Taking the challenges of rural broadband in his stride, Rocket Gardens founder Mike Kitchen is on a mission to make growing food at home as easy as possible. Business Advice hears how he has grown his business by letting customers camp on his farm.
(1) Who are you and what’s your business?
I’m Mike Kitchen, founder of Rocket Gardens. We give everyone a go at growing their own food by delivering boxes of baby plants ready to grow.
We’re based in Cornwall, which has a brilliant climate for growing vegetables – it’s warm enough that we don’t have to burn loads of oil to heat polytunnels when we’re growing plants.
(2) How long have you been around for?
About a decade. The business started when I decided I wanted to take some time off to spend with my young children. I’d been working offshore so had bit of a financial buffer, and I had always wanted to be a farmer – I knew how much chemicals go into food, and thought I really wanted to grow my own stuff.
(3) How do you make money?
We sell to consumers through our website, and have also worked with Ocado and Not on the High Street in the past. As we’re a rural operation, ecommerce is vital to the business.
We didn’t really know what our market was until we tested it, but we soon found that it was really all over the UK, right up to the north of Scotland. A relatively high per cent of our customers are in London and the home counties, but our customers are quite spread out.
(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?
Our product is old-school in a way, even though the marketing is very modern. I want to help people reconnect a little bit with nature by growing plants and picking what they need, rather than buying a whole punnet of something and throwing it away.
We also allow people to camp on our fields as an additional revenue stream and a bit of a marketing tool. When I was growing up in Cornwall, we’d see a farmer and he’d let us use a corner of his field to camp, so I wanted to do something similar. There’s eco-friendly running water and showers, but no internet – people just go to the beach and come back and cook. Anyone who signs up to our year-round “Constant Garden” boxes can come and stay for a week, it’s a great way to meet our customers.
(5) What was key in terms of getting started?
There are lots of cauliflowers and cabbages grown in this part of the world, so I looked at how professional farms were selling plants that were already growing and adapted that system for home growers. We started renting Victorian greenhouses over a couple of acres – now we have 150.
(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?
We’ve worked with thousands of schools, and the RHS use our garden as part of their school gardening project. Our boxes work really well because we can get teachers with no knowledge whatsoever growing, and children can grow things for their own Christmas dinners – hopefully convincing their parents to start growing too. Farming has always been so important to our history, I want it to continue to be so.
(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?
We waited for two or three years to get superfast broadband, something you really need as a rural business to be able to scale and use cloud-based tools and more modern technology. Now we have it, I’m not confident it’s fast enough. And there’s always the worry things like combine harvesters knocking down phone lines, which a business owner based in a city wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. At some point we’ll have to pay for our own dedicated line, but we’re not at that stage yet.
(8) In five years’ time, I will be…
It’s hard to plan for the future at the moment, because we don’t know how Brexit will affect us. We don’t ship to Europe but my feeling is that there will be a recession, and we will have work out how to make our product seem like a necessity.
If the economic remains strong, we’re almost at capacity at certain points of the year for growing and delivering, and we’re installing new systems so we can pack 24 hours a day during peak periods.
At Christmas we sell gift vouchers for a garden that will be delivered ready for planting later in the year, and this is something we’d really like to expand and improve upon.
Eventually, Waitrose would be our dream market, but it’s a new and unusual concept, so the challenge is getting across exactly what our product is.
(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?
Prove the concept works before you try and get any funding.
(10) Who are your business heroes and why?
I met the founders of Innocent when they were a lot smaller and I think the way they kept the story simple, had a very clear core message and disrupted the market is a good way to operate – they’re good people to emulate.
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