Apartment-dwellers—especially those of us in large cities—know all too well how difficult it can be to bring a little bit of greenery indoors. After all, plants are mysterious creatures that seem to get mad when you care about ’em too much, and starting something from seed can be a real rollercoaster. Can you tell I’m a helicopter parent to my houseplants? Anyway, growing your own stuff with minimal space is now much, much easier thanks to Nathan Littlewood and Robert Elliott, creators of our foolproof Bottle Stopper Garden Kit. With only a wine bottle, seeds, and Nathan and Robert’s expertly engineered “smart soil” capsules, you’ll be harvesting buckets of sweet basil, purple basil, and lemon balm in no time. (OK, maybe not buckets, but trust us: you’ll be seeing a lot of happy little leaves.)
After meeting at NYC’s own Columbia University back in 2016, Nathan and Robert bonded over shared interests in food and sustainability—and when they started a business together, they, like us, vowed to use it as a force for good. To find out what that means to them, we spoke with Nathan and Robert about their product, the ethos behind it, and cool stuff they’ve got lying around in the office… like, you know, a betta fish. Read on for more.
Tell us about how your Bottle Stopper Garden Kit was made.
At the heart of what we are trying to achieve is reconnect[ing] people with their food. By doing so, we believe we can motivate, encourage, and inspire healthier and more sustainable food choices. Plants are pretty amazing things, and the reality is that most of us don’t have a clue how they work.
We initially thought we were going to build a plug and play countertop hydroponics kit with lights, pumps, and automation. After interviewing nearly 200 people about this idea, we came to appreciate that most people have no idea why they need a fancy machine like this to grow basil. The people we spoke to just weren’t willing to pay what we thought we needed to charge in order to make this sort of product a success.
One thing that was apparent from all this research, however, is that some common problems were emerging. People were intrigued by the idea of growing plants, but most were intimidated about doing so. 9 out of 10 people we spoke to who had tried to grow a plant had failed due to under- or overwatering. So we set out to solve this problem and this problem alone: to design a product that was both affordable and could take care of watering plants.
The first ever prototype of [our garden kit] was 3D printed up in Queens on December 27, 2016. We went through about a dozen design iterations using 3D printing before doing a small scale pilot test and producing around 500 beta units. Throughout this process, we tested many different plants, substrates, and nutrients before settling on the current mix. Part of this pilot even involved setting up a basic e-commerce store to see if we could get people we didn’t know to buy the product online. We generated about $400 in sales by doing so.
In June 2017 we completed a Kickstarter campaign raising $44K, which allowed us to move from 3D printing to injection molding, which drastically reduced our costs and allowed us to bring down the price. We started shipping the Kickstarter rewards in September 2017, and UncommonGoods was our first real distribution partner where we launched not long after. We’ve been thrilled with this partnership and are really grateful to have had this opportunity.
What was the most exciting thing about starting your business? What about the most challenging thing?
The thing we enjoy most is knowing that we’re contributing, in some small way, to building a better future for the generations that will follow us. We often work 6-7 days a week, and on any given day only have time to get through about a third of the things on our “to-do list.” It can be a lot of pressure at times, but it’s the impact we’re having that motivates us.
The most challenging thing at the moment is the financial uncertainty of it all. We haven’t taken on any outside investment, which means we work on a very tight budget. There’s been more than one occasion when we thought we were going to run out of cash and have to shut the business down, but so far we’ve managed to find ways to get by and make things work. Some time soon we’re looking forward to moving out of our basement bedrooms and off ramen noodles!
Describe a typical day at work, assuming such a thing exists.
One of my favorite things about startup life is that there’s no such thing as typical! Every day is different, and we both wear many hats. We tend to work on a campaign basis, with a focus on whatever the priority is at that point in time. Sometimes it’s working on improving the design or packaging of the product, sometimes it’s researching new plant varieties, sometimes it’s working on new sales and marketing opportunities, and sometimes it’s making sure our operations are in order and we’re delivering product to our customers on time!
Could you talk about what using business as a force for good means to you?
Absolutely—this is an area that’s really important to us. It relates back to the very reasons we founded the company. We believe in making decisions that will last longer than we will, and being a driver for positive change wherever possible. What does this mean to us?
- Our products are 100% US-made from biodegradable and recycled materials. Even our plastic injection molding, which most people associate with China, is done in NY state. By keeping our supply chain local and short, not only can we support our local community, but we can also cut down on transport-related carbon emissions.
- [Our grow kit] is assembled by our manufacturing partner Mid-Hudson Works, located in New York’s Hudson Valley. This amazing non-profit provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We’re proud to be able to support the work that they do.
- We have a foundation relationship with Teens for Food Justice also. These guys provide urban farming education for food-insecure kids, and the food that they grow from the hydroponic farms within classrooms is also made available to their communities. We donate 1% of our revenue to TFFJ.
- Finally, from time to time we like to support other causes as well. For example, in April this year, in recognition of Earth Day, we donated $2 from every kit sold on our website to Trees for the Future—which helps farmers plant forest gardens and achieve food self-sufficiency.
Is there a special trinket or talisman you keep nearby while you work? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
We have a betta fish in a small aquaponics setup that keeps an eye on us—and kindly fertilizes microgreens that we enjoy on our lunch occasionally.
Finally, what quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
We’re driven by a desire for constant improvement. Of ourselves, our business, and of the world around us. If there’s a mistake we can learn from, some customer feedback we can listen to, or a way for us to improve our environmental and social impact, then we’ll pounce on it.