Startup Spotlight: Just Vertical is Planting New Seeds in Food Production
For Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela, co-founders of Just Vertical, it all started with some tacos. A couple of years, a strong team, and a set of roadblocks later enters AVEA, a hydroponic gardening system that allows you to grow large indoor plants.
This Toronto startup is dedicated to normalizing independent food growing systems making them as common in households as a microwave. By doing so, Just Vertical is helping Canadians reduce the strain of produce production on the environment while creating less food waste. The Bonus: AEVA is completely self operating and has been engineered to beautifully complement your home.
Bay Street Bull caught up with Conner Tidd to discuss what legacy Just Vertical hopes to create, and what it’s really like to be amongst Canada’s budding community of young business owners.
Tell us your story, what was your call to action in starting this venture?
For me it was a simple issue. I love tacos…. Like a lot. The key to a good taco is fresh cilantro. But, every time I buy cilantro it only seems to come in that one size. I can never use it all at once. Then two days later it turns to mush in the fridge. This was incredibly frustrating for me because I don’t like wasting food in a world where our agricultural system is already under massive strain, and wasting money as a broke grad student wasn’t an option. Living in a concrete jungle like Toronto growing my own food wasn’t going to be an easy task so I set out to change this. I teamed up with my now co-founder Kevin Jakiela (the science brain behind Just Vertical) to build a way for people to grow their own food in their homes and to be proud of it!
Hydroponic gardening systems are not unheard of but are usually created for large scale agricultural production, or can only maintain a few small plants. How are you offering something different to the market with AEVA?
With the AEVA what we set out to do is to build a system that was just as productive as the large scale farms but would look like it belongs in your home. We were aiming for a mix of science and design. A feature piece that anyone could show off with pride. The AEVA can grow 16 plants at home, which is still a good amount, but we designed it with furniture in mind so that it’s like a living piece of art. It’s also designed so that anybody can use it. It’s as simple as putting in the seed pods, adding water, and plugging it in. The whole system waters itself and the lights turn on and off automatically.
What experience has fuelled you to stand up for your vision?
I wouldn’t say it has been a single experience but a lifetime of little things that have built up to where I am today… A pivotal moment for myself was doing my Masters of Science in Sustainability Management at the University of Toronto. The program team there did an incredible job pushing both Kevin and I to pursue Just Vertical and to try to make the world a better place. Without them and all our other mentors, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.
Entering the world of entrepreneurship is not something to take lightly. What questions did you ask yourself before venturing down this path?
I think you really need to know whether you are willing to struggle and stress for years on end. We all picture ourselves being successful but the statistics paint a darker picture. Most likely, you are going to fail. Are you willing to ride it out for years just to fail? And even if you do succeed there are still going to be many sleepless nights and smaller failures along the way. This isn’t the right career path for everybody and that’s not a bad thing. We all have our strengths and we should play to them.
You and your co-founder are both young entrepreneurs who have undoubtedly faced your share of trials. What are some and how did you overcome them?
Being young entrepreneurs we have had to learn a lot on the fly. Fortunately, we have been through some amazing incubators and entrepreneurship programming that has helped us develop our skills. The biggest thing we have learned is to always keep an open mind and always keep learning. There is always going to be things that we don’t know but as long as we keep trying to learn we can overcome these challenges or find someone else who can help us.
The world has begun to change rapidly, from concerns over COVID-19 to continued and worsening food shortages worldwide. What do you think your venture brings to the table in combating these challenges?
Let me start by saying there is no silver bullet, one size fits all solution to this and to be wary of anyone trying to tell you otherwise. We all have our part to play in building a better future. Where Just Vertical comes in is that we have a great solution to grow some of your own food at home and to mitigate food waste at the same time. We can grow lots of things from herbs and leafy greens to strawberries and tomatoes using 95 percent less water and no pesticides. By growing right in your own home you grow hyper local, environmentally-friendly food, and you only need to pick off what you are going to use right then and there. This saves a ton of resources by mitigating food waste. If we could eliminate the amount of food we waste around the world we would greatly reduce the strain on our resources.
What do you wish you could tell yourself when you started your business journey? Or tell another entrepreneur who is just beginning?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it is important to jump into the deep end and physically get things done. You can plan as much as you want, make up as many scenarios as you want, try as many hypotheticals as you want. None of this replaces action. It is only by getting your hands dirty and physically building the product, talking to potential customers, and trying that sales pitch out that you can drive the results you need to build a business.
For a young startup, building a good team is everything. What do you look for when expanding and what solidifies a good team to you?
The number one thing we look for in new hires is grit. Can this person adapt to constantly changing circumstances? Is this person willing to learn new things? Are they excited by new challenges? These are the kinds of people that we want on our team to take us to a global level.
How do you measure success and monitor growth in your company?
At Just Vertical we want to change the world and we know that to create that change we are going to need to grow to a global footprint. We track our financial metrics closely and have weekly roundups that follow those. For us the two metrics we look most closely at are recurring revenue and customer reviews, as these are both indicators of whether or not our products are being used and whether they are resonating with our target market. In addition to the financials we also track how many litres of water our systems have saved and how much local food we have grown.