August 2007 - Inventor Spotlight: AeroGrow

After several years of fits and starts, the dirtless and practically foolproof AeroGarden continues to gain momentum.

By David Lustig

AeroGrow International Inc. believes in keeping things simple and straightforward. Based in Boulder, Colo., its primary business is developing and marketing the AeroGarden, the world’s first kitchen appliance that uses an advanced indoor aeroponic gardening system.

Don’t have a backyard or even a window box to grow fruits and vegetables? Not a problem. The AeroGarden sits on the kitchen counter and is ideal for growing herbs, salad greens, tomatoes, chili peppers and strawberries, among many other fruits and vegetables-all without dirt, bugs or otherwise making a mess. No matter how brown you believe your thumb to be, the AeroGarden can turn it green.

The neat, self-contained AeroGarden doesn’t require watering or even exposure to natural light.

Aeroponics, explains the company, is a dirt-free growing method whereby plant roots are suspended in air with 100-percent humidity inside a highly oxygenated growing chamber. Because the roots are bathed with pre-determined levels of nutrients, water and oxygen, AeroGrow contends that its product not only grows plants faster, they are healthier and boast a higher nutrient content than those grown traditionally in soil.

The AeroGarden is about the size of the proverbial breadbox, measuring 16 inches long by 10.5 inches wide. At the start of the growing cycle, it is 15.5 inches high, eventually raising to 21 inches at its highest level. Packed inside the device is a built-in plant lighting system and computerized garden technology that automatically adjusts nutrient delivery, light cycles, water flow and the aeroponic optimizing chamber.

The nucleus of what eventually evolved into the AeroGarden started as a concept that founder and Chief Executive Michael Bissonnette was toying with back in 2002. That marked the start of the development process. Three and one-half years, $10 million and a host of false starts later, with the concept progressing from early design via an almost continual refining process, Bissonnette and company believed they had a product ready for consumer testing.

But still there were a few technical problems to iron out.

“Before us, ‘aero’ was always roots suspended in air that were misted,” explains AeroGrow CFO Mitch Rubin. “We started with a misting concept also, but it proved to be too noisy and complicated. Our product takes water up through a pump to a grow deck while trickling it down. It’s more effective and much cheaper to build.”

The first version tested didn’t contain lights, but the company soon discovered that the product wouldn’t be successful without some sort of lighting system that precluded customers having to put their new purchase in a south-facing window.

Another trip back to R&D was necessary when a wider test found that some plants were dying in certain areas of the country, but not in others. The answer, says Rubin, was to be found in the varying pH levels of municipal water systems from city to city. The company had to develop a methodology to neutralize it. Thirty jugs of water from 30 different cities were shipped to Boulder for testing.

After examining the water, it took the company’s researchers months to eradicate the problem. At the same time, company researchers were developing technologies to make it virtually impossible for consumers to kill their plants.

Meanwhile, Bissonnette kept his shoulder to the wheel, continuing to raise capital to keep the funding process on track while the company was still in the R&D phase, coming up with about $6 million through 25- and 50-cent stock offerings before cementing a deal with an investment banker. That was in 2005.

Soon after, the company settled on a design. However, Bissonnette then met a designer who wanted a shot at redesigning the product. He claimed that the product had something of a ’70s look; he said he could do a better job. He was right.

Starting all over again, the first production prototypes were shipped in December 2005 and put on the market for testing, with a first production run in March 2006 of 5,000 pieces priced at $149 (including an initial seed kit, with additional seed kits available separately).

According to Rubin, the company was trying to avoid moving too fast until the market was aware of the indoor gardening category.

Once consumers understand the product, it’s not a tough sale, Rubin explains. But getting them to that point was at times difficult. People sometimes didn’t comprehend that you could grow something without dirt in a completely self-contained unit sitting on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t even require watering; it just takes care of itself.

But once people finally understood the concept, there was an appetite to buy right away, including additional seed kids and replacement light bulbs and sometimes even a second AeroGarden.

Who is the company marketing to?

“We divide our world into three key markets,” says Rubin. “Gardeners, cooks and wannabes for both. And everybody loves it. The return rate is next to nothing and customer satisfaction is incredibly high.” To make sure that buyers are properly supported, AeroGrow even set up its own call center. “We pay a lot of attention to customer service,” he adds.

The AeroGarden’s primary target market consists of gardeners and cooks, both current and aspiring. And the product is ideal for an urban environment.

According to Rubin, another key reason for the product’s success is that it’s extremely simple to put together. “You open the box and you’re 10 minutes away from getting your garden up and running,” he says. “It’s that easy.” Besides the initial seed kit that comes with the AeroGarden, 16 additional kits have been created, as well as an additional model of the AeroGarden itself.

Then there was the question of how to market it.

Depending on the month, it’s a 50/50 split between direct marketing and retail sales. Sometimes, the ratio is closer to 60/40. The product has been on QVC many times, but the first appearance, at 10 a.m. on July 2, 2006, was the clincher.

“The July 4th weekend has to be the worst time possible to air an indoor gardening product, and we had a 12-minute slot at 10 a.m. on July 2,” laughs Rubin. But the AeroGarden never made the entire 12 minutes because it sold out in just seven minutes, with more than 300 people still on the telephone trying to order. If the AeroGrow people believed they might have had a winning product before the airing, they were absolutely certain afterward.

“We’ve been very controlled with our retail rollout so we don’t dilute the effect of our DR advertising,” continues Rubin. “We don’t want to impair our ability to get the word out with respect to the product and the category.

“Our retail presence is concentrating on high-end outlets, such as department stores and high-end lawn and garden stores, not ‘big-box’ stores.” Rubin adds that the company is now chainwide in Linens ‘n Things. “We’re very focused on distribution. We’ve also placed the product in 800 independent culinary stores, and lawn and garden stores nationwide,” Rubins says, explaining that these types of stores are usually eager to accept the AeroGarden displays, set them up and grow plants.

“If we’re going to be a box on the shelf, we’re not interested. Everything we do is focused on merchandising, branding and awareness. Everybody who sees it in use wants one.” Rubin adds that he has one of the original prototypes in his kitchen and proudly proclaims he’s now on his fifth seed kit.

The company has focused on every high-end catalog in the country, combined with an intensive public relations effort. It has been seen on the “Ellen DeGeneres Christmas Show,” “Good Morning America” and “The View,” among many others.

The company’s first infomercial, on national cable, aired September 2006. Right now, AeroGrow’s media budget is 70 percent cable and 30 percent broadcast, with little if any print advertising in any form.

AeroGrow also executed what Rubin calls the “New York Blitz” program. “We put a lot of money into PR and merchandising in the New York City area, with the goal being to demonstrate retail velocity in a single market.” The company went after and captured floor space at Macy’s, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Fortunoff-a chain of stores in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the infomercial had to be pulled off the air in December, just three months after launch. Why? After selling tens of thousands of units, AeroGrow was out of product.

In February 2007, AeroGrow announced that it had shipped its 100,000th unit. And while the company claims to have no competition as of yet, AeroGrow is not resting on its laurels. Next steps include the launch of overseas campaigns. According to Rubin, the company is preparing to enter the Japanese market, as well as Europe.

And if there are any competitors preparing for launch, they’ll have a fight on their hands. “We are prepared to pull units at any price point anyone would want to come up with or show,” Rubin says. “Our mission is a price point and product by next year for Christmas for every distribution channel.”

David Lustig is a contributing writer to Electronic Retailer magazine.


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