This month our start-up crossed a milestone we’re shocked to be crossing already. We turned 5 years old as a company! It’s crazy to think that we’ve already been at this for five years and humbling to think about how quickly 5 years can go by.
We’ve certainly had our ups and our downs over those 5 years, but we celebrate today with our future as bright as it’s ever been. Who knew that come today, we’d have the largest network of aquaponics systems in Connecticut, with over sixteen systems across ten locations! We’re going to take a walk down memory lane and see how the journey and the mission for our business have evolved over these last few years.
************** It Was All A Dream, We Used To Read Word-Up Magazine************
Years 1-2 Going From Hobby To Startup
While we didn’t quite get our start by reading magazines like the infamous Notorious B.I.G. our origin story has a very similar start. The journey got its start in Boston, MA, with Spencer and Kieran reading a book called 1491.
You see, when they weren’t spending late nights brainstorming silly inventions, they were becoming fascinated by advanced ancient civilizations of Egypt, South America and various others throughout history.
So they both began reading 1491 by Charles C Mann, which was about the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The book argues that the populations of the Americas were far bigger than we think and that they surpassed the largest populations of Europe and China.
How does this lead to aquaponic farming? It turns out that a large focus of the book was on the advanced agricultural techniques these societies employed in order to feed their large urban civilizations in South America.
One of the techniques that really intrigued us was farming via the use of chinampas. Chinampas are essentially very big compost piles that are dredged into a lake so there are pathways of water and land. The land was used to raise agricultural crops, which would serve to hold the compost piles in place and not sink into the lake. The waterways were used to raise fish, which provided a natural fertilizer source for the plants and a more food for the urban citizens.
The Aztecs of Tenochtitlan used chinampas in lake Texcoco and according to the book, this fed an urban population of over a million people! That’s more than many cities population today, and they didn’t rely on urban growers for their food. Their cities could actually feed themselves! Well, this sparked some interest and we began to Google binge for all of the information we could find on chinampas. It wasn’t long before we came across aquaponics, which is the modern name for what the Aztecs were doing with their chinampas.
Aquaponics is essentially a chinampa in a box or a natural riverbed ecosystem in a box.
The next day, Spencer was out in a blizzard taking a packed city bus to the fish store and buying a tank and fish. He literally had to keep them pressed against his chest so they didn’t die from cold on the trip home. They survived the ride, and by the evening, we had a tank with fish pumping water into a Rubbermaid tub with holes in the bottom. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. We were off!
And then we weren’t. First, we heard the splashing. Water was literally everywhere. Something happened while we were out. We came back to a soaked carpet, desk, and bed. Luckily, the pump wasn’t able to completely empty the tank and while the fish were stressed out, they were still alive.
We had screwed up somewhere along the way, and after about 24 hours into our first aquaponics experiment, we had our first failure. Little did we know this would not be the last time we’d flood Spencer’s bedroom with awful smelling-aquarium water. As he would comment, “Not one of your top ten smells for your bedroom”. But this was our first litmus test. With most other things, we would’ve given up after experiencing a setback.
And this flood was far from minor. It took a few days for Spencer’s bed to dry completely and a few more for the febreeze to win over the fish smell. Yet we were inspired to see the project through. We wanted to take action and responsibility for the food we consumed. That inspiration only grew as the failures gave way to successes over the next months and years.
Despite our shortcomings in that first design, the plants just kept growing and growing. We couldn’t believe it. No matter how many water changes or floods there were, the plants were getting enough from the system to thrive in their alley window. We had tomatoes trellised on the safety bars of our first floor window. It honestly blew our minds we could grow plants like this with no experience, indoors with barely any daylight, and no dirt! This gave us the desire to go for more.
In fact, this small success really sparked a change in the way we were thinking. More than just supplementing our diet, we wanted to see if we could feed ourselves using aquaponics. In September 2012, our Boston lease was up and we decided to move back to our hometown of Glastonbury, CT.
We had two goals for that next year: (1) To feed ourselves, and if we could do that, (2) then we wanted to figure out a way to make a living off aquaponics. We built our first system in a space that took up just 70 square feet in Spencer’s backyard. At this time, there were four of us invested in this, trying to feed ourselves via aquaponics. By June of the following year, our system was producing so much food that we didn’t know what to do with it all!
We decided to start sharing our bounty with friends and family. This is when the magic really started to happen! By the end of that summer, we had them hooked and many started asking us if they could tell friends about us and could they PAY US for it!!!
It was so good they wanted as much as we could give them. This was music to our ears. We knew we wanted to make money doing this, but without a business background we really didn’t know how to. Yet, we had people who were asking to pay us for what we were doing so we knew there had to be a way to take this to the next step. And transition from an expensive hobby to a fully fledged business.
One little problem, we already went to college and were not about to stop our progress to go back and spend 4 years and money we didn’t have to get a business degree. So we did what we always did when we needed to solve a problem or learn more about something, we scoured the internet for everything we could find.
So we looked at other farms and their models, and decided that we would set up a weekly delivery of produce to a test group of friends and family. We also set this up to go right through winter. With no experience and no idea how to calculate for winter growing rates, we started with 8 “shares” or 8 deliveries every week.
I’m happy to say that despite our ignorance and ineptitude, the aquaponics system churned along better than expected that winter and we were able to carry out our deliveries uninterrupted for the entire season.
This was starting to not only make us money but get really fun. We were the only farm in the town with fresh produce all winter long!
That spring we were ready to take the next step. We approached a local farmer and old acquaintance about renting space on his land to build a large-scale aquaponics greenhouse. This was a big undertaking. We had made back our investment in the greenhouse we made at Spencer’s house at this point. But this project was going to cost us at least $10,000 dollars.
It was around this time that we decided we couldn’t just keep failing forward, and plowing along blindly. We’d need to get help, find mentors or a resource where we could ask all our questions about entrepreneurship. We had no spring board for any of the questions we had or the challenges we would face ahead as we tried to take aquaponics from passionate hobby to sustainable business. A business that would provide a healthy and sustainable food source to our communities, empower others to feed themselves like we had. But how?!
Using our network of family and friends, we were able to connect with some business professionals. One of these contacts told us about what seemed like a magical place at the time. That place was reSET! They were helping entrepreneurs like us go from concepts to functioning enterprises, coordinating access to a team of mentors and service providers, and providing an office where professionals could cowork from before they could afford their own office space. It was just what we needed and just at the moment, we needed it.
We’ll continue our story and journey into reSET next week in Part II of this blog series. So please stay tuned!