For some inventors, the problem with creating a hit product is that you become pigeonholed by your own brand’s success. Take the so-called Mushroom Guys, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, two friends who started out growing mushrooms in recycled coffee grounds in the kitchen of a UC Berkeley frat house back in 2009. Their company, Back to the Roots, eventually sprouted into a smartly designed kit for grow-at-home oyster mushrooms, which pop out of a container about the size of a boxed-wine box. The kits were cool enough for a classroom and pretty enough to sit atop the kitchen counter, which led to deals with the likes of Whole Foods and Nordstrom’s–and the eventual nickname. “We are not the Mushroom Guys,” Velez says, noting that their ambition was always larger than that. “We love urban farming. Our passion is about food being discovered and other types of growing methods.”
Their second offering, a DIY home aquaponics kit dubbed the AquaFarm, should drive home that message, propelling the company from one-hit eco-wonder into a broader ecosystem of offerings. Aquaponics, of course, is the increasingly popular science of sustainable growing that ties fish and vegetable farming together. In most operations planters sit atop fish beds of tilapia; the water and fish waste help hydrate and fertilize the plants, which help filter and clean the tank itself. Eventually, it’s all harvested for consumption. AquaFarm mimics that on a cute desk-top scale. Chic planters grow small batches of wheatgrass, basil and lettuce atop a fishbowl containing a more decorative, for-demonstration-purposes-only beta fish.
The second venture is more advanced than the first. When they debuted, the mushroom kits consisted largely of two ingredients–grounds and spores–and were inherently a bit dirty. The AquaFarm has 26 different inputs, from the fish to the seeds, gravel, and bowl cleaner. It costs $60 bucks and comes fully loaded with everything you need to set it up right out of the box and a coupon for the fish from a new partner: Petco. At the same time, the company has managed to retain its old retailers, Whole Foods and Nordstrom’s, and will sell via direct order on home-tinkerer sites like ThinkGeek and UncommonGoods.
Winning over all those constituencies didn’t come easy. The duo decided to tackle the aquaponics industry in 2012 after visiting Growing Power’s Community Food Center, an impressive two acre operation founded by ex-NBA player turned farmer Will Allen in Milwaukee. (The practice generally uses 90% less energy than traditional grow operations and takes up half the real-estate.) Demoing all that artfully in a mini-model–with some good returns for salads– fit perfectly with the company ethos, but Whole Foods wasn’t totally excited by the concept at first. “It wasn’t easy,” Arora says of the convincing process.
To demonstrate demand, the company came up with a prototype and launched a Kickstarter. More than 700,000 people signed up, guaranteeing the company its first quarter million in sales. To make sure nothing needed to be sold separately and keep costs down, the company also recruited more partners; SF-based Daylight Design helped refine the habitat while aquarium company Kordon, and organic seed company Seeds of Change added their own supplies and expertise to the set. Meanwhile, online comments from Kickstarter helped the founders to refine the product before it shipped. “A lot of people think of Kickstarter as just a financing thing but it helps with proof of concept,” Arora says. “We got all these messages from supporters and feedback.”
For instance, they learned that their initial planters needed more space between for aeration between the plants and water in order to prevent root rot. “It would have taken us a year to get than feedback if we’d launched at retail,” he says. Even the decision to go with a beta fish was carefully researched ahead of time. They grow at a smaller rate than goldfish, allowing the proper fish mass to water ratio to keep the system functional.
While they haven’t announced their next product yet, the duo agrees that it will likely be just as hands-on. “Back to the Roots is about connecting families to food through fun and innovative experiences,” says Arora. Just don’t call them the Fun Guys, either.