Useful Tools for Prototyping, Building My Web Startup

4374728841_b62e5edf73_z

By Kristee Rosendahl (Founder, Smart Gardener)

In 2004, I moved from San Francisco to Sonoma County with the goal of balancing my techno life/business with a more “hands on” lifestyle. I wanted to food garden, get outside more, and even keep some bees. Because I was running my consulting business. I wanted to both enjoy my time outdoors, while being efficient and successful with the results.

Frustrated every weekend about what to do in the garden, I resorted to reading hundreds of gardening books, designing spreadsheets, and spending hours online. I’d ended up spending most of my time trying to figure out what to do, instead of being outside doing it!

Building Prototypes

I began building the first prototype in 2006 of what would become Smart Gardener today. It included everything I wanted to make this whole process easier, including buying the seeds or plants for the garden at the end of the whole planning process.

I did a step-through prototype using Graffle, this allowed me to go out to friends and other gardeners and ask about the vision and process. I got great feedback while spending time with lots of potential gardeners who confirmed to me that there was an eager market out there wanting to be successful at growing tasty healthy food.

I built a revised version of a prototype in 2009 with a product called Freeway. This ended up being an incredibly valuable tool to show potential developers and partners early on.

The Solution

We launched Smart Gardener at the end of May 2011, a free online product that makes it easy and convenient for you to plan, manage, harvest, and even shop for and share your organic vegetable garden. We wanted to eliminate frustration, intimidation and the time consuming search for specific gardening information. Even once you can get to all the information you want, it’s not personalized to your garden, your conditions or what you want to grow.

It seemed there was real potential for a solution that used technology smartly for all the right things, the heaving lifting, the ability to visualize information and to serve up a highly personalized solution for your garden. That seemed like a very exciting design and business challenge.

For the last 26 years, I’ve worked across product development, user experience, design and management to build new digital products and applications. In 1985, I co-founded the Apple Human Interface Group, and from 1986 to 1991 was one of the principal designers at the Apple Multimedia Lab in San Francisco.

The end result was a product that could provide you with a highly personalized garden plan, to do list, journal and relevant information based entirely on your personal growing conditions and seasons, garden and household size, and food tastes.

The Opportunity

This project stayed on the sidelines while I worked in my consulting business. By fall of 2009, I saw a larger trend emerging. Lots was going on around an increased desire and need to reclaim personal self-sufficiency on both a personal and social level. There was this convergence — Michelle Obama’s garden campaign, the increased mobility of digital devices, foodies talking about local food and people like Michael Pollan speaking up about our huge food issues. I felt the timing was so right, and that if I didn’t do this now, someone else would. So I took the leap and officially started in January of 2010.

This whole opportunity also seemed bigger than just gardening. If we built the platform and the user model right, we could address a whole line of digital products to leverage smart technology to make it much easier, more convenient and satisfying for anyone to integrate sustainable practices into their daily lives.

The Process

The prototype, feedback and our business model gave us the framework for what we would need as a minimum viable product (MVP). We had a subscription model which meant we felt we had to build a pretty complete product for people to see enough value in it to pay money for it.

Nine months later, in September 2010, we changed to a freemium model. It did not, frankly impact what we ended up launching with in May. Our target segment is primarily busy women from 30 to 55 and they weren’t going to stick around long if we didn’t have a pretty complete product. In fact, after 18 months, 700 plants in our database, algorithms for moving plants to the right places, etc. the first user comment once we launched was .. “What ? no strawberries?”

During this time, we had quite a few people working on the product as we had a lot to do –- content, commerce, customization and community etc. Currently it’s a very small team again, as the core platform’ is in place and we are trying to stay as lean and mean as we can.

All the design and development has been done as an agile process. We use Pivotal Tracker which has been a tool of choice since 2005. I got really excited about the agile development process early on and how designers could be a key part of that process. So any tools and processes that make design and development easier to manage, more predictive and responsive are utilized.

The Lessons Learned

  1. Get your mentors and advisors on board as early as you can. They are invaluable resources for the founder and the business.
  2. Customer feedback all along the way has paid off more than you can imagine. Now we have a tool in place on the site that encourages people to give us comments and ratings. I read all feedback, track it and answer each issue personally. We tweek things daily to make it a better experience based on our users. Our last three big initiatives launched on the site were based on user feedback.

The Future

Smart Gardener has been self funded to get it launched and to start getting traction. We have had incredible traffic for a small company with no marketing, and our user feedback has been amazing. So now we are seeking additional investment to take it to the next level –- profitability. This is the hard part, yes?

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Kristee Rosendahl is the Founder of Smart Gardener. Since co-founding The Apple Computer Human Interface Group in 1985, and as a principal designer at the Apple Multimedia Lab in San Francisco, Kristee has been practicing, teaching and speaking about this field for 26 years as one of the first visual designers in technology to help shape this practice. Kristee designs and delivers award-winning products as a VP, Director, Creative Director, Art Director and Designer.