[Thanks to Margo Dunlap for sharing some of her experiences starting an urban farming enterprise in Brooklyn.]
I started a small business in the urban gardening space this spring, about the same time I planted my first garden in makeshift containers in my Brooklyn back yard. Both of these projects have been massive learning experiences. In discussing them at the same time it is tempting to make glib metaphors and puns on the word grow, but I’ll try not to. Here is what gardening and entrepreneurism have in common: they require optimism in the face of discouraging and sometimes mysterious difficulties. Here is something they don’t: squirrels.
My company is called Bitfarm, and its mission is to design better products and guides that make gardening more approachable in urban areas, starting with better seed packets. I aim for it to be a social business, or social entrepreneurship, which is a company that uses the for-profit model to accomplish a social goal. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the development of microeconomics several years ago, created the concept in his book Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.
Gardening is subject to a number of barriers to entry, from intimidation to space. I believe that thoughtfully designed products could remove almost all of these hurdles. In general, people living in urban areas pay more for fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to live in a food desert. For me, the small garden in the back yard has been a reliable source of lettuce and fresh herbs, both of which are unappealingly damaged and priced at the closest grocery store.
Social businesses are pretty trendy at the moment, if we’re being honest. Which we are, so I will also tell you that starting a company was a rash idea. You might be surprised to hear this, but if you design a better seed packet the world does not beat a path to your door. So I’ve found myself in a place where I’m working on sales – shilling to grocers and store managers. I’d intended to design solutions, not operationalize them, but unfortunately for introversion, I’ve discovered that creative needs the marketing department as much as vice versa. As in the garden, the rewards reaped thus far (there’s that lame metaphor after all) seem kind of small when compared to the effort expended, but at least next spring I’ll be more experienced.