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“How people can grow their own produce year round”, With Hank Adams of Rise Gardens

Plants are amazing. Consider all they do for us: they beautify our home, clean our air, improve our mood, connect us with life and the natural world, and they provide food for our enjoyment and sustenance. Growing plants is a rewarding lifelong activity and shared experience amongst family members. Yet many people have no access […]

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Plants are amazing. Consider all they do for us: they beautify our home, clean our air, improve our mood, connect us with life and the natural world, and they provide food for our enjoyment and sustenance. Growing plants is a rewarding lifelong activity and shared experience amongst family members. Yet many people have no access to outdoor gardening, or have limited growing seasons.

Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hank Adams, CEO & Founder of Rise Gardens.

Prior to founding Rise Gardens, Hank Adams started three previous sports technology companies, including Sportvision, which was named one of the world’s 50 Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company Magazine (#34, Fast Company, March 2010) and earned Hank a spot on Fast Company’s “Ten Most Creative People in Sports” list (June 2009). Sportvision forever altered the sports landscape with its iconic products such as the “Yellow Line” for football. Seeking a new venture that would make a lasting impact, Hank decided to focus on solutions to the broken food system, which contributes to poor health, depleted soils and environmental degradation. In addition, Hank has had a lifelong passion for gardening, starting as a boy growing strawberries in his native Colorado. Combining these interests, Rise Gardens was born.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After achieving success in the sports business world, I wanted my next company to make a lasting impact in the world. I decided that helping to fix the broken food system, which contributes to poor health, depleted soils and environmental degradation was a good place to start. In addition, I have had a lifelong passion for gardening, starting as a boy growing strawberries in my home state of Colorado.

As an adult, since moving to the midwest, I became frustrated that I could not grow vegetables during the winter. I was struggling in the summertime as well. We have a lot of tree coverage and a couple of local rabbits and chipmunks who are far more resourceful and determined than I am. It occured to me that hydroponics and indoor gardening could solve the problem. I tried a couple of commercial systems, but they were cheap, loud and not very productive. They were novelty growing systems, I found out, without circulating water and simple one-part nutrients, which didn’t produce very robust or tasty produce. Nor was there much variety to choose from — only herbs and greens. In some cases, they did not even use hydroponic technology, opting for time-release nutrients and still (dead) water. So I built a real system with pumps, circulating water and multi-part nutrients. It worked well, but I had to keep in the basement because it was made of PVC and purple grow lights on metal shelving. I resolved to build something that I could show off proudly. One that would grow a wide variety of nutritious plants quickly and easily in an attractive package.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was a couple of years out of undergraduate studies, I agreed to move to London with only two days’ notice to become our firm’s US representative in the UK. Having international experience gained me admission into graduate school. Graduate school gained me an internship at AOL (it was hot back then). The AOL internship led to a business that AOL funded. That business launched a long career as a tech entrepreneur. Life is a series of unpredictable, but related coincidences: work hard, be ready and take calculated risks if you want to alter your trajectory.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Leaders eat last.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Lao Tzu

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Plants are amazing. Consider all they do for us: they beautify our home, clean our air, improve our mood, connect us with life and the natural world, and they provide food for our enjoyment and sustenance. Growing plants is a rewarding lifelong activity and shared experience amongst family members. Yet many people have no access to outdoor gardening, or have limited growing seasons.

To enable people to grow their own produce year round, Rise Gardens builds a beautiful, modular, multi-crop product that is the most innovative, productive and flexible home garden system. It is an IoT device with three custom-designed PCB’s, built-in sensors, an application to manage the system and a subscription business to keep it productive.

Rise Gardens is unique in a number of important ways. It is the only modular, consumer hydroponic system allowing gardeners to alter their output from 12 to 98 plants by adding levels and modifying configurations. Also unique is the fact that, in addition to growing the usual greens and herbs, gardeners can add components like trellises to grow vining crops such as snap peas, raised trays to grow rooted vegetables, inserts to grow microgreens, and they can leverage the larger base level to grow large fruiting and flowering plants such as tomatoes, peppers, swiss chard, kale or eggplants. And because Rise Gardens adopted sophisticated commercial growing technologies (it started life as a commercial indoor farm), it is the only consumer system to use three-part nutrients, PH management tools and sensors measuring PH, Electrical Conductivity (for nutrient density) and water levels. The lights were custom-designed to balance the ideal light spectrum for plants with more pleasing hues desired by humans. Circulating, highly-oxygenated water feeds the roots with nutrients and oxygen so the gardens are able to grow great tasting, demanding crops.

