Celebrating 5 Years As A Start-up Part 4 – Finding A New Home
The last post we left off at the signing of our lease for the space at 290 Pratt St. We found 8700 sqft of heaven right in the heart of downtown Meriden. We use that term loosely as our space was far from a slice of heaven when we first laid eyes on it. Paint was peeling from every nook and cranny and the almost decade of no tenants had left a layer of grime that would take weeks for us to remove.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, we vastly underestimated the time needed for buildout. We figured with a hard push we could get the space ready for buildout within a month. That turned into over three months just to get the space ready for paint. We figured we could get the place painted in a week, that turned into a month and a half. We thought we could have the contractor work done in two weeks, it took two months. And finally we thought building the farm would take two weeks and it took a month and a half, although in fairness to us that was more of a supply issue. Still when we signed the lease in March we expected to be farming by June at the latest and instead, we didn’t get the first plants into the system until the second week of September.
It was another hard lesson in the hardships that come with running a small business. Again we were fortunate that our business model doesn’t rely on the farming side of things to keep the whole thing afloat. We certainly experienced some lean months but we always come out of a situation like that more motivated and capable than we went into it. Overcoming those unexpected obstacles is also what makes running a small business so fun!
During those months, even though we didn’t have the system going yet, we were still able to use the space to foster relationships with our clients. We would bring people in and show them the buildout as it was happening and they would come back a week or two later and see the progress and feel reassured by the effort and the pace with which we were keeping. It may have seemed like forever to us, but the feedback was always that we were doing incredible considering it was just a team of four, and we really only had nights and weekends to put into the buildout. We still had the business to run, building and maintaining systems for clients, developing our service model for aquaponics, and establishing ourselves as a contributor to the Meriden community through networking and collaborating with other local businesses.
When we finally did have the farm up and running that’s when we knew we had made the right move. The farm provides such a nice visual for the potential of aquaponics for anyone who has not seen it firsthand. While showing our aGrow and aGarden systems to clients is beneficial it does not have the wow factor of the commercial farm. With the farm, they get to see the possibilities firsthand and get the inspiration to try their hat at aquaponics with those smaller systems. It plays right into our story, as we got started small ourselves and we look to take our clients through that same journey.
It’s also great to be back to farming and contributing food to our local ecosystem. Our farm can produce just over 1200 heads of lettuce a week, in addition to herbs and other greens that we grow on a rotational basis. It’s small, only 2500sqft including the aquaculture, but it proves that you don’t need a lot of space to have a large impact with aquaponics. In fact, we designed our system in a way that we can eventually quadruple the output without using any more square footage. Eventually, we will be growing vertically in this space, adding plant areas above our deep water culture beds.
We received funding in 2016 from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Program to research various vertical farming methods to determine which style is most economical. The results of that research will inform how we upgrade the farm in the next two years. We’re also using the farm to garner interest from other communities who might want to attract a similar farm in their cities. We haven’t turned our backs on Hartford, and hope to still expand there in 2018, we also are looking into New Haven. We hope to expand with two new commercial farms in both cities by the end of 2018. These will be truly commercial, around 20,000 sqft each. This will transition our Meriden farm into a true community-oriented space, allowing our school and non-profit clients a place to host field-trips, do workshops, hold events and much more.
We’ve come a long way in five years and have admittedly lofty plans for the next five. If we’ve learned anything valuable in our past 5 years, it’s to reach for the stars, you may not get all the way there but you’ll get a lot farther than if you just reached for the clouds.
We’ll finish our series next week laying out our vision for the next five years for our company and for the industry.