Five minutes into our conversation, greenery proprietor Sonja Detrinidad has already discussed menopause, Snoop Dogg, and her “murder scale”—the perceived level of danger of each of her plant-sourcing missions.
My first question—how did a 50-something ex-finance professional crack the code to selling on TikTok?—answers itself. “I want to be the Martha Stewart of succulents without the jail time,” she tells me, unprompted. “But I’m willing to do a small misdemeanor for a good cause.” And there it is.
Sonja is the founder of Partly Sunny Projects, an online plant business shipping the fruits of California sunshine across the country. The idea sprouted as a diversion from her stressful job, was watered by the uptick in pandemic-borne hobbies, and fertilized by her captivating TikTok persona.
It’s OK if you polarize an audience. The people that like you are just going to like you that much more.
She didn’t set out to be the internet’s favorite plant mom. It happened organically. Though she discovered quite by accident the formula for harnessing TikTok for business, there is actually a method to Sonja’s madness. “It’s OK if you polarize an audience,” she says. “The people that like you are just going to like you that much more.”
I picked Sonja’s brain for her takes on quitting a job, starting over, and finding community in a global pandemic. And, from her garage-slash-headquarters, she shared the key ingredients of her not-so-secret sauce for winning at TikTok marketing.
After investing 16 years in a successful career as a mortgage professional, Sonja saw the industry change—and the stress was piling up. “I found myself curled up in a fetal position, crying and drinking vodka underneath my table,” she says. As a distraction, she challenged herself to update her home’s landscaping on a $0 budget. She took to local buy-and-sell sites to find free plants. “I basically would troll Craigslist like a hyena looking for a snack,” she says, adding that she sometimes found herself in sketchy situations in the process (hello, murder scale).
Sonja began blogging about her misadventures, growing a following for it through Facebook. Soon, others were seeking out her plant-sourcing skills. She positioned herself as a personal plant shopper, taking requests through a WhatsApp group chat, then invoicing her customers. “I didn’t see anybody else in this space,” she says. “People were selling on Facebook or websites, but no one was doing one-on-one shopping trips.”
I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to buy plants during a pandemic?’ And the answer was everyone.
Sonja quit her job to sell plants full time, and for the next nine months operated her business in this way. The requests were flying in, but the system wasn’t working—she hated invoicing with a fiery passion. “I’d rather pull out my own nails,” she says. She switched to running a Shopify store in March 2020—right at the outset of the pandemic.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Sonja launched her site at precisely the right moment to capture a collective interest in at-home hobbies and distractions. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to buy plants during a pandemic?’” she says. “And the answer was everyone.”
Then TikTok happened. Sonja revised her format of sharing her plant mom stories and took to the video platform to help drive traffic to her business. It was a natural fit.
Partly Sunny is now pulling in more orders than Sonja can manage on her own. Her husband, an aerospace engineer, steps in to help where he can, though working in dirt “is not his cup of tea.” Sonja also hired an employee to manage shipping and recently brought on her daughter to help grow her other social media channels. Sonja attributes most of this success to TikTok. Although you’d never expect that her one-woman show was a brand account, it’s still responsible for the bulk of her traffic and sales.
A no-bullshit guide to Tiktok for business
Each social platform that evolves from niche to mainstream eventually has businesses chomping at the bit to be relevant to its users. Some fall flat with a too-strong sales pitch, but the brands that can find that sweet spot—the right content in the right tone at the right time—can win. In the early days of platforms, it’s possible to grow on organic content alone, before ads and algorithms make it increasingly more challenging.
TikTok’s notoriously mysterious algorithm makes it tough for brands and influencers to crack the code. What makes something go viral? How do you get your content surfaced to more TikTok users? Sonja, who started amassing tens of thousands of followers every month with tell-it-like-it-is plant advice from her garage, had clearly stumbled onto something.
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How to win at leveraging TikTok for your small business in eight steps, according to Sonja:
1. Be yourself
“I’m a woman in my 50s and in menopause,” says Sonja. “I don’t have the energy to put on a facade of somebody that I’m not.” Her personality in our interview doesn’t diverge from the one I’d been following for weeks on TikTok. I feel like I already know her. The intentional lack of polish (see Step 5) and relatable blunders (see Step 4) are a refreshing break.
“I’m not wearing a bra. Who the hell is?” she says. “It’s a pandemic”
2. Make people laugh
Have you seen the meme where social media platforms are mapped to characters from the movie The Breakfast Club, in which the smart kid is Reddit and the popular rich girl is Facebook? Every platform has its own personality, and if you’re a brand publishing content across all of them, it’s not as simple as copy-paste. Be conversational on Twitter, inspirational on Instagram, and on TikTok? Be funny. (Or hire someone who is.)
There are two things that bring people together, no matter where they are on the planet: laughter and grief.
