Is it possible to fulfil your passion and still run a profitable business? Particularly when that passion is something out of the ordinary? We spoke to Zia Rahim of Green Artisan – a company selling fragrant plants and non GMO-modified vegetables, to find out where he came up with the idea and how he plans to move forward.

Can you briefly describe your business to me? What does it offer and how long has it been around?

My business is called Green Artisan. We specialise in selling fragrant plants, but we also sell other plants, such as healing plants – plants that have played a role in history, and non GMO-modified heirloom vegetable plants. We sell to businesses as well as consumers. We’ve been established for two and a half years.

Tell me about why you are so passionate about this business?

I really like plants – I’ve loved them since I was young. I’ve noticed that the industry right now is all about mass grown flowers from the likes of Holland. They are grown in a factory environment with robots, hydroponics and other synthetic things and lots of plants are GMO modified to create hybrids. There is no care taken into it and I don’t agree with any of this. Why? Because the essence of the original plant is being lost. So I wanted to bring these old ways back.

An example is fragrance. When you get a Valentine’s rose, what’s the first thing you do? You smell it. It doesn’t smell like anything because it’s being grown with hydroponic waters and chemicals and who knows what else – these chemicals are then released into your home. When you get one of my roses, it smells of a real rose. Or when you get one of my vegetable plants, they’re actual vegetables – they’re not GMO modified, so when you eat them, you’re actually ingesting something that’s good for you.

Tell me a little bit more about your beginnings and how you came to start your own company

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was young, partnering with my friends. At the age of 16, we started a web design company. We worked for three years, for 12 hours a day, while everybody else was out playing. Then we met an affluent Japanese guy and we started a business with him, importing European cars from Japan, until the Yen dropped and we couldn’t import anymore. He also owned a restaurant but he didn’t have a delivery system set up, so my friend and I created the delivery system, doing the marketing and setting up the IT infrastructure. We also organised brochures and went to companies and asked them to put their food on the internet. We did everything you could possibly imagine. The deal was that they would sell us the food from the kitchen and we would make a profit from it. We hired people. We got the bikes. We designed the carriers for the bikes with the lights inside it and it all worked.

Zia from GreenArtisan

Zia working on a plant

So we’ve always been entrepreneurs, but I always thought that whenever I did something, it was always for profit. By the time I went to university, I was already an entrepreneur. I studied business and marketing, but at the same time I was also working in start-up companies. The most iconic thing to me was a Chinese woman I met who owned real estate in the UK and was also selling land in China. She said: “What is your power?” I just looked at her because I’ve always been an entrepreneur. So when she asked what my power was, and what I can do that nobody else can, I looked at her and said: “I can run a business?” “No. What is your power?” She kept asking again and again. I had to keep questioning myself, “What is my power? What is it that I want to do? What is it I always wanted to do?” She kept questioning me and eventually said: “You don’t know your power. Then you’re no use to me.” It was that serious. I was like, “Wow. Okay.”

So that got me thinking. I realised that I’ve always liked plants, since I was young, but it wasn’t something I thought would be a good business. Could this be my power? But what was this one thing that I could do with plants that no one else could do? For me, it was to bring back the fragrance, to bring back the non-GMO plants. It went from there. I bought some plants from suppliers, set up an Amazon and eBay, and they started selling. Fast. I made makeshift cardboard boxes, organised some stickers, a logo… I was selling.

I met some other people who were quite successful in their industries. They encouraged me to get funding. I tried, but there wasn’t that much available at the time. So I decided to go the graduate job route after my degree. I did a whole year of working in this graduate job. They were the slowest workers I’ve ever seen. I tried to automate systems but there was resistance. They didn’t understand how important it was to automate things that you don’t need to be spending human time with. It was such a slow-paced environment and they weren’t trying to grow. They were just sitting there, stagnant, looking at the clock and hoping they would get paid the next day.

It wasn’t what I wanted, so I decided to leave, even though I didn’t have funding. By that time there were more start-ups out there getting loans and grants, so I persevered, and eventually I got funding and I put it into my business. That was it. I was on the go again.

green artisan brochure

And your early years? Is there anything that influenced you early on?

I’ve always been interested in selling. As a child I used to get packets of crisps from the shop and made a cardboard box in my home to sit in and sell the crisps and chocolates to visitors. My father came from quite a good family background. He came to the UK from India with a master’s degree, yet when he went for a job interview, he was rejected because of his higher education – they were worried he would try take over. So he said to me, “Sometimes in order to get make some money, you need to adjust yourself to the situation.” He told me that he used to pretend that his English wasn’t that great so he could get a job, despite being taught in the best schools.

He came here in the 1960s, during a time of a lot of racism. He was once beaten up so badly that he lost his eye and he could no longer work. So he sold his stake in a travel agency business that he started with a friend.

