Top Ten Lessons Learned from a Urban Aquaponics Commercial Build

As we close in on the end of the buildout of our pilot farm at the Sprout Food Hub in Meriden we took the time to reflect on what we learned through this process. We’re happy with our progress and the outcome given this is our first time ever in a warehouse environment and this will be our biggest farm to date. We’ve overcome every obstacle or challenge we’ve encountered so far and as a result, we’ve learned a lot along the way.

Today we’ll be sharing the Top-Ten lessons we think will benefits others thinking about making the commercial jump themselves. We avoided many mistakes thanks to the hard-learned lessons shared by others, but with every build, there will always be new takeaways and new insights to learn from.

What We Learned

1. Better Prioritization of the workflow

We were significantly better at this than we have been in the past but we still could have made smarter decisions about what work needed to happen and what order it should happen in. This mistake always stems from errors in planning, and not having a complete scope of the project before diving in. Couple of examples include painting areas before the space was finished being cleaned resulting in multiple paintings, over scraping and preparing areas that were not going to be visible to the public or weren’t a priority to getting us ready to build and finally, not getting all four hands on deck for extended periods of time to bang out tasks that could be expedited by extra hands.

2. Paint More Strategically
Painting Steel Beams
Painting with every last drop of paint

This may be one that only applies to very tall spaces, but we often had a team of people painting at any one time. Not itself an issue, but only had one scissor lift. So we were painting the ceilings the same time we were painting the lower walls and the steel beams. We were using dry fall paint on the ceiling but in some instances, it wouldn’t dry before it hit a wall or beam and as a result, we had to repaint many areas more than once.

3. Tools, use the right one for the job and always put it back

This is again an area we always work to improve on and the instances this build were few and far between. But once in a while, it’s late you just wanna clean up and get home and you leave your tools out thinking you’ll just start up first thing in the morning. But then morning comes and something comes up, your not out there first and then the next person to show up has to waste time looking around the space for what they need. It’s always worth the extra 5 minutes to put tools back to ensure there are no delays the next day.

4. Take more time to negotiate the lease

We did really well with our lease but in retrospect, we had more bargaining power than we probably exercised and there were a few things we should have done before putting ink to paper. We were under a time crunch to make a deal happen so we took a few risks. We didn’t get a full inspection before signing and came to find there were a few leaks the first time it rained. So we have some good lessons on negotiating, valuing our offer, and due diligence that we will take with us to our next Sprout Food Hub. All in all, we are very much satisfied with the deal we struck and the property we have.

5. Inspect all deliveries upon arrival
Trifecta Inspects LED light Purchase
Opening up our new lights

No matter how time-consuming it is, always inspect products and return to sender if anything comes in damaged. Fortunately, we didn’t really get hit hard by signing quickly for deliveries, but we did have one tank that had a pretty nice ding in it that would have been a problem if it was any deeper. Don’t be lazy, never skip the due diligence in any aspect of the operation.

6. Double Time Estimates

Until fluidity of work improves we need to hedge against our instinct to over promise to ourselves and double our time estimates. This buildout did end up taking about twice as long as we had hoped. We planned for the worst so we are still in great shape for our public opening later this fall. But we definitely ran into delays due to contractor scheduling, supply availability, weather (we started in March!), and poor estimation by ourselves of how long something would take. In the future, until we are more accurate, we’ll take our initial estimate and just double it to account for the unknowns that cause delays.

7. Say no faster

We’re a very open business and make ourselves pretty accessible to clients, customers, fans and knowledge seekers. This trait, however, interfered with our team’s availability to build out. We essentially built the farm in our spare time while keeping the business at full capacity during work hours. In hindsight, we could have managed that approach better and got more time building out during prime hours and batched our responsibilities to customers and clients. In addition, during times like this when there is minimal time to fit in work, don’t say yes to anything that isn’t a Hell Yes! for the company when it comes to public events or talks.

8. Don’t set yourself up for compounding delays.

It’s inevitable during a buildout but at some point, you’ll run out of something and that puts the whole project to a halt. Buy extra screws, PVC, etc to ensure you don’t waste an hour going to the store cause you ran out of painters tape. The same goes for ordering supplies, order them weeks not days ahead of when you’ll need them so things like manufacturing delays, shipping delays or inaccurate lead time quotes don’t delay your buildout.

9. Better identify hidden costs

Make sure you go over your plan multiple times and try to identify anything you may have overlooked. For example, one area we missed some costs was in the paint budget. We left out things like painters tape and extra brushes and underestimated how much paint we would need. These things can quickly add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars. If you miss too much up front, what looked like a profitable model on paper may not be the case once all the costs are realized. Doing it yourself will save you a ton of money (we saved around 50,000 by doing all the painting ourselves and got the job done quicker) but if you’re counting on those savings for your model to work you need to make sure you account for all your costs.

10. Assess and analyze more regularly.

Meeting and assessing how work was progressing, identifying any friction points or roadblocks, and adjusting our strategy or order of operations to address workflow issues and working not just hard but smart. Meetings can seem tedious and at times a waste of time but efficiency comes from proper planning and efficiency is key during a buildout as the longer it takes you to build the longer it takes before you see revenues coming in.

Setting up the Aquaculture tanks at the Sprout Food Hub in Meriden

As we close on this buildout, we are overall very happy with the effort and the outcome. We definitely have learned our lessons from past buildouts not repeating mistakes from the past. We’ve still got tendencies to jump into things that seem urgent and it’s a trait we’ll continue to work on. We can say way more went right than went wrong and our big takeaway is to reconcile our best intentions with more realistic estimates of how long something will take to accomplish.

We definitely grew as a team through the process. This is our first buildout as a unit of four, and there’s nothing quite like long hours of shared manual labor to bring everyone’s sense of purpose to its height. The camaraderie of the team is at its peak as we finish this build and get set to launch our new farm and vision for the future of food. We’ve never been scrappier as a team, taking on any and all tasks we were not required by law to have contracted out saved us a ton of materials, labor and time the buildout would take.

We learned a ton of new skills over the buildout (however we will not be starting a painting company anytime soon) and a lot about the buildout process. We were very successful in our negotiations, working with the town on permitting, and connecting with local organizations about partnerships once we open. Our design and color scheme of the space came out way better than expected and really gives a nice touch to every area. We came out with just a few scrapes and bruises, no serious injuries or close calls!

With the build coming to a close we set our sites on the next steps. Starting the system, cycling the fish, introducing plants, and feeding our new neighbors in Meriden and surrounding areas with fresh, sustainably grown, local produce year round. We’ll be showcasing every step along the way, documenting the process and the impact of the Sprout Food Hub. We’re as motivated as ever and we want to use this farm’s success to spur launch new farms in the next few years and see these sprouts all over the city and state.



Leave a Reply