Bus Ride Spurs Creation of Online Solution for Home Gardeners to Profit from Bumper Crop
July 24, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
A “bumper crop” is defined as an unusually large crop growth and harvest. That’s great news for the farmer who has customers to sell to, but maybe not for the home gardener who’s growing more tomatoes than he can eat.
Tampa Bay, Fla.-based startup company BumperCrop is developing a hyper-local solution to that problem. The company plans to launch a website where its users will be able to connect with home food gardeners right in their own neighborhoods and purchase their excess produce. The site will available to those who want to do trades or for gardeners who want to give away their excess harvest for free, said Shane Needham, one of the company’s founders.
The business concept was created earlier this year through StartupBus, a competition that puts strangers together on buses (driving from various cities to Austin, Texas) to create startup business plans in just a few days. The idea is to have solid enough plans by the time they reach their destination, the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference, that they can pitch their ideas to a panel of high-profile Austin investors.
BumperCrop’s founders—Needham, Ryan Srofe, Will Mitchell, Jon Hartmann and Doug Smith—brainstormed for three days as they traveled from Tampa to Austin. Srofe, a backyard food grower himself, came up with the original idea. The team ended up winning second place at the SXSW conference, which was held in March.
Now the founders are taking their plan and putting it into action. They are continuing to develop their web application in hopes that they can launch the site for beta testing in September, Needham said. He said he and his team hope their product will actually impact people’s mindsets.
“We started to dig into and become passionate about this idea,” Needham said. “Now we (will start) to build this community of people that are thoughtful about what they eat and where it comes from.”
Needham and Srofe said other outcomes will be reduction of food waste, reduction of the fuel usage and pollution that comes with transporting food (especially over long distances), and strengthening of communities.
Srofe said people today are increasingly connecting with others through social network websites. While BumperCrop will facilitate connections between gardeners and produce seekers through its website, the users ultimately have to meet in person to complete their deals.
“It gives them an opportunity to connect with somebody in their neighborhood that’s a real-life person—not (just) on Facebook—that they can realize they have something in common with,” Srofe said.
Some of the most recent data available publicly about home food gardeners shows that the demographic has grown in recent years. The National Gardening Association’s survey report, The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America, estimated that 43 million U.S. households planned to grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries in 2009, which is the year the report was published. That was a 19 percent increase from the 36 million households that did so in 2008.
The founders of BumperCrop say they aim to create a simple and straightforward tool for produce growers and eaters.
Those visiting the website will first have to indicate whether they are interested in distributing produce or receiving it. For someone on the receiving end, the website assesses that person’s location and then produces home garden results for his or her area. Needham says he and his team are thinking of ways to protect users’ privacy for this step—such as by indicating how close in feet or miles the gardener is without immediately disclosing any addresses.
The user browses items, places their items in a virtual shopping cart, and then connects with the other user.
“From there, it kind of turns into a little bit of a Craigslist type of user flow where it is just an exchange of messages between those two people,” Needham said, noting that BumperCrop will not actually process any transactions. “Because they’re local, they figure out a time and place to meet and a price and things of that sort.”
Needham and Srofe said their team is still figuring out certain logistics, such as how early in the process prices will be disclosed and how they will handle potential disputes from deals gone awry. (They said they expect people will generally police themselves, though they also want to ensure their users are getting what they bargained for.)
Ideally, they said they want the connections to be as local as possible, preferably within walking distance and hopefully as close as next-door neighbors.
“If I have to drive 10 minutes to get 10 tomatoes from somebody, I might as well just stop at the store that’s only five minutes away from me,” Srofe said, noting that that’s just how the U.S. consumer culture is today.
BumperCrop will only allow users to post food items that fall under its pre-approved list. As demand increases for certain items, that list can grow, that list will eventually grow.
The website will be open to all kinds of produce growers, from those who use organic techniques to those who grow conventionally. Initially, there will be no vetting process for growers and BumperCrop will instead rely on the honor system. The growers will have the opportunity to describe the types of operations they run (such as farm or backyard garden) and the types of techniques they use (such organic, pesticide-free and hydroponic). Needham and Srofe said that if the company grows large enough, there is a future possibility that BumperCrop could have something like community representatives in different cities that can help with verification.
Preparing for Launch
BumperCrop’s founders don’t quite yet know what their beta launch will look like. The company’s team is still deciding whether to keep it small and focus on an area close to home or whether they should take it nationwide and let it naturally gravitate where it will, Needham and Srofe said. They noted that the website could even be suited for international expansion one day since its features aren’t location-dependent.
The hope is that BumperCrop will launch the beta version of the website and be ready for commercial launch soon after—very likely within the next year, Srofe said.
The BumperCrop team is currently thinking about how to make money from the venture. Currently, the founders plan to make the basic features available for free while charging a fee to growers who want access to additional features and customization tools, Needham said. The founders are also looking into options for securing investment funds. The founders are currently working in jobs in the fields of Internet services, advertising and finance. Srofe owns his own Web design and development company called Blackboard Creative, and Mitchell owns an online reputation management business called RepAssured.
Meanwhile, the BumperCrop crew is hard at work to complete the online product.
“The biggest challenge is trying to get it right before we get to beta,” Needham said. “You want to get the functionality out as quickly as possible (and) get it in the market. … You’re obviously racing against people who might have the same idea or people who have heard about your idea and trying to get there, too.”