Zachary Witman of GrowSquares: transforming the home gardening experience

Zachary Witman of GrowSquares: transforming the home gardening experience

Understory Team
Understory Team

Vegetable gardening has experienced a strong resurgence, especially during Covid, as new generations value organic, sustainable food and embrace new hobbies. In fact, there are over 18 million new vegetable gardeners in the U.S. alone. And these gardeners aren’t necessarily who you would expect – they are urban, they value data, they are climate conscious, and they want guidance at their fingertips.

GrowSquares is a platform enabling these savvy gardeners with easy access to unique crops and a mobile-guided experience. In this episode of The Understory Podcast, Zachary Witman, CEO of GrowSquares, shares how a company of data scientists is transforming the home gardening experience. Zachary shares how the GrowSquares platform can help plants thrive according to their microenvironments while nurturing the soil with biodegradable materials. Tune in to learn about undiscovered vegetables, the factors that influence crop yields, and how anyone can develop a green thumb with the right information.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (the host of The Understory Podcast): Welcome to The Understory podcast. Understory is a global platform and community for innovators and innovative companies that are trying to make our world more sustainable. For this episode, we're very excited to have Zachary Whitman, who is a Co-Founder and CEO of GrowSquares.

Zachary, thank you so much for making the time to come to The Understory Podcast. Tell us more about what you guys are building.

Zachary Witman: Thank you for having me.

JJ: Let's talk about your founding story. Why did you start GrowSquares? What was your background and for audience to get to know you and the company a little bit better.

Zachary: My background is a little bit different than most people who end up in the gardening industry. I was a banker and worked in hedge funds for a number of years. I've always loved gardening. From the time I was a kid, I grew up in Rhode Island and I was out there growing tomatoes and peppers in my parents’ yard as young as four or five years old. I built aquaponics one weekend when they went away. I got yelled at that for a good number of days.

I've always loved gardening and as I moved from city to city, both Pittsburgh and Boston and New York. Each new time I relocated, I understood that as you got to larger cities, growing a garden got more and more complex. At the time, I was working at this hedge fund where we were analyzing crop yields, essentially derivatives to price commodities. I had this idea that said listen, we're using all this kind of cool information to be able to understand how crops grow. What if we applied a lot of that logic to smaller environments? Not fields in in Pennsylvania or Iowa, but rooftops in Brooklyn.

GrowSquares came together with my background in math, an understanding that remote science and remote data capture is something that could inform crop yields. It was a very technical approach. I think a little bit different than most, but one that has been very helpful.  It reflects the new reality where if we're going to get more and more yields from crops, we must use new information and new approaches.

JJ: Thanks for that background. For our audience to learn a little bit more. Some of them may be familiar with vertical gardening, others may be familiar with hydroponics as you mentioned, and using LED lights to grow.  Give us a sense of what the market is. Are you also targeting consumers or are you targeting businesses? Are you targeting farms?

Zachary: GrowSquares is at its core essence an old school gardening product. There's been fantastic insight in terms of indoor farming, vertical farming, whether it's inside or outside. We use some of the old tried and true methods. Our system relies on a plot of dirt and the sun and the wind because it naturally occurs. We're using that old school way to grow crops.

We're just adding a new bent to it, which is just a better understanding of microenvironments. My thought is as we start developing better and better technologies for indoor crop production. It really does limit the audience, right? It's an expensive thing. You must replicate and keep a greenhouse as a clean environment. Aren't all these costs that are going to be difficult to absorb, whether or not that's in foreign countries, while we've had some breakthroughs on indoor gardening and indoor farming, people can still really only produce very high value cash crops that aren't really high in calories. People today are producing microgreens and lettuce, maybe some very small tomatoes. Whereas if you're growing outdoor, you can produce the whole plethora of crops and so that's what we focus on.

We focus on that traditional gardening approach. We just use a little bit of data to give ourselves an edge and really ensure that what's being grown is the appropriate thing for the environment and the time of year and how something should be grown.

JJ: Super cool. I went to your website and people can buy lots from GrowSquares. They can grow beets. They can grow broccoli, basil, carrots, lots of different things that people need to consume as part of their salads. Or even a main ingredient.

If a consumer is looking to buy GrowSquares what's the kind of environment, you'd have to put this? Anywhere in the apartment or in the house? Is it where there's sunlight or is it outside? How does it work?

Zachary: We've designed our system to be as modular and adaptive as possible. our belief is that anybody can grow. It doesn't matter if you only have a few square feet outside or you have a huge backyard. Really the same principles remain. What we've done is we've set up our system so that if somebody selects their particular space where they'd like to grow, we do a deep analysis of their plot -  how the wind blows and how the sun shines and if they're on dirt, what the soil looks like underneath.

