The Intersection of Plants and People
Earning an ‘A’ for their MBA project wasn’t enough for the three founders of TogetherFarm. About a year after earning their grade, the 2012 grads decided to turn the project idea into a real-world business, with a little help from a Kickstarter Campaign.*
TogetherFarm founders Doug Holcomb, Joe Aakre, and Matt Stormont met at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where they were challenged by their professor to put together a business plan for a fictitious company.
“Many of our cohorts chose to do kind of kooky little throwaway projects that they never had any intention of pursuing,” says Aakre. “I think Doug, Matt and myself really were passionate about: if we’re going to put work into this, why not try to solve a real-world problem and then, when we’re finished with the MBA decide if we want to go ahead and continue this as a company? And the product that we came up with, we were pretty excited about, and so we decided to go ahead and move forward with that.”
The product the three recent grads invented are colorful building blocks made of 100-percent recycled plastic that gardeners can snap together like masonry to make instant raised garden beds. Though it’s tempting to compare them with Legos, the modular system will distinguish itself from the toy bricks by being able withstand the changing climates and the harsh bleaching effect the sun has on many plastics. The blocks will also be BPA- and phthalate-free, a relief to gardeners concerned about such chemicals being leached into their soil.
“We don’t want these to be some sort of cheap, flimsy, plastic things that people use for a year and then toss away,” says Holcomb.
While working on their original MBA assignment, the three businessmen sought out a product that would help reclaim waste headed for the landfill and offer gardeners a way to easily build a raised garden bed without the intimidating hassle of hauling lumber and wielding hardware tools.
The TogetherFarm team envisions not only a product that can be used for several years and remodeled as needed, but a system that could potentially include add-on features such as a snap-on cold frame, a trellis, solar lights or a bench for seating. It could fit into a tight corner of a small garden, around a tree trunk, or conform in any other way an imaginative gardener sees fit.
Through their blog, the team has gotten suggestions from consumers about the many ways they would like to use the blocks. One person suggested building a taller structure to grow potatoes — during harvest-time, the blocks could be disassembled for easier access to the tubers. Another person realized that the blocks, which each have four hollow pockets on the underside, could be used before spring planting as seed starter trays.
“It’s modular, so the sky is the limit, which is pretty fun and pretty exciting to think of the comprehensive system that we will hopefully eventually have on the market,” Holcomb explains.
For the past two years, the three avid gardeners have been working with a Portland-based product designer who also has a horticultural background. They plan to manufacture the TogetherFarm Blocks in Washington State, so that they can keep track of quality control, which, as they learned on an MBA-program trip to China, can be difficult to do when a product is being made on the other side of the globe.
Now, with their prototypes 3-D-printed, and a long list of complete strangers showing interest in the environmentally friendly blocks, the TogetherFarm trio is mid-way through a successful Kickstarter Campaign. They hope to raise $75,000 by the evening of September 23 so that the molds can be created for their first blocks. Their goal is to get the product out to consumers as soon as possible, at an affordable price. And they can’t wait to try it out some of those first blocks in their own gardens.
“We really enjoy fresh local produce and when you can grow it yourself, it’s that much better,” says Aakre.
And while the MBAs are forging ahead with what was once an assignment, the business plan they used in their program was presented as a model to other students at Concordia University.
“It’s been nice not to just turn your back on the university and move forward,” says Aakre. “They’ve been very supportive and integral in our success.”
To view TogetherFarm’s Kickstarter Campaign, click here.
*Editors Note: The TogetherFarm Blocks team exceeded their Kickstarter goal of $70,000, collecting close to $80K with the help of 503 backers. The original backers will receive first-run kits of the product, but interested customers can sign up here to be notified of the next round of block production.