“There are two things that bring people together, no matter where they are on the planet: laughter and grief,” Sonja says. “If your mom dies, you know exactly what that feels like, no matter who you are.” And laughter levels the playing field in the same way. One of her recent viral videos garnered a ton of comments in other languages. “Laughter translates all across the world,” she says.
3. Add value to build trust
Partly Sunny’s TikTok is funny, sure, but it also creates value for its audience—the legions of new plant parents looking for no-nonsense advice. Sonja answers community questions and publishes everything from debunking plant myths to tips on composting. She’s not technically an expert, she reminds me, but she’s candid about her own trial and error.
Vulnerability goes a long way to building trust. Only then can you convert that audience to customers, Sonja says. “Make yourself valuable on the platform as a source of information, then you can do a little side step like, ‘Oh, by the way, go ahead and order my products,’ because people already have trust in you.”
4. Be relevant and relatable
In one of Sonja’s recent posts, she revealed that an innocent trip to buy one plant resulted in a car full of greenery. “Brilliant,” I told her—she used a relatable concept like impulse shopping while covertly revealing all of the latest plants to drop on her website. She calls out the hordes of self-proclaimed “plant addicts,” in another video. “There’s no meetings. It’s not an addiction. You’re fine,” she tells me, noticing the plant takeover behind me.
Just go and do your thing, whatever your thing is. Your people are out there and they’re waiting for you to show up.
Being relatable isn’t hard if you just be yourself, Sonja says. “Just go and do your thing, whatever your thing is,” she says. “Your people are out there and they’re waiting for you to show up.” She points out that some high-profile creators have huge production teams, churning out polished content. “I’m just doing this in a garage, trying to make sure that you don’t see the flap in my arms.”
💡 TikTok Marketing 101
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5. Aim for substance over polish
Sonja hasn’t jibed with Instagram in the same way she has with TikTok. “It’s highly saturated with all their filters,” she says. She tried to hire a marketing firm to help her with her Instagram strategy but found the recommendations diverted from her natural instinct to be raw and unfiltered. “What TikToK has proven is that these beautiful people with beautiful photos have no personality whatsoever once they try to transition,” she says.
In her business, overproducing can also be a detriment. “With plants, the last thing you want to do is use filters,” she says. “It’s not the reality, and it leads people to have unmet expectations of what their gardens should look like.”
6. Don’t sell to people, move them
Early in the pandemic, Sonja received a note from a customer: “Second order. Thank you again for sharing your videos on TikTok. Not to put pressure, but you have changed my life. I finally found something that helps me with my anxiety and sad days.”
People buy from people they like. That’s how it works.
Sonja will occasionally nudge people to her website in an active way but, for the most part, she doesn’t have to. Those who follow her, who have been moved by her content or helped on their plant care journey thanks to her advice will think of her when they’re ready to buy. “People buy from people they like,” says Sonja. “That’s how it works.”
7. TikTok is a community
Like any social platform or online community, engagement and neighborly acts will get you far. Brands that try to engage in a faceless manner, talking at audiences, lose the connection to the communities they’re trying to sell to. It’s important to treat social marketing as a two-way street: engage with commenters, respond to questions, and build a community around your cause or topic.
Sonja takes this one step further, nurturing a community of her peers and fellow plant sellers. “I’m a strong believer that rising tides really do lift all ships,” she says. “I don’t feel like helping other sellers is going to take away from my success.”
8. Find your platform and double down
In the way that Sonja hasn’t quite connected with other social platforms, TikTok might not be for you. Whether it isn’t where your audience is hanging out or you’re not a natural on camera, you may decide to abandon your efforts if you’re not gaining traction. In the beginning, your best bet with any marketing efforts is trial and error. Test, test, test to see what sticks and invest your energy there.
“I’m OK focusing on the one thing that really works for me right now,” says Sonja. And while she made little headway with Instagram, hiring her daughter to manage that account is a much better fit. As she scales, Sonja knows she’ll need to delegate more, but being the face of her brand is something she’s not ever willing to give up.
Sonja processed 1,200 orders in a single month at the height of plant-shopping season last summer. And, since launching her subscription box to 35 customers, Sonja has increased her subscriber count to 150 for her latest shipment.
As her business continues to grow, she’s realistic—and candid, of course—about her own limitations. “Living in Southern California is very beneficial,” she says. “I can’t swing a dead cat out here without hitting a greenhouse.” There’s no need, she tells me, to open her own greenhouse when there are more than enough sources, but she hopes to one day move out of the garage and into a dedicated warehouse.
I have so many ideas, it’s like bees buzzing around in my head.
But space is just logistics. Sonja’s real aspirations are much more grand. “I want Snoop Dogg and I to have a gardening show together,” she says. “I’d call it Hoein’ with Snoop.” And who’s to say it’s unrealistic—she is, after all, a 50-something ex-finance professional who amassed more than 350k TikTok followers by talking plant life from her garage. “I have so many ideas,” she says. “It’s like bees buzzing around in my head.”
Feature Illustration by Islenia Milien