Often we look back at pivotal moments as an entrepreneur and think “I really was in the right place at the right time”. For me, that realization comes reflecting over quitting my job a year ago. Today I am right where I want to be. This is a sultry tale of chance meetings and gut instincts. My own little journey to becoming the Chief Discovery Officer at Trifecta Ecosystems (formerly known as FRESH Farm Aquaponics).
I went to school at Central Connecticut State University where I majored in business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. During this time I became very active in the some of Connecticut’s startup business activities. Through my studies at CCSU I came into contact with reSET. They are a new player in CT’s start-up ecosystem. ReSET is the brain-child of Kate Emory. I remember going to the Walker Group’s office, where reSET was formed, to sit in on some of the initial educational committee meetings. This is how I first came to realize that the Connecticut startup ecosystem is primed to accelerate as a major player in this space.
Soon after graduation I began to work with a startup aimed at helping the elderly. Our mission was to help elderly folks keep residence or live in loved ones homes instead of depending on nursing and assisted living homes. Over the next three years with this startup, I continued to attend reSET functions. I would also sit in on their Flight Night pitch events. Every event left me more excited about the future of Connecticut. All the while I was growing my network in the entrepreneurial community.
I was at a great company on the ground floor of an exciting market opportunity. However, I kept feeling that I wanted to quit. I wanted start a company in line with my passions. That was supposed to be the benefit of being an entrepreneur. You work on things you are passionate about. So one day I made the critical life-altering decision to quit my job and move on. I was hoping to start something that truly fueled my fire to change the world. Since I was embedded into my company it was not as simple as a two week notice. I had to gradually stop working over a six month period. However, that decision to leave was the reason behind a fortuitous phone call on my lunch break with Rosie Gallant, then Program Director at reSET. I now see it led me to be the entrepreneur I am today.
When you start a business, there is usually an idea or at least a problem that you are looking to solve. Over my tenure at CCSU I won a few elevator and business plan competitions. I founded an entrepreneurial community center called Community Central with one of my professor. But most importantly over that time I kept devloping my little black book of ideas.
Most would turn out to be duds. Either that or it wasn’t captivating enough to make me want to spend the time turning the idea into a reality. However, there were a few that I just couldn’t shake. So when I called Rosie to talk about the accelerator I had two ideas that were born out of hobbies I loved. My first idea was an Obstacle Course Gym for athletes that train for obstacle course races. The second was a residential aquaponics installation and maintenance company. After the phone call, I was so excited and motivated that I went in and applied to the accelerator program. I was still unaware of what fate would have in store for me.
By getting accepted to the accelerator, I was able to utilize the resources that reSET was offering. One of the resources was consulting with their entrepreneur in residence Eric Knight. It was an early fall day in September. I went in and talked with Eric about all the ideas that excited me in my little black book. The idea that clearly stuck out in both our minds was the aquaponics installation business. I was introduced to aquaponics in 2010. To this day I find it fascinating by how versatile an aquaponics system is in providing value. It goes beyond just the fact that you can grow fish and plants together in the same system. It’s all the ways you can use aquaponics as a tool for some other benefit. That was the potential that stuck out to Eric and I.
During the meeting, Eric asked me some hard hitting questions. He got right to the heart of my idea leading him to say that I need to meet two other entrepreneurs from FRESH Farm Aquaponics, Inc. (now Trifecta Ecosystems). It was a name I knew. The aquaponic community was small at the time. Like many other DIY aquaponic growers, I had scoured the internet to find any instance of aquaponic research. FRESH Farm was a name that regularly popped up with other mutual connections we had in the aquaponics community.
As seemed destined by fate, FRESH had the next appointment that day and as I bumped into them on my way out. Eric introduced me to Spencer and Kieran. We can all remember the interaction well. It was the first time we were formally introduced. We hit it off immediately, bonding over our shared interests in aquaponics, entrepreneurial mentors, and the passion we shared for getting others into aquaponics.
Fast forward a few weeks and both the FRESH Farm team and myself were in the accelerator sitting around a big round table introducing ourselves and our ideas. I was towards the end and Kieran and Spencer were near the front. Everyone went around introducing their ideas and I was last to go. My first choice of what idea I wanted to share was an aquaponics business, as suggested by Eric Knight. However, due to a simple seating arrangement, the group had already heard an aquaponics business idea. Like I said earlier, simple fate. So, when the ball was in my court I pivoted and pitched the obstacle course gym idea. Again, this decision, in hindsight, couldn’t have worked out more perfectly as I am here writing this blog as a member of the FRESH Farm team!
In October 2014 we started the Lean Launch Accelerator which completely changed all our notions of starting a business.
