The following is an excerpt from the 2nd edition of our US white paper, which will be released in exclusive hard copy to participants in the 5th Annual Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas on May 3-4. Its predecessor can be downloaded for free here.
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Britta Riley co-founded Windowfarms, a hydroponic grow system company, in May 2009 as a collaborative open source project for an artists’ residency at NYC’s Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology. At the time, the notion of hydroponics growing was novel, and the idea of large scale vertical farms being part of the commercial food supply chain widely dismissed.
The Windowsfarm project went on to develop kits that could be ordered online, assembled by disabled veterans and other physically and medically handicapped workers in upstate New York. The core kit cost just under $40 and took 20 hours to assemble, with more sophisticated offerings taking as little as an hour to set up.
In November 2011, Windowfarms was one of the early Kickstarter successes in hydroponics, raising just over $250k to expand its business. The experience was bittersweet; Kickstarter didn’t yet have the mentoring and supply services it now offers and the small team struggled with manufacturing and supplying products to international customers, leading to some harsh and persistent internet criticism and many lessons learned. The team eventually called time on the project last year.
Now busy with an active consulting business and with mentoring some of the next generation of indoor farmers, Britta shared with us the five things she wishes she’d known way back in 2009:
- Understand that farming isn’t just about economics
Windowfarms’ grow systems allowed users to connect with their food and learn new skills, benefits of farming that we hear regularly from growers of all sizes. Yet, they were regularly asked about how they could produce food more cheaply than buying it from the grocery store. “We spent so much time justifying the economics of our system to investors in particular, it was crazy” says Britta. For Windowfarms users at least, farming is about so much more than economics, and she wishes that they’d better articulated the systems’ allure.
- Identify your customers early
Initially, Windowfarms assumed that its customers were women and it wasn’t until they participated in a (now defunct) food-specialist accelerator program in Canada that they had a chance to study their customer base. They were surprised to discover that their actual customers were “dudes working at interactive agencies”. “We would have done so many things differently if we’d known that earlier” Britta comments.
- Don’t raise capital if there’s another way
Raising capital is a time consuming and – all too often – morale sapping experience. In retrospect, Britta wishes that she’d been able to find another way to fund her molds and other set up costs. Time chasing investors could have been better spent in developing partners and customers. “Ask yourself if there’s a way that you can bootstrap your way through the initial stages at least” she suggests. Others who have gone this route have consulted or worked a day job to fund their startup.
- Don’t expect the internet to save you
“We thought that online sales would ramp up pretty quickly, but that didn’t happen for us” Britta found. This was the case even after the company launched a service where it would drop-ship seedlings to customers using their grow system. Instead, Britta recommends planning a retail strategy early on, and assuming that you will need several distribution channels to market.
- Think about how you’ll manufacture from the get go
When you’re hard at work on your prototype, manufacturing seems like a distant challenge, but Britta wishes that they’d thought about manufacturing earlier. “It’s really important to start planning to manufacture early on” she says.
Britta’s experiences with Windowfarms has left her enthusiasm for indoor agriculture undimmed; “I’m always on the look-out for the next great startup challenge” she concludes.