Let’s say you live in an apartment, and let’s say you really wish you could grow your own vegetables and herbs. Well, in the best tradition of using entrepreneurship to meet a big need, Windowfarms founder and CEO, Britta Riley has invented a small scale hydroponic gardening system specifically designed for urban dwellers to hang in their windows. A serial entrepreneur and technology designer, she has taken her passion for environmental concerns and harnessed the power of crowdsourced creativity to create a product so innovative, that it is currently part of a major installation at NYC’s Museum of Natural History, on display until the end of this summer.
Riley developed a foundational love for nature growing up on a Texas ranch with her seven siblings, where she also honed her DIY tractor maintenance skills. With a liberal arts degree from St. John’s College, combined experience as a journalist, early adopter of online communications, co-founder of four socially conscious businesses and a master’s degree from NYU’s ITP Interactive Telecommunications Program under her belt, Riley was poised to create relevant, tech forward contributions in her field of choice.
In her last company, Submersible Design, Britta created large scale interactive projects and exhibits for museums and environmental organizations. In a way, Windowfarms follows an inverse model for creating large impact – the scale is in the number of users, not the size of this project. After creating the 4-ft tall prototype for the first Windowfarm in her apartment with water bottles, Riley posted the DIY designs online and invited others to share their experiences building and using it via a multi-user wordpress blog she created for that purpose. The results of this shared R&D experiment resulted in a 40,000 person user group, and led to the final designs of the manufactured Windowfarm kit the company now sells.
Windowfarms is a social enterprise – a new organizational form that has protection for a social mission written into the company’s operating agreement. From crowdsourced design collaboration to insights on sustainability and manufacturing, Riley has continually iterated and innovated her company and her product, all the while building a resilient network of like-minded individuals and companies to support a shift in thinking in the larger community. In keeping with the company’s overall mission to revive agricultural biodiversity and promote sustainable food production globally, it makes sense to offer multiple options to personalize the Windowfarms experience and make it accessible to as many people as possible. She’s learned that although the DIY model works well for tens of thousands, there is also a great demand for purchase of the ready made kit.
During the Kickstarter campaign that launched the manufacturing of their kits, Britta promised that if they sold at least 200,000 units, the company would have them produced domestically, a promise they have kept. Despite the trend of many companies seeking what they perceive as cheaper labor abroad, for Riley, less lead time, reduced risk, savings on shipping and the ability to have more control, have made a local supplier a better overall choice. Harbec, a pioneer in sustainable plastic manufacturing in the US, is poised to become carbon neutral this year. They are but one of the meaningful partners that is helping Windowfarms become a leader in the global shift in food consciousness.
Another industry partner is fellow Brooklyn company, Gotham Greens whose CEO, Viraj Puri I profiled last year for their work in large scale urban rooftop farming. Windowfarms is linking up with many such sustainable greenhouse operations in an effort to connect these largely wholesale hydroponic operations to the retail market.
Support for DIY operations and distribution of revenue driving Windowfarm kits continues, and the company is now developing more of a focus on the plant growing side of the business. CTO Skyler Shepard is in the process of redoing the website’s entire core structure in order to release the Windowfarmer’s Almanac. This will help users troubleshoot specific plant growing problems and questions within the community.
Operating on the frontier of discovery has its pros and cons. Although it is thrilling to be connecting with so many forward thinking individuals and groups, the uncertainty of pushing out into the unknown can sometimes be unnerving. And the company, with its five full timers and numerous consultants, continues to operate out of Britta’s Brooklyn loft with sometimes more than a dozen people crowding in there at once.
Says Riley, “…nothing is absolutely 100% certain, and the only thing that propels you forward is your own passion and your own drive and your own team and how amazing they are – that is where the importance of resilience comes in across the entire community. Everyone is looking around to make smart choices about who to work with, to create a stable community with high levels of integrity in their relationships with one another…”
Her advice to young entrepreneurs just starting out in the area of social enterprise is to get comfortable with the laws governing this emerging field. She had a great experience with Structure Lab at the Criterion Institute, where she learned how to see contracts and relationships as tools to leverage her vision. And of course, “…it helps to find a really good lawyer.”
Listen to the full interview here:
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative & innovative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is preparing to launch Project Mavens, a content branding firm. On Twitter @projectmaven.