It was hard for him coming from a wealthy family. But he never gave up. He always found a way to make money. For example he loved taking pictures. So he started going out with his camera, taking pictures… eventually of weddings and events. He also loved art and started buying drawings and framing them to sell. He wasn’t making much money, but it was food on the table. But what really inspired me was that he didn’t give up. He kept on going. That was really inspiring.

He also had a passion for plants and he showed me all these different fragrant plants. He also showed me the world of art and music. He inspired me. He was a proud man with a high self esteem. My mother came from a poorer background, so she was more humble. So I learned to be a balanced person. So I learnt from my father’s experience that when the world throws you a lemon, you make lemonade.

Do you have a business partner?

I don’t currently have a business partner, but I did when I had the web design company. But I do have a good friend, Wayne Daniels. We learn from each-other and bounce ideas around, and when the money is not consistent we help each-other out. We’ve always been there for each-other.

Tell us about any challenges that you have faced in starting up your own business?

Firstly, it’s good to listen to other people and get their opinions. There might be someone who’s better off than you, who has more money than you, but you have to remember that whatever he did, that was his path. What worked for him might not necessarily work for you. You can take a little bit from each person, but it shouldn’t let you direct the path that you go in. That’s one thing I learned.

When I was first starting up, I was making loads of money and people were like, “You should create this great brand. You should become more corporate. You should do this. You should do that.” These are people who were more successful than me, so I listened. But that was probably the worst thing I did, because people always have something to say. Regardless of what you’re doing, even if you’re doing pretty well, people will have something to say. I think one of the biggest challenges I faced was believing in my own ability and while listening to people’s opinions, not letting them change my direction.

Stress release plants

My second limitation was brand image. It’s great to create a brand image. But when you’re a start-up company, you don’t want to create limitations on yourself, for example, “My company only does this.” I created a limitation by specialising in only fragrant plants which had to be a certain way, when they didn’t even exist in that way. When I first started, I was selling both fragrant and non-fragrant plants and I was making money. But then I cut my revenue stream in half. Why? Because of this brand image I aspired to. I realised that the brand I created for the company, I also created for myself. Just like people, you create a limitation on yourself, a personal brand image. Yes, your company should have morals and values e.g. you won’t do this or that, like I won’t do GMO for example. But you shouldn’t create limitations for yourself. You’re a start-up. No one knows who you are. It doesn’t matter about your brand image. You build your brand image as you go along. You don’t create these limitations such as a slogan and then try to fit everything by that slogan.

The third challenge was money. I always used to believe that in order to make money, you need to make money and then invest in yourself. You try working a full time job and you see how much money you have left over after that, for food and expenses. But I always used to worry about money – do I have enough? But it was nothing to do with money. Once you realise that money is just something that you trade for something else, then you realise you don’t hold on to money anymore. When I left my job, I had saved up some money and I also got some funding, but it wasn’t as much money as I was making before. But it was my mind set that I changed. Yes, I can make money. There’s always an option. I got rid of this mind set where “Oh, my money is going. I won’t be able to do this.” Yes, it’s good to have money. It’s brilliant to make money. But don’t make that the sole purpose of your living. You’re giving this service to people. You’re giving them a beautiful plant. You’re giving them something amazing. Recently I wrote down that when you give a plant – a living thing – to someone special, you’re giving them the gift of life, you cannot put a price on that. That was my challenge – changing my mind set and not worrying so much about money.

So work with money but not work for money?

Money is good. Money drives your business. Money puts food on the table. But it shouldn’t be your sole purpose of what you think about. As soon as you stop concentrating on not having enough and start thinking about the abundance of what you do have, that money will start flowing.

And your vision for the future of your company?

Currently, I have themed collections – for example a stress relief collection whereby the fragrance calms and an appetite collection which includes vanilla and chocolate scents. I want to sell those in the UK and later expand into other parts of Europe and Asia. I also want to see the fragrant plants coming more into the consumer hands. I want to see people enjoying the fragrance that they remembered from their childhood and I want to see people growing my non-GMO vegetable plants, enjoying that better, healthier lifestyle. I also want to invest in plant technology. Like self watering and feeding plant pots or changing the colour of flowers on a tree to correspond with a holiday like Christmas using organic food colouring. I find technology very fascinating – I’m not talking about trying to change the genetics. I’m talking about improving the life of plants, for those who aren’t green-fingered or don’t have the time.

So it’s about finding the balance between using technology while still keeping the human element?

Exactly. Another one, which really excites me, is plant discovery or plant hunting. There are a lots of plants that haven’t actually been found yet. In a few years I want to invest in a team of people to go to different parts of the world, to jungles and caves, to discover new plants – plants that could cure and heal, even fragrances that people have never smelled before. Possibly go into the perfume industry. These kinds of things are what would change the world. I want to change the world one plant at a time.