She's also thinking about how her business has transformed into a legacy-building effort. "I'm hoping that in the long run, our business becomes a staple in the community like our neighbors. I want to make sure we do good, honest business and maintain a good staff. At one point I wanted to have a terrarium kit in every house, but now I'm thinking of having the ability to pass this along to my son and build generational wealth for my family. This is especially important for African-Americans."
Advice for aspiring creative entrepreneurs
Megan encourages women and entrepreneurs of color thinking about going into a creative small business to connect to the resources and strengths of their community.
"Tapping into community is essential. When I started in 2012, social media wasn't as robust as now, and there also weren't as many opportunities that were put toward women and African-American-owned businesses, so I recommend others look for grants, low-interest loans, and maker and crafting resources carefully. There are so many fairs and so many crafters. If you can't afford the booth at the fair, you could offer to volunteer to get the experience and exposure."
Megan also emphasizes the importance of patience and learning from the process, even in the face of rejection. "You'll hear "no" a lot more, but use this as an opportunity to think about why they said it. Analyzing that "no" will help you change your approach."
At Self-Help, we love working with entrepreneurs like Megan who are building thriving businesses that enhance the communities we serve. Check out our resources for entrepreneurs if you’re thinking about starting your own enterprise like Megan did, and check out our commercial loans if you’re already in business and thinking about how you can expand.