All you need is a few square feet of place that you can dedicate to growing a garden, and that adapts to whether you're on a balcony in Manhattan or you've got a huge plot in a suburb or in the countryside. The principle remains the same and the process is more or less identical. Tell us exactly where you're going to grow, and we do an analysis to tell you what's the best thing for that spot. We can tell that any day that it might be snowing outside, and it doesn't look like anything is going to work. But we say just you wait a couple of weeks and based upon some more frost predictions and the way things evolve, we'll ship your radishes or beets or whatever it is that works best for your space.

We want to make sure to empower our users, so maybe they're not a big beat aficionado and they want to grow something else instead. We always give that as a possibility if it's something that they don't think is going to taste so well, or they're not excited about.

JJ: Talk about your products. You say it's modular, right? You have the container if you will. And there are things that go into that container, whether it's a seed or whether it's the soil and so forth. I think one of the things you say about GrowSquares is that it’s biodegradable, is that correct?

Zachary: The way that we produce our product is we give you a starter kit if you will. We produce something that has, as you mentioned, seeds and soil. But what we really didn't want to do is we didn't want to produce something that was of the same depth that a plant would normally take. What we want to do is we really want to be adaptive to people environments so you know oftentimes people will take our product and put it on an existing raised bed or a planter box or regular dirt or backyard.

Essentially the way that our product functions is we know what we're growing so the box of a broccoli or the blocks of a of a beat will be a little bit different, but it's a biodegradable container. It’s made of a leaf that naturally falls from a tree. What we do is we extrude the leaf and inject it with both enzymes and catalysts to ensure that it breaks down in a very predictable amount of time, so you know if a broccoli is going to take 10 weeks to grow. It'll break down in 10 weeks. Is really to ensure that whatever we provide just really goes back in the ground, and all you're really left with is a few inches of remediated and high quality and high nutrient dirt.

It’s a whole process. It's cyclical and really leaves the user with nothing more than a better chance of growing even a healthier garden next time around. It really is a whole system and one that we hope people come back to. You know season after season and garden after garden.

JJ: Interesting, so I think this is pretty novel concept, but you know, it's intuitive that if somebody buys, let's say, broccoli from GrowSquares and they buy the bio products and they put it in the garden. And it will grow predictably. And then once the broccoli is harvested, then the GrowSquare, that container, would essentially decompose in a pretty productive time frame? That’s pretty cool.

JJ: How long since you have launched and what sorts of patterns or behavior have you seen from your customers?

Zachary: We've been at it for a couple of years now. We launched about three years ago, and in that time, we've seen some really interesting insights. The obvious big trend here is that since COVID began gardening, got a lot more popular. We've seen a lot of people who've always had this kind of inclination of saying I’d love to do this, but I just think it's going to be too difficult or too time consuming or I don't really know where to start.

In the last year, year and a half or so there's been 18 million new vegetable gardeners in the in the United States alone. It's a unique mix. It's a lot younger than the traditional audience. It's a lot more male of the new people who started about 60% are male. It's a very different type of audience than traditionally what we think of as the as the guarding population. What we find is those people who are coming to us on the fact that they're not experts. The fact that they’ve been avoiding this for years, even though they've had this inclination, they really want to have experiences that evoke and mimic the type of way that they approach things traditionally.

It's a generation and an audience that goes to YouTube and looks on how to do things that it's super familiar with their phone. And having that as the device to help them navigate the world around. Our solution is one that meets people where they already are. It's built on a mobile app. It's something that is live and can find data as it flows, as opposed to historical ideas and historical data.

It's up to date and it is a solution that meets the new generation of gardeners and a lot of those folks as mentioned are younger, and a lot of those folks are also very family oriented because a lot of the new people who've come on board really want to showcase to their children that gardening is within reach. It's something that they can showcase that if you follow the directions, and you have the patience and you have the resiliency. You're able to achieve a lot of great things.

It's also super organic and delicious and really hits a lot of those sort of sweet spots when we think about new products, whether or not they're CPG or new DTC products. It really is that intersection between smart products and healthy wellbeing.

JJ: Let's talk a little bit about GrowScores. You have this very interesting calculator for lack of a better word. You put your zip code or address and then essentially GrowSquares will run its calculations and algorithms, and then it will then tell the potential customer the condition for growing these vegetables based on the sunlight, temperature, humidity, soil quality, etc. Then you recommend the potentially best performing crop for that particular area they live in.

So how do you guys know? Are you doing that based on public data? How do you know soil condition and other things?

Zachary: It took us years and years to figure out how to get all that data and it's still a process.

JJ: You say on your website, you consider over 34 factors. That's pretty amazing, In fact, you're helping people to succeed.

