We’re Celebrating 5 Years As A Startup – Part 2 Going Commercial Scale

Sometimes you can look back at a pivotal moment in your life and think, “I really was in the right place at the right time.”  For us, that realization comes to mind when we think about how we made the jump from backyard hobbyists making a bit of money on the side to becoming full-scale commercial growers.

Spencer and Kieran remember reaching out to their networks to connect with anyone who had made the entrepreneurial jump so they could get insights into what it took to start up a business. One of their early mentors, Lawrence Ford of Conscious Capital Wealth Management, connected them with a new organization in Hartford that was set up for just this purpose. Larry at the time was guiding the team through the process of strategizing for the long term, and giving them the foundational knowledge they needed before they could make the jump as entrepreneurs.

Larry set the team up with Rosie Gallant who was the Program Manager at the time for reSEt. reSET’s mission was to help entrepreneurs with a social enterprise style business, take their ideas and make them a reality through business.

reSET was a ground hive of entrepreneurial activity and the two finally found a community where they could talk with others going through the same process. Through reSET, they were able to connect with more mentors, get connections to attorneys and accountants, and all the resources they needed to make their business a legal entity and set themselves up for success.

The two went through reSET’s business accelerator which is basically a ten-week replacement for an MBA. This was a crash course in how to set up and run a business from scratch when you had little more than an idea in your head. The boys were a bit ahead of the ball as they already had some customers from their first system and knew they at least had a market for their ideas.

As a benefit to getting accepted to the accelerator, we were able to utilize all the other resources that reSET offers for free!  One of those was having a consultation with their Entrepreneur in Residence Eric Knight.  So on an early fall day, they went in and talked with Eric about all of their ideas.  Eric asked them some tough questions, which lead to him suggesting he meet with another entrepreneur who came to him with a similar business idea for an aquaponics installation and service company.  As seemed destined by fate, Eric Francis happened to be the next appointment that day and when we walked out we got introduced to each other. It was total kismet, you couldn’t have planned it any better and the three of them instantly hit it off sharing passions not only for aquaponics but their entrepreneurial idols as well. They knew based on the connection that they had to work together.

reSET’s accelerator completely changed our notions of starting a business.

reSET’s accelerator is modeled after “lean startup,” a method for developing businesses and products that was first proposed in 2008 by Eric Ries.  While in the program, the team was introduced to the concept of Customer Discovery and selling your product before you actually physically create them.  This was where our idea of a startup changed.  The basic idea is that you go and ask people about what they want, instead of telling them about what you think they want. Anyone can have an idea for a business, nonprofit, organization, game, or something else that the population would love to have.  But then they start telling people about this product and no one wants it.  So why does this matter so much?  Well for us, it changed the way we do business and develop products.  We started off thinking we would be selling systems to homeowners and individuals.  Without going through rigorous discovery and hours of deliberation, we would never have had the insights that schools and non-profits were actually much more interested in our systems and services. It was our first insights that what we now dub our ‘hidden farmer groups’ would actually be our biggest customers

Throughout the accelerator, we consistently made great progress with our customer discovery as well.  Each week, we all would have to pitch our business and there was a moment one day where Eric was watching Spencer and Kieran pitch and they mentioned aquaponics in schools as a new insight from customer discovery. One of the mentors in the audience mumbled to Eric about how her nieces would love this and that they already have a fish tank in the classroom. Customer discovery was happening all the time and all of us were learning that every person we encountered could give us at least some insight into our products.

After the accelerator, Eric continued to informally work with Spencer and Kieran as their other business partner transitioned out of the company.  He also continued to conduct customer discovery and to develop MVP products.  He had a seemingly innocent interaction with an elementary school teacher while he was working weekends at a local Christmas tree farm. This led to four fourth grade classrooms growing basil and parsley in our aquaponics systems in the spring.  We worked together to teach the students about aquaponics and to incorporate it into their existing lesson plans.  It was such a success that at the end of the year, they harvested the basil and parsley and made pesto pasta with it.

Another serendipitous moment happened while Eric was playing golf with one of his mentors. He was shooting a horrible round, but the mentor saved the round when he mentioned one of his old clients was hiring someone to run their aquaponics system.  This organization was the Arc of Meriden-Wallingford, which used aquaponics to conduct job training with developmentally-disabled adults.  Eric had previously worked with them on their aquaponics system but had been out of touch for a year or so.  After contacting them, he found out that they had expanded their systems to cover more than 1,000 square feet of growing space and that they needed someone to help them restore and maintain their systems.

With some more customer discovery, they ended up proposing a service contract that would allow us to help them rebuild, maintain, and expand their systems.

Filling up the new commercial aquaponics system at Robb's farm.
Filling up the new commercial aquaponics system at Robb’s farm.

Shortly after, Eric officially came onto the team as the third partner and Chief Discovery Officer.  Going forward, we will continue developing our ideas through customer discovery.  We are continuing to add jobs to the community through new team members that bring with them integrity, knowledge, and motivation.  This has allowed us to become the “#1 Sustainable Tech Company in Connecticut for 2016.”  We are trying to live up to this title by innovating a new line of aquaponic products and services that will help any level of aquapioneer reach their true potential.   Since enrolling in reSET’s accelerator in October of 2014, Trifecta has blossomed into a successful business.

They opened up their commercial farm at Robb’s Farm in South Glastonbury and sold produce for two years straight at the Glastonbury Farmers Market and through CSAs. They found more partnerships with schools and were able to supplement the farm income with system installs and service contracts. This proved critical to their survival as in the spring of 2015 they lost their entire crop to an aphid infestation and were fortunate enough to have the other income streams to fall back on. They would experience other minor crop losses every so often as they learned through trial and error on the farm.

The trials and tribulations of learning how to farm by diving right in would take a few years before they were able to farm uninterrupted year round. The lessons learned at reSET helped them to set up a business that could mitigate those risks through other customer channels besides produce buyers. It also helped them shape their mission, as they always wanted their business to be community driver and with these new clients they were way more integrated into their communities.

The company had three great years at Robb’s farm but would move on in the spring of 2016 with the goal of expanding and creating an urban commercial farm. Little did they know there would be more hurdles to overcome and that new farm would not materialize until summer of 2017.

We’ll cover that story next week, as well as what lies ahead for the next five years for Trifecta Ecosystems.

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