All of this sophisticated technology is run via an app connected to the IoT-enabled garden. Gardeners can manage light schedules and intensity via the app or buttons on the system (e.g. make it softer in the morning and evenings). They enter what plants they are growing and the app will guide them on what nutrients to add, alerts them to add water and guides the care and harvesting of their plants. Additional components are coming soon which will provide peristaltic pumps to auto-dose nutrients, a vacation watering system and integrated cameras to create time-lapse videos that can be sent to the gardener’s app.

All of this sophistication is housed in a beautiful design of natural wood uprights and heavy powder-coated metal cabinet and trays. The trays float in space with angles intended to echo window planter boxes. Their thin profile minimizes their weight and draws attention to the plants, which are the stars of the show. The plumbing is exposed to embrace the fact that the entire system is built around flowing water which also doubles as an invisible backup drain system in case plant roots block water egress.

How do you think this will change the world?

Our mission is to inspire people to be conscientious consumers of healthy food and to connect them to the food they eat by helping them to grow their own produce year around. If we can make people grow far more of their own food — indoors and out — then we will have a profound impact on people’s health and the health of the environment.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

We want this system to be complementary to outdoor gardens, not a replacement for them. If we do our job of making our systems fun and productive, we hope to make people more interested in growing their own food and thus growing indoors and out. But it is possible that people become too focused on indoor growing and ignore or reduce outdoor gardening, which would deprive species of pollination opportunities, waste our bountiful natural resources, and deprive us of some micronutrients that we may not even know we get from soil, etc.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Yes. About the 10th time I was ready to pick a ripe tomato and had it stolen by a chipmunk. That could suggest I am going to be a victim of the unintended consequences discussed above, but gardeners are inherently optimistic and determined. I am still growing outdoors in my garden. I am now, however, able to grow year around and reliably indoors as well.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Very simply, we need to make growing your food inside fun, easy and productive. If we focus on making the customer’s experience a fantastic one, then the rest of our challenges — marketing, manufacturing, scaling, building a great team, etc — can be met.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1 — Manufacturing is harder and more expensive than your business model predicts it will be. If I had known that, I may not have tried it with Rise Gardens (so maybe ignorance is bliss). But I would have been better prepared for the gut check of funding it until as long as I had to.

2 — If you want to be an entrepreneur, go work for an entrepreneur. Full disclosure, someone DID tell me that and it altered my focus and direction in a significant and beneficial manner. I was on the verge of going to work for a telecom company where I would have been buried five levels down doing spreadsheets. Instead, I got thrown into the fire and learned way more than I ever could have at a higher-paying, less interesting job.

3 — There is no destination in Performance Marketing. It is an endless cycle of fine tuning, discovery, close analysis and more spending. Experienced marketers know that all marketing is a continuous loop, and improvement is not linear. I entered this business with some shaky assumptions about the linear trajectory and have discovered that different groups behave differently and each have their own seasonal and market-driven realities.

4 — Fail fast. It’s a common trope these days, but it wasn’t so common back when I started and I’m still susceptible to grinding it out past when I should give up.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I manage as though every project is a scrum. In the early stages of a startup, every project has a million variables. I keep a lot of options open by not locking in past a couple of weeks out. I keep a very flat organization and empower everyone to contribute and make decisions. It will drive anyone looking for routine and process crazy. But it leads to a lot of creativity and It makes a small organization very powerful.

And, borrowing from the Navy Seals, “Find an excuse to win.” Everyone spends time finding excuses why they cannot succeed. I want reasons we can and will succeed.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Rise Gardens is an innovative indoor garden that grows a wide variety of herbs, vegetables and microgreens year around. We aim to make indoor gardens as indispensable and widely adopted as your home’s washing machine or microwave. With cutting-edge hydroponic technology guided by our app, Rise Gardens makes gardening easy, productive and fun. It is a platform for growing that allows for expansion and variety for everyone that wants to eat real food.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@risegardens on Twitter, FB and IG

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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