Laura shares her Incubator journey in urban gardening and highlights the importance of getting your hands dirty from day one.
When I moved into my first place, having a roof terrace was crazy exciting, but overwhelming too. Chatting with other twenty-something young professionals, we soon realised our qualm was the same. Metro apartments with compact outdoor spaces. No idea how to transform them into London oases, but longing for a peaceful outdoor space to unwind.
This predicament initially drove me straight to the garden centre, where I bought what I saw, but without thorough instructions and a knowledge of what was seasonal, it wasn’t long before my botanical dream had wilted and died.
Was I alone? Of course not. When I asked friends and family, they cited similar pain. The management consultant in me quickly knocked up a spreadsheet of analysis. Research uncovered 70% of residential outdoor spaces in the capital are unkept and in need of TLC. Most of those are in social housing, where low incomes mean beautiful outdoor spaces feel unattainable, despite the proof that greenery has a significant positive effect on mental and physical health.
What if there was a gardening service which focused on balconies and other urban spaces? Could it be a social enterprise which utilised horticultural rehabilitation projects going on across prisons in the UK?
A budding entrepreneur
I had so much excitement and inspiration for the idea, but no cash to get it on its feet. I pitched to the Gate One Incubator for funding and needed to prove my commercial model was viable to make money. So, I set out investigating my costs and carried out market research to understand what people would be prepared to pay for my service. I met some high-end gardeners, to understand what journey they had been on.
The survey didn’t return too many responses and those that answered weren’t conceivably prepared to pay enough to cover my cost of the plants and labour. But this was all hypothetical – how could a survey really tell what demand there would be? Actions speak louder than words, and without a pilot to illustrate what the service would deliver, it was hard to share my vision and inspire others to come along my journey with me.
Next, I met with some gardeners – a family friend and a high-end landscape architect. The architect was keen to partner but tried to take it on a different journey – making more money in Chelsea and Kensington in property development. But this was so far from the idea of a social enterprise which had inspired me from the get-go.
Start-up speed is essential
Ultimately, focusing on a longer-term commercial model created inertia. In hindsight, the Incubator team agreed that I should have initially pitched for a smaller amount of money to just go out there and plant my first balcony straight away. A website, a social media volunteer, feelings in the market and a partnership with a garden centre would have given me the grounding I needed. An attitude of getting my hands dirty would have created a clearer understanding of demand, quickly. I should have just rolled up my sleeves, got my dungarees on and got out in that urban jungle!
I spent too much time on the business viability when I should have harnessed the start-up spirit and driven the venture with my passion. Start-ups such as Patch have now taken over the market in this space, proving that less talk more action could have meant a faster, more creative and ultimately more successful route to the market.
Gate One has harnessed these lessons learned and tailored the incubator process, as proven successful with the launch of Pinga, another Incubator project. The process now allows an earlier opportunity to pitch for funding, to experiment with a small amount of investment from Gate One with lower requirements for proof of a return on investment. So, even though my green fingers are still confined to my own roof terrace, the learnings have been invaluable and has helped cultivate other brilliant Incubators to fruition. Watch this space!