Interview with City Hydroponics
It primarily came from personal interest. I am living in a village house with rooftop, and decided it would be fun to try and grow some of my own vegetables. Then, having time on my hands, I started to think about turning it into a business. I heard a lot about urban farming over the past decade and I know many people who try to grow on their balcony.
Some research on the major online marketplaces such as e-bay, amazon and taobao for hydroponic systems suitable for use on balconies came up empty. There are lots of hydroponic growing systems available, but nothing that would fit on a balcony. This is how City Hydroponics came to life: hydroponic growing systems designed with the limited space of city life, like in Hong Kong, in mind.
You designed and built your installations yourself. Could you tell us about your experience?
I had a lot of fun doing that. Of course not everything works as expected the first time around, but that's part of the learning experience.
The development started about two years ago, first with some prototypes put together using PVC plumbing parts. Very soon after I set up my first prototype, I had my first harvest, which was great. I still use it to grow vegetables, and to experiment.
Then I also started to work on indoor systems, and the big challenge there was the design. I had never done CAD design before; that was a really steep learning curve. I just downloaded some CAD software and started designing, learning on the way.
The product design I continue to do myself, prototyping is mostly outsourced to mainland factories.
What were the biggest challenges in launching this business?
Finding the time and resources to actually do it. I'm in this business alone, on a shoestring budget, as side project. That is one of the hardest challenges in launching this. It is also why first development took this long.
Another major challenge is the production. Many manufacturers want 100 or even 1,000 units as minimum order, but that's way too much for me. I have to find those that produce smaller numbers, so I can grow the business organically instead of starting off big.
To actually market a product, to get production done, to deliver the product to customers, that is taking a lot more time and needs a lot of dedication. It is possibly the most difficult stage of starting a business, as cost can easily spiral out of control in this stage, in part due to the need of ordering sufficient stock and marketing expenses, without much in the way of sales to make up for it.
What is your most memorable moment so far?
The launch of the first crowd funding campaign, and with that the formal launch of City Hydroponics as a business. That is really for me the starting point, going live, presenting my products to the world.
Urban farming has become a hot topic in HK recently, what do you think its future will be like?
It is hard to say. For commercial growing, not so good I'm afraid, as spaces in Hong Kong are small. It is really hard to grow in a large scale, which is important for good economics.
On the other hand I think there is a great opportunity for hobby growing. Many people like plants and greenery, but in the city there is little space, most people don't have a garden so often they don't grow at all even though they may want to. City Hydroponics aims to give them that opportunity, to grow some of their own on their balcony or even just indoors. This I think has a great potential.
Which marketing channels do you use to grow your business?
So far it has mostly been through Facebook, though for this autumn I have rented stands at various markets in Hong Kong to get the word out to the people. This include the Sai Kung Sunday Market, the Discovery Bay Sunday Market and the Lamma Fun Day.
My sales are for now exclusively through Hong Kong's crowdfunding site SparkRaise and my own website, I don't take my products to retailers due to the added cost of retail shops. It does give more exposure but will make it too expensive for most people.
You are planning to launch a new product through a crowdfunding campaign soon. Can you tell us more about it?
I am about to launch a completely custom design, the CH3 model, a small indoor growing system. My time line is quite aggressive, I hope to get deliveries before Christmas, making use of the short lines to manufacturers.
The CH3 is actually the first product that I started working on, but it is also the hardest to take to production as it is a completely custom design. It is an indoor grower for three plants. The idea behind this grower is to have some herbs growing in your kitchen, or some ornamental plants for your office.
The big challenge for this system is to get the production going. As said it's a complete custom design, so I can not rely on existing components. I have to make all the moulds, and this is a pretty big investment. Prototypes and images I have shown to people, and I generally get really positive reactions on it. The big trick is going to be to convert that interest into sufficient sales to be able to start production.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would that be?
The hardest part of starting a business, and at the same time the simplest, is starting the business. Just do it!
Don't be afraid to fail, but do make sure you have a plan B – like starting your new business while you still have a job you can fall back on if the business doesn't take off, or at least for the time the business doesn't make you any money.
In 5 years from now: How did your startup change the world?
I hope that many people learn the joy of growing their own food, even if it is just a supplement. A little reconnect to where your food comes from. Having fresh herbs at hand also makes your meals just that bit better tasting. More idealistically I hope that there will be more awareness of food production in general.
Sustainability is a major issue as well, and hydroponics can play a major role in that, too, as it needs very little water, nutrients and pest control compared to other farming methods, including organic farming.
Education is part of the business, not just on what hydroponics is, but also on how to operate a hydroponic growing system to have the best results, and how to operate it in a sustainable manner.
What are 3 things you want people to know about City Hydroponics?
First of all that with our systems, everyone can grow their ownvegetables and herbs, within the confines of the city. No matter whether your space is as big as a rooftop or as small as a windowsill.
City Hydroponics supplies more than just the systems, I also supply whatever you need to grow, such as starter plugs and hydroponic fertilisers. The only thing I don't supply (yet) is seeds, which are readily available at many shops throughout the city.
City Hydroponics will in the future start organising social events, for people that are growing to exchange experiences, and for people that are interested in growing to learn more about this.
Interview by Ludivine Taverne