Zachary: Absolutely you mentioned a good number of them: sunlight, shadow, and wind. All of those are key things to understand before you know how well a plant will grow. And they also change. It's not just a weather. Plants are not a static onetime thing. It's also as weather developed, as plants get into different phases, you must treat them differently. All those things are calculated.

When we tell people how much to water and went it thin and what their yield estimates are going to be, it's this conversation. It's a conversation with your plant. It's a conversation with nature and we really function as that intermediary between the two.

JJ: Got it cool. Final question about the different types of plans that you're offering, any new ones that that's coming that you're really excited about, or you can't tell the audience.

Zachary: We like to we like to follow the trends. What's popular these days are the things that we're able to give to our audience. A few years ago, there was a huge trend of kale and wanted to make sure that we were able to produce broad varieties because we think of things as just one type of plant.

We say, hey, you mentioned basil. There are tons of different types of basil. There's Thai sweet basil and there's all these cool purple Basil things that we don't necessarily think about. And honestly, hard to get into our local grocery store. Not only do we produce and sell lots of sort of different types of plants, but we have some exotic and exclusive, but have very difficult to identify plant and variety strains. That's something that we pride ourselves on. Going into our inventory, I'm super excited about something called a Mexican Sour Gherkin. It looks like a like a tiny watermelon that you can hold in your hand if nothing else, and it's one of the coolest looking plants I've seen in a while.

We find that while some of those things aren't necessarily as popular because people must really be introduced to it. Once they go through the system, they say, hey, you know this is such a cool thing. We find that traction and product stickiness is something that we find as a result of having those long tail, more one-off types of plants and vegetables.

JJ: To this point, Zachary, I noticed you have where cucumbers look like lemons. Is that right?

Zachary: That we do. We have a cucumber that looks like lemon. There are all these interesting ways, I've never seen it. I hadn’t known that it existed until we were at one of our seed suppliers and was walking around and saw this cool looking thing. I wasn't sure what it was. That's part of the excitement. All these new types of strains that have come out in new varieties. Some of them are thousands of years old. We just don't oftentimes get exposed in our Western pallets and in the grocery stores. They're just difficult things to identify. The only time you really get an opportunity to see these things is when you grow them yourself. They're not going to move off the shelves if they're sitting in a grocery aisle. The introduction of knowing that these plants exist and really can't get it unless you're growing it yourself or you've got a friend who's really into the hobby.

JJ: It's super cool, and I'm sure we can spend more time talking about the different plans you have on your website, including the rando carrot, but we won't go into random carrots, and I encourage people to check it out.

One of the key takeaways is that this kind of product really helps people understand where our food is coming from. Whether you're growing in smaller modular form in the background that can still be a food supply, but it's also a great education. Kids and justice. People understand how to grow things and where things are coming from and be thoughtful about what they are leaving behind and what they're eating and so forth. I think it's this great innovation.

What's ahead for the company, and what makes you excited? Where can people find GrowSquares to buy or for partners to seek out GrowSquares.

Zachary: The next couple of months are quiet time, you know during these during the winter months is where we take a unique step back. Gardening isn't necessarily as popular in some parts of the country. Where I am in in the Northeast, you don't see the hobby practiced much because it's difficult to do if you're outdoors. It really gives us some time to explore some of the other features that we're super excited to develop both within the app and our website as well.

We have a chance to work with suppliers. Figuring out what's going to be popular in terms of strains of variety types. We get to do a little bit of research with users figuring out what was cool. We have a couple of months to code all of that stuff, come up with the designs, and integrate it within our platform so something that we can walk away with a fuller featured experience.

I know that over the last year and a half during COVID people have retreated, often into themselves to their own environments. We really know that and appreciate that and really want to create a full featured suite where you're going to be able to talk to your neighbor about gardening things and see how they're see how they're growing and their successes. We really want to be that functional intermediary, that community that people can start talking to each other, and so that's a that's a big part of our initiative over the coming months.

We also want to expand our reach. Right now, we're available in 48 states, but we find that most people really concentrate into the cities and really want to make sure that this is something that people are practicing both in in the suburbs and the countryside. It's something that is a cool product and want to get people excited about it, so we'll be spending time to increasing our visibility.

You can find out more both about GrowSquares and our new features and see what plants we grow on our website at GrowSquares.

JJ: Excellent Zachary. Thank you so much for coming on today to The Understory Podcast and sharing more about what you're building and what your team is building. It's a great idea, and I really love this concept and see the great traction that you guys are having. We look forward to having you come back here and maybe Understory will grow something with GrowSquares and we'll harvest and share with our audience.

Zachary: You’re welcome, thanks for time.

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