Lean startup is a method for developing businesses and products first proposed in 2008 by Eric Ries. It’s also the basis reSET’s accelerator program. During the accelerator, we were introduced to the idea of Customer Discovery and selling your product before you have it. This is where my idea of a startup changed. The basic notion is that you go and ask people about what they want. This is instead of traditional paradigm where you are telling them about what you think they want.
Anyone can think they have an idea for a business, nonprofit, organization, game, or something else everyone would love to have. But then they start telling people about this product and often it turns no one wants it. So why does this matter so much? Well for me, it changed the way I do business.
I started the accelerator with an idea for an obstacle course gym. However, through my customer discovery i learned they’d actually like Kits to work out at home. Traveling to gym was a big pain point. Especially for those not in large cities. So I pivoted. In the end I won best pitch at our Flight Night for Obstacle Kits people could set up right at home. Without going through rigorous discovery, having hours of conversations, I would never have had the insights to make this pivot. I would still be offering customers a gym instead of the convenience and flexibility in obstacle training they were truly looking for.
So how did I get there? Talking to hundreds of people. Listening to each one. Learning what they wanted and more importantly what they would pay for. While many of the people I talked to would go to an obstacle course gym I also found out, through the same conversations, about dozens of other facilities popping up nationwide. This led me into deeper talks with every entrepreneur who was building out these obstacle courses and scaling their existing gyms. It seemed for one like that market could become very crowded very quickly. It also gave me insight into lots of business models which highlighted high upfront costs and low profit margins. The goal of most was to franchise to scale, drop costs, and thereby increase profit margins.
So like many entrepreneurs I pivoted. I took the data I collected and created while a new product. I found out that 86% of the people I talked to would like to have an obstacle at their home to train on. That 89% wanted them at their gym and a whopping 75% of them worked out both at home and in a gym. I also found people what price people were willing to buy it from me. Again customer discovery goes back to selling them something. Learning where the sale will happen is a crucial component. It is so easy to overlook. Despite these insights and the potential, I still couldn’t stop thinking and obsessing about aquaponics.
After the accelerator I ended up pursuing aquaponics and as you can guess by now it wasn’t as a solopreneur or solo entrepreneur. During the accelerator Kieran, Spencer, and their former business partner Matt made great progress. Like myself they utilized the data collected from their customer discovery. Each week we all would have to pitch our business and there was a moment one day where I was watching FRESH Farm pitch and they mentioned aquaponics in schools as a newly discovered customer segment. One of the mentors in the audience mumbled to me about how her nieces would love this and that they already have a fish tank.
Customer discovery was happening all the time and every person can give you insight into your product or a new product. Just like myself, the FRESH team was able to pivot and make adjustments to their ideas which giving us a good springboard to the 2015 growing season.
After the accelerator I continued to work with Spencer and Kieran as their other business partner transitioned out of the company. While I was working with them I continued to do customer discovery and develop MVP products. A seemingly innocent interaction with a local 4th grade teacher, while I was working at a local Christmas tree farm my hometown, led to 4 fourth grade classrooms growing basil and parsley in our aquaponics systems that Spring. The adage is true, always be selling. We worked together to teach the students about aquaponics and incorporate it into their ecosystem lessons. It was such a success that at the end of the year they harvested the basil and parsley and made pesto pasta with it. Not to mention validating customer segment.
As you have read, there have been moments as an entrepreneur where I was simply in the right place at the right time. Once in a while those moments are while you are playing golf. During this one particularly nice day where I was shooting a horrible round, I was teeing off on a par 3 when the guy I was playing with mentioned one of his old clients was hiring someone to run their aquaponics system. My head turned right around. This organization was the Arc of Meriden-Wallingford.. They use aquaponics to conduct job training with developmentally disabled adults.
I had previously worked with them on their aquaponics system but had been out of touch for a year or so. After connecting, I found they had expanded their systems to cover more than 1000 sqft of grow space. More so, they needed someone to help them restore and maintain their systems. With some more customer discovery we ended up proposing a service contract where we would help them rebuild, maintain, and expand their systems. We are proud to say they are still our client to this day.
In September 2015 I officially came onto the FRESH Farm team as the third partner and Chief Discovery Officer. Going forward we are going to 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 Green Tech Company to Watch in 2016. We are living 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 starting the accelerator in October of 2014 FRESH Farm has blossomed into a business and we are ready to bring aquaponics to Connecticut.
As a Benefit Corp we strive to help our communities become more sustainable; this can only happen as we discover what is most important to you, the consumer. Over the course of the next six months, we will be taking on bold new challenges and expanding across the state: we need your help!
If you would like to be involved and help out or simply stay informed as we take on these new challenges you can fill out this 1-2 minute survey and we will be in contact to give you more information. We really appreciate all feedback as this gives us the best chance to succeed.